Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Dark Matter of Dance Creation: Kidd Pivot at the Playhouse

In astronomy, dark matter is undetectable to the human eye, contains no atoms, and emits no electromagnetic radiation. Yet it is thought to exert a gravitational pull on visible matter. And, according to the Big Bang Theory, it is believed to make up the vast majority of our universe.

Local choreographer Crystal Pite taps into this fathomless paradox for her latest full-length dance creation for her company Kidd Pivot. Dark Matters, a co-production of Dance Victoria, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and Montreal's L'agora de la danse, played the Vancouver Playhouse last night (and the Friday before) as part of DanceHouse's second season, and as a showcase event of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad. In Pite's work, dark matter becomes a metaphor both for the unconscious and for the wellsprings--and the recesses--of creative imagination. As Pite and her dancers demonstrate in this piece--and as she herself has talked about in print in relation to her own uncertainty about where and when ideas will come to her for new work--bursts of inspirational energy can just as quickly turn to a paralyzing abyss.

The 100-minute piece is structured in two parts, with the first operating as a quasi-theatrical dumb show (and, in fact, a stage dummy does make a crucial appearance at the very end) to the more pure dance explorations of the second. To this end, the curtain opens upon a makeshift set. A man (Peter Chu) sits at a table filled with paper, cloth, scissors, thread, clearly experiencing some sort of blockage. Out of this pile he pulls two marionette legs, crafting a little dance with them centre stage. Suddenly the creative juices are flowing again and over the course of a few quick blackouts (which are used most effectively throughout the first half) we are eventually introduced to his creation, a benign-looking puppet attached to wires manipulated by the rest of the Kidd Pivot company, clad all in black like the traditional puppeteers in Bunraku theatre. Our puppet is far from benign, however, and combining references to Frankenstein, Pinocchio, Coppélia (the story by Hoffman and the ballet by Saint-Léon), The Wizard of Oz, and Freud's Ego and the Id, among other texts, Pite tells the familiar story of creature rising up against creator (as in the best of Chekhov's plays, those scissors are on stage for a reason).

Except, wily creative artist that she herself is, Pite renders the familiar strange once the inevitable climax has occurred and the puppet, having stabbed his creator/amanuensis, and with nowhere left to channel his energy, himself expires. It is at this point that the black clad supernumeraries--the literal dark matter in this show--take centre stage, their previously discrete yet no less precise manipulations of the restless puppet (and it is truly a marvel to see how Pite transposes her choreographic vocabulary onto the startlingly life-like movements of the puppet, which I can only imagine required immense rehearsal time and coordination from her dancers) now unleashed in a riot of acrobatic and martial-arts like movements as they rush about, clearly discombobulated by the acts they just witnessed and abetted. Pite is having fun here, and her cultural touchstones during these sequences are as much Spider-Man and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger as they are the high art works of Shelley and Hoffmann. All of this energy culminates in an inexorable gravitational pull being exerted on the visible matter before us on stage, i.e., the set, and when this comes crashing down--as, of course, it must--Pite literally reveals to us, in the form of the Playhouse's black back stage wall, the "invisible" scaffolding of the theatrical deus ex machina: what we take to be fate is in fact just fake (as one of her supernumerary's brandished signs reminds us).

The dummy that is tossed amid all of this detritus at the end of Act I provides the visual segue to the start of Act II, as the lights come up on a single, lonely supernumerary sprawled on the bare stage. Pite plays this role herself, at once plainly disguising and making plainly visible her own creative energies as an artist . That is, in the 55 minutes that follow, and in which we witness the rest of the company (Chu, joined by Eric Beauchesne, Yannick Matthon, Cindy Salgado, and Jermaine Spivey) "animate" her trademark choreography--which is itself all about the reanimation of bodies and/in movement--we are also witnessing (although not without careful concentration) the black-clad Pite rushing about the stage moving lights, doing things behind scrims, popping up in unexpected places (including emerging from the orchestra pit at the very lip of the stage), and finally inserting herself within the other dancers' bodily chains to provide them with an added force, or a change of direction (remember her company name has "pivot" in the title), in their deliberately uncertain movements.

