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!


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