Monday, April 27, 2009

Dancing Through the End of Things

As promised, some notes on three dance shows I recently attended in Vancouver:

1. EARTH = home, Judith Marcuse Projects, Scotiabank Dance Centre, 23 April 2009

The final installment in Marcuse’s trilogy of participatory dance theatre pieces exploring young people’s responses to various social issues (previous pieces, ICE: beyond cool and FIRE…where there’s smoke, tackled teen suicide and violence, respectively), EARTH = home is a fable about the environment and the difficulties of changing human behaviour. Conceived over three years through national and international workshops with young people aged 15 to 25, the story concerns a group of strangers who suddenly find themselves trapped in an unnamed locale by a mysterious force field. At the top of the show, we are introduced in turn to a young couple (Molly Johnson and Joe Danny Aurélien), a mother and father and their young daughter (Marvin Vergara, Lina Nykwist, and Kara Nolte), two sisters (Kathryn Crawford and Meredith Kalaman), and two hip single dudes (Alexei Geronimo and David Cox). Even at this early stage, before the unsuspecting group’s situation turns dire, we are made aware of the social impediments to even the most basic aspects of human interaction and the sharing of public space, as the various characters stake out discrete territories in part through their different dance styles (ballet, contemporary, jazz, hip hop, tap, etc.). Only Nolte’s young Lola, in her naïveté, seems willing to mix things up (much to the dismay and worry of her parents), skipping eagerly from one person to the next and basically asking to play.

And then the lights change, ominous music is cued, and white smoke starts to fill the stage. What happens is never fully explained, but as the terrified strangers attempt to make a break for it, it soon becomes clear that all avenues of escape are blocked by some sort of electro-magnetic field. There is no way out, and all they have to sustain themselves is what they’ve brought with them, which is mostly junk food (a Toblerone bar, a bag of chips) and a couple of bottles of water. Will they cooperate and share their limited resources, or will they succumb to their individual survival instincts, trading collective supplies for self-interested demand? For example, in one telling scene that reads like a textbook illustration of Marx on primitive capital accumulation, Lola’s father simply buys up all available foodstuffs, his wad of basically worthless cash enough to tempt the others, whose memories are still short enough to bow before the almighty dollar as the ultimate commodity fetish. Vergara, dressed in black, and with long sinewy arms, dances this scene like a cross between Mephistopheles and the taxman calling in his credits. Lola, too young to know any better, and without any real role models to teach her otherwise, accepts the horde of food from Daddy with the wide eyes of a kid at Christmastime.

A little later on a box of lettuces is discovered, and this too becomes something to fight over. Ditto the two bottles of water that David Cox’s Xavier has wisely stowed in his backpack: in a wonderful three-way tango, Xavier and the sisters played by Crawford and Kalaman initially share ownership of—and consequently much-needed sips from—the first bottle. But when, unexpectedly, one of the sisters drains the bottle all in one gulp, the resource collective is irrevocably sundered, and Xavier promptly marches to his backpack, retrieves the other bottle, and likewise drains it.

In scenes like these, along with others in which the group is bombarded with successive dumpings of plastic bottles and bags from the rafters, one can’t help feeling that Marcuse is being at once a little too didactic and, dare I say, jejune. I realize that the story was crafted in dialogue with young people, and that the current cross-Canada tour has played mostly to groups of school kids. But I for one didn’t come away from the piece feeling I learned anything I didn’t already know. And, as for the video projections, which alternated between a list of dire statistics relating to the state of the planet and an email and/or text message dialogue between two friends about what can or can’t be done to change this state, my dander got up because I felt I was being hectored. (Perhaps this explains why the talkback section after the performance seemed so listless, with most of the comments not really remaining on what appeared to be Marcuse’s desired [environmental] message. My own query about technique and the dancers’ different training and performance backgrounds received relatively short shrift, for example.)

Or maybe it was simply my dissatisfaction with the overall dramaturgical integration of the projections into the piece: their display required successive blackouts which interrupted the flow and momentum of the story, and forced the audience to look up and off to the right of the stage. One got the sense that Marcuse herself was somewhat at odds with how to sync up the two stories being told via video and dance, as in one of the later projection sequences, Johnson’s Mia emerges from the darkness of the group to peer up at the screen with us. (Two other details I’m still puzzling over: the mother played by Nykwist seems to need to take pills at an appointed hour, but why exactly is never explained; and the younger sister, Kelly, seems to suffer from spasms that are again presented without any real comment.)