Pite's work has always been intensely self-referential, and this certainly feels like her most deeply personal work, mining her own creative process to reveal to her audience the at times self-shattering stitching behind any work of art. In this regard, the piece ends with Pite, alone on stage, facing the inevitable abyss of loss (for performer and audience) that comes with the end to any show, removing her black costume and sitting down on the stage in her underwear in a single pool of light, exhausted and spent. The animator herself now needs to be reanimated, and this is the cue for Chu to return for a final very moving pas de deux in which he and Pite reciprocally exchange the roles of choreographer/dancer, puppeteer/puppet, creator/doll.

I haven't done justice to all of the other wonderful dancing in the second half of Dark Matters, but one thing I did want to reference before closing is that this piece once again fully displays how amazingly original and adept Pite is at choreographing for men, especially in group and partnering sequences. The four-man striving and collapsing routine from Lost Action is referenced here at key moments, but what lingers most with me from last night is the extraordinary partnering that takes place midway through Act II between Yannick Matthon (who also appeared in Lost Action) and Jermaine Spivey. They do things alone and together with their bodies over the course of three minutes or so that had me gaping in amazement.

All in all a truly amazing evening: despite the fact I was stuck behind a very tall man and had to lean forward for most of the performance; and despite having to negotiate the crazy Olympics crowds afterwards in our hour-long journey home. The only somewhat sour note is the news that Pite and Kidd Pivot have recently accepted a two-year residency in Frankfurt. While Pite will continue to remain connected to Vancouver and the west coast, Frankfurt is able to offer her sufficient resources to create new works and pay her dancers full-time, resources that just aren't available in the current fiscal climate in BC. This is distressing mostly for the message it sends to the world at a time when we are supposed to be showcasing our artists to the world: namely that we don't really care about our own.

How dark a matter is that?


Friday, February 26, 2010

Seeing and Being Seen at the Olympics: Going Digital in Vancouver and Beijing

Surfing the mass of bodies downtown yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, along with, Cue, the Vancouver Art Gallery's rotating program of videos being displayed outdoors on a giant screen in front of the gallery's south facade...

... some of the more adventurous visual arts programming around the Olympics is taking place in around Library Square. This includes outdoor installations overseen by the City of Vancouver's public art program, such as Ron Terada's brilliant "The Words Don't Fit the Picture," on the south plaza of the library:

Inside, the Library is playing host to the third of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad's CODE Live sites, which are showcasing digital artworks, including in this case the interactive installation "Room to Make Your Peace 2010." This collaborative work, which has been given official patronage by none other than Her Excellency, the Governor-General, involves people writing messages of peace on scraps of paper that they then craft into origami-like cones; the cones are then affixed with an LED light and sent up a pressurized air duct, shooting high into the air, before landing on a giant net strung across the Library atrium:

Even more pleasing to me, however, was the discovery of "Seen," a new work by Toronto-based digital artist David Rokeby:

Operating on the same principle as X-Rays, or infrared surveillance technology, Rokeby's work uses a hidden live camera to capture pedestrians' movements in the Library atrium, feeding the recorded images back through time-delay onto the four screens seen in the image above. In this way, Rokeby reveals to us, in a very de Certeau-like manner, the traces of our own unconscious movements and, as importantly, our interactions (and avoidances) with others.

Coincidentally, I had first come across Rokeby's work when I was in Beijing in the summer of 2008, doing research in advance of the Beijing Olympics, and attended one afternoon a groundbreaking show of international new media art curated by Zhang Ga at Beijing’s National Art Museum of China. Called Synthetic Times, and playing off BOCOG’s dedicated themes of "Hi-Tech Olympics" and "People’s Olympics," the show placed multi-media works by Chinese artists like Du Zhenjun, Xu Zhongmin, Xu Bing, Wu Juehui, and Miao Xiaochun alongside challenging and frequently interactive sound, video, digital, robotic, and computer installations, projections, sculptures, and immersive environments created by such international art world luminaries as Stelarc, Christoph Hildebrand, Edwin van der Heide, Anthony McCall, Jean-Michel Bruyère, and Mariana Rondon. Works were grouped according to four organising themes: "Beyond Body" explored technological extensions of the physical body, testing the limits of subjectivity through bio-mediation; "Emotive Digital" examined the ways in which machines and related electronic devices are becoming responsive creatures; "Recombinant Reality" sought to break down old Cartesian dualisms through mixed, virtual, and acoustic environments; and, finally, "Here, There and Everywhere" focused on how the internet, especially, functions as a kind of "planetary membrane."

