Saturday, March 28, 2009


Yesterday Richard and I hiked it out to Burnaby’s Shadbolt Centre for the Arts to see Move: the company’s presentation of The Cell, a new full-length work that was being presented as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival (which has been going on since the beginning of this month—although I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first event we’ve managed to get to). Move is presided over by Josh Beamish, the 21-year-old wunderkid of the Vancouver dance scene, who in addition to creating and touring his own work has collaborated extensively with other young local choreographers and dancers, including Simone Orlando and Amber Funk Barton. That collaborative impulse is in fact the raison d’être of The Cell, for which Beamish has solicited contributions from six co-choreographers (joining Orlando and Barton are Heather Dotto, Alison Denham, Crystal Wills, and Rachel Poirier), each of whom collaborates with Beamish on one of the piece’s seven movements (a solo created by Beamish with dancer Lara Barclay is credited as the seventh collaboration).

Some of those movements are more successful than others. Exploring the idea of physical confinement and containment, and drawing imagistic inspiration from the campy 2000 Jennifer Lopez sci-fi flick of the same name, The Cell begins with Beamish and Dotto’s exploration of dance mitosis. Two same-sex couples (one female, one male) appear in alternating soft spots, their extreme bodily attachment and small, shared gestures (a raised hand that is met, weight that is distributed equally front to back, steps made so as to minimize the risks of separation) gradually giving way to the inevitable and painful splitting of each pair. A promising beginning, to be sure, with composer Kristopher Fulton’s appropriately symbiotic soundscape contributing to the overall effect (although a technical glitch right at the start with the tape resulted in an unscheduled blackout while the problem was fixed and the dancers began again from the top). However, I was frustrated by the lighting design for this sequence. If you’re going to divide the spectator’s attention on stage, then at least do so in a way that compels us to make an informed choice as to where to look. Spots alternated between each couple, but when the lights were down on one this didn’t mean they stopped dancing. This made one strain to see what was going on with the unlit couple when, logically, one should have been paying attention to what was happening with the lit couple. I get that this gets at nucleic processes themselves being invisible to the naked eye, but it was nevertheless too much of a tease for those of us who were hungry to see the no doubt complex bits of co-dependent dance that were actually being performed in semi-darkness.

I remained mostly under-nourished through the next two movements, as Beamish and Denham’s collaboration took the form of a dance film shot and edited by David Raymond, and as Beamish and Poirier’s collaboration, while having the virtue of filling the stage with live, moving bodies, felt to me to be overly burdened with theatrical busyness (flared condom-like costumes, a pair of shared boots, and a suspension cable that bore aloft dancer Tiffany Tregarthen). It took Barton, living up as always to her middle name, to jolt the audience with some pure dance adrenaline by choreographing with Beamish a go-go-style ensemble sequence around and upon the Shadbolt Studio Theatre’s rafters that had audience members literally twisting in our seats. I enjoyed as well the precision of Beamish and Wills’ collaboration, which included a spectacular pas de deux (at once aerial and grounded) that made better use of that suspension cable, as well as a coffin-like white box. Beamish’s solo for Barclay likewise allowed us to revel at length in some virtuosic displays of technique, Barclay’s tall, lithe frame well suited to the various extensions and floor work Beamish tasked her with executing.

But it was the final collaboration, between Beamish and Orlando, that really took my breath away. Featuring the entire company (minus the younger apprentice performers who were employed in some of the other movements), and choreographed around a square of white light whose borders the dancers would variously broach, this sequence brought us back to the themes of separation and attachment, and also served as a something of a self-reflexive comment on the whole collaborative process behind the creation of The Cell. We are each other’s mitochondria, the enzymes that fuel creative metabolism. But we still have small compartments within ourselves that are not as porous, places where we utterly and completely alone.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Whatever Lola Wants

Just back from a noon show at The Dance Centre: excerpts from Lola MacLaughlin’s Provincial Essays (2007). Given McLaughlin’s passing earlier this month after a brave battle with ovarian cancer, the place was understandably packed, with many well-known members of the local dance community in attendance.

MacLaughlin was an important force in Vancouver dance. She was the first graduate of the dance program at my university; a co-founder of EDAM Studios in 1982, which pioneered contact improv in this city; and, from 1989, founder and artistic director of her own company, Lola Dance.

