Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dancing the City

Rob Kitsos's Wake, which premiered last night at The Dance Centre, and which runs for two more performances today (at 2 and 8 pm), is exactly the kind of dance theatre I most enjoy. It is a large-scale work for eight dancers (including Kitsos in a dual embodied and virtual role as choreographer/planner and metteur-en-scène) that combines movement, text, video, and live electroacoustic music (by composer Martin Gotfrit) in a wholly integrated and complementary way. Equally appealing to me is that the piece achieves a similar reciprocity in the compositional and aesthetic relationship between individual sequences of choreography (often challengingly abstract, technically complex, and intensely physical) and an overall narrative structure that neither reveals its meaning too willingly nor remains deliberately obscurantist.

Kitsos takes as his point of departure French philosopher Michel de Certeau's essay "Walking the City," in The Practice of Everyday Life, using the "urban 'text'" we all collectively write in our flânerie to explore both the spaces of connection and the distances between various bodies as they inhabit and interact with the built environment. How do you capture and represent what de Certeau calls "the activity of passers-by," when by its very nature that activity is meant to be fleeting, to not linger (passing by), to leave a trace only in its forgetting? Sounds like a perfect metaphor for the documentation of dance itself, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Wake opens with Rob Groeneboer's video capturing Kitsos in the guise of some sort of city planner, atop a downtown building, with various plans and blueprints spread out around him. Coincident with Kitsos's structured improvisation of a movement sequence atop the building on the video, the seven young live dancers (Cort Gerlock, Jane Osborne, Roxoliana Prus, Justin Reist, Olivia Shaffer, Kim Stevenson, and Leigha Wald--all graduates of the BFA Program in Dance at SFU, where Kitsos teaches) get up from the chairs on which they have been sitting along either wing, and take up recumbent positions on the floor. Eventually the dancers "wake" to the city, and one of the delights of the first in-sync movement sequence featuring all seven performers is how the horizontality of their floor work contrasts with the verticality of the office and residential towers captured in the montage of images in Groeneboer's video.

Thereafter, the piece proceeds in terms of a succession of movements choreographed around the dancers' own embodied relationship with the city, with various colour sequences filmed in and around Gastown becoming the basis for a reconfiguration (sometimes willful, at other times willed) of those relationships in solos and duos and trios that are all about negotiating the space between self and other (even if, as de Certeau reminds us, that other is space itself). In this regard, I was especially struck by the complex arm work and hand clasps Kitsos came up with for three of the women in one memorable sequence, finding a way to mimic in bodily gesture the tangled psychic complexity and constantly shifting terrain of friendship itself. Similarly, in a humourous pas de deux for the two men, they argue abstractly in spoken word about the best route from point A to point B as they materially enact proximity and closeness in their mutual physical striving.

In his role as planner/choreographer, Kitsos interrupts these proceedings at various points throughout the piece: via black and white sequences on the video that feature him furrowing his brow, taking notes, and eventually meeting up with someone who may be a developer or a government bureaucrat (a perfectly cast Emily Molnar) in some corporate boardroom; and via various live walk-throughs, during which he surveys and takes more notes on the performance we are witnessing. In this, we see Kitsos trying to flush out patterns, to make sense of various fragments, to render legible both the city's various intersections and the dancers' bodily intertwinings. But the city and the dancers resist easy conscription. When, for example, Kitsos improvises his own solo late in the show (to wonderful accompaniment on electric guitar by Gotfrit), attempting, it seems, to reduce what we have hitherto seen of the other dancers' bodily trajectories to one or two core repeatable phrases, those other dancers studiously avoid him, either remaining planted against either wing wall, or else, in running to the other side, going out of their way to avoid contact with Kitsos and his notebook (a prop he carries with him throughout the piece, and which he dances around during his solo). And, later, when Kitsos attempts to join the other dancers and mimic their movements at the very end, he finds he is unable to fully take part, perhaps not having paid close enough attention after all.

The dancer, like the city walker, does not easily conform to a grid.


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