In this last category, I was especially gripped by Rokeby’s "surveillance installation," "Taken." A split-screen dual projection, Rokeby’s piece uses infrared video cameras to capture and record in real-time the movements of gallery goers; these are then projected onto the orange, right hand side of the screen in overlapping twenty-second loops, a computer-generated, panoptical emplotment of all human activity in the room that is at once synchronous and sequential, as in the manner of most closed-circuit television monitors. Every now and then white boxes frame the heads of individual visitors; when this happens, the blue, left-hand side of the screen displays the faces of those singled out in close-up, adding randomly-generated text to suggest their possible states of mind while under observation ("nervous," "carried away," "hungry," "complicit"). These close-ups are in turn arranged as black and white thumbnails of the last 200 visitors to the room, and displayed at regular intervals, a taxonomy of our own self-monitoring.

And if, as curator Zhang claims in her introduction to the catalogue accompanying the show, a "new taxonomy" of the human needs to be written, then surely what Rokeby’s work suggests is that--again to quote Zhang--"the role of art is to ensure that the deliberation takes place not behind closed doors but in the recombinant arena of open space." As Zhang’s choice of sporting metaphor implies, the Olympics have provided an impetus to initiate such a dialogue in China at the same time as they have given the state an excuse to increase security and surveillance, including conscripting local citizens as part of reconstituted, Mao-era neighbourhood committees.

Not that Vancouver is exempt from such self-surveillance--and the urban paranoia it can engender--a fact I was reminded of yesterday when I got off the Canada Line at Broadway and Cambie after my foray downtown and looked up at the CCTV cameras looking down at me:


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Performing Vancouver Olympics Links

My students over at Performing Vancouver have been posting up a storm on the Olympics, including capturing a lot of amazing photos. Check out the following links by:



The Story of the Olympics So Far...

... has been mostly negative, at least to judge by the international media--especially the British tabloid press, which has already dubbed Vancouver 2010 the "worst Olympics ever."

From Georgian luger Nordal Kumaritashvili's tragic death on opening day, to criticisms of the lack of French and ethnic diversity during the Opening Ceremonies, to faulty ice-resurfacing machines in Richmond, to poor weather and cancelled tickets on Cypress Mountain, to out-of-province anarchist vandals trashing Bay storefront Windows on Granville Street, to an Olympic torch imprisoned behind chain-link fencing, to general transportation woes galore, and now a strike by restaurant workers at YVR: it seems VANOC can't catch a break.

It would be easy to sit back and nurse one's Schadenfreude if the longer term consequences for the local communities whom we were all told would benefit from Vancouver's two shining weeks in the global spotlight didn't look so grim: shops, businesses, and restaurants outside the downtown core that stand idle and empty, regular customers having been scared away by unnecessary traffic restrictions and general scare tactics about the difficulty of getting around the city; an arts community that, notwithstanding the just showcasing of the city's immense creative talent and imaginative resources during the Games, is still facing cuts of upwards of 90% in the upcoming provincial budget at the beginning of March; and community and social housing activists who have seen the grand promises to push to end homelessness made in Vancouver's Bid Book and the Inner-City Inclusiveness Statement evaporate amid cost-overruns.

Better to sit back and nurse a beer at The Candahar Bar on Granville Island (1889 Cartwright Street, 3rd Floor), which is what Richard and I did last night (taking the Olympic line trolley to get there--here's hoping that, regardless of Bombardier's claims that it wants its loaned cars returned, that's one transportation legacy that remains). A project by artist and curator Theo Sims, The Candahar Bar is a working reconstruction of a Belfast public house, complete with authentic Northern Irish bartenders pulling pints for thirsty installation participants/spectators. Produced by North Vancouver's Presentation House Gallery (in conjunction with the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad), the installation, open noon to 4 pm and 8 pm to midnight daily, coincides with a nightly line-up of artist's talks, performances, discussions, and DJing sessions programmed by my good friend and SFU English's current Writer-in-Residence, Michael Turner.

Last night was a series of music, sound, and performance art pieces called "Clamour and Toll," guest curated by the Or Gallery's Eli Bornowsky. Richard and I stayed for Christian Nicolay and Ya-chu Kang's opening "Recipe for Morning Rituals," a whimsical sound and theatrical experiment in which the performers mime waking up and doing exercises, before going on to "play various instruments and/or objects to compose the dream you just had." That was followed by Absurdus' "Strains of Liquid," a "noise experiment" that uses John Cage-like principles of indeterminacy to creative "electroacoustic conversations" between amplified violin and keyboard, digitized music via computer, and ambient sound.

All in all a most enjoyable way to block out the white noise that has become the cacophonous meta-discourse on these Olympics.

For something really worth listening to on the subject of the Olympics, check out the following conversation being launched by W2 Community Media Arts and Abandon Normal Devices tonight down on West Hastings:


Abandon Normal Devices and W2 Launch Cultural Collaboration Between Vancouver 2010 and London 2012

February 16, 2010 - Vancouver, BC - On February 18, 2009, Abandon Normal Devices (AND) and W2 will launch a four day programme constituting the only Games-time cultural collaboration between Vancouver 2010 and London 2012. The programme will feature academics, artists, producers, activists and scientists from the UK, Canada, Netherlands and the US.

The speakers will come together for debates and film screenings that consider the impact of the politics of ability and disability on the Olympics, the implications of genetically modified athletes and surgically sculpted children for the future of sport, and the connections between environmental debates and the Games.

The programme will take place at W2 Culture + Media House at 112 West Hastings on February 18th, 20th and 21st. It is produced in association with FACT, Tenantspin and Dada for Vancouver 2010 and the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad programme in England’s Northwest.

AND is an environmentally-friendly collaboration and will be entirely webcast. Some of the speakers will participate by remote video and interested audiences can participate in the live-streaming debates and discussions by visiting and selecting W2 TV.

Admission to AND is by donation. Check for a list of speakers.

Feb 18 CONTRACT: 7pm-9pm

An Olympic Games raises a number of exciting and challenging questions for a city. It proposes new spheres of investment, the redistribution of funds, inclusion and areas of exclusion, new laws that affect civil life and a vast, global media profile. How do these structures affect the obligations of citizens and institutions who become bound by collaborative contracts? And how does the scrutinization of this work by traditional and new media affect local identity and global perceptions? What can be learned from Vancouver 2010? How can this inform London 2012? How is work by artists contributing to urban city and citizenship development?

Feb 20 COMPETE: Faster, Higher, Stronger 4:30pm-8:30pm

The Olympic Games are measures of human excellence but what happens when those measures are disrupted by self-augmentation and body modification? Our biological apparatus is in flux, vulnerable, yet re-imagined by technology. What will ability and disability mean in an era of genetically modified athletes and surgically sculpted children? How are artists contributing to this research and debate? For example, genetically screening for ‘perfect pitch’ may produce ideal singers, but whose ideal? Alternatively, what will the integration of future technology within biology mean for how humans communicate with each other via performances (dance, music or sport)?

Feb 21 INFECT: Environment, Pollution, Resilience 7pm-9pm

The third Olympic pillar after sport and culture is the ‘environment’. Yet, the 21st century environment is characterized by debates about climate change, pollution, global warming and new forms of disease. Our desire to transcend our biology is inextricable from the complex ways in which our own resilience can be suddenly brought into question, as manifested by the ‘swine flu’ pandemic, itself a new(s) virus. Can humanity be ‘fixed’ or are utopian projects merely processes of normality maintenance? How does artistic research engage with and inform the health, wellbeing and environmental agenda?

AND, which is based in England's Northwest, is a cross-regional festival of New Cinema and Digital Culture. It is part of the cultural legacy project of the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. AND exists to create a space where artists and filmmakers can offer striking new perspectives, and visitors can enjoy, discuss and interact with ideas, in a festival that questions the normal and champions a different approach.

W2 Community Media Arts is a highly anticipated project opening in 2010 at the landmark Woodward’s redevelopment in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. In the lead-up to opening, W2 is operating the 13,000 sq ft W2 Culture + Media House across the street at 112 W Hastings. W2 provides a vibrant and complementary focal point in the redevelopment of Woodward’s and acts as a catalyst in the revitalization of the Vancouver Downtown Eastside by emphasizing the development capacity by and for DTES residents.

An overview of W2 Culture+Media House is covered by City of Vancouver's Snap 2010 Stories seen here:

For more information, please contact Irwin Oostinde, Executive Director of W2 at 604.689.9896, 1.877.689.9896, mobile 604-644-4349 or e-mail


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cheese: Toronto/Vancouver

Last night my sister-in-law, Arline, and I sat beside each other on her basement couch in Oshawa and offered a blow-by-blow critique of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Arline teaches high school drama, and so knows a thing or three about basic dramaturgy. Both of us agreed that the pacing was too slow, the human-to-effects scale and bodily massings totally out of whack (especially in the forest dancing sequences, when the members of the Alberta Ballet were simply too few and far between), and the overall national narrative simply riddled with kitschy cliches.

