Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Of Unitards and Upwardness

DanceHouse concluded its second season this weekend in superb style, with Brazil’s Grupo Corpo rocking the Vancouver Playhouse: first in a sensuous riot of swaying hips, stomping feet, and lyrically curling arms; and then in an alternately percussive, plaintive, and provocational mix of knee folds, pelvic thrusts, side and back bends, and gravity-defying floor drops. That both works on the program were performed by some of the most gorgeous dancers I have ever seen, every hip bone and thigh muscle and impossibly toned glute of their amazing physiques clearly visible underneath the body-hugging unitards worn for each piece, only added to one’s spectatorial pleasure.

Company choreographer Rodrigo Pederneiras’ Parabelo (1997) and Breu (2007) make for an intellectually and sensorially stimulating performative pairing. Both are large-scale, full-length works set to original scores (by Tom Zé and Zé Miguel Wisnik, and Lenine, respectively) featuring a mix of contemporary and traditional Brazilian musical genres. Both also use back panel projections, subtle lighting designs, and make-up to heighten their theatrical effects. Ditto the aforementioned costuming, with Parabelo’s colourful and shimmery unitards reflecting the joyous mood of that piece, while Breu’s eye-popping, geometrically bisected, black and white unitards (see the photo above) effectively express its more oppositional and competitive tone. Finally, both works are full company ballets that anchor their stunning group sequences in a central pas de deux.

However, it is the differences between those pas de deux that give one a sense of how the two works vary in tone and style of movement. The pas de deux in Parabelo is lush, flowing, and vertically oriented, with the male dancer’s lifts and the female dancer’s leg extensions combining to form a rhythmic circuit of expressively desiring—and desired—entanglement. These two are one, we are meant to see, and as if to reinforce this point, the sequence begins and ends in half-light, with the two dancers’ bodies fused almost hermaphroditically as they enter and exit stage right. By contrast, the pas de deux in Breu begins and ends on the floor, with the male and female dancers’ bodies wrapped around each other not, it seems, in mutual support, but in mutual antagonism. Indeed, they throw, and flip, and somersault over each other with such abrupt abandon and wary anticipation that it is clear, in their striving to right themselves and push upwards from the ground, their weight-bearing reliance on each other is really just a jockeying for the better position—resulting, as it must, in shared collapse.

The entire evening was unlike anything I’d previously seen in dance. Which is why I’m such a fan of the DanceHouse series. It is committed to bringing to Vancouver the very best of international dance, exposing local audiences to styles and forms of movement beyond the standard European/North American contemporary repertoire. Next season, for example, opens in November with the Japanese-born, Paris-based contemporary Butoh choreographer Ushio Amagatsu’s latest work.

I’ll definitely be there.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Molecules, Markets, and Movement

What do the movement of molecules in liquids, stock market fluctuations, and successive waves of female dancers walking, in patterned randomness, across a stage floor (carrying Starbucks coffee containers, no less) have to do with each other?

To answer that question you need to haul ass to the Firehall Arts Centre this evening for the last remaining performance of Brownian Motion, a collaborative choreographic rumination on the economy by Mark Haim, Rob Kitsos, and Shae Zukiwsky for SFU's Off Centre Dancers.

In particle physics, "Brownian Motion" (a theory akin to Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle," but in this case named after a Scottish botanist), might be represented something like this:

And in economics, like this:

However, as Haim, Kitsos, and Zukiwsky, together with their very talented young dancers (including a student of mine from last term, Tessa Forrester), brilliantly demonstrate, the impact of what, after Lucretius, we would do well to call the "invisible blows" of physics and economics is always registered most viscerally on the human body.

This is a show that is sensorially and intellectually ravishing--as all great art should be. I was glad to be among last night's audience of Canucks refuseniks.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ali and Ali 7 at the Cultch

Those hilarious Agrabanian showmen and shrewd foreign policy analysts Ali and Ali are back. Five years after skewering George W. Bush and the war on terror in a biting piece of political theatre--Ali and Ali and the aXes of Evil--that was also drop-dead funny, co-writers and co-stars Camyar Chai (Ali Hakim) and Marcus Youssef (Ali Ababwa), along with fellow co-writer and director Guillermo Verdecchia, are taking on Bush Jr.’s successor in the White House, you know, the black dude with the Muslim-sounding middle name.

