Saturday, May 23, 2009

Berlin Falling

This November (the 9th, to be precise) marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember watching live television coverage with my roommates in our apartment on Spadina Circle, during my final year as an undergraduate at U of T. I don’t know what’s more frightening: how much the world’s changed, or how much I’ve aged, in the interim. Certainly the city of Berlin has itself undergone a phenomenal transformation since 1989, perhaps nowhere more evident than in its gleaming new Potsdamer Platz, dominated by its huge Sony building and expansive new boulevards, leading to the Reichstag and connecting east and west. But for a few random slabs preserved for the tourists, the inlaid cobblestones denoting the path it followed, and the hawkers selling souvenir kitsch, one would be hard pressed to imagine the no man’s land of weeds and barbed wire this area once was.

It’s hard not to feel the weight of history in Berlin. Take, for example, that date of November 9th. It’s also the anniversary of the end of the 1848 Revolution, when King Friedrich Wilhelm marched his troops back into Berlin and suspended the National Assembly. On November 9th, 1918, FW’s brother, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, leading to the end of WW I, and the establishment of the Weimar Republic. Five years later, in Munich, Adolf Hitler attempted his Beer Hall Putsch on November 9, 1923. And, finally, on that day in 1938, Hitler’s followers carried out the Kristallnacht pogroms.

Speaking of important dates in German history, I am writing this (May 23, 2009) on the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Bundesrepublik, or Federal Republic of Germany (what was formerly West Germany). Big celebrations are planned later today outside Branderburger Gate. I hope to catch some of the festivities.

The Germans have a big long compound noun to refer to the country’s coming to grips with its past: it’s called Vergangenheitbeswältigung. It’s used most often in the context of the Nazi era and the horrors of the Holocaust. But it can be applied to virtually any era of German history. Starting with the Prussian monarchy, and that regime’s weird mix of militarism and aestheticism. We have been in Potsdam for the past few days, where Richard is attending a conference. Left on my own, I have been exploring Frederick the Great’s rococo architectural excesses at Sans Souci and the adjacent Neue Palais. When not launching military campaigns against Austria or Russia, the Francophile Frederick had rather refined artistic tastes (a friend of Voltaire’s, he was also a composer of some repute, and a great patron of German arts and crafts, particularly in the areas of porcelain and marquetry).

But mostly I have been boarding the train and heading back into Berlin, where everywhere one turns, one sees visible traces of Germany’s troubled past, especially its bloody 20th century: from the plaque that marks the spot where Rosa Luxembourg’s body was found floating in the Landwehr Canal; to Eisenmann’s Holocaust memorial and Liebskind’s Jewish Museum (the one seeming to respond to the other); to the fragments of the wall that remain to remind us of how recently the Cold War ended (if, indeed, it has ended at all).

The divisions between east and west Berlin remain evident (architecturally, economically, socially, etc.), and there’s nothing like walking through Prenzlauerberg, Friedrichshain, and Kreuzberg to get a sense—notwithstanding the inevitable inroads of gentrification—of the politics of place in Berlin. Start at the Fernsehturm, the giant TV tower in Alexanderplatz (unrecognizable, thanks to Erich Honecker, from the descriptions of Döblin, or the images of Fassbinder), and walk south-east along Karl-Marx Strasse to the edge of Friedrichshain (now the artsy, bohemian centre of the city, it seems), and you’ll see what I mean.

Performance-wise, I fulfilled my one desired goal in coming to Berlin—to see something by Brecht at the home of the Berliner Ensemble, the baroque theatrical pile in Mitte, on the north side of the Spree, that Bert and Helene made their own in 1954, following their return to the city five years earlier. We chose well: Robert Wilson’s production of Brecht and Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper. It helped, of course, that we already knew the story. We could thus relax about not catching all of the German (very little, in fact, despite the language classes we took this spring), and concentrate instead on Wilson’s wonderfully minimalist/expressionist staging, and the magnificent performances and voices of the leads (particularly the women: Polly, Jenny, Mrs. Peachum, and Lucy). I’m still too overwhelmed to dissect it fully, so the following photo will have to suffice.