Still, I don’t want to leave readers with the sense that my experience of EARTH =home was completely negative. All of the performances were singularly impressive. Johnson and Aurélien’s couple, in particular, had real chemistry, both dramatically and choreographically, with what Aurélien can accomplish on his knees or back matched by what Johnson can do en pointe. I was also quite taken with Geronimo’s Nicco, especially with how high he can jump! And Nolte’s bright, bouncy, and completely alive Lola gives the entire piece its necessary centre, with Lola’s education in finding home providing a fitting resolution to the story.

Nor do I wish to second-guess Marcuse’s motives in creating the piece in the first place. She is a pioneer in the field of art and social change, and I am personally thrilled that she and colleagues in the Faculty of Education at my university have established the new International Centre of Art for Social Change, which “is intended to serve as a global hum for communication, research and training in the quickly-evolving field of art and community development.” In the area of youth community development I have no doubt that Marcuse knows exactly what she’s doing, and I think I might indeed revise some of my opinions about the piece were I to see it in an auditorium filled with teenagers, and experience the talkback that followed (Marcuse has created a Teacher’s Guide connected to the production). Indeed, I hope to get involved in future with some of the activities of the ICASC, and look forward to talking with Marcuse further about these and other issues.

2. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Vancouver Playhouse, 24 April 2009

The fourth and final presentation of Barb Clausen and Jim Smith’s inaugural DanceHouse series, which aims to bring the best large-scale contemporary dance from around the world to Vancouver audiences (see my pervious post on Batsheva), featured Chicago’s acclaimed Hubbard Street Dance Company. The company has been under the artistic direction of Jim Vincent for the past nine years, and in addition to performing his own works, the company regularly commissions new work from some of the most innovative international choreographers, including Batsheva’s Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, Nederlands Dans Theater’s Jirí Kylián (for whom Vincent danced for many years), the Spanish National Dance Company’s Nacho Duato (with whom Vincent has also collaborated), Marguerite Donlon, and many others.

On the program at the Playhouse were four works: Donlon’s Strokes Through the Tail, set to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor; Lickety-Split, created by company member Alejandro Cerrudo to a suite of songs by San Francisco musician Devendra Banhart; the duet Gimme, by Lucas Crandall, which featured a rather Celtic-sounding score, but which turned out to be composed by a Norwegian folk band (!); and, finally, Vincent’s own Slipstream, which is danced by the entire traveling company, and which is set to a sweepingly romantic atonal composition by Benjamin Britten.

The first three pieces were light, witty, abundantly entertaining, and all showcased the company’s strong musicality, muscular physicality, and tremendous technique. Donlon’s Strokes begins with five male dances in formal evening attire, including tails, installing Penny Saunders’ lone female dancer, replete in white tutu, like a wind-up doll, or the automaton Olympia from Hoffman’s Tales, stage left. From here, Donlon proceeds to deconstruct both Mozart’s style of musical notation and classical ballet’s gender hierarchies, with Saunders and the men at one point swapping costumes, and with alliances being formed on stage, then sundered, and then reformed, all to the precise rhythmical structures of Mozart’s music (now legato, there allegro). It was great fun and showed off the dancers’ technical virtuosity to great effect.

Lickety-Split was, I think, my favourite piece of the evening. First of all, I was so taken with Banhart’s music, and must immediately track down the album (Rejoicing in the Hands) from whence it is taken. Then there was the simple yet effective lighting design by Ryan J. O’Gara, which placed various couples in dappled half-shadow at certain moments, in softly luminous spots at others, and the entire ensemble in rectangle of light downstage for key moments at the beginning, middle, and end. All the dancers (Robyn Mineko Williams, Jessica Tong, Meredith Dincolo, Pablo Piantino, Terence Marling, and Alejandro Piris-Niño) were featured prominently in both individual solos and especially in successive romantic couplings. Cerrudo has a very fluid choreographic style and this was by far the most sensuous piece of the evening.

Gimme was also about coupling, but in a much more explicitly aggressive manner. Dancers Jessica Tong (who emerged as something of the breakout star of the evening) and Jason Hortin are literally bound together by a length of rope, which each alternately uses to bait, lead, and corral the other. The Doc Martens on each of the dancers’ feet also suggest a menacing and threatening underlay to this strange courtship, and yet while the quasi-step dance-style choreography is intensely vertical in places, and while the rope, when cast around Tong’s neck in others, leads to an intake of breath or two, the lifts gradually grow more tender, the embraces and contact between the dancers longer. By the end of the piece, both dancers are on the floor, and Horton has placed one end of the rope in his mouth and the other in Tong’s. Both start to chew away at their respective ends, just like the dogs on their shared spaghetti strand in that Disney cartoon, until Horton, tiring of how long things are taking, slides his end in half and leans in for the kiss we all know is coming. Blackout.