But audiences attending the Neworld Theatre production of Ali and Ali 7: Hey Brother, Can You Spare Some Hope & Change (on at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre’s Historic Theatre until April 24th) expecting to see Barack Obama ripped into on the housing crisis, or health care, or climate change, should be forewarned. Despite its title, the play is only tangentially concerned with the reconfigured American political landscape since November 2008. Having said this, Obama’s election does occasion two of the show’s wittiest and most expressly theatrical sequences: a Bunraku-inflected domestic scene that pokes fun at Obama as a beacon of hope to all the “brown” peoples of the world; and an expletive-laden, projected shadow puppet sketch involving Obama, his collective “revolutionary conscience,” Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, and Stephen Harper in a rap about keeping the White House black.

Stephen Harper’s image here and elsewhere in the show, including its opening—and of course requisite—video tribute to Muammar Gaddafi, provides the clue as to the real subject of Ali and Ali’s political satire this time round: Canadian foreign policy, and in particular the country’s very American-style use of “security certificates” to detain—often in solitary confinement—or deport mostly Muslim men without charges and without providing the men or their lawyers access to the evidence against them. This is precisely the situation Ali and Ali find themselves in when a “rabid fan” of their work (the always wonderful Laara Sadiq) reveals herself to be an undercover RCMP officer, one Sukhvindar Dhaliwal. With but a brief wave of her ever-handy taser, Dhaliwal transforms the space of the theatre into a government tribunal and conscripts Ali and Ali’s all-purpose Chinese sidekick, Yogi Roo (Raugi Yu), to serve as their counsel.

Thereafter the play juxtaposes the legalese of Dhaliwal’s trumped-up and misappropriated evidence (much is made of their obsession with the movie A Few Good Men) with Ali and Ali and Yogi’s playing out of the “fictional reality” of their suspicious behavior (most of what shows up on the RCMP’s radar turns out to be “research” for the boys’ latest television pilot or newest idea for a play). In this way, Ali and Ali 7 succeeds in making some very interesting formal parallels between theatrical performance and juridical performatives, with the court of law’s precedent-based structure here revealed to routinely—and rather undemocratically—circumscribe who gets to be named a citizen and who a refugee, or a terrorist. However, in terms of overall tone, the play is also rather schizophrenic, with the gravity of the situation facing one of the Alis (I won’t say which one) leading to some very intense moments of high dramatic pathos that don’t always work alongside the more ribald and satiric sketch comedy scenes.

Then, too, I’m not sure if Canadian domestic and foreign policy (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not defending under Herr Harper) lends itself to the sort of political satire that worked so well re the USA in the first Ali and Ali show. This Hour Has 22 Minutes is not Politically Incorrect and Rick Mercer is not Bill Maher. I fully support the production of topical political theatre in Canada, and I generally eschew overt earnestness on stage. But it seems to me that, this time around, Ali and Ali haven’t fully figured out what they want to say, and how they want to say it.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Ballet BC...

... is back.

New Artistic Director Emily Molnar certainly assembled a fine program of Vancouver dance premieres to mark her "bold new vision for the future" of the company this past weekend. That vision has less to do with Molnar creating (à la her predecessor, John Alleyne) new full-length story ballets of her own in-house and more to do with seeking out international choreographers to create contemporary works on and for Ballet BC's dancers. The recently announced 2010/11 season alone contains seven world premieres and three Vancouver premieres.

Bringing the best of international dance to Vancouver, and programming it alongside the wealth of homegrown talent we have in the city, is something I wholeheartedly support. We're nowhere near the model of London's Sadler's Wells, a grand clearing-house for the best groundbreaking local and global dance, but Barb Clausen and Jim Smith's excellent DanceHouse series (which closes its second season this weekend with Brazil's Grupo Corpo, and which will launch its third season this fall), together with The Dance Centre, festivals like the recently completed Vancouver International Dance Festival and the upcoming Dancing on the Edge, and now a rejuvenated Ballet BC, are helping to ensure that local audiences also get to see the best the world has to offer.

Why, for example, has it taken so long for William Forsythe's Herman Schmerman, the first work on the Ballet BC Re/Naissance program, to get here? (Why, for that matter, have we seen so little Forsythe dance in Vancouver more generally? He's only perhaps the world's leading contemporary choreographer...) Created for the New York City Ballet in 1992, Herman Schmerman showcases Forsythe's trademark improvisational style at its witty best, deconstructing academic ballet via syncopated rhythms that show the various kinds of slant and wrapped movements and bodily spatial configurations that lie between and, indeed, often lead to more synchronized, vertical, and standardly paired positions. This was especially on view in the concluding pas de deux between Makaila Wallace and Donald Sales, who not only displayed stunning physical communication and chemistry with each other, but were also clearly having a ball.