An interesting irony re the Brecht show: down the street, Mel Brooks’ musical confection, The Producers, with its parody of a musical-within-a-musical, Springtime for Hitler, has just opened at the Admirals Palast. The news has been filled with all sorts of stories about what this signals about German Vergangenheitbeswältigung: is an embracing of a comic satire that deals with Nazis and the Holocaust a sign that historical expatiation has finally been achieved? Perhaps a partial answer to this question can be found in the fact that on the banners used to promote the production, and meant to represent Nazi heraldry, pretzels have been substituted where normally one would find swastikas. This because of a still-in-effect constitutional ban (dating to 1946) on the public display of the symbol in the country.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

London Calling, Part 2

Storefronts may be abandoned, to let signs may be more prevalent, restaurants may be offering set meals at discounted prices, and the British pound is certainly in the toilet (benefitting us colonials for once). But London's cultural industries still seem to be going strong, and this past week has been a bonanza of gallery- and museum-hopping and theatre- and dance-going.

We started at the newly renovated and recently reopened Whitechapel Gallery, in the east end. Now with seven major exhibition spaces spread over three floors, a 100-seat auditorium, a superb new restaurant with lots of vegetarian options in the former library (which has been moved upstairs), and a very finely stocked bookshop (where I picked up two titles on aesthetics and politics--by Nicolas Bourriaud and Paul Rancière, respectively--that I am in need of for a directed reading course on performance and the social this summer), the gallery should become a preferred destination for artophiles.

The main show currently on view at the Whitechapel is a major retrospective of the German installation artist Isa Genzken called Open, Sesame! Having been trained primarily as a sculptor, Genzken creates immersive environments that mix painting, photography, cast and found objects, and assemblage into architectural comments (see photo below) on consumer culture, built spaces, industrial immanence, and souvenir memories. It was my first encounter with her work, and I was deeply impressed by both her intellect and her wit.

I was also quite taken with a series of three short films by the Austrian avant-garde feminist filmmaker Ursula Mayer--also on an architectural theme. Each film takes as its organizing conceit a gendered encounter with different modernist spaces, two of which are located in the London area and which, as it turns out, Richard and I have visited. In Interiors (2006), two patrician-looking blonde women--one young, one older--wander about the great Willow Road house in Hampstead designed by the Hungarian-born architect Erno Goldfinger in the late 1930s for he and his wife, Ursula, in part to showcase their stunning art collection. The women ascend and descend the main spiral staircase of the house and wander about its various rooms. But they never meet. Nor do they speak. Instead, they interact with various bits of furniture and artistic objects in each room, especially a well-known sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, which in its shape and rotation seems to be Mayer's dual metonym or syntagma for female life cycles and the occupation/creation of feminine space. Certainly the film, in its formal austerity and compositional beauty, is the polar opposite of Woody Allen doing Ingmar Bergman. 

The second film by Mayer, The Crystal Gaze (2007), takes place in one opulently mirrored and wood-paneled room in the art deco Eltham Palace, originally given to Edward II in 1305, and eventually remodeled in its current style by Stephen Cortauld (younger brother of Samuel, who founded the Courtauld Institute) in the 1930s. Mayer films three impossibly thin and gorgeous women, dressed in elegant 20s and 30s era period dress, moving about languidly from divan to dressing table to staircase, each carrying on a one-sided conversation about memory, desire, and artifice. I detected a definite Sapphic theme to the piece, and, indeed, one of the women, in her appearance, put me in mind of Una Troubridge (sans monocle), fabled lover of Radclyffe Hall. The way Mayer shoots this particular actress--often through angled shots reflected in mirrors (see below)--is simply stunning.