Slipstream provided a change-up to these proceedings. Much more traditionally balletic than the previous pieces, and featuring that sweeping score by Britten, it threw me for a bit of a loop at first. A series of movement variations that mirrored Britten’s musical variations, the costume and lighting design suggested to me an overall seasonal theme, and, indeed, the piece was reminiscent in places of The Rite of Spring (both Stravinsky’s and Martha Graham’s). In fact, as I write this, I wonder if the piece was not in part meant as a series of meta-comments on the great moments in the classical repertoire, as it seemed to end with a reference to the Dying Swan. A different sort of conclusion than I had anticipated, but no less effective for it.

Kudos to Clausen and Smith and all the people at DanceHouse for organizing such a splendid first season. The line-up for next year has already been announced, and with Hofesh Schecter (formerly of Batsheva), Crystal Pite and Kidd Pivot, Marie Chouinard and Company, and Brazil’s Grupo Corpo coming to town between November and April, I’m definitely becoming a subscriber.

3. Repose, EDAM Dance, Western Front, 25 April 2009

Finally, on Saturday evening I attended EDAM Dance’s mixed program, Repose, at the Western Front. I was there primarily to see my student, Alana Gerecke, in EDAM Artistic Director Peter Bingham’s newest contact improv creation, Slingshot. It was a fitting conclusion to the week, as the piece strips things down to the bare essentials: just four dancers and their locomotive relationships with each other, and with the floor. Even the blackout curtains on the west wall, normally closed to block out the windows behind, were thrown open to let the last rays of evening light into the studio. And the music is almost an afterthought, an extremely slowed down acoustic version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” that fades in and out; otherwise it’s just the sounds of the dancers’ feet and bodies meeting the floor, and the exertion of their breathing.

The piece begins with the four dancers (Anne Cooper, Alana, Stacey Murchison, and, making his EDAM debut, former Ballet BC dancer James Gnam) entering from the back of the studio with house lights up. They line up in a row stage right, now and then glancing at each other, as if to make sure they’re all together, that they’re close by. Then Cooper, an EDAM veteran, breaks away from the group and begins a solo. At a certain point Alana approaches her, arresting her movement with a fierce embrace. But Cooper pushes her away, which is the cue for Alana to get the real contact improv proceedings underway, taking a running start and then leaping backwards into Cooper’s torso. Cooper receives Alana weight, and then gently eases her to the floor, at which point Murchison and Gnam join the mash-up with some group floor work.

This establishes the basic pattern of the piece, with each dancer in turn breaking away from the line-up for a brief solo before accepting or refusing an embrace from another member of the group, and then working through a realignment of bodily boundaries through leaps, tumbles, strivings, and collapses that are jaw-dropping in their muscularity and their tenderness. Part of this realignment involves various duos and trios, and what always amazes me when I watch Bingham’s work, and contact improv more generally, is not simply the faith the dancers have to place in each other to ensure that someone will be there to receive and respond to their movements, but that dancers as tiny and slight as Alana and Murchison (who have appeared alongside each other in several of Bingham’s recent works) can lift and receive the weight of and torque and fling about bodies almost twice their size. Such confoundings of the basic laws of physics and gravity are vividly on display in Slingshot, particularly in the respective partnerings of Alana and Gnam and Cooper and Murchison mid-way through the piece.

As I said, Slingshot more than satisfied my desire for pure dance and movement expression. But it is bracketed by two other pieces by guest choreographers that are much more intensely theatrical in their staging. The first is Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s High gate, which features Jacci Collins, Barbara Murray, and Jane Osborne in widows weeds whose full-length skirts have been sewn together. This creates some interesting opportunities for unique choreography, but after a while I thought that Friedenberg had somewhat worn out her conceit. I was also never entirely sure how to read the three women, who come across as a combination of the three Fates, the witches from Macbeth, and gossipy desperate housewives.

The final piece on the program was Kokoro Dance co-founder and co-artistic director Barbara Bourget’s LSD, which features Bourget and Ziyian Kwan (in fire-red shifts and white body paint) in a three-part suite that combines traditional butoh movement with neo-flamenco. I’m not sure the combination is entirely successful, especially in the middle section, which is the flamenco part. But the opening and closing sections, which showcase Bourget and Kwan, in a diagonal arc of light slowly moving closer and then away from each other, is very moving. A program note mentions that Bourget’s mother died while she was creating the piece, and one does get the sense that it is meant as both a memorial and a deeply felt expression of grief.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Olympics Redux

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about the Olympics, something I was reminded of in watching the television and print media coverage of the 15 women ski jumpers who finally got their day in BC Supreme Court. The women have filed a lawsuit against VANOC, arguing that the IOC’s decision to exclude their event from the 2010 Olympics despite intense lobbying efforts constitutes sex discrimination under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that VANOC, as a Canadian organizing committee of an Olympics to take place on Canadian soil, should be subject to the laws of this land. VANOC, however, says its hands are tied, that the decision rests solely with the International Olympic Committee, whose rules appear to trump all others. Indeed, as noted anti-Olympics writer Helen Jefferson Lenskyj usefully reminds us, the IOC, “an autonomous, non-elected body,” abets host cities’ and countries’ curtailment of basic civic rights by insisting that organizers play by their tightly controlled rules, including a guarantee that there will be no public protests in or adjacent to Olympic venues, or any behaviour that might be considered an affront to Olympic values. This reminds us, as well, that while not dismissing or diminishing the severity of the human rights abuses sanctioned by Chinese authorities in the lead up to and during last year’s Beijing Summer Olympics, suspending the rights of public expression and assembly is in fact a de facto aspect of the IOC’s supra-political stage managing of its collective Olympic optics.

Indeed, before pointing fingers it is useful to pause and ask what lessons Beijing might hold for Vancouver, where, as one Chinese student put it to me last year, we take for granted our right to protest as well as our right to disinterestedness. How might thinking critically about the real differences and the complex lines of historical connection in local audiences’ responses to globally mediated sports spectacles like the Olympics foster a politics of place that resists the universalist narratives of development championed by institutions like the IOC? The women ski jumpers’ lawsuit, along with two other rights challenges related to the 2010 Olympics, offer one possible way to begin answering these questions by exposing the performative exclusions embodied within the very category of the human that such narratives are meant to uphold.

The first rights challenge is a United Nations complaint filed against the federal government of Canada, the BC provincial government, and the City of Vancouver by three community-based NGOs working in the DTES. The petition states that all three levels of government are in violation of Section 11.1 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (of which Canada is a signatory), which reads: “Parties to the Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living …, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” Citing a litany of broken promises surrounding the 2010 Games, the claimants allege the governments have failed to provide adequate affordable and habitable housing to the neediest residents of Vancouver; that the homelessness crisis in the city has been exacerbated by development projects related to the Olympics; and that as the homeless population in the city is disproportionately represented by Aboriginals, drug users, and the mentally disabled, this constitutes a systemic practice of discrimination.

The second challenge also concerns Vancouver’s “street homeless” population; submitted to the BC Human Rights Tribunal in July 2008 by Pivot Legal Society, United Native Nations, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, it alleges that the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, together with Geoff Plant, in his role as Vancouver’s Project Civil City Commissioner, have engaged in a targeted campaign of harassment against this population via their coordination of the Downtown Ambassadors, a roving “public safety” force meant to combat “street disorder” that is directly modeled on a similar “hospitality force” put in place in Atlanta in advance of the 1996 Olympics. The Ambassadors are Vancouver’s more menacing version of Beijing’s etiquette police, patrolling a 90-block area radiating out from the DTES, on the lookout for “suspicious” individuals, including those sitting or sleeping on sidewalks, binning in alleyway dumpsters, engaging in public drug use, panhandling, or otherwise failing to conform “to the behaviour desired by businesses in the area.”

These challenges highlight some of the social groups left behind when urban aspiration is harnassed to Olympic inspiration: if human bodies can be engineered—via equipment vested or drugs ingested—to go “faster, higher, stronger,” then why can’t cities? The winners and losers accompanying such contests remind us that the history of the Olympics mirrors that of capitalist modernity, from their humble origins as amateur sideshows at World Expositions to their steady growth as a powerful global industry run by professional elites, fueled by broadcast revenues and corporate sponsorships, and riven by bribery scandals and competitive fraud. Yet as the women ski jumpers’ lawsuit attests, such fundamental institutional inequities are actually built into the very fabric of an athletic movement based on the cohesion of body and world that has for most of its history done its best to ignore over half of the bodies in the world, not to mention the various social and political movements they have spawned.

Whither sport. Despite its Charter’s avowal that “the practice of sport is a human right” (somewhat ironic giving the IOC’s banning of the philanthropic organization “Right to Play” from the Vancouver Games owing to a licensing dispute with one of its major sponsors), the Olympic Movement remains deeply entrenched within binaries of human difference. Sex and gender chief among them, but also race, class, sexuality, age, religion, and geography. Indeed, one of the main arguments in awarding Beijing the 2008 Olympics—that the world’s most populous nation should have the right to host the world’s premiere sporting event—seems slightly specious when one considers that most of the sports showcased at that event were invented by white European men at the height of colonialism. In the politicized spectacle of place promotion that is the Olympics, where final medal tallies belie not just the unspoken story of “performance enhancement,” but also a long history of the global south, or the communist east, having to beat the West at its own game, gentlemanly competition of the sort envisioned by Pierre de Coubertin is one showcase that has come utterly undone.