Next up was Israeli-born, Netherlands-based Itzik Galili's Things I Told Nobody, a more self-consciously theatrical work set to haunting music by Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Satie, whose Gymnopédie No. 1 provides the opportunity for a stunning concluding solo by Wallace. However, it is the piece's opening, to the largo from Handel's Xerxes, that has stayed with me the most. The sequence begins with Conor Gnam stage right, curled up on the floor, illuminated by the golden glow of a suspended industrial lamp. Through a succession of low plies, leg extensions, and general floor work, Gnam eventually sets the rest of the company in motion, hitherto curled up in shadow under their own lamps. The whole thing ends with the dancers turning the suspended lights on the audience, and I could only think that here, in its emotional simplicity, was what Marie Chouinard should have emulated back in March during her bloated premiere of The Golden Mean.

The evening concluded with local darling Crystal Pite's Short Works: 24, two dozen minute-long, largely non-narrative pieces set to pulsating music by Pite's longtime collaborator, Owen Belton, and featuring the dancers in solos, duos, trios, and larger group formations exploring the kinesthetic possibilities of pure movement. Goofy, inventive, and filled with all manner of Pite's impossible-to-imitate sinuous, jittery, almost-boneless limned movements (the company lined-up in a row, caterpillar-like on the floor stage right, moving only their heads and shoulders--and occasionally their bums--while a single female dancer performs a break-neck solo stage left was a sight to behold), it was a perfect way to end, if only because it proved that Ballet BC's classically trained dancers are up to the complexity of the boldest of contemporary choreography.

Judging by the thunderous applause, so are Vancouver's audiences. Here's to Molnar's brave new vision for the company. I look forward to the next season, and many more to come.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Machinal at SFU

Just a quick shout-out re SFU Theatre's current production of Machinal on Burnaby Campus. Directed by Steven Hill (of Leaky Heaven Circus fame), and featuring the BFA acting cohort in the School for the Contemporary Arts, the production is a smart and sexy updating of Sophie Treadwell's 1928 expressionistic play, a Broadway hit based on the real-life sensational murder trial of Ruth Snyder that also features some biting social commentary on both the work of art and the work of gender in the age of mechanical reproduction.

I'm not familiar enough with the playtext to pinpoint what all in this production is intrinsic to the script and what Hill and his wonderfully talented cast and crew have added to it (although it's a safe bet the songs, the choreography, and much of the staging is new). The production's spatial and sonic architecture are perhaps its most complex elements, and there are some wonderful visual and aural coups-de-théâtre throughout. I'm not sure every one of these moments works, but none is completely superfluous, and clearly a great deal of thought has been put into updating the play's themes for our contemporary digital era. The play's courtroom climax (and talk about the use of architecture) is downright operatic, and the whole tightly structured, intermissionless 90 minutes has something of a Gesamtkunstwerk feel about it.

Senior acting student Mercedes Smolders shines in the central role of Young Woman, and Sean Marshall is suitably oily as her oppressive boss and then husband, Mr. Jones. Conor Wylie, as the Young Woman's lover, is also impressive and completely unselfconscious about having to spend most of the play in red bikini underwear. Most of the rest of the cast--who also spend chunks of the play in their undies (did Costume Designer Flo Barrett source these garments, I wonder, or just ask the cast to bring their own?)--is equally brilliant in a variety of roles. However, I must make special mention of two of my ENGL 103 students: Nikki Hockey plays Young Woman 3, Guard 1, and a Pregnant Woman, and has great stage presence throughout; Sadie Henschel plays the Court Reporter, the Jail Singer, and a Pregnant Woman as well. Not only can Sadie work a rolling office chair with nimble dexterity, but she sings beautifully. You go, girls!

The play continues at the Burnaby Campus theatre tonight through Saturday at 8 pm, with an additional Saturday matinee at 2 pm. It's definitely worth the trek up the mountain to take in this ambitious production.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Judging a Book...

End of term madness has descended and it's affecting my performance attendance. That should pick up again next week, hopefully.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share a jpeg of the cover of my new book, which features a photo by Chris Randle of the four male dancers from Crystal Pite's Lost Action, which I talk about in the book's coda. I'm thrilled this work is on the cover, though not so thrilled that the book is now two months late in appearing. So much for wanting it out before the Olympics!

I am told it's on the way, though I don't know why I'm so anxious; it's not like anyone is going to buy the thing given how hideously expensive it is. Oh well, at least it has a pretty cover: