Friday, December 30, 2011

Still Waiting

Blackbird Theatre is back at the Cultch with what has become for them something of a post-Christmas tradition: a new staging of one of the darker entries in the classic repertoire. This time it’s Waiting for Godot. Richard and I attended the second of the two preview performances this past Wednesday (the play opened last night and runs through January 21st). Despite how much I’ve enjoyed this company’s work in the past, I have to say I was disappointed.

Could it be that the production was almost too reverential? Notwithstanding the degree to which Beckett’s famously litigious estate has inspired an almost slavish devotion to the text among even the most experimental of contemporary interpreters, can we not at least move a smidgen beyond the same tired accents (Gogo’s Irish brogue setting him apart from the only slightly posher Didi) and the familiar Little Tramp costumes we’ve seen hundreds of times before (including Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s excellent version for the 2001 Beckett on Film series, starring Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy)? What about jeans and hightops and hoodies and baseball caps instead, and a bit of a hip-hop lilt to the music of Beckett’s writing? What about a post-apocalyptic, inner-city setting with condoms instead of leaves on the tree in Act Two? Granted, it’s harder—given the famous stage directions that open both acts—to think of tampering much with the limitations Beckett deliberately places upon the set, though even here I have some quibbles with Blackbird’s choices.

Thus invariably knowing what’s coming, the key for audiences familiar with the play is to find new (or renewed) subtleties in the performances. Anthony F. Ingram, as Vladimir, and Simon Webb, as Estragon, certainly have wonderful comic chemistry. I laughed out loud and at great length last night. And yet I still felt the nearly 2 ½ hour performance dragged. In this regard, I felt that some comic bits—including the opening sequence with Gogo’s boots—went on a bit too long, while others, like my beloved Laurel and Hardyesque bowler hat sequence from Act Two, were given short shrift. Likewise, where the visit by Pozzo (a wonderfully expansive—in all senses of that word—William Samples) and Lucky (Adam Henderson, who wears that rope with the best of them) flew by in Act One, their much shorter stay in Act Two seemed interminable, with too much time spent by all four actors lying prone on the stage floor. I also didn’t understand Pozzo’s falsetto in Act Two, which seems to emasculate him unduly.

However, what was most missing for me last night was an equal sense of tragic pathos to balance out the comic absurdity—a problem with many recent high-profile productions of the play on both sides of the Atlantic, with the notable exception of Paul Chan, Creative Time, and the Classical Theater of Harlem’s staging of the play in 2007 in the post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Watching Ingram’s Didi and Webb’s Gogo stare up at the tree and openly contemplate suicide, I couldn’t hear the aching desperation that should accompany their kibitzing about not having a rope, like the sound of ashes both characters hear in the rustle of the tree’s two leaves. And, where, in Didi’s crucial soliloquy at the end while Gogo dozes—“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”—is the cruel anguish that should underscore, like a knife blade, their impossible situation of both not being able to go on, and having to go on?

Back to that quibble with the set. I can’t for the life of me figure out why director John Wright and designer Marti Wright opted not to make use of the Cultch Historic Theatre’s own studio stage, choosing instead to construct a square raised platform above it, with ramps off it to either wing. I get that this visually reinforces the constrained and diminished circumstances in which Didi and Gogo find themselves, not to mention reminds us that surrounding their few square metres of shared space is a swampy bog, beyond which are thieves and ruffians lying in wait. However, it makes things somewhat awkward for the Boy (a charming Zander Constant), who enters from audience level at the end of both acts, and must interact with Didi for much of his brief time on stage with his back to us.

Other critics might think otherwise, but for me this was a rare miss from a local troupe that has otherwise distinguished itself as a bold interpreter of the classics. To be fair, it was a preview performance, and maybe my mood was soured somewhat by the person who threw up in the balcony hallway just as the performance was ending. Either way, I’ve at least waited to post this review till after the show has officially opened.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sleepless in Vancouver

Around this time of year it is customary for many of us to gather with friends and family at each others homes to share some food, maybe exchange gifts, sing songs, and/or play some goofy party games, and almost certainly raise a glass of holiday cheer. And, just as assuredly, witness at least one spectacular scene of relationship discord or breakdown. If you're looking to steel yourself for the latter event, or simply prefer to experience such things vicariously, I recommend checking out the inspired production of Caryl Churchill's Three More Sleepless Nights that's playing in different neighbourhoods around the city through this Friday.

Churchill's play was first produced in 1980, between Cloud Nine and Top Girls. Unlike these more famous works, Three More does not range boldly across great swathes of history, and contains little of their (at least at the time) radically experimental dramaturgy. Instead, it is a quiet domestic roundelay, sharply and accessibly written, involving two couples whose relationships, in the wee hours of the morning, have reached a crisis point. The innovation of this particular production, by a group of very talented SFU Contemporary Arts students and recent grads, is that the audience gets to witness the proceedings up close and personal, with the play being staged in a different borrowed apartment every evening--one which the actors, like us, are encountering for the first time.

This results in a most intriguing, and theatrically reinforcing, dynamic: that is, the audience's initial timidity and discomfort about following the actors around an unfamiliar space and observing them at their most intimate and vulnerable (ie, semi-clothed and in bed) is played off of the actors' equally improvisatory negotiation of a space that is likewise new to them, but which they must nevertheless move through and, indeed, command as if it were their own. No doubt this places just as much stress on the director (Conor Wylie) and the stage/production manager (Chelsea MacDonald): how to ensure your actors hit, night after night, both the comic and achingly anguished grace notes of Churchill's script while also giving them individual latitude on where--and when--to hit them?; how to find seven different workable spaces in the first place, and then to ensure that the few key props that are needed are where the actors would logically expect to find them? That both these questions are answered in this production is a credit to Wylie and MacDonald, respectively.

After we are all settled in the designated space, after we have been offered wine or beer, and after--most importantly--we have been encouraged to make a donation towards the evening's entertainment, the proceedings begin when Frank (Sean Marshall Jr.) arrives. He's drunk and his wife, Margaret (Tara Gallagher Harris), has been waiting up for him. Recrimination, in this instance, is less about how much he's had to drink at the pub than whether or not he was there with his mistress. Frank doesn't confirm or deny Margaret's suspicions; instead he taunts her by suggesting it's her fault for his infidelity, that her constant nagging, her poor housekeeping, and, perhaps most tellingly, her own ongoing flirtation with a man named Pete at the same pub has essentially driven him into another woman's arms. Marshall and Gallagher Harris, trailing each other back and forth between the kitchen and the bedroom, telegraph expertly in their overlapping dialogue, their tightly coiled movements, and especially in the weariness of their barely raised voices the complex mix of hurt and desire and regret of a couple who clearly still love each other, but who can no longer live together. That they find it impossible to move beyond this impasse is made clear at one point when we hear the offstage voice of a child being kept awake by their arguing (well, okay, it was Chelsea, kneeling beside me in the bedroom doorway).

The scene between Frank and Margaret ends when she goes to cool off--literally--in the shower. Two different actors--who until that point had just been fellow members of the audience--then strip to their underwear and hop into the bed just vacated by Frank. We are immediately plunged into the insomniac world of Dawn (Jamie Taylor) and Pete (Dan Borzillo). For the first few minutes it's just the two of them exchanging an occasional foggy grunt, communicating to each other and to us a clearly recurring pattern of sleeplessness. Then Pete starts to recount the plot of the movie Alien (Churchill doing pop culture--who knew?), his childlike delight in its thrills likely doing nothing to calm the panic of his wife, who repeats more than once that she is frightened--of what exactly (her husband? unnamed forces in the world? merely the dark?) we're never sure. Taylor and Borzillo have to act most of this scene lying prone on a bed, and they do a marvelous job physically conveying the void at the heart of their marriage, with Taylor scrunched all the way to the edge of her side of the bed and Borzillo gathering the covers under his armpits like the grown-up kid Pete clearly is. Borzillo gets most of the dialogue and it is a testament to his gifts as an actor that he not only managed to make a movie I have seen many times new to me again, but that he was able to convey through his well-timed pauses and heavy swallows (each of which echoed like a clarion in that tiny room) that he has retreated to the fantasy world of action thrillers in part because his own relationship has become alien to him. Taylor, by contrast, must communicate her distress mostly through gesture, and just by the way she cuts and eats a piece of watermelon we get a clear sense of someone disquieted by even the most routine tasks--including sleeping.

The final scene is between Margaret and Pete, now together following what we surmise is the eventual collapse of their previous relationships. However, Frank and Dawn still haunt their former lovers, and as much time is spent talking about them as about each other. When Pete starts to tell Margaret the plot of Apocalypse Now, we can guess where this new liaison is headed.