Finally, the most recent film by Mayer that forms part of this series is called Fur/Le déjeuner en fourrure (2008). It takes place inside and outside a house I did not recognize, and which is not identified in any of the promotional material. This time the three actresses in the film are playing real historical figures, in this case Picasso's muse, Dora Maar, the Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim (her famous furred tea cup--which undoubtedly gives the film its title--appears in several key shots), and the African-American singer and dancer who charmed 1920s Paris, Josephine Baker. The women talk--in English and French--about their respective influences on the avant-garde movements of the day in France, all the while walking about the house fingering various objects.

Cumulatively, the films by Mayer left me transfixed, and were a definite highlight of an already wonderful re-encounter with the renovated Whitechapel.

There were other shows, of course: one on the global reach of the Baroque movement and style at the V & A; Russian Constructivism and Roni Horn at the Tate Modern; Utagawa Kuniyoshi's 19th-century Floating World prints at the Royal Academy; a so-so show on sound at the ICA; and a very focused look at photography and Italian modernist architecture pre- and post-WW II at one of my favourite bijou museums, the Estorick Collection in Islington.

Two stand-out shows featured the German artist Gerhard Richter, former husband, it turns out, of Isa Genzken. Richter, perhaps the foremost living painter, is known for his photo-realist work in the medium. So it should come as no surprise that he is included in a show at the Photographers' Gallery, on the tucked-away Ramilies Street (just off Oxford Circus), called The Photographic Object. Richter's contribution is a series of his Overpainted Photographs, in which he applies acrylic and/or oil paint--sometimes lightly, sometimes in thick, broad strokes--to various black and white photos of cities, objects, and people. As this brief description of Richter's work here suggests, the overall concept for this group show is a concern with the borderlines between two and three dimensions, between different artistic media (including photography, painting, sculpture, film, and installation), and between representational reproducibility and its (in)visible materiality. Also a standout in this regard was the work of Wolfgang Tillmans and Catherine Yates.

Despite its hyper-realism, Richter's work is all about the inaccessibility of meaning, of ever penetrating beyond the surface of things. Hence his attraction to the photograph, which in its mechanical reproduction produces, according to Richter "the most perfect picture," at once recognizable and anonymous. From the beginning of his career in the early 1960s, Richter has applied this principle to a series of portraits he has created from found and personal photographs. The National Portrait Gallery has gathered a selection of these works into a stunning solo show called Gerhard Richter: Portraits. The paintings, some of friends and family, others of famous people in the news (including Jackie Kennedy at the time of JFK's assassination), are about the relations between individuals, and our own perceptual interpretations of those relations. As if to emphasize, again, the inevitable failure or partiality of such interpretations, the paintings are often blurred (see below), as if the photos upon which they were based were themselves out of focus. Or else the subjects are depicted from an odd angle, even from behind (as in Richter's portraits of Genzken). Gazes are averted repeatedly, further emphasizing the inaccessibility of the private worlds the subjects occupy.

In terms of live performance, there emerged something of a Russian theme. First up was Burnt by the Sun at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton stage (see the promotional image below). Adapted by playwright Peter Flannery from the 1994 Oscar-winning film by Nikita Mikhalkov, the play is set in the Russian countryside during the summer of 1936, just at the start of Stalin’s brutal purges. General Kotov (Ciarán Hinds), a legendary hero of the Bolshevik Revolution, has gathered with his wife Maroussia (Michelle Dockery), their daughter Nadia, and Maroussia’s extended White Russian family at the dacha that had been in their hands for generations, and that they now rent back from the state owing to the intercession of Kotov. The wistful reminiscences of the elder family members of their pre-Revolutionary life—filled with music and literature and fine food and lots of joyous frolic—brings to mind Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. But it is the appearance of an old flame of Maroussia, Mitia (an engaging Rory Kinnear), as well as the two guns that go off in the second act (as per Anton’s famous dictum), that signals that Burnt by the Sun is mainly concerned with the imminent and seemingly inevitable changes to the Russian feudal way of life that Chekhov so brilliantly telegraphed for his audiences.

