Saturday, February 26, 2011

Golden Boy?

All this month, as Vancouver has lamely tried to relive and recapture the "spirit" of a certain mega-event that took place last year, I have tried to choke down the bile in my throat by studiously avoiding any mention of civic displays of Olympic nostalgia in these posts. Schadenfreude, however, is a completely other story. I have to admit that I emitted a chortle of glee the other day when I read in the Vancouver Sun that the IOC is investigating statements made in Furlong's recently published memoir, Patriot Hearts, that Furlong and members of Vancouver's bid team offered help to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luhzkov in preparing their bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics in exchange for Russia's three delegate votes for Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympics bid. Three votes turned out to be precisely the margin by which Vancouver won out over Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Furlong claims he did nothing wrong, just as he insists cultivating close ties with Norway's and Ireland's IOC reps during the bid process was completely above board. As, apparently, was flying IOC member and FIFA head honcho Sepp Blatter (himself of highly dubious moral integrity when it comes to World Cup bid and sponsorship scandals) by helicopter to Jack Poole's Mission estate. But given earlier revelations this month by the CBC of email correspondence from Furlong that VANOC knew of the potential dangers of the Whistler luge track on which Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili lost his life the opening day of the Olympics, one wonders if some of the golden glow around Furlong isn't starting to fade.

Not that this won't all blow over very soon. I'm sure Globe columnist Gary Mason (and co-author of Patriot Hearts) will come out with guns blazing in defense of Furlong--just as he's recently led the cheerleading around the apparent real estate miracle condo king Bob Rennie is effecting at the troubled Athlete's Village. But for the moment I relish the inspiriting boost to my own Olympic cynicism that these revelations have provided.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

KCDC at Chutzpah!

Every year The Chutzpah! Festival, Vancouver's annual showcase of Jewish Performing Arts, programs a very strong dance series. Last year, for example, Azure Barton, the Canadian phenom who's taken New York and Broadway by storm, came to the Norman Rothstein Theatre with her company and wowed the crowd. This year, the international headliners are the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, overseen since 1996 by Artistic Director Rami Be'er, and on a par with Ohad Naharin's Batsheva Dance Company in terms of both national and international reputation.

Be'er refers to himself as a "total creator," responsible, in his mostly evening-length pieces, not just for the choreography, but also the design, the lighting, and the choice of music. If in Ekodoom, the piece KCDC brought to this year's Chutzpah! Festival, those elements didn't necessarily cohere into an intelligible whole, they nevertheless offered time and again expressive artistry of a technical sophistication and an emotional depth that was breathtaking. As with Batsheva's recent DanceHouse appearance at the playhouse, KCDC gave audience members something to look at even before the house lights went down: a female dancer, naked to the waist and with her skin covered in dark, muddy make-up, straining against the confines of a tiny square box--from which there appears to grow some sort of fruit tree. It was an arresting visual image, and one that went on for quite some time as the sold-out crowd slowly settled into their seats.

What followed after the house lights went down was a series of physically intense and imaginatively powerful scenes, often featuring the full company of 15 dancers, and each exploring not just the roots of violence and conflict, but also possible routes toward reconciliation and healing. Most striking in this regard were two mass movement motifs that grab our attention at the start of the piece: one featured four columns of upstage dancers moving in aggressive unison downstage and striking poses of supplication and apparent torture/distress, punctuated every now and then by individual bursts of violent, thrashing movement; the other took the form of an assembly line of the entire company moving jerkily and mechanistically to pulsating electropop, like army inductees going off to war, or prisoners to an internment camp. These two movement sequences recur at the end of the work. However, rather than the assembly line marching the dancers off the stage, and leaving us bleakly pondering their fate, at a certain point (and the piece did feel like it had more than one ending) the line itself starts to fragment. As the music soundtrack proclaims "Everybody gets a little lost sometimes," the dancers one by one break free and slowly drift apart physically--but expressly in order to come together emotionally and socially. Some of them kneel on the floor, others remain upright, and one stands on her head. All but the last begin, one by one, floating their hands up across their torsos and in front of their faces, a gesture at once of purification and of prayer--and one that repeats, most assuredly, what must never be lost in our global wandering and return.

The entire piece, to which I cannot do justice in this brief review, was a mash-up of styles (contemporary/jazz, ballet, Israeli folk dance), and frequently of tone. I don't think everything worked seamlessly, but there's no denying that all the KCDC dancers are phenomenally strong. For the first 15 minutes or so, I was struggling to get a grip on the piece generally, and the choreography specifically. But by the time of the second pas de deux, in which the male dancer (the one with the tattoo on his upper thigh) blew my mind with his technical proficiency and physical intensity, I was totally hooked.

