Sunday, November 21, 2010

ASTR/CORD in Seattle

Just back from Seattle, and the joint American Society for Theatre Research/Congress on Research in Dance Conference. Kugler, Rob Kitsos, and I participated in a Thursday evening workshop purportedly aimed at coming up with some bombasts, manifests, and all-around provocative first principles regarding the creation, performance, and reception of a “bastard” form of dance-theatre that somehow wouldn’t be called that. You can check out the group’s preliminary blog posts on the topic at

The actual workshop discussion was decidedly disappointing; not only did the co-conveners have an agenda for the evening that seemed to obviate completely—if not be totally antithetical to—the work we had been asked to do prior to the conference, but one of said conveners was further intent on reducing everything to her own delimited and circumscribed performance practice, training, experience, and biases. Then, too, it became very clear that no one—least of all the conveners—was very interested in hearing about our experience of cross-disciplinary collaboration on The Objecthood of Chairs, which we had very clearly stressed would be our primary reference point in our initial proposal to join the workshop.

All of this may have something to do with the unique structure of the ASTR working groups model, which has now been in existence for some years. This replacement for the traditional panel paper presentations (although those still do happen at ASTR, in the plenary sessions) does have the benefit of encouraging participants to dialogue and share work and ideas before the conference proper. However, it also—by virtue of the workshops being open to auditors/audience members who haven’t been a part of this prior conversation—forces speakers to distill, at times extremely reductively, very complex arguments (that might have been part of a much longer paper) into pithy sound bites of no more than one or two sentences, the reverberations or connections between which the convener then assembles like some sort of choirmaster (or director, or choreographer). It’s perhaps for this reason that the convener’s voice tends to dominate, and everyone else ends up looking to some extent like a performing monkey—with audience members for the most part passively absorbing the spectacle. Alana’s workshop on Saturday morning, “Risking Encounter,” looked extremely interesting on paper, and, indeed, some very provocative ideas about the “ethics of touch,” in particular, were bandied about; but the number of participants (13) was just too large, and again one of the co-conveners (who hadn’t even circulated a paper!) spoke way too much. Where is the pay-off, I wonder, in someone journeying half way around the world to present their research for at most five minutes worth of speech?

To be fair, this is my first time at ASTR. And I did only attend two sessions… I’m a fairly grumpy conference-goer as it is, and I’m not very much of a fan of the traditional format either. Still, I think I’ll need to do a careful reading of the workshop proposals for next year’s ASTR meeting (sans CORD folks) in Montreal before I think of interrupting our planned semester sojourn in the UK with a return visit to eastern Canada in mid-November.

Conference-wise, Seattle may have been hit and miss—and they could have done better with the weather (though all the American announcers were uniform in their blame of the “arctic air from Canada” for the unusual cold snap)—but culture-wise the city delighted, as is so often the case. We had a fine post-workshop dinner with Kugler, Rob, and Rob’s wife, Lorraine (a quasi-Seattle native), at Tulio, which also doubled as a kind of deferred celebration of the Chairs production—which we measured by raiding our box-office take for the three very yummy wines the table shared. Then there was the incredibly comprehensive Picasso exhibit on at the Seattle Art Museum. There was a crush of bodies, but there was much work I hadn’t seen before, and it was mostly accessible for more than rudimentary contemplation.

Finally, on Friday evening we caught Ralph Lemon’s new show, How Can You Stay in the House All Day And Not Go Anywhere?, at On the Boards. I haven’t yet processed all that was going on in the piece, and I think in some respects my reaction was both pre- and over-determined by all that I had read in advance about the background to the work (in particular Lemon’s successive losses of his partner and then his longtime collaborator, Walter Carter). Still, I was definitely struck by the mixing of media—live narrated text, video, and recorded and live dance—and how what can be said about, what can be shown of, and what is felt as a result of grief could be tracked along two parallel (and inverse) tracks of abstraction and (in)articulacy. The dancers’ frenzied movements, their convulsive writhing (which is almost as painful to watch as it must be to perform), embodies both the release and the absorption (indeed, the reincorporation) that is a necessary component of the work of mourning.

Lemon’s artistic sensibility is as capacious and prickly as his view of the world, which he presents as vast and amazing and complex, but also as raw and unfinished and filled with thorny thickets. Grief is an especially painful and constricting brier-patch, but as Lemon here suggests via Lewis Hyde and Uncle Remus, a wily hare or rabbit can eventually find his or her way out. So too with this very challenging work of art. Lemon doesn’t make it easy for his audience, but just when it seems like he’s completely boxed us in as spectators/witnesses/co-supplicants, and left us “no room” to maneuver (and only one way to react), a hole opens up and a possible way forward is glimpsed.

