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.


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