Saturday, March 19, 2011

On the Hunt at the Queen E

The real revelation of last night's performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Queen E, visiting the city for the first time in 18 years as guests of Ballet BC, was incoming Artistic Director Robert Battle's The Hunt (2001).

An ensemble work for six male dancers, the piece is set to a pounding afrobeat score by the French industrial percussion band Les Tambours du Bronx. Clad only in flowing, red-satin lined brown skirts, the dancers throw themselves into Battle's propulsive, muscular movement, manically spinning and jumping and stomping and chasing and encircling as they alternate between predator and prey. Either way, they move seamlessly as a group, and one of the most thrilling aspects of the choreography is the close bodily proximity Battle is able to maintain between his posse of dancers even as they drive across the stage at breathtaking speeds. To this end, there is also, amidst all this frenzy, some surprisingly tender partnering on display, including quasi-waltz phrases, with the dancers' bodies leaning into and enfolding one another, spent with exhaustion and eroticism in equal measure.

Clearly part of the hunt here is for new patterns and rituals of male bonding. Indeed, coming after Ailey's Cry--his 1971 ode to Black womanhood that was originally a single long solo for outgoing Artistic Director Judith Jamison, but has since been reworked for three female dancers--The Hunt rendered even more complex and unstable the representations of Black masculinity on offer in Ailey's work. How, for example, to read the two courtier figures in Memoria (1979), which was first up on the program and, I must say, as showing something of its age? Or what of the male trio in the "Sinner Man" sequence of Ailey's signature Revelations (1960), which closed the performance and, as one would expect, brought down the house? It was hard for me not to read the former as a couple and the latter as perhaps repenting sins of the male flesh that Ailey felt couldn't explicitly be named. Just as his own sexuality and death from AIDS still appears a taboo topic within the company mythology.

At any rate, Battle seems prepared to open up the company's repertoire to new interpretations and new choreographic influences, even as he maintains the spiritual (in all senses of that word) ties to tradition. More of his work is on display in the matinee performance today, alongside that of fellow contemporary choreographers Christopher Huggins and Ron Brown.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Margie Gillis' Thread at SFU Woodward's

Last night's premiere of Margie Gillis' Thread at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's was dedicated to the citizens of Libya and Japan. Amid all the media images showing the mounting devastation in both countries, it's reassuring to have an artist like Gillis remind us that what binds us most to one another, to our nameless other, is first and foremost our bodily vulnerability.

Thread is a meditation on the fabric--the lengthways warp and the crossways weft--of human connection, and it is structured as a journey. The piece opens with Margie attached at the waist to a cable suspended from the upstage left rafters--an umbilical cord?--and framed within a diagonal of light. It ends with her bent and crumbled on the floor in a tiny spot, a long white cloth spiraling around her body like a winding sheet.

Gillis has always been a gorgeous upper-body mover, her undulating arms frequently arcing and tracing and extending still further into the air via the striking costumes she wears--here designed by Vandal. Such was the case in a captivating middle section when a white dress with longs sleeves that extended well beyond Gillis' hands, in a manner akin to a straitjacket, occasioned some of the evening's most rending choreography. However, an earlier section in the piece also reminded me of both the subtlety and the complexity of Gillis' footwork. In this section, Gillis works with an elastic string pinned to the floor (see the photo above), threading her ankles and calves and thighs (and eventually her arms) in and around and under the string in such a way as to recall those games of elastic I watched my female classmates play at recess as a young kid--and which I always longed to join.

Thread also features co-performers Eleanor Duckworth (a nimble mover well into her 70s) and Marc Daigle, lighting design by Pierre Lavoie, and original music by Larsen Lupin. The show continues tonight at 8 p.m.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Turning Point On Fire at the Cultch

Proving that their stunning 2009 collaborative re-interpretation of Erik Satie's Relâche was not a one-off, the Turning Point Ensemble, Simone Orlando, and Josh Beamish's MOVE: the company, have done it once again, giving us a brand new Firebird 100 years after its Paris premiere.

Winner of the 2011 Rio Tinto Alcan Performing Arts Award for Music, Turning Point's Artistic Director and resident conductor, Owen Underhill, has commissioned a new chamber arrangement of Stravinsky's original score by Michael Bushnell. This comprises the first 35-minute half of the evening's program, and this lighter, more delicate version, featuring wind instruments, harp, and timpani and percussion to wonderful effect, was received rapturously by last night's audience at The Cultch.

After a 30-minute intermission, the audience returns to discover a cleared stage and the Turning Point musicians arranged on different levels of upstage scaffolding, part of Alan Storey's amazing set, complete with spiraling staircase and moveable ledges. MOVE Artistic Director and principal dancer Josh Beamish sits at the foot of the stairs, dressed in grey, and methodically folding innumerable paper cranes, which litter the floor at his feet. As the musicians warm up and tune their instruments, MOVE company members Cai Glover, Heather Dotto, and Gavin Stewart take turns improvising movement sequences as audience members file to their seats. When the house lights dim and Underhill assumes his position in the tech box behind the orchestra seating, from whence he will conduct Jocelyn Morlock's original score, we are ready for the start of Luft, Orlando's bold and beautiful choreographic take on the quest motif in the Firebird story.