Talk about an ethics of touch…


Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Just a quick follow-up to one of the chapters I include in the book that gives this blog its title. Yesterday the BC Court of Appeal ruled that four dissident congregations in the Anglican diocese of New Westminster that broke away from the church over Archbishop Michael Ingham's controversial decision to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions will not be allowed to hold on to their valuable church properties.

This includes St. John's in tony Shaughnessy, which must be worth a pretty penny. Not that one can put a price on faith. Conversely, the workings of Christian charity have always remained somewhat mystical to me, not least in terms of the Anglican Communion's great divide on this issue.

But then, to paraphrase the soon-to-be-sainted Cardinal Newman (also rumoured to have been gay), mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism. All of which, if one were a Dan Brown-style conspiracy theorist, might set one thinking about Pope Benedict's recent trip to the UK...


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Exhaustingly Inexhaustible

As a dance form, Butoh is relatively young, having only emerged in Japan post-World War II. And yet it seems so much older, what with the traditional shaved heads and white-painted bodies of its performers, and the slow, hyper-controlled nature of its basic movement vocabulary. Sankai Juku, founded by Ushio Amagatsu in 1975, is considered one of the premiere second generation Butoh companies in the world, pushing the form's traditional exploration of the relationship of the body to gravity in new thematic and stylistic directions.

Sankai Juku's most recent work, Tobari: As if in an inexhaustible flux, arrived at the Vancouver Playhouse this weekend as the opening production of the third season of DanceHouse, the wonderful subscription series that brings the best of large-scale, contemporary international dance to our city. Watching it was in part an exercise in testing the limits of exhaustion. For Butoh, it seems to me, requires as much discipline from its audience as it does from its performers (although, it should be noted, many Butoh pieces are performed without an audience). Following that slow unfurling of an arm or even finger, the impossibly long holding of an extended leg, a contorted crouch, or full pelvic floor lift: if, as dance theorist Susan Leigh Foster has suggested, mirror neurons in our brains (among other things) prompt us to respond kinesthetically to choreographed movement on stage, then there's every reason to understand why a Butoh performance would leave us drained, as unconsciously our limbs and muscles and nerves have been contracting and releasing, tensing and unfolding along with the performers'.

Tobari, Amagatsu helpfully explains in his program notes, refers to a "veil of fabric hung in a space as a partition" and is also frequently employed metaphorically to "express the passage from day to night." Other divisions, or passages, were at play in the 90-minute piece, including masculine/feminine (a classic concern of Butoh, more generally), old/young, vertical/horizontal, birth/death, earth/sky, etc. If, to begin, I found some of the sequences bordering on kitsch (there was that "Walk Like an Egyptian" bit at the beginning that I'm still trying to figure out), the work gradually grew more complex, and the floor work by the four younger dancers in the final scene was amazing (talk about working one's inner core!), as was their earlier sand crab crawl across the stage. Genta Iwamura's lighting design, Masayo Iizuka's stunning costumes, and especially the terrific score by Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz, and Yoichiro Yoshikawa also added to my overall enjoyment. I reserve judgement, however, on whether the whole thing merited the standing ovation that most of the audience gave it (a sign of how easy we are to please, or of how desperately we crave challenging international dance?). Despite my experience of Vancouver's own "post-butoh" company, Kokoro Dance (whose style is, among other things, much more "athletic"), I simply do not have enough to compare this performance to.

While the house was definitely enthusiastic, it was not full, a first in my attendance of the DanceHouse series. I hope this is an anomaly and not a sign of some larger post-Olympics, post-HST trend. The donor and fundraising rhetoric was also more prominently on display in the program and again one hopes that Barb and Jim's reference to wanting to lessen their "dependence on more volatile funding sources" (i.e. non-existent provincial grants) does not belie a deeper shortfall than they might have anticipated.

If so, ante up people! This series is no where near exhausting the potential roster of stellar companies and dance artists it can and should bring to Vancouver.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Iphigenia at SFU Woodward's

The gods and goddesses in Greek mythology have a lot to answer for. First there's that rigged beauty contest between Artemis, Athena and Aphrodite that leads Paris to inadvertently initiate the Trojan War, the absconded Helen being his prize. Then there's all the mischief the immortals get up to in the lead up to the Greeks' attack on Troy. Wouldn't be a fair fight if there weren't some additional casualties and especially familial collateral damage along the way.

And poor Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, seems to suffer more than most, starting with his fateful decision to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, which, depending on whom you read (Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles), sets off an escalating series of retributive and self-destructive acts by other members of his family: his wife Clytemnestra, his other daughter Electra, and his of course his son, Orestes.