That's what you get, I guess, when you have an Australian running the show. Not only is Quebec more or less left out of the picture (earlier talks with Cirque de Soleil, Robert Lepage, and other Quebecois performing arts icons to participate in the events broke down, apparently, over creative differences), but BC and Vancouver have to cede their own wealth of local talent to national and international interlopers. Oh, right, but that's what we have the Cultural Olympiad for...

I wonder how much representatives of the Four Host First Nations were involved in the actually planning of the proceedings. The welcome was crucial, I understand, but whether in that particular iconographic/spectacularized way is open to debate: totems, giant spirit bears, and dancing in ceremonial regalia as the athletes march in more or less covers things, I guess. And getting that over and done with early allows us to get on with the real westward expansionist narrative. Clearly no one explained the concept of Indian time to Jacques Rogge and members of the dignitaries box, the seats reserved for the chiefs of the FHFN being noticeably unoccupied during the early going.

Granted, those killer whales were pretty cool. And slam poet Shane Koyczan got in some pretty good oral/aural riffs. And k.d. lang still has the smoothest alto in the music biz, doing for Leonard Cohen what she'd previously done for Roy Orbison (though ditch the white suit, sister--black is always more slimming). But what was with the mechanical failure with the torch tower at the end? And the motorcade of the Great One to the outdoor torch at Coal Harbour was pretty anticlimactic (were all five of the final torch bearers chosen on the basis of their aquiline noses?).

Likely the pelting rain on top of the protesters on top of the earlier news of the tragic death of the Georgian luger during a training run at Whistler earlier in the day was enough to make John Furlong want to reach for the nearest whiskey bottle. No excuse, however, for not, over the course of the past seven years, at least learning a few more sentences and phrases in decently accented French.

Watching the Opening Ceremonies from Toronto felt entirely appropriate, so disconnected am I from the events now that they have actually descended on the city, and so mediatized a spectacle are the Olympics in general. Much better to leave the live theatre-going to decent fare like the two plays I saw in Toronto on Wednesday: a matinee of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, in a CanStage/Obsidian Theatre co-production, and featuring a star-making performance by Raven Dauda as Esther; and an evening performance of Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 at the Panasonic Theatre on Yonge Street, in a Mirvish Theatre production directed by Alisa Palmer (who had previously directed a much lauded remount of Top Girls in the city).

Hard to believe, in particular, that Churchill's play is more than 30 years old. Palmer played things a bit too much for belly laughs for my liking, but Churchill's gender politics are still as fresh as ever, and I was especially impressed by the performance of ex-Anne Shirley herself, Megan Follows. Indeed, after seeing this production I am more convinced than ever by the recent argument (published in the Guardian, was it?) that following Harold Pinter's death, the leading UK playwright is not David Hare or Tom Stoppard or Michael Frayn or Alan Bennett, but none other than Ms. Churchill herself. What would she make of London 2012, I wonder?


Sunday, February 7, 2010

18 days, 15 shows, 1 looming circus

Last night's performance of Moon Water by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre brought to a temporary close one of the most jam-packed two-and-a-half weeks of live art attendance I have experienced in recent memory. And it was a fittingly memorable conclusion, with Lin Hwai-Min's celebrated company weaving a magic mix of Western and Asian dance movements (including some deft martial arts moves) around selections from J.S. Bach's Six Suites for Solo Cello. The final movement, ending with the entire ensemble wading gracefully through water cascading over the stage floor, was simply gorgeous.

Later Richard and I put in a brief appearance at the PuSh Festival wrap party on Granville Island. It was, in my admittedly very biased opinion, another splendid festival, with virtually everything I attended sold out and a great buzz around the shows. Here's hoping we also made some money! And here's looking forward to next year, when Executive Director Norman Armour has some exciting plans afoot in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of the city.

Speaking of Granville Island, I had snuck out there earlier in the day to stock up on some supplies. It was even more of a zoo than normal. No doubt the gorgeous weather was partly to blame. But there was also no escaping the fact that the first big wave of Olympic visitors had arrived (one just had to listen to the mix of languages being spoken as various clumps of tourists parked themselves in front of different shopkeepers' vitrines and pointed and oohed and aahed, and generally blocked the aisles for everyone else like me on a specific time-based mission...). Downtown last night was also jumping, and cars everywhere were scrambling to deal with the most recent wave of road closures (both viaducts, Georgia and Dunsmuir, having recently been shut down).