According to critic Kaija Pepper, who led a talkback session between the dancers, rehearsal director Susan Elliott, and the audience after today’s performance (and who also wrote a moving obituary of Lola in the Globe and Mail), Lola’s choreography was rooted in a profound attachment to place (one of her best known works is 1998’s Four Solos/Four Cities), and to place in British Columbia in particular. This is certainly evident in Provincial Essays, which unfolds as a series of kinesthetic inquiries into the dialectical relationship between nature and culture, landscape (in the broadest sense of that word) and the built environment, the pastoral and the sublime. In the abbreviated 45-minute version of the work we saw today (which was also minus one of the five dancers and various bits of tech), we are introduced to signature gestures that will be repeated as part of the dancers’ larger repertoire throughout the piece as performer Ron Stewart informs us of their genesis in Lola’s menagerie of movement—an elephant walking, a bird hopping, a flower blooming—and of Lola’s initial desire to have a real waterfall as a backdrop to the women dancers’ display of the gestures. We are asked, instead, to imagine the waterfall, and when it fact one eventually appears as part of the video projections used throughout the piece, it is of course too real, its representational magnificence threatening to overwhelm and obliterate the sight of the dancers rehearsing what are after all some fairly pedestrian steps. It is precisely these kind of witty philosophical juxtapositions—along with the equally sublime work of an immensely talented group of dancers—that makes Provincial Essays such a pleasure to watch. When, for example, this catalogue of “natural” gestures we have been introduced to at the top of the piece later reappears in an urban techno sequence featuring all of the dancers in full machinic assemblage, and with a paved streetscape as video projection, we understand that there can be no nature outside of culture.

Provincial Essays also features complex and demanding solos for each of the dancers, and it was interesting to hear, in the talkback session, Ziyian Kwan and Alison Denham talk about Lola’s method of working one-on-one with each of her dancers, improvising movements with them, carefully naming and noting down each of these movements, asking the dancers to memorize them, and then building a solo around them: retaining those that seem to work, adapting others, and jettisoning what doesn’t fit. In Kwan’s case, Lola apparently asked her to begin by imagining she was dancing inside a box, and this worked so well that in the full, performance version of the piece, an actual box appears on stage. In Alison’s case, she noted that she was not the first dancer to perform her role, and that the challenge for her was to learn a solo that had been created on and for another dancer’s body.

Provincial Essays recently toured to Toronto, playing at Harbourfront on March 6th, the very day Lola died. It will be remounted this October in Vancouver at the Cultch. I urge readers of this blog who will be in the area to attend. In the meantime, a celebration of Lola’s life will take place at The Dance Centre on Monday, April 6th, at 4:30 pm. 

Finally, tomorrow is World Theatre Day. Go see some live performance!


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gregor's First 100 Days

Well, he may not have scored a sit-down with Jay Leno, but Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson did at least reach the 100-day mark before Obama. Here's the update he and his Vision Vancouver team put out yesterday on their progress so far:

"We have just passed the 100-day mark since being sworn in to City Hall. These first few months have been as challenging as they’ve been productive. Despite the hurdles thrown at us, we’ve demonstrated that a Mayor and Council who are prepared to show leadership can get things done. Today, I would like to give you a brief report on what we’ve accomplished since taking office in December.

The Homelessness Crisis

Since taking power, Vision has hit the ground running. On our first day in office, we created the Homeless Emergency Action Team. After one week, we were able to secure funding from the Province and the Streetohome Foundation for five new emergency shelters. Over the last 100 days, these shelters have provided a safe and secure place to sleep for up to 500 people a night. Earlier this month, I was also pleased to announce that we’ve secured funding from the provincial government to keep the shelters open for another three months.

Both the VPD and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association can attest to the positive impact the HEAT shelters have had on reducing mental health calls, aggressive panhandling, and street disorder. The HEAT shelters are working.

The Olympic Village

Dealing with the Olympic Village mess left by the previous NPA administration has been one of the toughest problems we’ve faced. Nevertheless, I’m proud to say that your Vision team has risen to the challenge. As promised, we held an open, public council meeting to reveal the financial situation of the Olympic Village. We were up front with the people of Vancouver about the amount of financial risk the city was exposed to. We hired KPMG to provide an external review of the Olympic Village finances.

Thanks to the quick work of the Provincial Government and the Official Opposition, the City was granted the tools necessary to borrow money to finish the project. The new financing deal we’ve negotiated will save the City roughly $90 million in interest payments. We’re now working hard to make sure the Olympic Village stays on track and is done on time.

Public Safety

Vancouver, as Police Chief Jim Chu said earlier this month, is in the midst of a brutal gang war. The brazen nature of the recent gang shootings and the complete disregard for human life are unacceptable. Gangs do not care about municipal boundaries and we need a strong regional response to deal with them. Chief Chu and I met with the Prime Minister several weeks ago, and we made the case for more police officers throughout Metro Vancouver. Our city is doing its share in terms of funding our police. To fight gangs across the region, we need other municipalities to do the same.

Managing Your Money

The recent economic downturn has put a major strain on the City’s finances. As a Council, we’ve already taken bold steps to cut costs. Since December, we’ve cut $42 million from the City’s budget while maintaining services. We cancelled the expansion of the controversial Downtown Ambassadors program and implemented a hiring freeze. We’re working hard to keep taxes down in the next City budget.