Kudos to everyone at Chutzpah! for adding once again to the vibrancy of Vancouver's contemporary dance scene. I look forward to next year's offerings. In the meantime, it's on to the Vancouver International Dance Festival next week.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ballet BC at the Queen E

You have to hand it to Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar. She is really working her international dance connections during this make-or-break 25th anniversary season for the company. And she's also piling on the new commissions.

This weekend's program, Volo, on at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through this evening, featured a heavy Netherlands Dance Theatre connection: there was an excerpt from former legendary company leader Jirí Kylián's Toss of a Dice, an affecting pas de deux featuring guest artists Medhi Walerski and Lesley Telford; Jorma Elo's 1st Flash, which premiered at NDT in 2003; and a new work, Petite Cérémonie, set on the full Ballet BC company (including apprentices Alexander Burton and Livona Ellis, who made wonderful impression in her solo) by Walerski, a former NDT principal dancer and now a freelance choreographer. Throw in another world premiere, sweet, by Canadian Shawn Hounsell (whose new full-length work, Wonderland, created for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and based on Lewis Carroll's Alice stories, arrives in town soon), and it was quite a jam-packed evening.

Would that the house itself was also bursting at the seams. There were a lot of empty orchestra seats last night, and but for the Financial Divas (some sort of group corporate outing by female business executives) taking up most of the mezzanine, the audience might have been smaller still. To be sure, the company lost a lot of core supporters during its recent financial troubles; and its subsequent rebranding as a "contemporary" ballet troupe under Molnar's direction is not without risks in terms of finding the right balance between those traditional types who want to see their dancers en pointe and a younger generation raised on So You Think You Can Dance? and whose only exposure to classical ballet has likely come via the recent psychodrama of Black Swan.

Frankly, last night could have used more drama. The dancing, as always, was technically accomplished, and threading through the first three works was some very interesting partnering, much of it walking (often en pointe) a tightrope between classical elements of line and unison, and their deliberate deconstruction. However, the emotion of these works seemed to be displaced almost wholly onto the music and the lighting design/scenography. The audience responded with enthusiasm to Walerski's Petite Cérémonie, and it was great to see the full company having heaps of fun in this playful take on what was pitched, on the one hand, as a "boxed" meditation on gender difference, but which I read as a more interesting commentary on the ritual processes associated with the "black box" of theatre. Still, the work was not without its cliches, including a somewhat trite musical selection, and the insertion of spoken text (uttered by new company member Dario Dinuzzi, who also juggles) that seemed entirely random.

Our seatmates (my Pilates instructors Sarah and Natasha) told us that last November's mixed program was, overall, much better. Unfortunately, we had to miss that offering, as we were away in Seattle. But I have no regrets about signing up as a mini-pack subscriber for the remainder of this season, which includes a visit by the Alvin Ailey Company in March, and a "double anniversary" celebration with Turning Point Ensemble (featuring live music and more world premieres) in April. Plus next season we have recently appointed resident choreographer José Navas' reinterpretation of Giselle to look forward to. I predict that will be Ballet BC's own "turning point"--a new story ballet by a rising choreographic star who proved with The bliss that from their limbs all movement takes he knows what it means to stamp this company as classically contemporary.

Now all we have to do is ensure Molnar and her troupe make it to that moment. She announced in her curtain speech that they are in the midst of a $300,000 fundraising campaign, almost half of which has been raised. That's great news, but there's a ways to go yet. I urge all dance lovers in BC to do their bit.


Friday, February 18, 2011


The only political scandal more galling than the Bev Oda affair
Is wondering when the opposition will actually grow a pair.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Holding Moonbeams

Last night we took a break from PuSh to attend the second presentation in this year's DanceHouse season at the Playhouse. Doug Elkins and Friends' Fräulein Maria is about as much fun as you're likely to have at the theatre in this or any other lifetime. It's also incredibly moving, fiercely intelligent, and wholly sincere as an homage not just to the cultural artifact that inspired it, but to the many dance genres from which it samples.

In his pre-show chat, Elkins gave a most engaging--and suitably elliptical--redaction of how he conceived the piece. Having grown up loving the The Sound of Music (the movie version with Julie Andrews, not the Broadway version with Mary Martin) and singing along to the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes, Elkins' Proustian attachment to the work, and the memories it evoked, was reawakened while introducing his children to the film. First produced in a small-scale version at Joe's Pub in New York in 2006, it was an immediate hit, and after securing the permission of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate (no mean feat, that) the work was expanded to its current 13-performer, 65-minute scope in 2008. It has been touring the United States ever since, with Vancouver its first international stop.