For Mitia, who fought in the White Russian army during the Revolution, has since been recruited (by Kotov, no less, who gave him an impossible choice and who may have had an ulterior motive in claiming Maroussia for himself) to the secret police. And he has returned home because his old nemesis, Kotov—still a decorated and upstanding member of the Communist army—has somehow run afoul of his beloved Comrade Stalin, and now faces a devastating personal choice of his own: confess to crimes against the state that he did not commit and almost surely face a firing squad; or die with his pride and integrity in tact, but risk the lives of his wife and child as well.

A large ensemble play with superb performances all around (especially from the three leads), taut direction from Howard Davies, and a wonderful revolving set by Vicki Mortimer, the show was just the right mix of sexual tension and political intrigue. And, despite its historical subject matter, it read like a timely comment on the current state of affairs in Russia under the ever-watchful eye and iron fist of Vladimir Putin.

Next, we attended a performance of the Young Vic/Sadler’s Wells co-production of Pictures from an Exhibition, a dance-theatre collaboration between director Daniel Kramer, poet James Fenton, and choreographer Franke Requarat. The piece was an eye-popping and surreal biographical interpretation of the life of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), who composed his 10-part piano suite of the same name in 1874 as an elegy for his friend, the architect Victor Hartmann, who had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm the previous year. Mussorgsky himself would soon be dead from alcoholism, and the production takes as its dramaturgical point of departure the hallucinatory demons that might have visited Modest during his vodka- and grief-induced compositional delirium. There are dancing serpents, bears, and chickens (see below), a recurring egg motif (which I never quite figured out, but which seemed to be tied to both life and death, not to mention creative inspiration—and desperation), a somewhat over-protective mother, and the ever-present ghost of Victor, whom it’s suggested poor, tormented Modest was in love with.

The production was visually stunning, the acting and dancing purposeful and energetic, and the live music by pianist Carl Joseph especially captivating. But one got the sense in places that the creative team was trying just a bit too hard to shock, and not all of the images or set pieces quite worked.

Finally, the Rambert Dance Company was presenting a new program at Sadler’s Wells, for which we managed to secure some last-minute tickets. Rambert is one of the oldest and most respected contemporary dance companies in Britain, founded by the redoubtable Marie Rambert (1888-1982), who worked with Serge Diaghilev, Vaslav Nijinsky, and the Ballets Russes on The Rite of Spring. Thus the Russian connection.

Rambert was premiering two new pieces, the first called Hush, and choreographed by Christopher Bruce to music by Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. A contemporary story ballet centred around a family of harlequins/circus performers (mother and father, two sons, and two daughters), the piece was a moving exploration of the ties that bind and, at times, constrain. Youthful rivalries and strivings for individual expression (all of the children are given dynamic solos) are played out against the backdrop of the parents’ own longings and desires (for each other, for themselves, and also for the various members of their brood), who are given a lush and romantic duet while the children sleep. All six dancers where uniformly excellent, and the musicality of Bruce’s choreography was exceptional.

The second premiere was Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili’s A Linha Curva, a raucous blend of salsa, copeira, martial arts, and contemporary dance for a massive cast of 36 dancers (the company had to recruit extra members from among its student ranks) that also features a live percussion band on stage. A feast for the eyes and ears, and among the sexiest and most joyous expressions of dance that I have seen in a long time, it brought the house down.

The third piece in this mixed program was also a large ensemble display of fast-paced movement (punctuated by a tender, mostly horizontal and floor-based pas de deux in the middle) called Scribblings, choreographed by Doug Varone and set to music by contemporary composer John Adam (performed live by Rambert’s resident musical partners, London Musici).