Greening Your City

Vision has pledged to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world. To do this, we’ve reached out to ‘green’ business and sustainability leaders and formed the Greenest City Action Team (GCAT).Whether it’s expanding car-free days or community gardens, we’re making progress, with more to come. GCAT will be working to tackle climate change, increase sustainable transportation, and create green jobs in the weeks ahead."

I'm more or less in agreement with most of this; I just wish we could get past the partisan finger-pointing at the previous administration. Don't get me wrong, I'm the first to lay much of the blame for the Athletes Village mess at the feet of the NPA and former City Manager Judy Rogers (whose severance package topped $570,000 according to yesterday's Vancouver Sun and Globe and Mail). But Robertson has inherited the fallout, and so he should just get on as best as possible in dealing with it.

On the Olympics front, I have just been approached by a group of colleagues in Urban Studies at SFU to join their group studying the outcomes of the Games on Vancouver. Very exciting, indeed, and I shall be sure to share some of our discussions with readers of this Blog.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Singing Songs of Sixpence

Yesterday Richard and I trekked to the Cultch’s new studio space extension on Victoria Drive, the Vancity Culture Lab as the venue has been so dubbed by those in charge of marrying corporate donations to creative ferment, and the first phase of the Cultch’s ongoing expansion to be opened to the public. We were there to see the Rumble Productions/Theatre Conspiracy co-production of David Harrower’s Blackbird. The play is a two-hander about a 59-year old man, Ray, who works as some sort of floor manager in a pharmaceutical plant in an unnamed part of England, and Una, a young woman in her late 20s, who has tracked Ray down at his place of work. Ray, or Peter as he now seems to be called, is clearly not happy to see Una, and has escorted her into the plant’s garbage-strewn cafeteria at the top of the play in order that their conversation not be overheard or interrupted by his co-workers. The entire 90-minute play takes place in this sterile, brightly lit industrial space (for which the Culture Lab is ideally suited), and apart from a few brief moments when the lights are accidentally turned out by departing co-workers, and a final interruption that at once rescues and condemns him, Ray is unable to escape the intensity of Una’s emotional and verbal assault. Very quickly we learn why Ray is so nervous; he and Una have had a previous sexual relationship, one that began when Una was twelve.

But Harrower’s play is far from a clichéd revenge drama. Una’s motives for tracking Ray down are complex, and far from clear, even to herself. She accuses Ray of ruining her life, of destroying her relationship with her family, of subjecting her to years of finger-pointing and gossip from neighbours in the small town where their relationship began, and where she has continued to live. But she also admits that she felt drawn to Ray from the moment he first talked to her at a backyard barbecue hosted by her parents, that she still loves him, and that her anger at him stems as much from his apparent final abandonment of her in a hotel room in Newcastle as from the sexual liberties he earlier took with her there.

Ray himself is not your stereotypical predatory pedophile. Indeed, Harrower is at pains to present him as equally sympathetic a character, a man who is as surprised as he is horrified to discover he has fallen in love with a child, who has paid dearly for that discovery (six years in jail, to be exact), who has striven to rebuild his life as honestly as possible (including revealing to his new wife his prior conviction on morals and molestation charges), and who now sees that life unraveling before his eyes as Una’s return awakens the shame, fear, and, yes, lingering desire he thought he had long ago buried.

Taughtly written, the play alternates between sharp, staccato duologues and quieter, more lyrical monologues as the accusatory force and suspicious search for motives on the part of each character gradually gives way to earnest attempts on both their parts to find a form of closure for their relationship. This culminates in two moving speeches about the void in their respective lives that resulted from Ray’s fateful decision to step out for a cigarette prior to what was to have been their absconding together from Newcastle for Amsterdam. What Una has ever since imagined to be her desertion Ray clarifies was in fact his momentary failure of nerve, one long enough to allow the authorities to catch up with them, and to plunge them both into a nightmare denouement from which they have yet to emerge. Under the assured direction of Norman Armour, and with the aid of a haunting piano score deployed by sound designer Candelario Andrade at the moments of Una and Ray’s most naked revelation (I recognized the piece being played, but haven’t had time as yet to research it properly), performers Jennifer Mawhinney and Russell Roberts deliver precise and compelling portraits of two individuals caught in a cycle of mutual dependency that goes far beyond sexual obsession.

As with Paula Vogel’s equally riveting and disturbing portrait of Uncle Peck in How I Learned to Drive, Harrower does not fully exculpate Ray by the end of Blackbird. But neither does the play make him into some grotesque monster beyond redemption or comprehension. Both plays ask very difficult and morally ambiguous questions that are of course impossible even to entertain in popular media representations of the evil pedophile. Is it possible to draw a line between consent and abuse in any way other than the juridical? In inter-generational relationships should adult guilt and childhood innocence automatically be presumed? Is sexual maturity in fact an historically, socially, and personally fluid process? And whom exactly are we protecting in holding on so resolutely to the category of child in a culture that over-sexualizes children to such an extent as ours?