The show begins with Michael Preston, the show's co-director, warming up the audience vocally in his role as an Uncle Max-like impresario, conducting us in a version of "Do-Re-Mi." Then we hear the voice of Richard Rodgers commenting on audiences' deep affection for the character of Maria, before the curtain parts and Preston, with the aid of other company members and a few unfurled bolts of green and blue cloth, literally sets about making the hills come alive. Julie Andrews' bright soprano is the cue for the appearance of our Maria, and this is the occasion for the first of many surprises in the evening: in Elkins' version there are three Marias, one of them played by a man! Not only does this allow for some creative partnering and group sequences over the course of the show, but it also serves as an interesting comment on the multiple layers of spectatorial identification (some of them cross-gender) at work in the complex of character/role/actor.

Nuns in hoodies voguing to "How Do You Solve a Problem?" (led by the wonderful Deborah Lohse, who later gives a spirited turn as the haughty Baroness); a six-foot tall male Liesl in a pink tutu (the classically trained John Sorensen-Jolink) dancing with black B-boy Kurt to "I am Sixteen"; a capoeira-infused reprise of "Do-Re-Mi"; and a moving pas de deux X 3 for our finally united heroine and Captain Von Trapp: these were just a few of my favourite things from last night. Elkins himself dances two of the stand-out numbers in the show: a duet on a park bench with Preston (menacing red arm band now in place) to "Edelweiss" that involves a tightly choreographed, Godot-style exchange of a fedora, and that also quietly acknowledges the Holocaust; and a hilarious hip-hop solo as Mother Superior to "Climb Every Mountain."

Fräulein Maria is witty and knowing without being overly clever and precious. The work moves beyond mere parody to something far more generous, inviting us to reflect on what about the original movie was so captivating in the first place, and to participate in the joyous act of aligning the human voice at its purist with physical movement at its most gleefully buoyant and euphoric. Don't get me wrong: the dancers last night were all serious technicians, as adept at step-dancing and salsa as ballet and ballroom. But virtuosity was less the point than a more profound sense of kinesthetic connection: communicating to us, through their bodies, their pleasure at dancing together--and together for us--on stage. Just as the singing nun works her surrogate magic on the Von Trapps, so are we proprioceptively transported (and I think I mean that quite literally) by Doug Elkins and his friends. Outside on the sidewalk as we hum along to the score and do a little shuffle, we become (if only for a moment) flibbertigibbets, will-o'-the-wisps, clowns.

How, finally, do you find the words that mean Fräulein Maria? You don't. You just hold on to the experience for as long as you can.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

PuSh Review #12: Daniel Barrow at Club PuSh

After all the high-tech pyrotechnics of some of this year's PuSh shows (see, especially, Ryoji Ikeda's Datamatics, at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre on Thursday, which I'm told was fantastic), it seemed appropriate to end my own Festival experience on a decidedly more low-tech note. Thus it was that I made my way once again last night to Club PuSh, at Performance Works, for a first glimpse of Winnipeg-born, Montreal-based visual and performance artist Daniel Barrow's unique aesthetic.

Barrow combines old-fashioned storytelling with "manual" animation, projecting, layering and manipulating his own stunning drawings on an overhead projector while he intones an accompanying spoken-word narrative into an adjacent microphone. For this year's PuSh Festival, Barrow premiered a new work, Good Gets Better, which maps his childhood fascination with the Kissing Bandit onto the classic Harlequin figure in order to explore questions of melancholy and the beauty of sadness. Barrow's thief of the night steals from the super rich not necessarily to give to the poor, but rather to plant within those he has robbed a nascent notion of the value of valuelessness. A second work, Looking for Love in the Hall of Mirrors, is at once an ode to the social aesthetics of gay cruising, a love letter to Winnipeg, and a rumination on artistic influence and genealogy, with portraiture and the epistolary novel, among other self-reflective forms, occasioning various crises of identification in our tortured, watchful narrator.

Barrow's repurposing of obsolescent technologies combines with a romantic sensibility to bathe his audiences in a lush wash of nostalgia: for the picture books and puppet shows and shadow animation of one's youth; and, perhaps most poignantly, for what memories of those media have to say about how open to wonderment one was when young. In this age of big-budget spectacle and digital effects, it's refreshing to have artists like Barrow use the digits on their hands to transport us back every now and then to the magic of the analogue world.

A special shout-out to Florence Barrett, costume designer extraordinaire on The Objecthood of Chairs, who worked as Barrow's assistant last night, passing him successive overhead drawings with precision and aplomb.

