Saturday, February 18, 2017

Men in White at Granville Island Stage

Having just attended a Saturday matinee of Anosh Irani's new play, The Men in White, presented by the Arts Club Theatre Company at its Granville Island Stage in a production directed by Rachel Ditor, I admit to being a bit flummoxed by the marketing strategy for the show. The tagline for the work notes that it is "A Tale of Love, Brotherhood, and Cricket." And in promo materials for the premiere that I have attended to with sometimes more, sometimes less careful scrutiny depending on the publication, the general synopsis of the play has focused on how a sad-sack cricket team in Vancouver mostly made up of a diverse array of immigrants (or second-generation descendants of immigrants) from the Indian sub-continent, desperate for a winning season, decide to recruit a ringer. Their choice is Hasan, the younger brother of the team's star batter, Abdul. Hasan toils in the chicken shop of his and Abdul's surrogate father, Baba, back in an impoverished and crime-ridden neighbourhood of Bombay, dreaming of just such an escape from the drudgery--when not pining for the affections of Haseena, a young woman who lives across the street from the shop, and who is studying to be a doctor. And, indeed, it is the relationship between Hasan and Haseena (the only female character in the play) which is emphasized in one of the two promotional photos that have circulated in publicity relating to the play, with actors Nadeem Phillip and Risha Nanda in a happy embrace (the other publicity photo features most of the rest of the cast in their cricket whites). And yet in strict genre terms--whether we assess those terms via the conventions of classical Western drama or contemporary Bollywood film--Irani's play turns out to be anything but a traditional comedy. There is no climactic wedding ceremony, and while the losing team does, in the end, finally win a game, it comes without the aid of the anticipated hero.

Now, don't get me wrong: I am all for subverting genre conventions. It's just that in Irani's play as it currently stands that subversion is introduced as a last inning curve ball that wrenches the drama into completely different emotional territory, which is then not allowed to develop or register in any significant way because of a denouement that, devoid almost entirely of speech, falls fast on its heels. (I realize that I'm mixing my baseball and cricket metaphors here, and to give Irani his due, he does take pains to introduce the cricket term "googly"--a pitch meant to go one way that actually goes the other--in a preceding scene.)

Up until this point, the play proceeds fairly conventionally as a back-and-forth between scenes of a besotted and hapless Hasan, tongue-tied around Haseena and teased mercilessly by Baba, desperate for liberation from his dead-end job, and scenes of his brother's team trying to avoid another humiliating season in Vancouver (the play's wonderfully hybrid set, juxtaposing these geographies spatially while also showing how they overlap imaginatively, is by Amir Ofek). In both locales, Irani is careful to undermine initial surface impressions. The bumpy progress of Hasan's wooing of Haseena is played against a backdrop of gang violence that Haseena herself turns out to be implicated in. And the locker-room shenanigans between the Vancouver teammates belie percolating religious and class tensions that eventually erupt when Doc, a well-educated and wealthy Zoroastrian medical doctor, objects to the scheme to bring Hasan to Vancouver on the same kind of tourist visa that got Abdul into the country, and that he is now in violation of. The fact that the brothers are Muslim and that they, like Doc, hail from the same area of Bombay only complicates matters. Indeed, that all the characters in the play--including the Hindu Randi, who agrees to put up the money to sponsor Hasan--refer to Bombay by its colonial name and not by its current designation as Mumbai (where tensions between majority Hindu nationalists and the minority Muslim population continue to yield violence) speaks to how Irani is consciously weaving a political critique into his play--both of the diasporic baggage of Indian nationalism and of the failures of Canadian multiculturalism. That said, just as Irani ratcheted up my interest in the complicated intersectional dynamics of cross-identity at work in his play, not to mention of how much more fraught are the logistics of immigration for brown and Muslim folks in our current moment, he would wrest me back into familiar genre territory with a trite joke or a romantic cliché.