All in all, a wealth of art and culture to chase away the worst recessionary blues. I’m typing this in Heathrow airport. Now it’s off to Berlin, where much history—and, of course, Brecht—awaits.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

London Calling, Part 1

I'm currently in London, and in between my own lecture commitments and rushing about madly to take in as many art shows and theatrical performances as possible (the subject of my next post), I've been looking for visible signs of the economic downturn on the country Gordon Brown and the Labour Party seem daily to be ceding more and more control of. The latest scandal--which crosses party lines, admittedly--is MPs' gross abuses of their parliamentary expense plans, paying down private mortgages, purchasing flats for their university-age daughters, adorning their bathrooms with gold-plated toilet seats, and the like. And all courtesy of taxpayers' hard-earned quid, as the daily UK tabloids like to remind us. Not the most endearing headlines during a recession.

A recent editorial in the Times actually laid much of the blame for the expenses scandal at the feet of Margaret Thatcher, who instead of raising MPs' quite meager salaries in the recessionary 80s (fearing a similar public outcry), encouraged them to supplement their incomes through Parliament's generous claim process. Indeed, part of the feeding frenzy around the current scandal does seem to be tied to a certain amount of collective, and retrospective, soul-searching on the part of Britons of all political stripes and social classes concerning the 30th anniversary of the Iron Lady's historic ascent to power in 1979. Everyone is assessing her legacy, not least in terms of New Labour's own current crisis of identity as it appears to face imminent defeat in the next general election, and as the internal finger-pointing begins regarding the sacrifice of core Labour principles and policies in the party's adaptation of Thatcher's neo-conservative, winner-takes-all economics into the softer balm of neo-liberalism, where the trickle down effect would seem to have more measurable (and visible) indices. Not that that's much consolation to the millions of unemployed across the UK, and one wonders what the Baroness, in her lucid moments, thinks of Brown--the person who absorbed her lessons only too well--nationalizing the country's banking system. She may not be for turning, but the economic and social revolution she inaugurated sure seems to be.

On this trip I've also been thinking a lot about Thatcher's legacy in relation to local politics in British Columbia. This in part stems from my desolation at the election results this past Tuesday, which saw Campbell and the Liberals being returned to a third consecutive majority. Needless to say, there were no Greens elected, and our own riding of Vancouver-Fairview, having been represented by the NDP since the last election (first by Gregor Robertson, and then by Jenn McGinn, who recently won a by-election following Robertson's departure to run for Mayor of Vancouver), went back to the Liberals this time around. The referendum on the proposed switch to a proportional voting system was also soundly rejected. In other words, same old, same old. While defections from the NDP to the Greens from core voters angry over their stance on the carbon tax (like me) may have had some role to play in key ridings where the Liberals were able to capitalize on a split vote on the left, I see in the maintenance of the status quo of BC's current right-wing agenda, a connection to UK politics past and present via the bloody Olympics.

The historical connection concerns the former Social Credit Party of BC, who modeled their vast privitization of provincial lands in the 1980s directly on the blueprint established by Thatcher. The key moment here was of course the selling of the Expo 86 lands to Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing's Concord Pacific development corporation, which has resulted in a massive change to Vancouver's skyline, and a form of property enclosure that has contributed directly to the social and economic woes of the Downtown East Side. In the wake of the Social Credit's political self-immolation (much like the UK Tories following their forcing of Thatcher to step down as leader), the once negligible Liberals of BC stepped in to fill the void on the province's political right, and with Campbell renewed for a third term as Premier, the province is poised to repeat the mistakes of Expo 86 in relation to the upcoming 2010 Olympics. 

In this context, I won't go on about the beleaguered Athletes' Village yet again--except to say that it provides a further connection to current UK politics. For in The Telegraph the other day (all that was available at the breakfast table where we're staying, I swear) it was announced that the Brown government was poised to raid its contingency coffers yet again to bail out the similarly over-budget and behind schedule Athletes' Village for the 2012 London Summer Olympics. This because, as in Vancouver, the Olympic Development Corporation's private partner was unable to secure further financing in the current economic climate. Moreover, as with Vancouver this past winter, talk was of the British government assuming full control of the project, leaving London taxpayers' on the hook for the whole of the billion-dollar mega-project. 