Here endeth my 2011 PuSh reviews. With the dress rehearsal of La Marea and a partial viewing of Iqaluit (which I still hope to finish), I saw 14 shows over 20 days--which just might be a record for me. According to our latest figures, attendance this year is up more than 20%, surpassing 23,000. And it's not over yet: performances of several shows continue today and tomorrow. Consult the PuSh Festival website for more details, and see you next year.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Checking In

When you think of making an hour-long visit to a hotel room in your own city, likely the shortlist of scenarios of what's going to happen in that room is pretty small. In fact, David McIntosh's new site-specific dance-theatre piece for battery opera, M/HOTEL, on at the Holiday Inn on Howe Street through this Sunday, suggests a much broader spectrum of things to enjoy with strangers in said rooms than hospital corners on bedsheets and those tiny, pre-wrapped toiletries.

I don't want to give away what happens, but I suggest arriving early (rooms are available hourly beginning at 6 pm) and spending the night. Look for David in the Lobby Bar to collect your room key. Rates negotiable.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

PuSh Review #11: Peter Panties at The Cultch

From the start, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan was a character with a massive identity crisis: a boy who doesn't want to grown up, who can fly and whose best friend is a fairy, and who is traditionally played by a female actress in the stage version. So it makes sense that, over the years, Peter has become a creative canvas on which to project other, highly personalized, versions of difference and outsiderness. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was Michael Jackson's attempt to build his own Neverland, and to surround himself with a steady supply of "lost boys."

Local theatre artist Niall McNeil keeps things safely in the realm of make-believe in Peter Panties, a new musical play that opens at the Cultch's Historic Theatre tonight in a co-production between Neworld Theatre and Leaky Heaven Circus, and co-presented by the Cultch and the PuSh Festival. I caught a preview performance last night, and it was a most surreal experience. Working with co-writer Marcus Youssef, McNeil has used his own longstanding fascination with and interpretive deconstruction of the Peter Pan story to craft a pop-culture mash-up for our cynical, forensic (there is a CSI intertext) twenty-first century that nevertheless retains the sense of wonder and mythic possibility that was such a key element of the original story.

In Peter Panties, an oversexed Peter very much wants to grow up, settle down, and have a kid with Wendy (though there also seems to be a noticeable sexual frisson between Peter and Wendy's mother, Mrs. Darling). Tinkerbell, meanwhile, has a hate-on for Wendy, and seems to be working in cahoots with Hook and Starkey to see that she ends up dead. As for Wendy, who emerges as the protagonist of this story, her narrative arc appears to be one of increasing dis-enchantment: with her dull life at home chez Mother Darling; with the dreamworld of Neverland, which subjects her to violence and abduction; and with her fairytale marriage to Peter--which turns out to be just that, a fairytale, and which furthermore leaves her a young, single mother. Indeed, watching this Wendy I was very much put in mind of Joyce Carol Oates' teenage protagonist Connie, from her famous story "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?" However, unlike the moral allegory at work in Oates' story, Peter Panties remains at heart a comic fantasy and so, true to form, we end on an upswing, with a second marriage for the resurrected Wendy--this time to Niall himself. Peter is left picking at his green tights back in Neverland.

Overall, the production is pervaded by a sense of wonderfully anarchic chaos. It is less about retelling the Peter Pan story in a straight-up, comprehensible way than examining the creative process of storytelling itself. To this end, we hear in voice-over before the house lights go down McNeil and Youssef talking through their ideas for the play, exchanges that are later projected in video format on a white sheet. And a recurring refrain among several characters is what happens backstage, including, we are led to believe, some creative workings through of creative differences. Banquo's ghost, escaped from the Scottish play, also serves as a metatheatrical reference point in this regard.

Indeed, for me this play is mostly a love letter to the magic of the theatre, a magic that is all about showing the wires, and making do with what is at hand, but that nevertheless thrills and astounds because, together, we choose to believe (however tenuously or temporarily) in the power of this magic. And, here, director Steven Hill does not disappoint: the coups-de-théâtre in this show are achieved so simply (Tinkerbell holding Peter's cape while he flies past Mrs. Darling's window, Wendy and a mermaid duking it out in a shadow boxing match), but are no less gasp-inducing because of that.

Not everything in the production had gelled by last night: the pacing was slow to begin with; it was hard to hear what Veda Hille and her band, The Bark Dogs, were singing at times; and I'm not sure the lighting design, which keeps too many characters in too many scenes in semi-darkness for too long, completely works. That said, I had great fun, and I'm sure things will only get tighter over the course of the play's run.

That run in fact extends beyond the end of the PuSh Festival, to February 13th.