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.


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