There's no avoiding the Olympic onslaught, I guess, though I myself will miss the first weekend, as I'm off to Toronto tomorrow to give a couple of talks at the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph. I promised to lay off the VANOC-bashing in this blog for a while, but it is difficult not to shake one's head in disbelief at the litany of ironies piling up in the days before the opening ceremonies--starting with the weather, which has been sunny and unseasonably warm, hovering at or above 12 degrees celsius for the past two weeks. Winter, what winter?

Then there's the recent embarrassing revelation that VANOC had used footage from Leni Reifenstahl's Olympia in its Torch Relay promotional video! The announcement that the Norwegian ocean liner that was going to park itself off the coast and offer accommodation to visitors from out of town wasn't coming after all. An unflattering expose in the Guardian about how the Olympics were going to thrust the city into deep debt, while placing machine-gun toting soldiers on every street corner (so far they haven't appeared, though I am getting sick of the constantly circling helicopters). On top of the ongoing hand-wringing about how many medals will be won, as opposed to affordable housing units built as a legacy of the Games. And all while our erstwhile Premier steals a photo op on the new zip line installed across Robson Square...

Don't get me wrong--I'll be out there mixing it up with everyone else once I get back into town--mostly hanging out at the Candahar Bar (also on Granville Island), I expect, taking in the wonderful line-up of talks, shows, and parties organized by my friend Michael Turner and Reid Shier on behalf of Presentation House Gallery and the Cultural Olympiad. For better or worse, the five ring circus that is the Olympics is a mega-event one must definitely experience (especially given my own research on performance and place, as documented in this blog) up close and personal, and preferably with a video camera in tow. (See, by the way, an interesting article by Gary Stephen Ross in the latest Walrus Magazine, "A Tale of Two Cities," discussing Vancouver's local/global image in relation to the Olympics in much the same way I've been attempting to do in this blog, and the soon-to-be-released book to which it is connected. It's a bit glib for my liking--and there's no mention of the arts--but there are some great photos by Grant Harder.)

However, as I said to my students, who will likewise be documenting things over at the Performing Vancouver blog, the key part of this equation is to avoid getting arrested!


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Robert Lepage at SFU Woodward's

Tai Wei Foo in Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud's The Blue Dragon

This past Thursday night Richard and I were back at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward’s to take in the English-language Vancouver premiere of Robert Lepage’s The Blue Dragon, a special theatrical event that is being co-sponsored by my university, the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, and Théâtre la Seizième (there will be a few performances in French). The Blue Dragon, which Lepage wrote with his co-star Marie Michaud (the English translation is by Michael Mackenzie), is both a sequel and a coda to The Dragon’s Trilogy, Lepage’s first great theatrical success. A six-hour extravaganza that premiered in 1985, The Dragon’s Trilogy tells the stories of childhood friends Jeanne and Françoise, giving us, in the process, glimpses of three different Canadian Chinatowns over the course of the twentieth century, beginning in Quebec City from 1910-35 (the green dragon), moving to Toronto during the 40s and 50s (the red dragon), and ending in Vancouver in 1985 (the white dragon), where we are introduced to Françoise’s son, Pierre Lamontagne, who runs an art gallery and dreams of visiting the real China. The Blue Dragon picks up the story twenty years later. Pierre (played by Lepage) has indeed made it to China, where he now runs a gallery in Shanghai, benefiting from a red-hot Chinese art market but also having to contend with multiple layers of government bureaucracy, corruption and censorship. Pierre’s personal life is just as complicated: embroiled in a tempestuous affair with a younger Chinese artist, Xia Ling (the dancer Tai Wei Foo), whom he has gotten pregnant just as her career is about to take off, he also comes face to face with a ghost from his past in the form of former lover Claire (Michaud), who has come to China in part because she wants to adopt a baby. On top of all this, during the course of the play Pierre learns that his father has died back in Quebec, prompting some intense soul-searching about whether or not he should return home for good.