Despite this, London Mayor Boris Johnson ("a total twat," as our friend Cathy calls him) remains upbeat, stating in a recent Time Out London interview assessing his first year in office that the Olympics will be a success, and that now more than ever the city needs the spin-off projects, development energy, and general goodwill and pride of place that the Games will no doubt bring. 

I wonder if out-of-work punters from Shoreditch feel the same way? I wonder, too, if BC's citizens know what they've gotten themselves in to in re-electing Campbell and cronies? As with the fall-out from the Thatcher years, it may take several decades to answer such questions.


Friday, May 8, 2009

Choreographing Norman

In Montreal last night I attended lemieux.pilon 4d art’s presentation of Norman, their homage to legendary National Film Board of Canada auteur Norman McLaren, at Place des Arts’ Cinquième Salle. A collaboration with dancer/choreographer Peter Trosztmer, the piece takes as its point of departure McLaren’s lifelong love of dance, and his likening of his filmmaking process—and legendary animation techniques, in particular—to the movement associated with dance.

McLaren himself studied dance in his native Scotland, met his lifelong partner, Guy Clover, at the ballet, and in one form or another would always consider himself a choreographer for the cinema. From his earliest scratches on celluloid to his two great dance films, Pas de deux (1967) and Narcissus (1983; which I remember seeing in high school, and which if I didn’t already know it by then, surely proved to me once and for all that I was gay), McLaren was all about achieving through stop-motion and the scratching of film what Eisenstein accomplished through sped-up montage and his cutting of film. While, to be sure, there is an important acoustic element to McLaren’s films, with his scratches precisely positioned to create various rhythmic beats, and with music always integral to the reception of his images, there is perhaps no better metaphor for his oeuvre than that of a great filmic ballet, and I can think of no better tribute to his work than this stunning multi-disciplinary, multi-media, and multi-sensory work.

Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon are known for their own brilliant visual effects, their incorporation of the latest new media technologies into their mise-en-scène, and especially their use of scrimless holographic projections. In Norman the latter take two forms. First, Trosztmer, who, according to the organizing conceit of the piece, is researching McLaren’s life and work at the NFB archives, beams up for us from his cell phone various images of his interview subjects: former co-workers and collaborators of McLaren; other filmmakers and critics familiar with his work (including my friend Tom Waugh, who teaches films studies at Concordia); and so on. Impressive as this Star Trek technology is, it is Lemieux and Pilon’s magical holographic conjuring of classic imagery from McLaren’s most iconic films—both animated and live action—and Trosztmer’s equally magical interactive dancing with this imagery that really takes one’s breath away, and provides the piece with its heart and soul (see the above video excerpt for examples of both sorts of projection).

For, as much as the show relies on state-of-the-art technology to achieve its theatricality, it also provides as the ground for that theatrical expression the body of a live solo performer on stage. It is, after all, Trosztmer’s charisma as a performer, and his graceful fluidity in the languages of dance and theatre (not to mention French and English), that quite literally brings McLaren’s filmic language “alive” on stage. This is a reminder, as well, that McLaren, who could sometimes veer off into pure abstraction and get caught up in his own self-reflexive immersion in the medium, was often at his best and most affecting when he placed himself at the centre of his work. Indeed, some of my favourite moments in Norman come from Trosztmer interacting with McLaren’s own holographic image on stage, as in the brilliant choreography created to the footage from A Chairy Tale (1957), or in the very moving images taken from McLaren’s last film, a home movie of him dancing in his garden.

Thanks, Sylvain, for alerting me to the return Montreal engagement of this wonderful mixed-media show. I’ll do my best to see that it eventually finds its way to Vancouver.


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Performance on the Move

Just a quick post to say that the blog is on the move for the next few weeks. Presently I am in Ottawa, having just finished attending a conference on Canadian literature and film. The event, superbly organized by David Jarraway, from the Department of English at the University of Ottawa, has kept us pretty busy debating the aesthetic, ideological, and institutional exchanges between the two media. But, arriving a day early, I did manage to sneak in some performance.