Rachel Ditor, who in dramturging as well as directing the play was presumably on board with its somewhat schizophrenic structure, elicits strong performances from the entire cast. Props especially to Phillip, Nanda and Sanjay Talwar (Baba) as our Bombay trio, all of whom display an easy and organic chemistry with each other. In the Vancouver scenes, Munish Sharma and Shekhar Peleja bring gravitas and a palpable sense of how heavily their past connections to India weigh upon them in the respective roles of Doc and Abdul (though it must be said that I found Peleja's handling of the decidedly more broken English Irani has mysteriously given his character--in contrast, for example, to the mellifluous lines of his brother--a bit stilted at times). Parm Soor is equally strong as the mediator Randi, and his late Act I monologue about how, despite his family's wealth, he still faced discrimination as a young immigrant to Canada (including from fellow South Asians) is a powerful rebuke to what certain candidates for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party refer to as "Canadian values." Anousha Alamian (Naathim, from Long Division) and Raugi Yu together form an excellent comedic double act as Ram and Sam: the former as an oversexed ladies' man with a penchant for Russian hookers, designer jeans and gold lamé high tops, the latter as the lone Chinese-Canadian on the cricket team, whose lack of success on the pitch--and with women--is nevertheless accompanied by the requisite masculine bluster and bravado. Finally, Kamyar Pazandeh, while having to play it mostly sober and straight as the team's young captain, Tony, does get to display his impressive biceps, pecs and abs on more than one occasion.

A final shout out to sound designer Murray Price, who does a great job of evoking acoustically the chaos of Bombay via revved motorcycle engines and clanging bicycle bells; and also to Amy McDoughall, the costume designer, who has sourced her cricket flannels and accompanying protective wear with care. Would that the play itself had spent as much time figuring out what it wanted to say about the sport as a metaphor for (de)colonization.


Friday, February 17, 2017

empty.swimming.pool at The Dance Centre

What must it be like for a solo artist with a significant and quite distinctive body of work that straddles multiple disciplines to discover she has a performance twin? Would one sit slack-jawed thinking someone had stolen your act? Or would you immediately start scheming about how you could work with this person? Happily for Vancouver audiences, in the case of local dance-theatre maven Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg it was the latter. When she first saw Italian artist Silvia Gribaudi on stage at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago in between laughing herself silly she began plotting about how they might collaborate. The result, a duet called empty.swimming.pool, is on at The Dance Centre through this Saturday in a co-presentation with the 2017 Chutzpah! Festival.

While it would be wrong to describe Friedenberg and Gribaudi as exact clones, both create works that combine movement and text, and that use comedy grounded in the body to ask questions about the social construction of gender. Essentially they are feminist buffons interested in tickling our funny bones while also getting us to think about why, exactly, we're laughing. Now, on the one hand, it might be risky putting two such similar dancing, talking comedic egos in a rehearsal studio together, like inviting Amy Schumer and Kathy Griffin to duke it out in a boxing ring, and with a go big or go home aesthetic presumably prevailing. In fact, Friedenberg and Gribaudi both play with and undermine these expectations, troping in empty.swimming.pool on questions of female rivalry through a subtly hilarious burlesquing of theatrical razzmatazz conventions (I don't think I've ever seen such an over-the-top lighting design by James Proudfoot), while simultaneously eschewing the commodifying politics of spectacle that frequently attends those conventions, especially for women. (One detects something of the dramaturgical hand of outside eye Justine A. Chambers in the framing of this dialectic.)

Indeed, the piece begins quite soberly, with Gribaudi and Friedenberg, both dressed in black, emerging in turn from the wings to survey the audience, coyly soliciting our gaze and occasionally playing with a hemline or a hand in a pocket, but otherwise refusing to "perform" for us. Eventually the duo moves downstage, but even then it takes them forever to do what we're waiting for: talk. Instead they first engage in a pantomime of raised eyebrows, moued lips, and open hand gestures. When, finally, they begin talking their conversation immediately descends into glossolalia as they cycle through the languages they both do and don't really speak. This sequence culminates in a wickedly funny parody of common French words non-native speakers are wont to pepper their speech with, a string of syncopated "voilàs" and "wows," accompanied by suitably Gallic raised arms, all of which sent last night's audience into stitches.