All the principals involved in this production are to be applauded for their very fine efforts in staging this play. That I lay awake for much of the night thinking about various aspects of the performances is testament to their excellence. Tonight the cast will be performing in Yaletown, and on Friday the final performance will take place in East Van. I think both nights are technically sold out, but there might be last-minute cancelations or a waiting list. If you're interested, contact Chelsea at


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Things I Learned in Stockholm

In a comparison of J.M.W. Turner's, Claude Monet's, and Cy Twombly's late styles, Twombly emerges the definitive genius.

The Moderna Museet (at which the above exhibition was showing) has an amazing photography collection, and serves a mean bowl of mushroom soup.

It costs $7.00 to ride the subway!

King Carl Gustaf is not a Stieg Larsson fan, much to the consternation of his wife.

The Nobel Prize Committee has its own fleet of luxury cars to ferry around laureates staying at the Grand Hotel.

At a two Michelin star restaurant serving an eight course meal which costs almost as much as your entire hotel bill, it is not possible to joke with your server about the langoustines she brings live to your table.

It is possible to cross the same bridge once too often.

If your Circadian rhythms are already disrupted because of jet lag, then you'll likely never get a full night's sleep in a city where the sun begins to set at 2:30 pm.


Monday, November 21, 2011

The New Old City Hall

Not the municipal election results I was hoping for, but it certainly could have been worse given the incredibly negative campaign run by Suzanne Anton and the NPA.

I held my nose and voted for Gregor, of course, despite my disappointment in both his stance on the Occupy Vancouver protestors and his hiding behind Penny Ballem in seeking the injunction to remove them. I also would have preferred a more diverse Council and am sad that neither COPE's Ellen Woodsworth nor Sandy Garossino was elected. Alongside the NPA's Elizabeth Ball, Garossino would have been a powerful independent voice for the arts. I guess if someone had to squeak by Woodsworth for the last Council seat, I'm glad it was Adrienne Carr. It will be good to have her sitting opposite former compatriot Andrea Reimer in holding Vision's development plans accountable to its "green" mandate.

We'll see what happens over the next three years.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

3 Cheers for 3 Fold

I do believe that 3 Fold, Ballet BC's latest offering (on at the Queen E through through this evening), is the most inspired programming of new choreography for the company since Artistic Director Emily Molnar took over in 2009. To be fair, I missed what was by all accounts last year's stand-out hit, José Navas' Bliss--but mercifully that will be reprised in the spring along with what I understand will be Navas' new take on Giselle. Nevertheless, last night I was riveted by the dancing, and judging by the rest of the audience's reaction, most everyone else was as well.

The evening began with what for me was the most compelling work, the world premiere of Polish-Canadian Robert Glumbek's Diversion. Such complex choreography danced with such compelling emotion by the Ballet BC company, who have never looked better. And so many surprising moments that had one leaning forward or jolting back in one's seat in kinesthetic empathy. So it was when Gilbert Small, exiting stage right in a long arc of rectangular light provided by designer James Proudfoot (whose contributions are perfectly in tune with Glumbek's choreography), is suddenly barraged by a succession of leaping ballerinas from the wings, whose weight and velocity he must attempt to receive as delicately as possibly. I had thought that would be the end of the piece, but there follows a gorgeous concluding pas de deux by Conor Gnam (at least I think it was Conor) and newcomer Rachel Meyer, whose arm and leg extensions in the lifts were alone worth the price of admission.

Meyer, who graces the program cover and advertising posters for 3 Fold, is one of several new faces in the company this year (another is Daniel Marshalsay, ably filling the shoes--or socks--of the departed Leon Feizo-Gas, especially in a wonderful trio with Peter Smida and Small), and she is an outstanding addition; I could not take my eyes off of her the whole evening. I was also pleased to see that Livonia Ellis has been promoted from apprentice to full company member this year. She is a wonderful dancer, at once athletic and subtly expressive, combining power and grace.

Next up was Italian choreographer Walter Matteini's Parole Sospese, his take on sixteenth-century poet Ludovico Ariosto's fabulist world. The piece is wonderfully theatrical, beginning with a dumbshow in front of the curtain, and making use of all kinds of stage effects, including books suspended from the rafters, a series of moving flies, backdrops, and scrims, and--most compellingly--rows of lightbulbs on wires that descend to the floor at on point, and through which the dancers must carefully move. I wasn't sure if Jed Duifhuis' impresario/master of ceremonies always worked as a conceit (especially in the waltz with Gnam), but I did appreciate Matteini's decision to resist a linear narrative in favour of the particular demands (technical and emotional) of successive movement sequences--a highlight in this regard was a wonderful solo near the end by Alyson Fretz. I was also pleasantly surprised by how willing Matteini was to mix up his styles and steps, throwing in the odd breakdance move amid all the turnout and extension.

Simone Orlando's Doppeling concluded the program. Since its premiere at Surfacing, Molnar's pared down reintroduction of the transformed company at The Dance Centre in 2009, the work has gotten bigger and bolder, the steps more complex, and the body suits worn by the dancers even tighter! What I especially appreciated watching Orlando's take on Coppélia-like conformity this time was her musicality, with all the dancers in precise lockstep with Bach's Concerto in d minor. Except of course when they weren't--as when, with a syncopated hip thrust and a grand removal of her bobbed wig and shaking out of her long tresses, Makaila Wallace decided to dance to her own beat.

Adding to the good feeling of the evening was Molnar's announcement, during her curtain speech, that the company had secured multi-year corporate sponsorship from Fasken Martineau. This will allow Ballet BC to continue to commission new work while also working to rebuild and grow its audiences, which, judging by the size of last night's crowd, it still needs to work on.

Here's hoping that after you all vote today, you fill the seats at the Queen E this evening.


Friday, November 11, 2011

PuSh Festival: 2012 Program

Just back in town and catching up on things. Will hopefully get to Occupy Vancouver and the upcoming municipal elections (not to mention a redaction of the performance highlights of our trip) in subsequent posts.

For now, however, I wanted to make sure to let everyone know that details of the 2012 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival are now available. Click on the image above for a listing of all the main and Club PuSh shows, and be sure to secure your PuSh passes (the best and most economical way to experience the full panoply of shows) before they sell out by clicking here.

The Festival runs January 17-February 4th, 2012.

See you there.


Saturday, October 8, 2011


Went to a fabulous Saturday morning screening at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. The film was First Position, a documentary by Bess Kargman about six young ballet dancers ranging in ages from 9-17 preparing for the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix, an elite competition that awards prizes in various age categories, but also, for the older dancers, scholarships at some of the finest schools around the world, and/or contracts at professional companies.

The lead-up to the finals and, before them, each dancer's individual regional semi-final, is--in the best tradition of similar performance documentaries--edge-of-the-seat gripping. However, what sets Kargman's film apart is not just her obvious empathy for each of the young personalities at the heart of this work, but her commitment to documenting the tremendous sacrifices they and their families are prepared to make in order to achieve their goals. And, mercifully in that respect, this is a rare example where all of the storylines have a happy ending.

Not so for the residents of the famous artist studios above Carnegie Hall, who are the subject of Josef "Birdman" Astor's Lost Bohemia, and whose unsuccessful battle to stave off eviction by corporate managers of the performance space below in search of extra office space ends up being a searing indictment of New York's larger willful neglect of its cultural past: in this case, both Andrew Carnegie's original vision for the building he endowed, and the collective artistic legacy of all the famous residents who have lived and worked and studied in its spaces.

One of those residents was Bill Cunningham, the New York Times photographer who was the subject of last year's wonderful documentary Bill Cunningham's New York. Seeing Astor's film this past Monday at VIFF was a perfect bookend to the earlier film, because it fleshes out the Carnegie relocation drama in greater depth, as well as letting some of the personalities we meet in the Cunningham film (including the incomparable Duchess) take centre stage in their own right.

Together with Pina this past Wednesday, that brings the grand total of attended screenings at this 30th anniversary edition of VIFF to three--a far cry from my original ambitions to buy a matinee pass this year and see as much as possible. I do hope to get to Alan Bennett and the Habit of Art tomorrow, a behind-the-scenes look at the staging of Bennett's play about a fictional encounter between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, which I saw at the National Theatre in London in May 2010, and which I briefly blogged about here.

But I might not get to blog about the film, as we're off early next week for another trip to London (and Frankfurt and Paris and NYC). Lots of performance and culture are on the agenda (as well as a couple of research archives), and I will have my new iPad with me. However, given all the connectivity issues I've had to deal with in the past when traveling in Europe (where it's hard to find free WiFi), and the general pressure of finding time in the day to blog, I may take a bit of a hiatus from posting, saving a global summary of the performance highlights for when I return to Vancouver in mid-November.