In Euripides' first version of the story, Iphigenia at Aulis, it all starts with Agamemnon's presumption that he's a better hunter than Artemis. In retaliation for this boast, Artemis stills the winds behind the sails of the Greek ships gunning for Troy just as they reach the harbour of Aulis. Agamemnon is told by an oracle that the only way the winds will pick up again is if he sacrifices Iphigenia. He doesn't want to, but his bloodthirsty lieutenant Menelaus is insistent (in one version of the story even intercepting a missive by his boss warning his daughter and family to stay away), and so he sends for his daughter under the pretext that she is to marry Achilles. Problems arise when the none-too-stable mother of the bride gets caught up in planning her daughter's nuptials, arriving with a full-on trousseau, and consulting the young and het-up Achilles about his plans for her daughter. Achilles (who, you will remember from Homer, has his own issues to deal with, not least a more than brotherly affection for his comrade-in-arms, Patroclus) has no idea what she's talking about, and soon Clytemnestra outs her husband's plan and the real argument of the play (and of all Greek drama, really) takes centre-stage: the rights of the individual versus the interests of the state.

In Lois Anderson's staging of John Barton's 1980 translation/adaptation of the play, SFU Contemporary Arts' inaugural student production at Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, that question gets aligned in a very 21st-century way with political and religious extremism. That is, Iphigenia's eventual acquiescence to the will of her General father and her willingness to sacrifice her own life for the greater good of the Greek people (at least as the choice of death in this case is presented to her), it is suggested, starts to look a little like jihadism. In other words, if we connect the dots between Iphi's choice and that famous wooden horse that eventually gets wheeled beyond the gates of Troy, the girl starts to look a little like a suicide bomber.

It's an interesting approach to the material, but unfortunately in this production it mostly stays on the page--i.e., in the Director's Note on the program--rather than getting worked through materially on stage. Fanaticism to a cause is incarnated most forcefully by Menelaus (Troy Kozuki), and there are some wonderful moments of physical choreography (local dancer/choreographer Noam Gagnon advised on movement for the piece) that suggest a bodily short-circuiting of rational debate to a moral and ethical problem. But Iphigenia's own conversion to her father's ideals seems remarkably passive and resigned as portrayed by Anouska Anderson Kirby (the director's daughter). This could have something to do with the fact that this decisive moment in the play occurs on video rather than live, and while I applaud Anderson's overall integration of different media in this production, I question the choice of mediated delivery in this case, if only because in the cavernous space we were in it was difficult to hear what was being said.

Mostly, however, Anderson made terrific and theatrically novel use of the space, starting with Talthybius's (a superb Aryo Khakpour) opening entrance on his bicycle and the dropping of the upstage safety curtain. Special kudos must go to sound composer Elliott Vaughan, who made fantastic use of the space's available ambient sound sources to produce simple yet wonderful effects: moving the curtains along the stage left and right walls to suggest wind; pounding on exposed pipes and chairs and the floor for rolls of thunder, or approaching armies; and, in conjunction with Anderson, showing an intuitive understanding of the Greek chorus and the aural basis of Greek drama more generally through a canny use of recorded voice-over and live call-and-response from different parts of the theatre.

Lighting, costumes, and especially props (the reproduction of the stalled Greek ships was most effective) are also superb. And, in this regard, I was delighted to see that three crew members from The Objecthood of Chairs made material contributions in these areas: Milena Popović, Jordan Boivin, and Lain Kim.

Iphigenia at Aulis runs at SFU Woodward's through to this Saturday. Call 778-782-3514 for tickets.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

2011 PuSh Festival Program Launched

Today marks the official launch of the 2011 PuSh Festival Program Guide, and I have to say the offerings look pretty amazing. There's a special focus this year on Vancouver's 125th anniversary, and shows like 100% Vancouver, City of Dreams, La Marea, and Podplays are definitely not to be missed.

Plush Club PuSh and the PuSh Assembly are back! Get your program at any JJ Bean location around the city, or consult the electronic version online here. And buy your PuSh Pass while you can.


Press Conference Politics

Who knew Premier Gordo could upstage a contrite US President Obama admitting the Democrats had taken a "shellacking" in the midterm elections south of the border?

But I have to admit I forgot all about wiccan Tea Partiers, California's failed doobie proposition and even, briefly, recalled Iowa Supreme Court Justices when I read on-line yesterday afternoon that Campbell had resigned. It must have been a sizable caucus revolt he was facing to finally penetrate that immense ego and convince him that he had to fall on his own blunt sword.

Now the game's afoot for a replacement leader and our next Premier. But who would want the job and, more to the point, would they publicly repudiate or endorse the hated HST in advance of next September's referendum? There's over two years till the next mandated election, more than enough time, under usual circumstances, to reverse Liberal Party fortunes, and catch up with the NDP in popular opinion (especially with Carole James flailing herself). But that crazy Dutchman, Vander Zalm, and BC's even crazier electoral politics have made things anything but business as usual. So, again, who would want the job?

A certain University Chancellor-designate appears to be out of the running, but in this province anything is possible...