Still on the subject of the Olympics, I went to an interesting planning and information meeting at the downtown campus of my university yesterday. It was hosted by members of the Winter Olympics Outcomes Project, a yearlong cross-disciplinary and collaborative inquiry, based in the Urban Studies Program at SFU (and coordinated by my colleagues Peter Hall, Meg Holden, Karen Ferguson, and Anthony Perl, together with their fabulous RA Alix Freiler). The Project is focusing on how the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver will affect, determine, and help shape some of the most pressing questions of social, cultural, and environmental sustainability facing the city, and how Vancouver’s work in these areas compares with that of other Olympic host cities. Activities include comparative data collection and analysis of several “meta-indicators” relating to specific urban impacts from the past six Winter Olympic host cities (including public indebtedness, polarization, public amenities and legacies, sprawl, cohesion, creativity/cultural impact, and local economy); a mini-symposium this June coordinated around the visit and public lectures of Andrew Thornley, an expert on urban planning from the UK, who will speak on related issues facing London in the lead-up to 2012; a larger symposium/conference planned for this fall, placing the Vancouver Olympics within a global context of mega-development projects; a collaborative endeavor with fellow researchers at UBC in the Spring of 2010, to coincide with the Olympics and Paralympics themselves; and a possible longer term research project based on the outcomes of the Games.

It was a very useful and stimulating meeting, and good for me to talk about these issues with urban studies scholars. I also met Duncan Low, former Executive Director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, at the meeting, and look forward to working with him in the future on issues relating to arts and culture funding and legacies tied to the Olympics. He offered a rather grim and sobering assessment about where the cultural community stands now in relation to various promises made in the original bid, with several companies and organizations actually scaling back their cultural programming for 2010 as a result of receiving less funding than promised, or simply because they don’t think there will be enough of an audience out there to support paid attendance to side events on top of all the free Olympic stuff. Something of a reality check, to be sure.

At any rate, I hope to use this blog site to post regular updates on the progress of the Olympics Outcomes Project’s research, as well as notices of public events, etc. Stay tuned, in particular, for more information about the June symposium, which is scheduled to take place on Monday, June 8th, at SFU Harbour Centre.

And stay tuned, as well, for a further post this weekend relating my thoughts on three dance performances I will have seen by then: Judith Marcuse Projects Earth = Home (I caught yesterday’s noon show at the Dance Centre); Hubbard Street Dance at the Playhouse tonight; and EDAM’s Repose mixed program at the Western Front on Saturday.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Whither BC

Premier Gordo issued the BC provincial election writ this past Tuesday, and as the first week of campaigning draws to a lackluster close, your humble PPP scribe is herewith issuing his first and only intervention into the political debate about who should form the next government. In fact, my intervention is largely aimed at explaining why, after 17 years in the province, four general elections, and various by-elections, I will be withdrawing my once loyal support from the NDP.

Very simply, it has to do with their promise to revoke the carbon tax instituted by the Liberals this past summer. No matter the relative merits of the NDP’s plan to institute instead a cap and trade system on industry, my position largely has to do with the cynical sop to northern and rural voters that leader Carole James is engaging in with this kind of old-school politicking. That’s the same kind of thinking that has led to the situation we’re currently in with the North American automotive sector. For years, when governments should have been pouring money into electric and alternative fuel cars, to rebuilding cities and expanding public transit, and to retraining workers for the new post-industrial economy, they kept shilling for votes in the easiest way possible: by promising to safeguard obcelesent jobs. Except that now we’re past the point even of obcelesence. I’m no fan of the BC Liberals, who have managed to pick up where the Social Credit Party left off very nicely; however, by whatever route it has come into place, I do support BC’s carbon tax, and I think, with the clock ticking down on meaningful action to combat climate change, it is politically and morally irresponsible for a party and a leader to declare that, if elected, they would repeal any form of pro-environmental legislation. Moreover, at a time when most pundits are saying that Canada needs to get its act together and get on side (quite literally, in terms of our shared border) with the aggressive environmental policies President Obama is championing, to jettison unilaterally the country’s only existing carbon tax just looks plain stupid.

And it’s not just me who is saying this. A host of prominent BC environmentalists, from David Suzuki onwards, has condemned the NDP policy. Just yesterday the doyenne of Clayoquot herself, Tzeporah Berman, sent an open letter to Carole James deploring the move, and withdrawing her support from the party. Like Berman, my own position should by no means be read as an endorsement of the Liberals. In fact, I will be voting Green this election. The Greens support both local carbon taxes and a global cap and trade system on petroleum emissions; as they say, one can have both rather than either or! The Greens have also taken a stronger position than either of the other parties on protecting the Agricultural Land Reserve, and to providing legislative encouragement to local food production and processing. Finally, leader Jane Sterk has made a somewhat provocative and controversial (others have said loony) pledge to replace the RCMP in the province with a new provincial force, and to ban outright the use of tasers. Given what we’ve been hearing at the Braidwood Inquiry looking into the death of Robert Dziekanski these past few months, I’m inclined to support anyone who seeks to muzzle the trigger-happy Mounties with selective memory recall who police our airports.

However, if I want my vote to count at all (even if only in a future election), I guess that means I should also vote Yes to the referendum recommending implementation of a new Single Transferable Voting system. Not sure how I feel about that exactly, and must study the issue a bit more carefully, I think.

One novel thing this time around in terms of the practicalities of casting my vote is that, as I will be away for both election day and all three advance voting days, I shall have to cast my vote by mail, or else visit my local district electoral office and present some credible id. In an election where the outcome is already pretty much a foregone conclusion (it looks like another four years of old “DUI-Paul Kinsella-back slapping-I-just-want-to-wave-that-Olympic-flag” Campbell, I’m afraid), this will likely be my only excitement.

Finally, a clarification regarding a previous post from this month: in the course description I included along with my discussion of ECT's Studies in Motion, I implied that Robert Lepage was coming to town with his latest theatrical creation, The Blue Dragon, this fall. In fact, it will be February 2010, an event that will coincide with the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, and that will inaugurate the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at the new SFU Contemporary Arts Woodward's site. This was officially announced this past Wednesday by the President of SFU, Michael Stevenson, and by the Director of the School for the Contemporary Arts, Martin Gotfrit, at a morning press conference/celebration in Gastown to which I was invited. Lots of back-slapping and promises about how SFU's presence at Woodward's is going to help revitalize the area, and about the cultural and community partnerships the University and School are committed to realizing. Let's hope there's follow-through on that. At the very least, judging by the animated 3-D tour we were provided of the new facilities, the venue itself looks impressive.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Remembering EKS

In a blog about performance and politics, it seems important to pause this week to remember the passing of pioneering literary critic and queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died after a long battle with breast cancer on Easter Sunday. She was 58. After many years teaching at Duke University (where she supervised a generation of the best and brightest new scholars, including my colleague Carolyn Lesjak), for the past decade she had been Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (where she also served as an important mentor to two of my former students, Joanna Mansbridge and Jes Battis). A full obituary was printed in the New York Times on Tuesday.

Sedgwick’s scholarship, especially her work on queer performativity (see her essay on Henry James in the inaugural issue of GLQ, as well as the volume of essays she edited with Andrew Parker, Performativity and Performance, and her last book, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity), has been a touchstone throughout my own career. Indeed, in the chapter on the performance and politics of same-sex marriage in the forthcoming book from whence this blog takes its name, I have yet again had occasion to return to Sedgwick’s famous tarrying with J.L. Austin’s 1962 text How to Do Things with Words--and especially his discussion therein of the exemplary “I do” utterances normally exchanged at weddings. In that foundational essay on Henry James’ queer performativity (part of a critical dialogue with Judith Butler in the same issue of GLQ), Sedgwick redirects attention to the queer possibilities, and infelicities, implicit in Austin’s theorization of speech acts, long abjured as fundamentally flawed since the publication of Jacques Derrida’s “Signature, event, context.” To be sure, the recourse to Austin is somewhat grudging and decidedly instrumentalist (especially in the case of Butler, who appears to have turned to Austin, largely by way of Derrida, in an effort to clear up what she claims were misunderstandings and misapplications of the theory of gender performativity she outlined in her highly influential Gender Trouble). Nevertheless, both Sedgwick and Butler single out the “centrality of the marriage ceremony in … Austin’s examples of performativity” in order to suggest that “heterosexualization of the social bond is the paradigmatic form for those speech acts which bring about what they name,” and to ask “what happens to the performative when its purpose is precisely to undo the presumptive force of the heterosexual ceremonial?” (Butler, “Critically Queer,” p. 17). Answering this question, for each theorist, means first “undoing” the naturalness, stability, agency, and authoritative presence of Austin’s speaking subject, the “I” who names, and focusing instead on the discursive conditions, and conventions, that name that “I,” as, for example, heterosexual or homosexual, married or unmarried, ashamed or melancholy. Indeed, it is precisely by recuperating for analysis and discussion those specifically “unhappy” conditions Austin enumerates as contributing to a given utterance’s failure to do the thing it says it will do--a violation of accepted convention or procedure, the involvement of an inappropriate person or persons, the possession of an insincere thought or feeling--that Sedgwick and Butler construct their affective and melancholic theories of sexual and gender identity as political and performative projects of disavowal, of ever fully or freely saying what one means or doing what one says. As Sedgwick remarks, so many of the references to marriage Austin invokes “are offered as examples of the different ways things can go wrong with performative utterances” that his book perhaps warrants a different title altogether: “I Do - Not!” (Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity,” p. 3).

This points, in turn, as Sedgwick has elsewhere noted, to the witness role within spaces and contexts of performative utterance generally, and the spatial context of the wedding ceremony more specifically. In her more recent work on performativity, Sedgwick has outlined a theory of “periperformative utterances.” This refers to utterances that are not in themselves explicitly performative in the referentially indicative and active sense described by Austin (i.e., they do what they say), but that “cluster around,” comment on, respond to, or even negate explicitly performative utterances (e.g., “I do not”). In elaborating this distinction, Sedgwick returns to the marriage ceremony “as a kind of fourth wall or invisible proscenium arch that moves through the world” demanding consensus from the community of compulsory witnesses it recruits to ratify “the legitimacy of its privilege”: “Like the most conventional definition of a play, marriage is constituted as a spectacle that denies its audience the ability either to look away from it or equally to intervene in it” (Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, p.72). And yet, precisely by reminding us of the theatricality of the wedding ceremony, and by attempting to effect something of a rapprochement between linguistic and dramaturgical theories of performance, Sedgwick demonstrates that it is possible to disrupt and decentre the authority and direction of the performative event itself, whether by changing the terms of its reference, the space of its enunciation, or the response of its addressees.

In writing about such matters for the book, I was taken back to my excitement as a graduate student in immersing myself in the then still relatively new discipline of queer theory, and how, in particular, it was being applied to literary studies. Influenced by deconstruction, and following the model outlined by Sedgwick in her foundational Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), scores of young queer literary critics in the 1990s (myself included—see the book based on my dissertation, Here is Queer) mostly sought to uncover or tease out the veiled operations of homoerotic/homosexual desire in a body of largely canonical literature, often simultaneously seeking to demonstrate how those veiled operations helped to prop up other normalizing institutions, including (as again in my analysis) the nation. More recently, however, there has been an “affective turn” in queer literary studies. Many critics are now using, among other things, the generative aspects of emotional identification not to demystify the power structures that work either to constrain or enable the successful resolution of individual sexual object choice within a given text, but rather to find new, perhaps as yet unnamed, objects and choices and desires that emerge from the feelings (including negative feelings) incited within and transmitted between the groups or subcultures reading that text. Needless to say, it was Sedgwick herself who inaugurated this turn, with her work on Silvan Tomkins (see Shame and Her Sisters, coedited with my colleague at UBC, Adam Frank), and with her call (in, for example, the introduction to Novel Gazing [1997]) for more “reparative” reading practices among queer literary critics. It is only fitting, then, that in Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (2007), an award-winning text written as both a response and homage to Sedgwick, Sharon Marcus labels her method of analyzing companionate female relationships in novels by Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte “just reading,” attending to the overt surface details of plot and character rather than the covert ideologies governing narrative closure. To allude to Sedgwick’s most famous book, it would seem that queer literary and cultural criticism can finally dispense with the closet altogether.

At her death Sedgwick was working on a study of Proust, for whom she had long held an abiding affection, and whose work she had dealt with so perceptively in the opening sections of Epistemology of the Closet (1990). Coincidentally, I am reading Proust right now. It was one of my sabbatical goals to finally make it all the way through La recherche, and I'm currently on Volume 10 of 12, with the Baron de Charlus about to suffer a horrible social humiliation at the hands of the Verdurins, and Marcel worried and vexed about the exact nature of Albertine’s relationship with Vinteuil’s daughter and her “friend.” Inversion everywhere he looks! I shall read the final volumes thinking of Eve, and her wonderful, generous, and pioneering work.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Theatre and Film, or, E-Motion

It’s the end of a long week, during which I’ve been rather consumed by various other writing projects. But I did want to post something here—in haste, alas—to urge local readers of this blog (are there any?) to attend Electric Company Theatre’s special presentation of Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge, at the Vancouver Playhouse until the 18th of this month. The play was a hit in 2006, as part of a co-production between ECT, the PuSh Festival, and Theatre at UBC. It’s since been completely retooled, featuring a revised script by Kevin Kerr, direction by Kim Collier, choreography by Crystal Pite, and scenography by Robert Gardiner. Andrew Wheeler stars as Muybridge, and the always wonderful and eminently watchable Jonathon Young, a co-founder, along with Kerr and Collier, of ECT, appears in a variety of key roles, including Muybridge’s colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, the painter Thomas Eakins, and the man who cuckolds and is eventually killed by Muybridge, Henry Larkyns.

This last detail gives you a sense of the structure of the play, which weaves the story of Muybridge’s pioneering photographic investigations into animal locomotion—which began, at the behest of industrialist and California Governor Leland Stanford, as a way of settling a bet about whether all four hooves of a racehorse ever come off the ground at the same time (they do), and which eventually resulted in him completing an exhaustive catalogue of animal (including human) movement at U Penn—with the scandal of his earlier personal life in San Francisco that he is trying to leave behind. There he met and married the much younger, and previously divorced, Flora, whose subsequent affair with Larkyns (and, it’s suggested, Muybridge’s discovery that the son he thought his—the magnificently named Florado Helios—is actually his rival’s), prompted Muybridge to shoot and kill him. At the ensuing trial, Muybridge entered a plea of insanity, though in the end the jury acquitted him, labeling his crime justifiable homicide. However, Muybridge remained haunted by Flora (who died shortly thereafter) for the rest of his life, as well as by his decision to place Florado in an orphanage. The biography certainly contains a wealth of dramatic material, but at points in this production (which could be streamlined and faster-paced in sections) it felt that, as both psychological motivation and dramaturgical counterpoint, it overwhelmed the scenes of Muybridge’s photographic experiments that comprise the other half of the play.

This is where all of the collaborators in the piece are really allowed to take imaginative flight, with the process by which Muybridge used multiple cameras to “stop time” and “instantly” capture a range of movements—as well as how he “stage managed” the subjects who made those movements—wonderfully evoked in Pite’s movement sequences and especially Gardiner’s stunning projections and lighting decisions (I’m assuming Gardiner was in charge of these decisions, as no separate lighting designer is listed in the program). Here we have not just photography, but early cinema, come to life on the stage. (There’s a magnificent scene, for example, in which Muybridge demonstrates his invention of the zoopraxiscope, an early device for projecting “motion” pictures that predates the invention of celluloid film, to his young assistant, Blanche. It lasts but a flash, but it takes your breath away.) And we have it come to life in a way that reveals the beauty of all human and animal forms, the nudity that was an essential component of Muybridge’s published plates of male and female locomotion here rendered in a way that is the exact opposite of gratuitous. It is, rather, completely warranted.

Still, a part of me wished that Muybridge’s influence on the development of the new medium of film had been emphasized a bit more in the play. Not to detract in any way from the amazing theatricality and visuality of the piece as it currently exists. Rather, I say this for purely selfish reasons. I will be teaching a course in the fall that will deal partly with the relationship between film and theatre (including the use of film and video in contemporary theatre), and have programmed Studies in Motion as part of the syllabus. Not having seen the play, I had perhaps “projected” a bit too much of my own thinking in connection with the course’s various topics onto the play. That said, I still intend to teach the play, and hope that I can coax some of its creators into the classroom to discuss its development. Here, for those who might be interested, is the course description as I’ve currently conceived it:

Filmed Theatre, Theatre and Film, Film in Theatre

Since its invention, film has had a special relationship to theatre. The historical, theoretical, performative, and technological dimensions of that relationship are the subjects of this course. First, we will look at early international cinema, noting the extent to which it borrowed from theatre not only in terms of narrative content, but also in terms of aesthetic form, incorporating proscenium framing, pictorialist staging, and vaudeville attractions into its mise-en-scène. We will also discuss how advances in film technology (including the mobile camera, rear-screen projection, montage editing, and the introduction of sound) gradually altered the aesthetic and ideological relationship between film and theatre. We will then apply these preliminary findings, as well as readings by critics and artists like André Bazin, Walter Benjamin, Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, Tom Gunning, Stanley Kauffmann, and Susan Sontag, to two cross-media case studies: a discussion of Samuel Beckett’s sole contribution to the cinema, Film (1966), starring Buster Keaton, alongside his contemporaneous theatrical short, Play, in a filmed version directed by Anthony Minghella; and a review of the historical trade between Broadway and Hollywood via the genre of the musical. Sticking momentarily with this narrower national focus, we will next examine the stage-to-screen collaborations and stage-versus-screen excoriations and exculpations of three giants of theatre and film in 1950s America: Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Miller. Closely analyzing A Streetcar Named Desire, The Crucible, and On the Waterfront, we will raise questions of authorship/auteurship, liveness and mediation, spectatorship and audience formation; we will also discuss style’s connection to politics via the new Muscovite acting “method” exported from New York to LA by Marlon Brando, and the taint of communism that inevitably followed. Finally, we will conclude by investigating how different avant-garde and experimental theatre companies such as The Wooster Group, Forced Entertainment, and Vancouver’s own Electric Company Theatre have increasingly sought to incorporate film, video, and new media technologies into their dramaturgy. This will coincide with the local staging of a new work by one of the masters of this kind of intermediality, Robert Lepage.

And here is a promotional clip for Studies in Motion. Walk, run, or ride to the Playhouse to see it.