Fair warning to the two or three people who might actually follow this blog with any regularity.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Re-Membering Pina

Yesterday afternoon Richard and I attended a sold-out screening of Pina, Wim Wenders' 3D homage to the dance-theatre legacy of Pina Bausch. The film was playing just up the street at the Park as part of a special presentation by this year's Vancouver International Film Festival.

Before her untimely death in 2009, Bausch--from her nowheresville outpost at the state theatre in Wuppertal, an industrial town in northwestern Germany--revolutionized contemporary dance: in part by jettisoning completely the core principles of dance composition; by forging a company that was as much a family as it was a working collective; and by making an emotional connection with her audiences (whether positive or negative) central to her aesthetic. Let me explain a little better what I mean by these three prongs by reproducing here the first three paragraphs of an essay I recently completed on Bausch and her contributions to contemporary dance-theatre:

When, soon after taking over the directorship of Tanztheater Wuppertal in 1973, Pina Bausch famously commented that she was less interested in how people moved than in what moved them, she was first and foremost announcing her own choreographic break with conventional dance composition as the virtuosic arrangement and execution of steps. Yet she was also reciprocally hailing audience members whose engagements with dance are deeply felt, but who may not be able to articulate precisely what about the movement they have watched has so transported (or alienated) them. In both instances the different limits placed upon access to or deployment of a technical dance vocabulary to say all there is to say in or of a given work is offset by a shared emotional vocabulary, one that is still profoundly, viscerally, corporeal, but that refuses to abstract, divide between, or pit against the other, performers’ and audience members’ subjective experiences of the work. Thus, starting in the late 1970s, with works like Blaubart (1977) and Kontakthof (1978), Bausch developed a new rehearsal process, one roughly akin to the emotional memory exercises of a Stanislavski or a Strasberg. That is, she threw away her dancers’ safety net of having movement patterns set directly upon their bodies, and asked them instead to first respond as an ensemble to a series of questions or prompts that could cover everything from personal relationships, memories, and moods to social situations, customs, and behaviors. The dancers’ responses might involve or incorporate movement, but just as frequently they took the form of stories told, or of images seized upon, or of objects proffered. These elements, some jettisoned, others refined and expanded, would then function as the basic building blocks for the piece, its emotional architecture. Indeed, the affective force of Bausch’s dance-theatre comes as much from its reveling in theatrical expressiveness—scenography and design, costumes, music and sound, spoken text—as it does from its eschewing of some of the more repressive canons of dance.

This dialectic demands as much of an emotional investment from Bausch’s audience as it does from her performers. One cannot sit in passive anticipation of pretty steps at a Bausch premiere. Rather, in often simultaneous scenes of serial repetition one can expect to be assaulted by an equally serial (and often simultaneous) set of affects—shame, joy, anger, disgust, hate, love, fear, pity, tenderness—as they replay, in particular, a social history of the gendered body. That body, Bausch makes clear, is always at the (physical) mercy of the other; but the vulnerability, she also suggests, is shared. And so in her work Bausch is relentless in soliciting our attention and awareness not just of the bodies and bodily behavior on stage, but of our own. Again, this happens mostly on an emotive rather than a cognitive plane. Even when we cannot make sense of Bausch’s work, Norbert Servos claims, we still maintain a “’sense connection’” to it. Even when we cannot explain our response to a given piece or sequence, we are still responding. In this way, as Servos also suggests, the boundary between rehearsal and performance dissolves, and just as the performers lay bare their creative process on stage, so must we in the audience give up something of ourselves (energy, autonomy, objectivity, distance) in our reception of it. It is an intensely co-dependent relationship, to say the least. In the world of contemporary dance, one tends either to love Bausch’s work or to hate it. One rarely remains indifferent. And just as the fierce loyalty Bausch inspired in her dancers has left them understandably bereft in the wake of her sudden death in 2009, so have many of her fans been plunged into a prolonged period of mourning.

How is it that I have come to share in this grief? I, who have only ever experienced Bausch’s work via video or grainy YouTube clips or the thick description of print reviews and criticism—why have I been so affected by her death? And in ways that, at least to me, far exceed the more temporary and vicarious forms of mourning one is wont to perform upon the passing of a great artist? These questions are what initially motivated the writing of my essay on Bausch and dance-theatre as a form, and they are also ones I took with me into yesterday’s film.

I am unquestionably biased, but I do honestly think that Wenders has crafted an exemplary tribute to Bausch, one that manages simultaneously to capture and document some of her most iconic works and, as crucially, to allow the performers who danced them to express (in words and in movement) the range and intensity of their feelings for their lost mentor. Those performers span virtually the entirety of Bausch’s 35 years in Wuppertal, with veterans like Meryl Tankard, Josephine Anne Endicott, and Dominique Mercy offering up their testimonials and dancing some of their signature roles (including Mercy in his tutu from Nelken) alongside the younger, newer members of the company, a polyglot rainbow united in their love for Bausch and their total immersion in her movement vocabulary. It’s worth noting, in this regard, that Bausch’s death actually came in the middle of filming, and so the tone of the work obviously changed. Wenders’ unifying conceit between dance excerpts is to shoot a close-up head shot of each of the featured dancers, with their words about Bausch (spoken in their native language) heard in voice-over and subtitled accordingly.

But it is the dance that takes centre stage, made fleshly and impossibly intimate thanks to the 3D technology. Wenders' use of 3D never feels gimmicky or intrusive. Rather he uses it in the same way that he uses various exterior spaces in and around Wuppertal as backdrops: to make Bausch’s choreography pop, to leap off the screen and grab hold of us kinaesthetically—in other words, to move us (physically and emotionally), as the best live dance is meant to do. In this regard, the filmie in me was surprised at just how restrained some of Wenders’ shot-making was. In pieces like Vollmond, where the dancers famously frolic in ankle-deep water and leap from a giant rock stage left, there are lots of pans and quick edits, and the drops of water from when the dancers kick it or throw it seem to land in our laps. Yet in the classic chamber work Café Müller, Wenders is quite content for his camera to remain static for long periods, letting us take in that work’s famous chair-cluttered mise-en-scène. And in the opening “chorus line” from Kontakthof (which I was pleased to see featured not only in its professional Wuppertal company version, but also those that Bausch set on senior citizens and teenagers from the community), Wenders shoots in long shot, so that we actually see the seats from the intradiagetic auditorium, an uncanny visual experience in 3D, as those seats necessarily start to merge with the those in the Park theatre, to the point where I couldn’t tell at times whether movement in the rows was happening onscreen or off.

I can’t possibly do justice to all of the works from the Bausch repertoire featured in the film, but I will say that it was wonderful that Wenders begins with a big long excerpt from Bausch’s Rite of Spring. This work, from 1975, was the last one that Bausch created in a “classically balletic” style, but also announced a clear shift in her aesthetic: the peaty soil on the stage over which the dancers move; the explicitly gendered politics of the work; the emotional demands it places on performers and audience members alike. Wenders’ film traffics in those demands as well, not least in those film-within-a-film sequences when he brings both groups together to watch ghostly apparitions of Bausch dancing and creating.

I can think of no greater memorial to the woman and her work.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Arena Beats

I may have been on the wrong frequency last night, but I'm not sure I got the concept behind Heart as Arena, Dana Gingras' new work for her independent company, Animals of Distinction, and which is on at the Cultch's Historic Theatre until this Saturday.

The radio transmission conceit created some interesting acoustic effects, but I didn't see the connection to the choreography, and the ones suspended from the ceiling, while serving no apparent technical purpose, played havoc with the sightlines of those of us sitting in the balcony. As for the choreography, I have always been a big fan of Gingras' work with Noam Gagnon for their company The Holy Body Tattoo: the repetitive phrasing, the physical extremity, the play with scale. And, indeed, last night what worked best for me were those moments when the five dancers (Gingras, Sarah Doucet, Amber Funk Barton, Masaharu Imazu, and Shay Kuebler) came together--mostly on the floor--to create the intense energy and pulsating action I was expecting from the title of the piece. But these sequences were too often bracketed, for me, by scenes that were surprisingly listless or tonally disruptive: such as Gingras and Kuebler as dueling toreadors circling Funk Barton, stretched out like a movie star on a white blanket.

A red blanket recurs at the end, on which Gingras contorts her body like a cat in heat, now apparently trying to attract the attention of a disinterested Kuebler. But the partnering between Gingras and Kuebler, which does seem to provide the piece with a kind of central contest of power or scene of conflict, is too diffusely rendered and suffers--as does the work as a whole, in my mind--from a lack of a coherent movement vocabulary. The program notes say that Gingras developed the piece with the dancers, and you can certainly see Kuebler's and Funk Barton's trademark 605 moves throughout. However, they need to be better corralled to the theatre of this particular amphitheatre.