Ironically (or not), just as Ottawa has headed west to crown Michael Ignatieff the new leader of the Liberal party, it seems that virtually all of BC’s cultural producers have come here for the National Arts Centre’s BC Scene, two weeks of theatre, dance, music, and visual art showcasing the best the province has to offer. Unfortunately, I missed both the premiere of Crystal Pite and Kidd Pivot’s new full-length dance piece, Dark Matters (which, mercifully, will receive its Vancouver premiere later next spring), and Theatre Replacement’s remount of its hit Bioboxes, which I have still not seen. However, I was able to catch Dances for a Small Stage at the NAC’s Fourth Stage on Thursday evening, and it did not disappoint.

Dances for a Small Stage, produced by Vancouver’s MovEnt and co-directors Day Helesic and Julie-anne Saroyan, is now, after seven years, a dance institution in Vancouver, regularly selling out its bi-annual programs. The concept is simple: invite the best local (and, occasionally, visiting) dancers and choreographers to present new work on a small stage in a cabaret-style setting. It’s up close and personal, but also relaxed and supportive, and performers and audiences feed off each other in a way that it only seems appropriate to call kin-aesthetic. The dancers challenge themselves, and also each other, but they’re quite clearly having lots of fun as well, not to mention testing out work in progress. And the audience, especially those in the front rows, sees every striving and exertion, every delicately placed foot or extended pinky, every bead of sweat. The atmosphere is electric.

On Thursday I was front row centre at the NAC, closer than I’ve ever been in Vancouver. Eight dancer-choreographers were on the program, all of them well-known back home. Amber Funk Barton started things off in her cheekily inimitable way with a fierce and angular movement-provocation to Robin Thicke’s Dreamworld. Every pose, every gesture was a challenge, a dare both to the audience and, presumably, an invisible beloved, to try and knock Amber down from her perch. The way Barton plants a leg and raises a butt cheek is enough to slay any audience.

I won’t go into all the pieces, but did want to mention Noam Gagnon, of Holy Body Tattoo fame (and an Associate Dance Artist of the NAC). Gagnon is the Iggy Pop of Vancouver dance, complete with the impossibly lean, wiry, heroin chic-style body and eyeliner. His solo work is always intensely accelerative, a series of controlled spasms that move outward from a vertical standing position to consume his body and to fling it through space with incredible abandon and force. Unfold Me was just that, a gradual letting loose of a coiled spring that seemed to start in Gagnon’s cutely pierced belly button, and flowed upwards and outwards from there, until by the end Gagnon was a collapsed, quivering—and very sweaty—heap on the floor.

Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, about whose work I blogged in my last post, gave us a taste of her work-in-progress, Melissa, a dance-theatre piece that seems to be focused around an ambitious youth leader/cheerleader at a Bible camp who has serious sex issues. It was hilarious, and Friedenberg is a magnetic performer. Cori Caulfield transfixed me with the controlled shimmying of her hips; Chengxin Wei moved me with his quiet arm extensions; and Shay Kuebler took my breath away with the way he threw his body through space. In short, it was a highly successful evening, and showcased Vancouver’s excellent dance scene to great effect.

I also managed to take in two visual art exhibitions at the National Art Gallery connected to BC Scene. One was called Nomads, which was most memorable for Geoffrey Farmer’s large-scale cut-out/puppet installation. Then there was Scott McFarland’s Cultivated Landscapes, which showcased his stunning docudrama photographs exploring the nature/culture dialectic in various “manufactured” settings.

Okay, that’s all for now, I think. I’m off to Montreal next. Unfortunately, Robert Lepage’s Le dragon bleu is sold out. But I did manage to secure a ticket to the remount of Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon’s (of 4D art fame) dance-theatre-mixed media piece Norman, which I missed the last time I was through the city. And, of course, the Montreal Biennale is on. After that it’s London and Berlin, where much more performance (and, undoubtedly, politics) is in store. Stay tuned.