In Connecting Flights, a collection of interviews with journalist Rémy Charest, Lepage has described the character of Pierre Lamontagne as his “alter ego,” a “linking character” who makes connections between the various threads of Lepage’s theatrical and cinematic narratives, and between those narratives and the audience: “He’s all-purpose because he is relatively young and an artist, which allows us to place him almost anywhere, in almost any circumstances. He’s a very flexible, very mobile character—a blank character, in a way. He provides the link between the story and the audience. His naïve approach towards the events he encounters reflects the spectator’s position.” However, Lepage also admits that “over the course of his incarnations, the character [of Pierre] developed a few inconsistencies.” Not the least of which are the narrative gaps in an ever-expanding and ever-more complicated fictional biography subject to the temporal discontinuities and spatial contiguities that are a hallmark of Lepage’s theatre and cinema in equal measure. But then narrative has arguably never been Lepage’s strong suit, and it should come as no surprise that Pierre, as a passing-through character more acted upon than acting, a cipher in flight from a past that nevertheless has a strange and persistent way of catching up with him, should, like his creator, spend so much time in airports, where all sense of time and space collapses in on itself in an endless succession of arrivals and departures. To this end, those readers familiar with Lepage’s first film, Le confessionnal, will likely have registered a degree of confusion about the plot of The Blue Dragon, and particularly the bit about Pierre’s father, as in the earlier film it is Pierre returning from Beijing in 1989 to bury his dad that sets in motion the unraveling of a long suppressed family mystery concerning unacknowledged paternity and abject maternity.

Feckless fathers and morbid mothers are a recurring theme in Lepage’s work, and we get them in abundance in The Blue Dragon, which presents us with three different endings concerning who among the three main characters assumes primary responsibility for Xia Ling’s baby. That none of these endings is particularly affecting—nor, in one case, even remotely plausible—stems from characters so sketchily drawn and for the most part emotionally lifeless that we never form strong connections with them or their stories. Combined with almost torpid pacing, it made for one of the more unsatisfying theatrical experiences of a Lepage show in recent memory. All of his trademark visual effects were featured in abundance (the projected calligraphy and falling snow being the most stunning), but owing perhaps to its hybrid status between his more well-known solo shows and large-cast, multi-hour epics, The Blue Dragon left me mostly cold.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

China and Kamp

Rounding out our PuSh Festival itinerary this year were China at UBC's Freddy Wood Theatre on Tuesday, and Kamp at the Roundhouse last night.

China is Sydney-based photographer and storyteller William Yang's latest illustrated monologue (he performed Shadows at the 2003 PuSh Festival). A slight, middle-aged Asian gay man, Yang combines the impish and the unctuous into an utterly charming stage persona all his own, weaving in this case a beguiling, humourous, and wistful tale of cultural difference, ancestral belonging, and displaced desire that is delivered in front of a series of stunning still and moving rear-projected images taken by Yang. The images, and the narrative woven around them, concern a series of trips/pilgrimages that Yang, the Anglophone son of Chinese immigrants to Australia, made to China between 1989 and 2005, ostensibly in search of some deeper connection to his familial and cultural roots. And yet while Yang's piece does trade at times in overly romantic, even mystical, representations of China's historical past (made all the more affecting by Nicholas Ng's haunting live score for Chinese violin and lute), what to me stood out was Yang's more prosaic accounts of his at times hilarious, at times maddeningly frustrating adventures with a series of (usually younger) male guides who together seemed to symbolize the aspirational reach and staid grasp of modern China, and towards whom Yang adopted an affectionately avuncular perspective.

For Kamp the Rotterdam-based company Hotel Modern has created a miniature scale model of Auschwitz, including a neon replica of the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign recently stolen from the real Auschwitz, and more than 3,000 handmade 6-inch puppets representing the prisoners and their guards. Performers Herman Helle, Pauline Kalker, and Arlene Hoornweg move about the set, manipulating the puppets as they re-enact a day and night at the camp, including the arrival by train of a new group of detainees, their execution by Zyklon B poisoning, their cremation in ovens, and the disposal of their remains. All of this detail is captured by tiny cameras held by the performers, and projected live on the back wall of the stage, accompanied by an eerie soundscape that combines a pre-recorded score by Ruud van de Pluijm and live acoustic effects (a prisoner sweeping the camp's grounds) picked up by hidden mics. The unique combination of distance and immediacy created through the puppetry and live video feed is bone chilling, and there is something about the manipulation of the physical scale of Auschwitz's spatial geography that makes all the more horrific the mass atrocities that took place there.