And maybe, in the end, that was what I was missing: some larger spark of theatricality. Symptomatic, for me, of this piece's weak pulse on the theatrical front was the moment in the middle when all of the dancers exit for a costume change and we're left staring at a bare stage for a good minute. That's when my own heart sank.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Musical to Die For

Atomic Vaudeville's Ride the Cyclone, on at Granville Island's Revue Stage until next Saturday, October 15th, is a delight from start to finish, a smart, witty and deliciously macabre musical about the afterlife of the hidden lives of six students in a chamber choir from Uranium, Saskatchewan who perished on an amusement park roller coaster. Returned from the dead by Karnak, the mechanical fairground fortune teller who feels responsible for their untimely ends, each is given a chance to tell his or her story, both the outward image they presented to the world and their secret inner longings.

Thus Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), the fastidious gay boy who has never kissed another man, sings about longing to live a dissipated life as an unrepentant female whore in prewar Paris. Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg (Rielle Braid), the self-appointed and self-absorbed leader of the group, recounts how she lost the national debating championships as a result of being torn between the conflicting advice of her Jewish Marxist father and her Irish Catholic mother. Mischa Bachinksky (Matthew Coulson), an angry recent immigrant from the Ukraine, raps his rage at his adopted country before revealing (in a stunningly designed projection sequence) his passion for his electronic girlfriend back in Kiev. Ricky Potts (Elliott Loran), an Asbergerish loner raised on a steady diet of comic books, brings down the house when he reveals a secret alter ego as a "bachelor" superhero from a planet populated by felines. Perhaps the evening's most haunting moment comes when Jane Doe (played in white face by Sarah Jane Pelzer)--who was decapitated in the accident and whose body, having never been claimed by a family member, remains unidentified--sings achingly of the regret of having no regrets. Finally, Constance Blackwood (Kelly Hudson), the "nice" girl among the group whom everyone expects to settle down for life in Uranium, reveals her real dark thoughts, including the incredible liberty she feels at the moment the roller coaster she persuades her friends to ride with her goes off the rails and launches them into space.

All six actors are amazingly good, the book and music (Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell) knowing and heartfelt, ironic and sincere, in equal measure, and the direction (Richmond and Britt Small), choreography (Treena Stubel) and set design (Hank Pine and James Insell) polished to symbiotic perfection. My only critique would be the extensive expository voice-over from Kranak at the beginning: the information is necessary, but might it not be delivered in some other way--i.e., a real live Kranak who gets his own song, and who acts as narrator/MC throughout? Something to think about, perhaps, as the creators continue to hone this already very fine show.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Circle Mirror Confusion

Peter Birnie is right. Reading his damning review of the Arts Club production of Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation (on at the Granville Island Stage until October 22) in yesterday's Vancouver Sun in advance of attending that evening's performance, I thought: how can this be?

The play, about secrets sheltered by the damaged participants of a community acting class in small-town Vermont, was the toast of the 2009-10 Off-Broadway season and, together with her play The Aliens, cemented Baker as an up-and-coming star in the American theatrical firmament (she's just been named, along with Kenneth Lonergan, Katori Hall, Will Eno, and Regina Taylor, as a resident playwright of The Signature Theatre Company). I had read adulatory reviews of the New York production by critics whom I respect. And Nicola Cavendish was at the helm here in Vancouver. What could go wrong?

Plenty, it appears, and while much of the blame can be placed squarely at the feet of Cavendish (why so many blackouts, and why so long for each in a 45 minute first act?), it would have to be a pretty crackerjack ensemble to overcome the structural weaknesses and general thinness of Baker's script. This might have been the case in New York (the great Reed Birney was in that cast, after all), but it's not here. Believe me, the only thing worse than bad acting is badly acted bad acting.

An unfortunate--and unusual--misstep for the Arts Club. And after this past January's disappointing (although form much different reasons) mounting of This at the Playhouse, I'm definitely starting to second guess the imprimatur of the New York Times' Charles Isherwood.


Foresight on Insite

Kudos to the Supreme Court of Canada for unanimously recognizing what the Harper government (note how I'm following the PMO's preferred designation) has steadfastly denied in trying to shut down North America's only safe-injection site for IV drug users: InSite saves lives.

Read about the decision here.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

NBC at 60

No, not the National Broadcasting Corporation. I mean the National Ballet of Canada, which is currently on a 60th Anniversary Tour of Western Canada that sees them in residence at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from last night through this Sunday.

The NBC is touring without its in-house orchestra, and with a mostly contemporary rather than classical repertoire. The latter might not be to everyone's liking (though last night's house was quite full, I hear many of the tickets were comped), but it certainly was to mine.

First up was William Forsythe's the second detail, to a pulsating electronic score by frequent collaborator Thom Willems. Filled with turned in and bent knees rather than pointed out and extended toes, the piece (first commissioned by the NBC in 1991) is classic (which is to say classically deconstructivist) Forsythe. To this end, the piece abounds with various meta-references to the classed, gendered, and raced history not just of ballet, but of modern dance. Was that not a nod to Josephine Baker with the dancer of colour in the white dress cutting through the corps de ballet at the end?

Next was Jerome Robbins' Other Dances, a suite of mazurkas and one waltz set to the music of Chopin (with live piano accompaniment provided by Andrei Streliaev). Originally created by Robbins for the legendary Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, as danced by NBC principal dancers Greta Hodgkinson and Zdenek Konvalina, virtuosity never overshadowed the simple romanticism and folk origins of both the music and the steps.

The most recent piece on the program was former NBC Artistic Director James Kudelka's The Man in Black, a quartet for three men and one woman set to six cover songs recorded by Johnny Cash late in his life. With the dancers shod in cowboy boots, and employing trademark country and western movement patterns, including line and square dancing, Kudelka manages both to highlight the pantomimic qualities these forms share with classical ballet and to translate the melancholy at the heart of Cash's growly, faltering tremolo into a succession of arresting poses that reveal the aching vulnerability underneath each of his dancers' swagger. Beautifully brought to life by Kevin Bowles, Stephanie Hutchison, Patrick Lavoie, and Jonathan Renna, and with a terrific lighting design by Trad Burns, this was my favourite work on the program.

A close second, however, was local legend Crystal Pite's Emergence, which closed the evening by showcasing what at times seemed like the entirety of the 70-strong NBC company in her 2009 Dora Award-winning exploration of group formations and individual expression in an insect-like colony. The images Pite builds in this piece (akimbo arms evoking spidery legs; the heaving, tattooed backs of the male dancers conjuring about-to-be-birthed larvae; the female dancers swarming across the stage en pointe) are stunning. As is the stage design by hubby Jay Gower Taylor and the humming, buzzing, droning score by Owen Belton (like Forsythe, for whom she danced, Pite has understood the importance of working with a talented musical composer). However, given the complexity of Pite's work for her own company, I was frankly surprised at how mimetic this piece feels. Not that this stopped me from thrilling to the closing tableau: the company in full vertical extension, about to explode chrysalis-like from the stage, while one among them ducks back into the lit opening of their hive.

An excellent start to what promises to be a major dance season here in Vancouver.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Let There Be Light

In his curtain speech last night at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre--where Patrick Street Productions' mounting of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' The Light in the Piazza is in previews (it opens next week and runs until October 9th)--director Peter Jorgensen said they were still tweaking things. One would be hard pressed to see what more needs tweaking, so flawless is virtually every aspect of this production.

The Light in the Piazza was first developed as a co-production between Seattle's Intiman Theatre (where, before its recent troubles, Lucas was for a time an artistic associate) and Chicago's Goodman Theatre before moving on to Broadway in 2005 in a production directed by Bartlett Sher that won several Tony Awards. The musical is based on the 1962 MGM film starring Olivia de Havilland, Rossano Brazzi, and a young George Hamilton, which was in turn based on the novel by Elizabeth Spenser. The story concerns an American mother and daughter, Margaret and Clara Johnson, traveling in Florence in the 1950s. There they encounter a young Florentine, Fabrizio Naccarelli, who is immediately smitten with Clara. Clara returns Fabrizio's attentions, but Margaret is determined to put an end to the liaison as she fears that Fabrizio will discover that the 25 year old Clara's luminous innocence and pure joy with life is in part related to her mental handicap, a childhood brain injury having left her with the emotional and developmental skills of a 12 year old. However, after Margaret meets Fabrizio's family and has a chance to observe the blossoming relationship between the two young lovers, she changes her mind and starts to believe (much to the fury of her husband, Roy, who has remained at home in the States) that marriage to Fabrizio might be Clara's one true chance at happiness.

Not the typical stuff for a sunny Broadway musical, but then the piece is arguably more akin to an intimate chamber opera (and this cast's voices are up to that challenge), complete with a string heavy score and largely recitative lyrics (the only place the work falls down in my mind, with Guettel too often substituting rhyme, or words of any kind for that matter, with sung scales or even humming). Lucas' book manages the tricky feat of being at once utterly sincere and wisely knowing, with several witty asides delivered directly to the audience letting us in on the thoughts of the women in particular, especially Margaret and, in the second act's memorable opening number, "Aiutami," Signora Naccarelli. Indeed, although on some levels The Light in the Piazza operates as a fairly conventional love story, Lucas manages not only to imbue the entire proceedings with a proto-feminist tone (in addition to Margaret's and Signora Naccarelli's musings on their feckless husbands, we also have daughter-in-law Franca's despair over the wandering eye of Giuseppe, Fabrizio's older brother), but also some subtle queer cynicism about the happy-ever-after of heterosexual romance: see, again, Franca's Act 1 lament, "The Joy You Feel."

All of these complexities are brought wonderfully, impeccably to life by the PSP cast and crew. The performances are, without exception, superb. As Clara, Samantha Hill not only has a soaring soprano, but an eager expressiveness in her face and body that manages to convey her character's as yet undimmed sense of wonder and openness to new experiences, including love. By contrast, one of the marvels of Katey Wright's performance as Margaret is seeing how her steely outward protectiveness toward her daughter masks serious internal misgivings and regrets about her own happiness, and how both are slowly transformed as she awakens not just to Clara's joy but to Signor Naccarelli's charms. To this end, Wright's Act 2 reprise of "The Beauty Is," a song sung by Clara in the Uffizi in Act 1 as she is stirred by all the gorgeous art works around her, is at once shattering and soul-stirring. All of the Naccarellis nail not only their spoken Italian accents, but their sung ones as well. Kudos especially in this regard to Adrian Marchuk as the lovestruck Fabrizio; his Act 1 solo, "Il Mondo Era Vuoto," demonstrates, both vocally and gesturally, just how truly gripped by Cupid's arrow our hero is. As Signor Naccarelli, the amazing David Adams brings just the right combination of old-world charm and gravitas to the patriarch who is not above doing some romancing of his own. Heather Pawsey and Dana Luccock, as Signora and Franca Naccarelli, respectively, have smaller roles, but each makes her presence keenly felt when on stage and both get moments in the spotlight to display their operatic pipes. As the comic lothario Giuseppe, Daren Herbert doesn't get a musical solo, but he does get the evening's only dance one, and he makes the most of it.

The orchestra, under the direction of pianist Sean Bayntun, are on a raised platform upstage throughout the performance, and they were perfectly in synch with each other, and with the performers, throughout. A simple, moveable set of frames designed by Lance Cardinal successfully conveys the multiple perspectives of and on display in the work, and Alan Brodie's subtle backlighting of many of them helps bring this out even further. Finally, a standing ovation for costume designer Jessica Dmytryshyn, whose tailored dresses and suits perfectly capture the glamourous world of postwar Italy. The shoes worn by the brothers Naccarelli are alone worth the price of admission.

All of this is brought to life under the assured and even-handed direction of Jorgensen, who highlights the sentiment without overplaying it, and who keeps things moving in real theatrical time while somehow managing to transport us into the dreamtime of Clara and Fabrizio's impossibly possible romance.

Go see this show with someone you love.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Vancouver Playhouse and David Y.H. Lui

Two startling bits of arts-related news in the Vancouver Sun today.

First, I was stunned to read that the Vancouver Playhouse was on the verge of bankruptcy, and that it is being brought back from the financial abyss in part via emergency funding from the city. I do understand the arguments for shoring up our signature regional theatre company--including averting the ripple effects its going under would have on countless smaller theatre companies and performing arts organizations who depend on its theatrical infrastructure. However, I do wish someone would be honest and tackle the elephant in the room, which is the lackluster and uninspired programming at the Playhouse for the past several years. The argument has been made that to fill the seats, populist entertainments must be enlisted (cue the works of Norm Foster, which this theatre seems to love). But what about all of us who currently stay away because of the safe and largely recycled offerings, and who are waiting desperately to support more adventurous work? Why can't the Playhouse figure out a balance along the lines of what Bill Millerd has achieved at the Arts Club? These and other questions need to be answered if the Playhouse is to survive long term.

Also in today's paper was the shocking news that leading dance impresario and all-around patron saint of the arts David Y.H. Lui had died. Lui almost single-handedly put Vancouver and BC on the map in terms of international dance. He was largely responsible for the formation of Ballet BC (also just back from the financial brink) and the companies he brought through Vancouver through his Dance Spectacular and Dance Alive series provided an early model for Barb Clausen and Jim Smith's current DanceHouse seasons. The rooftop garden at The Dance Centre is named in Lui's honour, and as that space celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend, we would all do well to take a moment and reflect on the rich legacy Lui has contributed to the cultural landscape of our city.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Fringe Madness (2011 Version): Oh, That Wily Snake, Giant Invisible Robot, and Jesus in Montana

Martin Dockery's Oh, That Wily Snake is part modern relationship drama and part absurdist updating of the Adam and Eve story: with a 10-foot tall dish-washing Belgian as God, a brussel sprout substituting for the apple, and Aruba metaphorically standing in for all that is pleasurable and forbidden. I'm not sure if all the script's unexplained allusions and orthogonal shifts in direction and tone work, but Dockery, as Edmund, and co-star Vanessa Quesnelle, as Edith, handle them deftly, their overlapping dialogue delivered at lightning speed and with very believable sentiment. Quesnelle is especially affecting portraying the different--though no less coercive--roles thrust upon women by men.

Jayson MacDonald is a terrific physical actor and vocal chameleon who is as convincing as an excited six-year-old boy summarizing the plot of The Empire Strikes Back as he is as a seductive, cream-puff eating woman redounding on why she always gives to charity anonymously. Both characters are on display in MacDonald's beautifully written, hilarious, and deeply moving play Giant Invisible Robot, which tells the story of Russell, who forges a relationship with the robot of the title in order to deal with the trauma of childhood, and who insists, in dealing with the vicissitudes of adult relationships, in remaining loyal to the existence of his friend. With the aid of a few simple costume changes, a seemingly endless repertoire of sound effects and postures, a pair of flashing bicycle reflectors, and heaps of charisma, MacDonald succeeds in making us believe as well.

Barry Smith is familiar to Vancouver Fringe audiences from past critically lauded shows Every Job I've Ever Had, Baby Book and American Squatter. In Jesus in Montana Smith tells the story of how he rejected his Southern Baptist upbringing, only to later fall in with a Baha'i cult and place his faith in a convicted pedophile as the second coming of Jesus. Smith is a talented monologuist, who combines a storyteller's gift for narrative suspense with a stand-up's intuitive grasp of when to deliver the punch-line. But what elevates this work even further is the amazing multi-media slide show that accompanies Smith's words, and that incorporates photographs, old Super-8 movies, charts and graphs, and highlighted passages from the Bible to add visual texture to Smith's incredible story.

These three shows bring to an end my 2011 Fringe experience. I may yet get to a few Pick-of-the-Fringe holdovers, but if not I count what I've seen as one of the more rewarding festival experiences in a while (and not just because of the spectacular weather). There's still a whole week left of shows for those of you with freer schedules than my own, so do get out there and see something.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fringe Madness (2011 Version): Little Orange Man, The De Chardin Project, and Cabaret Terrarium

Ryan Gladstone recites, as one of his tales in Every Story Ever Told the unexpurgated version of Cinderella. Among other things Disney leaves out: the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to make their feet fit into the glass slipper and end up getting their eyes poked out by a pair of birds loyal to the heroine at the end of the story. These details provide a link to the extraordinary child savant, Kit, at the centre of Ingrid Hansen's Little Orange Man, about a hyperactive girl of Danish heritage whose greatest delight comes from reenacting the grisly folk tales told to her by her grandfather to the young preschool children adjacent her primary schoolyard. When she is banned from doing so any further by concerned parents aghast at the drawings their kids are suddenly bringing home, and when her beloved grandfather suddenly descends into a coma after falling down the stairs, Kit must call on the dream energy of the audience to channel the more vivid imaginations of her preschool friends and descend to the underworld, do battle with the evil slug-men, and rescue her grandfather. The piece is wildly theatrical (tickle trunks, hand and shadow puppets, musical numbers, and multiple movement and lighting effects abound) and Kit is totally believable as played by the charismatic Hansen--one half, with director Kathleen Greenfield, of SNAFU Dance Theatre. Kit may be lonely and have no friends her own age, but as she says, she prefers hanging out with her elderly grandpa and the young preschoolers because at least they still believe. The gift of this show (which Saturday afternoon's audience gave a standing ovation) is that through their extraordinary coups-de-théâtre (the celery sticks doubling as the evil slugs is my favourite), and the absolute sincerity of their story, Hansen and Greenfield also help us believe once again in the power of our own imaginations.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a Jesuit priest who also trained as a geologist (earning a Doctorate at the Sorbonne) and worked as a paleontologist in Egypt, France, and China, where he formed part of the international team that made the discovery of the early hominid Peking Man in 1929. While always remaining loyal to his vows, in his writings de Chardin openly challenged Church doctrine, including the idea of Original Sin, and treated the Biblical creation story as a metaphor, seeking to reconcile his work in evolutionary theory with his theological beliefs. However, he was never allowed to publish his theories in his lifetime, dying in relative obscurity in New York. Only with the posthumous publication of The Phenomenon of Man did Teilhard's ideas finally reach a wider audience. In so doing, his mystical reconciliation of science and spirituality--it's to de Chardin that we owe the epigram "Everything that rises must converge"--touched a chord with many seeking to find a basis for Christianity in the material world. In The De Chardin Project the folks at Quickening Theatre have taken the outline of Teilhard's life and turned it into a tremendously compelling hour of theatre. The writing (by Adam Seybold, who also plays Teilhard) is especially rich, and as voiced by Seybold and fellow creator Kate Fenton (who plays a number of roles and who also serves, along with director Ginette Mohr, as co-creator of the show) one feels in some sense inspirited by the words. At the same time, with just a few props and simple yet effective stage techniques, the material side of Teilhard's philosophy is brought to imaginative theatrical life. Both Seybold and Fenton have tremendous stage presence and chemistry, and as told by this company (winners of the 2009 "Cultchivating the Fringe" Award for Fish Face), you will indeed find your pulse quickening as you listen to de Chardin's story.

Accidental assassins turned cabaret artists, imaginary friends who turn out to be real, archaeologists who tell jokes, and hundreds of wooden frogs audience members get to stroke with sticks to camouflage their laughter: these are just some of the delights on offer in Richard Harrington and Chris Kauffman's Cabaret Terrarium. The show resurrects (as it were) the stars of Harrington and Kauffman's previous Fringe show, Hotel California, and features a hilarious rendition of The Eagles song. Gustave is an affectless Belgian singer-musician whose voice and sense of rhythm are as rusty as his little grey cells (to be fair, he has been encased in a block of ice). Nhar is his trusty pantomime sidekick. Together they enact an identity quest that, in its epic scope, is at once arctic and equatorial, amphibious and avian, physical and metaphysical. Great good fun.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fringe Madness (2011 Version): The Birdmann and Every Story Ever Told

It's that time of year again, and yesterday evening found me down on Granville Island for my first tastes of the annual banquet of theatre and performance that is the Vancouver International Fringe Festival. Usually the start of a new term doesn't allow me much opportunity for feasting on all the offerings. As it is this year I have had to cram all of my menu choices into this opening weekend, as the parentals arrive on Monday.

First up was The Birdmann, from the Australian writer/performer Trent Baumann. The piece is a combination of postmodern vaudeville, deadpan cabaret, conceptual stand-up, and a burlesque (quite literally) of magic, circus, and body arts--all laced with a message about anti-consumerism and environmentalism. Baumann may very well win the award for best hair of the Fringe, and if this show was a little heavy on the audience participation for my taste (always a Fringe trademark, I know--see below), Baumann's solicitations were never coercive and always accompanied by his winning and self-deprecating assurances that no one was exposing themselves to more potential embarrassment than himself.

Next, I went to see Festival superstar Ryan Gladstone's Every Story Ever Told, his 60 minute attempt at a redaction of the history of world narrative. Gladstone starts with capstone summaries of some classic works of literature and film. But after getting bogged down--hilariously--in acting out all four books of War and Peace and all six parts (who knew?) of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky film franchise, Gladstone realizes it might be better to take the common themes and structures of most stories and, with the aid of the audience, add to the pile by telling a new story. It's a risky move for a performer going from the tried and true (not to mention dutifully memorized and audio- and light-cued) to the unknown and wackily left-field suggestions of a hyper-kinetic audience. But Gladstone is a pro (all the reviewerati, including Colin Thomas, Peter Birnie, Jo Ledingham, and Jerry Wasserman were out in force), and he handled every suggestion--in our case a female trapeze artist with a prehensile tail battling her evil rivals, who are Siamese twins--with aplomb and amazing humour.

Three more shows are on tap today, so stay tuned for more reviews.


Friday, September 2, 2011

On Being Briefed

Though it's been going on for more than five years and has yielded 17 different programs (and counting), last night was the first time I'd been to The Tomorrow Collective's Brief Encounters series (on at Performance Works through this evening). The concept behind the series is a time-based fusing of artistic sensibilities through cross- and multi-disciplinary collaboration. For each show, two guest programmers (in this case Laura Barron and Josh McNorton) select 12 different artists working in a range of forms and media; six pairings are then forged (the more unusual the better), and each group is given two weeks to create an original work of live art.

It's a bold experiment, not least in exposing artists--and audiences--to different creative practices. And as last night's show proved, the more each collaborator absorbs and immerses (or even risks subsuming) his or her own work within the other's discipline, the more successful the results. This was certainly the case with theatre artist Anita Rochon and singer/songwriter Dominique Fricot, who actually thematized the self-other encounter at the heart of collaboration in a funny, somewhat melancholic, and very trippy song/story cycle about time travel and connections lost and found. Ditto "fantasy stylist" Myles Laphen and flamenco dancer Rosario Ancer, who gave us a sumptuous--and literally kick-ass--version of the Coppélia story. Finally, dancer Julia Carr and puppeteer Maggie Winston combined for a winning and politically pointed slide-show/striptease about women's body image.

Less successful, for me, were the pairings in which the juxtaposition of disciplines was mostly illustrative and mimetic: e.g. percussionist Paul Bray's "sounding out" of the forms and shapes and minerals that landscape architect Pawel Gradowski works with; or the 605 Collective's Josh Martin busting moves to (rather than with) spoken word artist Prevail's rather too-dominant fairy-tale crossing of Pinocchio and Frankenstein.

I'm not usually one to advocate being overly explanatory in presenting experimental work to audiences. However, in this format I would have liked a bit more context behind each collaboration. Short video segments in advance of each piece feature the artists talking about aspects relating to the process of their collaboration, but nothing really about the motivation for the piece itself. Similarly, we are given no information from the guest programmers about why they chose these artists, if they had a particular vision for the program as a whole in selecting their pairings, nor even where they come from in terms of their own practices. Perhaps this is deliberate, but this is one instance in which I would definitely have liked to have been presented with some sort of curatorial statement--to have, in other words, been briefed.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Political Roundup

If the chill in the air this September 1st is any indication, local municipal and provincial politics this fall should be anything but warm and fuzzy. At the very least recent news on both fronts merits some snide commentary.

First off comes today's report that Premier Christy Clark has paused amid her jam-packed schedule of photo-ops and put the brakes on the idea of a fall election. No doubt even she had to understand the message that was sent with the HST referendum results, and so now it looks like we won't be going to the polls until May 2013, just after the re-introduction of the PST. Time enough, one would think, for Clark to actually do some governing. Time enough, as well, for Clark, in so doing, to sink herself and her party--especially if Adrian Dix and the NDP can ride the wave of orange love in the wake of Jack Layton's funeral.

Also in the papers today was a suggestion that the soon-to-be-released report on the Stanley Cup riots (co-authored, you will remember, by ex-VANOC chief John Furlong) will cast some negative light on our shiny happy Mayor Robertson. Combined with news that the NPA has hired the same team that got Rob Ford elected in Toronto, this means we might actually have a horse-race for the mayorship of Vancouver this November. Now all we need is for Robertson to declare himself a candidate for the federal NDP leadership... Does the lad speak French, I wonder?


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In Memoriam: Jack Layton

Jack Layton's legacy was ennobled today by the trans-ideological outpouring--from politicians, the media, and the public alike--of praise for his gift of service to our country.

Let us return that gift by answering the call he sets out in his extraordinary final letter, building on the NDP's gains in the last election and ensuring that our government, no matter who's in power, nor for how long, remains accountable to all Canadians.

Rest in peace Jack.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

We Demand

I’ve curated a film series at the Pacific Cinémathèque, running August 25-28 in conjunction with a parallel academic conference called “We Demand: History/Sex/Activism.” Both the conference and the film series commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first recorded national political action undertaken by gay liberationists and lesbian feminist activists in Canada.

The cover of the Cinémathèque program guide got the subtitle wrong, but you can still click on the image above to check out what films and videos I’ve lined up. And click here for more information on the conference.


Friday, August 19, 2011

An Afternoon with John and Jane

PuSh Communications Manager Kara Gibbs asked me to write a guest post for the PuSh blog on a special fundraising event for the Festival we had last Sunday.

I thought I would post the link here.

Stay tuned for more PuSh news (both here and at in the coming months, including an announcement of the 2012 program.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Anything Goes at TUTS

Jacqueline Breakwell (center), as Erma, surrounded by flapping chorines in the TUTS production of Anything Goes

As we have for the past several summers Richard and I made our way to Stanley Park's Malkin Bowl last night to catch Theatre Under the Stars' production of Cole Porter's Anything Goes, on in repertory with Bye Bye Birdie until the end of next week. We picked a perfect night for it: clear skies and warm (I only added my last layer toward the end of Act 2), no wind, and also hardly any bugs.

As a musical, Anything Goes shouldn't work: its featherweight book (co-written by P.G. Wodehouse) is a farce that turns on a sequence of contrived coincidences and barely believable disguises (not to mention heaps of Orientalist stereotypes); the male and female leads are not a couple; and Porter blows his musical wad, as it were, in the first act, which contains the hits "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "It's De-Lovely," and, of course, the rousing title tune and its signature tap accompaniment.

But in Reno Sweeney, the chanteuse-revivalist, who gets all the big numbers, and whose open sexuality and lusty appetites offer a trenchant commentary on social and religious repression and hypocrisy, Porter has created one of the great female musical theatre roles. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that the success of any production of Anything Goes hinges on the successful casting of Reno. Ethel Merman filled the bill in the 1934 Broadway premiere, and her full-throated vocal stylings, caustic comedy, and imposing physical presence have to a certain extent established the template for all Renos to follow, including Patti LuPone in the acclaimed 1987 Broadway revival (interesting side note: Merman and LuPone would also both go on to star as Mama Rose in Gypsy). Most recently, the incomparable Sutton Foster has stepped into Reno's shoes in the current Broadway revival, and judging by the hoofing she did on the Tony Awards in June, those shoes are on fire. In Irene Karas, Vancouver now has its own memorable Reno, big-voiced, warm-hearted, light on her feet, adept at physical comedy, and always leading (or shooting) from the hip.

Granted, I'm no musicologist, but Porter's songs have always struck me as delicate, even ethereal confections, dependent on clever rhymes (most filled with abundant sexual innuendo) and lots of alliteration. With rare exceptions, one would not classify him as a someone who writes songs to be belted. Which is why I was so surprised by Reno's first big second act number, "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," as it sees Porter mining blues spirituals and swing, and allows Karas to explore the rich lower registers of her vocal range. Equally riveting in her two solo numbers is Jacqueline Breakwell as Erma, the seductive moll to gangster Moonface Martin (a terrifically funny Andrew Cownden). Breakwell (pictured above) has a background in burlesque, and it shows in terms of how she is able to put over her songs with just the right combination of sex appeal and comic swagger. Indeed, watching Karas and Breakwell last night, it struck me that through Reno and Erma, Porter was channeling some of his own sexuality; in the frank display of their sexual desires, their unapologetic promiscuity, and the worship they receive from a bevy of handsome sailors, Reno and Erma can partly be read as gay men in drag (and, here, one can also reference the legendary alternative lyrics to songs like "You're the Top," in particular).

Many of the other performances in this production are also winning, including the fleet-footed Todd Talbot as the besotted Billy Crocker, Lauren Bowler (Cathy in last year's production of Singin' in the Rain) as his inamorata Hope Harcourt, and Seth Little as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, the buffoonish Englishman to whom Hope is disastrously betrothed, and whose rediscovery of the Gypsy within (aided, of course, by the Carmen-like Reno) eventually sets all aright, resulting in a traditional comic closure that features almost as many nuptials as As You Like It, playing across the water at Bard on the Beach.

I'm always amazed at the audiences who turn out for TUTS shows: they represent a cross-section (tourists and locals, old and young, ethnically diverse, etc.) you don't see at other shows. My only complaint last night was that we were too quiet. Everyone on stage was giving 110%, and for the most part our applause was polite and restrained. More whooping and whistles are needed for the final shows.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Connecting the Dots

I'm behind on my blog posting, and while I don't have time for a proper review (the Women and Comedy conference at SFU Harbour Centre that I've been helping to organize opens tomorrow), I did want to urge folks to check out Die Roten Punkte's newest show, Kunst Rock, on at the Cultch until next Thursday, and which Richard and I caught yesterday on opening night. Indeed, Astrid did extract a promise from the audience to tell all our friends.

Die Roten Punkte is the life/work performance art project of Astrid and Otto, a brother and sister rock duo whom we're meant to understand are orphans from Berlin (their parents either died in a train wreck or were mauled by a lion--it's not entirely clear), but who may just be a pair of friends/lovers/theatre artists from Melbourne. They're the White Stripes of the Fringe Festival circuit, complete with Astrid on drums and Otto on guitar. They blend parodic punk with hilarious on-stage banter and storytelling, the point of which is usually to highlight Astrid's sybaritic appetites and Otto's self-effacing gullibility.

Apart from one extended bit about the "artiest song" in their repertoire (which begins with Otto sampling the sound inside his head), the "art rock" premise of this show is less a structuring narrative motif than an extended conceit for the elaboration of their performative on-stage selves. In Astrid's case, this begins with her dress, pieces of which she removes to hilarious effect during one of the show's highlights. Indeed, these two are as adept at physical comedy as they are at deadpan comic banter and extravagantly theatrical musicianship (Astrid wielding her drum sticks is a sight to behold). They're also fabulous dancers, as they proved during the evening's encore, a song about a robot who thinks he's a lion that featured Otto on a portable electric keyboard and Astrid on cowbell (!).

Astrid and Otto are guileless performers, so much fun to watch because it's clear they are having as much fun themselves. Indeed, the back and forth between the performers and audience felt genuinely warm, especially during a sequence in which Otto referenced the Vancouver invention of the plastic banana protector.

Kunst Rock is the perfect summertime show, light, breezy, hilarious, and with an infectious beat. Kudos to the Cultch for launching their 2011/12 season early, and with such a winning piece.


Friday, July 22, 2011

A brief shout-out to Rice & Beans Theatre's current production of Mobilis in Mobili, on now at Pacific Theatre (12th Ave. and Hemlock) through tomorrow evening. The second installment of the company's "Element Series," the one-act play is a loose adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea--by way of Vincenzo Natali's Cube it seemed at certain points to this viewer.

Writer-director Pedro Chamale, working collaboratively with his cast and crew, makes canny use of Pacific's tricky studio space, and also incorporates lots of innovative movement into the piece (the choreography was by CarliAnn Forthun). Condensing the essence of Verne's story to the choice of death versus joining his crew for unlimited underwater adventures that Nemo (Deneh Thompson) presents his three "rescued" captives--Professor Aronnax (Tristan Bacon), his assistant Conseil (Chelsea MacDonald), and the bull-headed Canadian harpoonist Ned Land (Rase Calvert)--the piece manages to construct an interesting metaphysical exploration of the question of choice versus constraint.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bar None

At the Dancing on the Edge Festival's Edge Five presentation last night at the Firehall, Richard and I thrilled to the premiere of colleague and Objecthood collaborator Rob Kitsos' newest work. In Barego, Kitsos, together with Ballet BC dancers Leon Feizo-Gas and Alexis Fletcher and SFU Contemporary Arts alum Mark Arboleda, offer a meditation on the bar as a space where individual subjectivity and private desires (you can read the invisible slash mark in the title) come up against the rituals of public spectacle and collective judgment. Against a widescreen rear projection film loop consisting of a largely continuous pan of what I took to be the new Charles Bar at SFU Woodward's, and making strategic spatial use of three white barstools (which I like to think of as an homage by Rob to Objecthood), the four dancers mine (and at times mime) the subtle choreography so often exhibited in drinking establishments: from the way we perch on or fall off our stools to the complex sequence of hand and head movements involved in doing tequila shots; from the purposeful tango of would-be seduction to the elegant ballet of blissful inebriation. In solos, duos, and trios, Rob structures his movement around the twin poles of alienation and sociability, display and concealment that are always operating in the space of the bar: by that I mean that the dancers come together and move apart in patterns that telegraph at once the intoxicating effects of fellow-feeling and the sobering estrangement that comes when that feeling is withheld or not returned (including by the self).