These questions are foregrounded even more starkly by Harrower through the introduction, late in the play, of Ray’s stepdaughter, of whose existence we, along with Una, had thus far been unaware. Having arrived, along with her mother, to pick Ray up from work, she bursts through the lunchroom door with her soccer ball, and sends Una scrambling to a corner to hide. However, when the soccer ball gets away from her, the girl discovers Una’s presence. Eventually she is sent away, leaving a shocked Una to confront, on behalf of the audience, Ray about whether or not he has tried anything with his ward. He denies ever considering the possibility, indeed curses Una for even suggesting it, and quickly runs out of the room in search of his wife. Una is left destroyed on the floor, at which point—whether within the real-time of the play proper, or as a purely symbolic concluding tableau, it remains unclear—the step-daughter returns with her soccer ball. She freezes in place, smiling beatifically off into the distance. Una looks at her in horror. We look at Una looking at her in horror. Blackout. Silence. Stunned applause.

This is actually the second production of Blackbird that I’ve seen, having caught its acclaimed West End transfer in London in the spring of 2006, following the play’s premiere at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival. I mention this not because I’m an original cast or first night diva, but because the London production (directed by Peter Stein, and starring Jodhi May and Roger Allam) featured a different ending. Following Ray’s stepdaughter’s abrupt and shocking entrance, and Ray’s subsequent exit, there is no return by the little girl. Instead, the blackout is followed by a door slamming, the sound of heels on concrete, the squeal of a car’s tires. After this, the lights come back up; the industrial lunchroom has been replaced by a car park, and Una is chasing after Ray’s blue Toyota (presumably his wife and stepdaughter arrived in a separate vehicle). Una succeeds in stopping the car, tugs Ray from it, and they struggle for a few minutes on the pavement, before collapsing onto one another in a cathartic heap. Final blackout.

I haven’t read the published playtext, but I suspect the coda to the London production was unscripted and improvised by Stein. I’m not sure which I prefer. Armour’s ending, while perhaps more faithful to the text, does seem to sway the moral balance somewhat against Ray—at least to judge by the reaction of the women sitting in front of us, with whom we had a brief conversation in the lobby upon exiting. Stein’s version, while a bit melodramatic and smacking, after 90 minutes of intensely dramatic verbal jousting, a bit too much of technical staginess, does have the virtue of leaving us with the image of Una and Ray together in a kind of mutual misery, both unable to “fly off into the light of the dark black night,” as Paul McCartney’s own song of sixpence puts it.

Either way, the play is a tasty theatrical dish to set before any audience.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

Antony at the Vogue

This past Friday le tout SFU was out in force at the Vogue Theatre to catch Antony and the Johnsons for the only Vancouver date on their current tour. Richard and I were meeting our friends (and my colleagues) Chris and Carolyn, and we were all under the mistaken impression that it was reserved rather than festival seating. When we arrived the line-up was already snaking around the corner, and we passed no less than six of my former students while making our way to the end of it--including Matt, who was the very first in line, and consequently snagged prime front row seats. As it happened, another former student, Sean, whom we encountered a little further along in the line-up, ended up saving us four seats in the second row. An amazingly generous and selfless act on his part, which we subsequently rewarded by abandoning said seats for the balcony, as there was a massive fan blowing cold air directly above us. Sorry Sean!

In the end, our seats were just fine. Antony himself was in full voice, the band was tight, and the between song patter as loopily strange and sweet and wise as only Antony--with his unique and fragile take on the world--can make it. Highlights of the evening included Antony making violinist Maxim Mostad blush while serenading him by way of introduction; guitarist and violinist Rob Moose's hep and jazzy socks; rockin' versions of "For Today I Am a Boy" and "Fistful of Love"; an even more stylin' cover of Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love"; and a delightfully wacky and surreal back and forth with the audience about disappearing salmon, rivers of milk, and environmental depredation that preceded a final encore of "Twilight." I include video excerpts of these last three for those of you who couldn't be there on Friday:

Antony told us at one point, during a long disquisition on cities, sustainability, and social engineering in the context of mega-projects like the Olympics (which involved an amazing analogy to beehives), that he was developing a special fondness for Vancouver. I took this to be a reference to his last visit to the city, which was as a special invited guest to the TransSomaTechnics conference organized by Susan Stryker at SFU Harbour Centre this past May. Generous person that she is, Susan arranged for me to interview Antony in front of the assembled conference participants, and then to introduce a command solo performance that he gave us on the grand piano that had been wheeled onto the stage of the lecture hall. It was an amazing experience, and memories of it made last Friday's concert all the more special.