As the Prince Ivan figure, I don't think I have ever seen Beamish dance as gorgeously, his amazing technique perfectly matched to Orlando's delicate and precise (and classically influenced) movement vocabulary. The amount of muscle control alone that it takes to flutter one's arms and hands the way Beamish effortlessly appears to do is astounding. Natalie Portman, eat your heart out! (And, yes, there is a Black Swan/White Swan motif at play here.) Expertly paired with Beamish as the Firebird is Alison Denham, and their pas de deux (particularly the floorwork) was especially captivating. The other dancers provide graceful accompaniment throughout, and, indeed, one of the most pleasing aspects of Luft is how thoroughly the MOVE dancers embody the musicality of Orlando's choreography, which in turn helps to highlight Morlock's lush score.

In short, this is a cross-disciplinary artistic collaboration that I hope goes far into the future, yielding still more bold reinterpretations of the classics. I personally vote for The Rite of Spring next! We have, dare I say, in Owen Underhill Vancouver's very own version of Diaghilev. And Turning Point, in its commissioning of and collaboration with other artists, is fast becoming a Ballets Russes for the 21st century.

Firebird is on at the Cultch through this Saturday.



Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fred and John

Following up on my pledge to use this blog in part to continue tracking some of the issues first raised in the book from whence it derives its name, I have an update, via today's New York Times, of my discussion of Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, and the performance and politics of hate speech in Chapter 4.

It was in the Times that I read that the US Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, has sided with Phelps et al. on their right to protest at military funerals, blaming America's war dead on the country's too-liberal tolerance of homosexuality. Not surprisingly, coming from a Roberts-led bench that has steadfastly defended First Amendment rights in previous decisions, the reasoning here followed a familiar path: “Debate on public issues should be robust, uninhibited and wide-open,” according to Roberts, because “speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.”

Read more about the ruling here.


Life Lived as a Sentence

Random thoughts on Life Sentences, Peter Bingham's mixed program for EDAM last night at the Roundhouse, on through this evening as part of this year's Vancouver International Dance Festival:

1. Sentences on life: I was pleasantly surprised by the recorded text (along with video, and of course EDAM's always amazing music/soundscapes and lighting design--yay James P.!) that preceded several of the pieces. Though not always the case, I generally see Bingham's work--and contact improvisation more generally--as eschewing any overtly narrative or storying impulse. And, indeed, last night the connections between the choreography and the spoken text were by no means explicitly evoked. Still, for each piece we were given some sort of external frame through which to view the dancing (starting with Chris Randle's photo retrospective outside the performance space, which captures many shots of EDAM dancers, both older and newer).

2. Sentencing life: Captivity and time were major themes subtending the entire program (foregrounded especially by James Proudfoot's tight spots in the third and fourth pieces), and as the aesthetics of dance are all about repetition, the work of moving bodies over time, it is hard not to read much of this material as a reflexive (and retrospective?) commentary on a life of/in dance. It was all very Proustian.

3. Live bodies as sentences: For me, the thrill of Bingham's contact improv has always been watching the dancers fling their bodies at and toward each other with such abandon, only to land upon and/or receive each other's weight with such lightness and delicacy and grace. If I can employ a typographic metaphor, in Bingham's work bodies often start out in a given sequence as exclamation marks (and verticality is important here), only to finish as question marks, dipping toward the floor, or rolling over another's rounded back, asking "Where do we go from here"? This was most in evidence in the first and last pieces on the program, with James Gnam and Farley Johansson reinventing the laws of gravity in the duet Right in Front of You, and then being joined, at the end of the evening, by Alana Gerecke (yay Alana!) and Stacey Murchison for the closing quartet Release Me. Capture and release were certainly in evidence in many of the lifts and jumps on display here, and it always boggles my mind the degree of trust needed to accomplish some of Bingham's moves. Blind back flips by Alana into James' outstretched hands--that's a statement you don't want to have too much doubt about!

Life Sentences was preceded by a free show by battery opera, featuring Artistic Director Lee Su-Feh and Victoria-based dancer Chung Jung-Ah being each other's private dancer in public. What amazing movers they both are.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ten Things I've Learned

Josh Bowman, friend, former student, and, for a time, PuSh Fundraising Manager, has a great blog called Ten Things I've Learned.

This month he's invited a bunch of us to submit guest posts. Today my submission has been posted. You can read it here.

I chose to revisit some of the things I learned from the Chairs collaboration.

Thanks, Josh, for the opportunity to engage in this process.


Golden Girl?

No, I don't mean Natalie Portman, though she did look ravishing at Sunday's Oscars, and even if we were rooting for Annette Bening, it's hard to hate any woman who not only survives a Darren Aronofsky movie but scores two men two boot. Granted, one is more fleet-footed than the other (and even has the last name to prove it).

I'm actually referring to Christy Clark, newly minted Premier-elect of British Columbia. Though I have no intention of voting Liberal in the next provincial election, I was silently rooting in this race for George Abbott, who is the most left-leaning of the leadership candidates, and who actually came out and said that he would restore arts and culture funding to 2008 levels.

What, one wonders, is Clark's stance on such an issue? How does it square with her "Families First" platform? I'm always deeply suspicious of such slogans, as their populist message usually masks a conservative agenda regarding what is perceived as elitist add-ons like the performing arts, etc. Never mind that an education in the arts should be a prime criterion for every family.

But then we already know how Clark feels about education...