Having worked with Rob, I know he likes to play with stage space, and that he is not afraid to have more than one thing going on at the same time movement-wise. I'm with him on this, as static dancers within a mise-en-scène is something that drives me nuts (and an element of Quiet that I couldn't understand, especially as Zaides' twice-repeated placement of his non-moving dancers downstage right effectively blocked the view of the left side of the house). All of which is to say that I appreciated how Rob played with foreground and background in Barego, including the incorporation of the film. One's attention is constantly being divided in a bar--focused near (on one's drink or potential conquest) and far (the animated conversations at adjacent tables, the sports game being broadcast on the television monitor, and so on)--so the fact that ours was as well during various sequences last night felt appropriate.

Acutely aware that bars are also prime sites of talk, with the confession, the boast, and the seduction all vying for performative supremacy, Rob incorporates audio excerpts from bar scenes in popular films into the work. Indeed, Rob himself offers up a memorable lip synch of a speech by Shelley "The Machine" Levene, the character Jack Lemmon played in Glengarry Glen Ross, and it's a treat to watch Fletcher incarnate the dissolute Wanda Wilcox (Faye Dunaway) from Barbet Schroeder's Barfly (Mickey Rourke's Henry to Dunaway's Wanda in that film: "What do you do?" Dunaway/Wanda: "I drink.").

One of the things that makes Rob's work so compelling to watch is that he not a "pure dance" choreographer; less interested in the technical execution of his movement, than in that movement's integration into a larger interdisciplinary aesthetic (one that often includes film/video, music, props, and big heaps of theatricality), Rob offers multiple avenues of access to the questions he chooses to explore. Movement is always central to this exploration, but it is never abstracted or marked off for its own sake. To this end, it is especially exciting to watch the classically trained Fletcher and Feizo-Gaz, so memorable as the leads in Rob's Long Story Short, his contribution to Ballet BC's Surfacing program at the Dance Centre in 2009, cut loose even further in Barego. The program notes state that the dancers had a hand in the choreography, and at moments last night line and extension definitely came to the fore; but Rob's inimitable choreography (where limbs contract and buckle as much as they straighten) kept everyone (dancers and audience alike) suitably off balance.

My one complaint: I wanted the piece to be longer. This definitely feels to me like a piece that can be expanded into something evening-length, and I do hope that Rob continues to work on it.

Actually, I have a second complaint, and it has to do with the work that precedes Rob's on the Edge Five program: Benjamin Kamino's Nudity.Desire. Over-theorized (Agamben, Deleuze, and Zizek are all cited in the program notes) and under-performed, the work betrayed, for me, the worst excesses of bad performance art. Why it's been paired with Rob's piece I cannot fathom. If you're planning to head to the matinee on Saturday (which I urge you to do), perhaps think about arriving at intermission.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Loud and Unclear

I didn’t get the chickens. At the end of Arkadi ZaidesQuiet, which had its second and final performance at this year’s Dancing on the Edge Festival last night at the Firehall, three of the four male dancers remove what look like cardboard cutouts of chicken heads—each attached to a wooden strut—from the set designed by Tel Aviv graffiti artist Klone. They then proceed to menace the fourth dancer with them, "pecking" at him with the cutouts as he withdraws inside himself, or scurries across the floor.

One is left struggling with how to interpret the image, especially in a piece that up until that point had traded fairly literally (and at times didactically) in the physical representation of conflict, aggression, mistrust, violence, and the sundry “emergency states” (both internal and external) that have come to characterize the co-dependent relationship between Palestinians and Israelis that is at the heart of Zaides’ work. The intensity of movement displayed by the dancers in Quiet came through loud and clear, and was never less than compelling. And yet I can’t say that, overall, I was very moved by the piece.

And I find that just as perplexing as the meaning of the chickens.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

SummerWorks and the Ongoing Conservative Cultural Chill

Anyone who doubted that a Conservative majority under Stephen Harper would be anything other than benign business as usual--particularly where arts and culture are concerned--should take careful stock of the recent announcement that Canadian Heritage has, after five years of providing federal funding for the SummerWorks Festival in Toronto, rejected the Festival's most recent grant request of $47,000, representing a 20% shortfall in the organization's budget just weeks before the 2011 Festival is to open on August 5th.

Folks may recall that SummerWorks was rebuked last year by Herr Harper himself for staging Homegrown, a play that dealt--a little too sympathetically in the eyes of the Prime Minister's Office--with the friendship between playwright Catherine Frid and a member of the Toronto 18. That this year's withdrawal of funding is tied to last year's programming is abundantly clear, and such blatant ideological intervention into cultural content on the part of the government should cause all in this country significant alarm.

As Guy Dixon notes in today's Globe and Mail, the decision also has consequences beyond the chill it sends to other arts and cultural organizations dependent on federal funding. SummerWorks is an important testing ground for new theatrical work in this country, as well as a venue visited by ADs, curators, and cultural programmers at other festivals across the country looking to partner on daring and provocative productions. This could have consequences not just for what audiences get to see in Toronto, but what the rest of us don't get to see.

Then, too, we should listen carefully to what's being telegraphed by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who is quoted at the end of Dixon's piece as stating that ALL cultural groups should be on notice that they cannot necessarily depend on continued public funding from the federal government, no matter their track records in the past. Because, of course, those of us who appreciate and support arts and culture in our society are just a bunch of snobbish elites who don't vote the right way.

Prove Flaherty and the Conservatives wrong, Canada, by writing to the Prime Minister and Heritage Canada protesting their funding decision regarding SummerWorks. And, as importantly, consider donating to the Festival to help them with this year's shortfall. You can do so here.


Monday, June 27, 2011


We've been talking a lot about the importance of incongruity as a structuring principle of comedy in one of my classes this summer. Here are a few of the political incongruities that gave me a chuckle this past weekend:

1. Just in time for the 42nd edition of New York City's Pride Parade yesterday (at which a chastened Tracy Morgan served as honorary marshall--kidding!), Governor Cuomo signed a bill on Friday making New York the sixth state in the US (plus the District of Columbia) legalizing same-sex marriage. As the lead article in Sunday's New York Times pointed out, "the biggest and most influential donors to the New York campaign were Republicans." But as the paper's former restaurant critic Frank Bruni put it elsewhere in a very personal (and movingly written) op-ed piece--with what I take to be only the slightest whiff of irony--perhaps the greater incongruity is that this is a victory that the LGBT community is celebrating in the first place: "Why such widespread backing, from such surprising quarters? One major reason is that the wish and push to be married cast gay men and lesbians in the most benign, conservative light imaginable, not as enemies of tradition but as aspirants to it. In the quest for integration and validation, saying “I do” to “I do” is much more effective — not to mention more reflective of the way most gay people live — than strutting in leather on a parade float. We’re not trying to undermine the institution of marriage, a task ably handled by the likes of Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards and too many other onetime role models to mention. We’re paying it an enormous compliment."

2. Meanwhile, here at home, after nearly a year investigating across party lines allegations of Canadian troops' complicity in detainee torture in Afghanistan, Stephen Harper's government has released thousands more pages of transcripts. Once again, most of the information on those pages is blacked out. Word is that some of it has to do with asbestos being used to build the prisons where the alleged torture took place.

3. In Saturday's Globe and Mail, Mayor Gregor Robertson admitted that he didn't know how many police were on the streets the night of the the Stanley Cup riots, and that Police Chief Jim Chu wouldn't tell him. Apparently last year's release of the same information was a "mistake" and that as Chair of the Police Board, the mayor has no input into operations, only for "police and budget." But wouldn't both of those things--personnel and money--fall into the category of operations in most organizations? At least Robertson agrees with Premier Clark that those responsible for the worst of the mayhem should be duly punished. As the above photo details, they are starting with bad spellers.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Fire and Ice

The above images confirm why I am not a hockey fan, and why I dreaded the outcome of Wednesday night's final game.

Lots of finger-pointing and hand-wringing about why this happened, who's to blame, and the black eye this is giving to the City's image little over a year after the general euphoria of the Olympics (those initial Black Block riots notwithstanding).

Given what happened in 1994, given the mob mentality stoked and abetted (including by the mayor, the premier, and even my university president) at every level leading up to this series and especially the do-or-die Game 7, and given that a major attraction of the sport is watching players beat the shit out of each other on the ice, why is anyone surprised?

The phrase "Go Canucks Go" has never been a benign and supportive cheer from my perspective; rather, I have always found it to be oppressive in its ubiquity, and tinged with menace.