Thereafter Gribaudi and Friendenberg take turns poking fun at the concept of virtuosity, with the latter partnering the former in a series of arabesques as Barbra Streisand sings "Don't Rain on My Parade," and Friedenberg demonstrating her impressive flexibility in cycling through a range of yoga poses. Gribaudi also launches into an operatic soprano during a bit in which she wades into the audience with her eyes closed. That particular moment seemed to come out of nowhere and was an especially visceral reminder that the two performers were not necessarily there to ingratiate themselves to spectators' mainstream entertainment sensibilities. Likewise, the simple step-touch sequence that serves as the culminating routine of the piece was the exact opposite of Vegas-style, automaton-like sexiness. Having stripped to panties and bras--Fridenberg's red and sparkly, Gribaudi's covered in appliqué flowers--the two performers not only remain nonplussed by the display of their non-showgirl bodies, but also keep up a barely in unison snapping of fingers and sashaying of legs as Friendenberg tells a story about being looked through as a mother with her son at the pool. Gribaudi sympathizes, only to complicate this moment of female bonding by subsequently telling us that she herself doesn't have kids and then indicating that the only thing she really likes to do with the lower half of her body is ... to sit down.

There is, however, something of a splashier finish to empty.swimming.pool. It begins with our duo warbling Somewhere Over the Rainbow together in a spotlight stage right. But Gribauldi, evidently disturbed by her partner's lack of pitch, abandons Friedenberg and walks offstage. She returns seconds later with a bottle of water, which she hands to Friedenberg, who promptly takes a grateful swig and then continues to gurgle through another verse of the song. Disgusted, Gribauldi empties the rest of the water on the stage and again walks towards to the wings. Just as Friedenberg gets to the end of her number, reaching into her bosom to spray confetti over herself, Gribauldi runs on stage, sliding through the water like a grand odalisque, and arriving at the feet of Friedenberg with arms upstretched in triumph. Not to be outdone, Friedenberg, having stormed off, makes her own sliding finale, this time on her stomach.

It was the perfect capstone to a slyly subversive performance that was all about these amazingly skilled artists negotiating, within the traditional frames of theatrical reproduction, the terms by which they will be looked at.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

NeoIndigenA at The Cultch

Santee Smith, the beguiling and charismatic dancer-choreographer and Artistic Director of Toronto's Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, premiered her newest work, NeoIndigenA, last night at The Cultch's Historic Theatre. The piece is the second presentation, after Mouthpiece, in what Cultch Executive Director Heather Redfern is billing as Femme February, a special showcase of new works by Canadian women artists. (The series continues next week with the opening of Amber Funk Barton and Mindy Parfitt's am a.)

NeoIndigenA continues Smith's explorations of the intersections between traditional Indigenous ceremony and contemporary performance. A ritual excavation of what it means to occupy ancestral territories in the here and now, and also how one embodies one's connection to the land, the piece is structured around Smith's traversing of, dwelling in, and transformation by the sacred realms of Skyworld, Earthworld, and Underworld. She does so with the aid of an elaborate set by Tim Hill, an equally busy lighting design by Arun Srinivasan, and a terrific musical score composed and arranged by Jesse Zubot (who also plays the viola) that also features the throat singing of Tanya Tagak.

Smith was clearly inspired by the score, and the choreography showcases her well-honed musicality. At times, however, I wished for less of a literal interpretation of what we were hearing and more pushing against some of the tropes of indigeneity that Smith was invoking. For presumably the "neo" in the piece's title refers not simply to the "survivance" and revivification of Indigenous culture in the twenty-first century, but also to the ways in which (including through performance) that culture is often appropriated, packaged, and commodified.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 28

Yesterday, after a long hiatus, I finally got back into the swing of solo interviewing for our Dance Histories Project. My subject was the divine Caroline Liffmann, who I always love hanging out with because she makes me laugh so much--and because, in turn, it's such a treat to hear her erupt in giggles.

After participating in an EDAM summer intensive in 1999, Caroline moved to Vancouver in 2000 to study at Main Dance, where she trained with Kathryn Ricketts, Sarah Brewer, Helen Walkley, Lee Su Feh, and benefited from guest instructors and artists-in-residence like Grant Strate, Anthony Morgan, Emily Molnar, Wen Wei Wang, Jennifer Mascall, Kathleen McDonaugh, Susan Elliott, Ron Stewart, Daelik, and Judith Garay, among others. In her graduating year at Main Dance, Caroline apprenticed with battery opera when, as she put it, "Su Feh and David were in their full-on Wushu phase." She said she could barely walk after the first few days of training.

Upon graduating from Main in 2003, Caroline began appearing at EDAM and Dancing on the Edge in work by Susan Elliott and Helen Walkley. She also began creating work with her peers, including Jennifer Clarke, Tanya Podlozniuk, Julia Carr, and her former roommate, Barb Murray, with whom Caroline curated a site-specific mini-dance festival/neighbourhood potluck in the courtyard of her housing co-op in 2004. Caroline said that performing has never been her "favourite thing," though she did recount this hilarious anecdote about appearing in a piece by Delia Brett called He Was Swimming the Other Way, alongside Tanya Podlozniuk, Laura Hicks, and Jennifer McLeish Lewis. The work had a mermaid theme and included an elaborate zip-up costume for Caroline--which, when the piece toured to Victoria, was promptly left behind backstage at The Dance Centre. A frantic phone call was put into Delia's partner, Alex Ferguson, who made it to Victoria's Metro Theatre in time. However, the story doesn't end there. Somehow, just before the quartet was to go on Jennifer McLeish Lewis got locked out of the theatre; eventually she made it back in the building, but because there was no one backstage on headset to communicate with the tech booth, the dancers, who were "fifteen seconds away from being dressed and ready to enter," missed their opening cue. At another performance of the same piece Caroline recalled losing count of a unison move on the floor that she had to perform while facing the upstage wall; at a certain point she calculated it was time to turn to face the audience, whereupon she encountered the perplexed faces of her fellow dancers and just continued to circle back around, eventually getting back into sync. This she promptly demonstrated for me on the floor of my office at SFU Woodward's.

Since 2011 Caroline has collaborated with Lina Fitzner and Lee Hutzulak as Light Box, creating a number of short dance works and performance installations for Dances for a Small Stage, Dancing on the Edge, BC Buds, etc. She is also active in community-based dance, which is how I first met Caroline, when she assisted on Sylvain Ḗmard's Le Grand Continental for the PuSh Festival in 2015. That remains a highlight of my own dance history in Vancouver, and that's largely due to Caroline's grace and good humour throughout the whole process. I remember her giving me a correction, something having to do with my arms. I joked that the arm movements didn't really matter so long as I had the steps right. The look she gave me was priceless. Then she said, as if communicating with a truculent and not terribly bright child, "Peter, we dance with our whole bodies."

Indeed we do, and I thank Caroline for reminding me of that during our time together yesterday.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

BLiNK at The Russian Hall

Imagine creating a performance whose total duration could be no more than the length of time it takes you to read this blog post. What would you do?

Would you go big with a gimmick? Or would you decide on something more minimalist and conceptual?

Would you attempt to make a statement or would you merely seek to entertain?

Go it alone or seek safety in numbers?

Keep things clean and relatively PG or invite some hoots and howls by adding a bit of raunch?

These were just some of the questions in the air last night at The Russian Hall in Fight with a Stick and A Wake of Vultures' presentation of BLiNK, a return showcase of tasty theatrical morsels by some of the finest artists in this city that was as compelling for the conceits on display as for the collaborative hook-ups the format seems to inspire.

Oh yeah, and then there were the dogs, which included a couple of scene-stealing poodle crosses and a Cerberus-like hound of hell to whom one risked being thrown if one exceeded one's allotted time. It was a fate that some performers seemed to actively court and that others

Saturday, February 4, 2017

PuSh 2017: FOLK-S

Alessandro Sciarroni's FOLK-S: will you still love me tomorrow?, on at The Dance Centre through this evening in a co-presentation with the PuSh Festival and the Italian Cultural Centre, is at once a practice-based experiment in dance ethnography and a durational work of conceptual choreography. Part of a larger project investigating time, tradition and the role of the popular in contemporary dance, Sciarroni and his fellow performers (Marco D'Agostin, Pablo Esbert Lilienfeld, Francesca Foscarini, Matteo Ramponi, and Francesco Vecchi) taught themselves the Schuhplattler, a folk dance performed in Bavaria, the Austrian Tyrol, and the German-speaking part of northern Italy; it involves men dressed in lederhosen slapping their shoes and thighs, historically for the purposes of attracting a female mate. With the blessing of the professional Schuplattler groups to whom the team showed their efforts, Sciarroni then set about building a formal structure in which the dance was purposefully stripped of its cultural and geographical associations, becoming a task-based display of pure technique and real-time composition. He also added the following stipulation: the dance is to continue until there is either no one left in the audience or there are no more dancers on stage.

As the audience enters the Faris studio, the six dancers are in a circle, already pounding out a percussive rhythm with their feet. Only Sciarroni is dressed in lederhosen and wearing a Tyrolean wool hat; the others wear regular shorts and shirts. Additionally, all the dancers but Sciarroni have their eyes covered with a strip of white tape for this opening section. For it is sound, more than any other sensory element, that becomes the measure of whether or not the dancers remain in unison over the course of the piece, as well as the gauge of their initially ecstatic and gradually flagging energy levels. Subtle variations in spatial groupings, rhythm, and of course the sequence of steps and slaps are introduced over the course of the piece, with the dancers calling out various signals to each other and also pausing occasionally to rest or regroup. Sciarroni grabs an accordion at one point, but he doesn't produce any music from it, merely opens and closes its bellows, simulating the dancers' gulping exhalations and inhalations of breath. By ruthlessly stripping the dance of its traditional cultural associations in this way, Sciarroni makes the mechanics of its execution all about the presentness of the dancers, and also of us in the audience. That is, in FOLK-S not only are we witness to how the contract between the dancers is being negotiated in the moment (from who takes the lead in initiating a sequence to the level of difficulty of a sequence to who decides when they've had enough), but we are also invited to reflect on what we are bringing (in terms of energy and attention and kinetic response) to the space.

People did leave at different points during the performance last night, but most of us stayed, willing the dancers to go on despite their exhaustion. In this Sciarroni's piece is less a testament to how art survives over time than it is a pulsating, full-throttle encounter with the very art of survival.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

PuSh 2017: Mouthpiece

Quote Unquote's Mouthpiece, on at The Cultch in a co-presentation with the PuSh Festival through this Sunday, is as formally innovative as it is politically urgent. Co-created and performed by the immensely talented Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, the piece tells the story of Cassandra (the name is well chosen), who wakes up one morning to learn via voicemail that her mother has died. She has only a day to make all of the funeral arrangements and write a eulogy; however, she has lost her voice. The trick is that Nostbakken and Sadava, clad in matching white swimsuits, both play a version of Cassandra's divided self, using song, unison speech, and movement to ask not just how one woman might find a way to articulate her singular grief but also how she might give voice to a chorus of collective rage.

For in addition to exploring dialectically the paradox of Cassandra mourning her mother's passing while also eschewing her apparently internalized misogyny and generational passivity, Mouthpiece also asks how it can ever be possible for one woman (or even, in this case, two) to become a spokesperson for an entire feminist movement. In light of the recent worldwide Women's Marches, which so powerfully demonstrated solidarity at the same time as they exposed intersectional faultlines, this question feels especially resonant. Fortunately this piece, especially in its a cappella play with harmony and dissonance (including a tour through the female North American popular songbook, from the Andrews Sisters through Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin and Beyonce), suggests that in raising our voices together--just as in arguing internally with ourselves about how and when and in what manner to speak out--there is room for discord. Indeed, it might even make us stronger.