Saturday, May 28, 2011


A short post on _post, the plastic orchid factory's newest show, on at The Dance Centre through this evening.

As I am just in the midst of reading Jennifer Homans' Apollo's Angels, her comprehensive, well-researched, and at times very politically slanted and polemical cultural history of ballet (for her everything seems to end with Balanchine), I was very taken with Artistic Director and choreographer James Gnam's witty and intelligent dialogue with his own classical training. Like Homans, Gnam begins by going back to Louis XIV's codification of French court dance in the 17th century. But Gnam's entrance as a latter-day Sun King and his brief demonstration of the discreet and restrained "noble" steps that begat ballet (the bravura jumps and spins would come later, with the Italians and the Russians) is actually preceded by a future anterior performance contained within the company bios in the program.

Each of these bios goes on at length about the performers' respective dance training (though, unfortunately, Natalie LeFebvre Gnam's seems to have been cut off in the printing), the physical and emotional highs and lows they experienced in relation to that training, and what eventually led them to trade the classical world for contemporary performance. In this way, _post is much more than a mere deconstruction of ballet's virtuosic steps and rigidly codified rules. It is, rather, much more dialectical in spirit, at once homage and critique, with each dancer's personal relationship to what they both learned and lacked in their classical training deeply informing the piece, and the obvious joy with which they perform it (something emphasized in last night's talkback, moderated by Lee Su-Feh).

Everything about the piece has been very carefully thought out, from the unique stage design and set-up, to James Proudfoot's always inspired lighting, to the amazing costume design by Kate Burrows (Regency space-age is how I would label it), and the abundant humour. At times I think the show's central prop--40 feet of white tulle that is wound up and unfurled at various key moments, and that variously functions as a grand pompadour-style wig for Louis/Gnam, and a cocoon, wedding dress, winding sheet, and, finally, the world's longest tutu for each of the female dancers--literally gets in the way. Certainly the business of folding and unfolding it distracted me on more than one occasion from the dancing and the delicacy of the choreography. Highlights in this regard include Natalie LeFebvre Gnam's amazing off-balance solo on "half point" (that is, she wears only one shoe, with the other remaining sock-clad); Alison Denham and Gnam's propulsive and floor-oriented duet in their spherical plastic tutus; and Denham and Bevin Poole's proprioceptive exchange of movement and text.

A final shout out to Taylor Deupree and Kenneth Kirschner's sound design. As an art form, ballet has always been subservient to music (indeed, story ballet started as an operatic entre-acte), and _post's layered, halting, hiccupy score nicely frees the dancers to explore first and foremost their bodies' internal rhythmic relationships with space, with each other--and with us.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Nach, Nach

It is certainly a major coup for local companies GasHeart Theatre and Theatre Conspiracy to have secured the world English-language premiere of Heiner Müller's Macbeth: nach Shakespeare (1971), commissioning a translation from renowned director and Müller collaborator/authority Carl Weber expressly for this production, on at Performance Works till this Sunday. I just wish I liked the results better.

In their program notes, director Quinn Harris and dramturg Jack Paterson go on at length about how Müller, whose famously deconstructive approach to the Bard's work is most iconically represented in Hamletmachine (1977), took on a rewriting of Macbeth in part because he found it one of Shakespeare's least successful plays, wrongly concentrating the appetite for absolute power in one tyrannical couple and failing to account for, or even show, the effects of such power on the subordinate classes. Müller's response, in an otherwise surprisingly faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's story, is to argue that the Macbeths' bloodthirstiness is symptomatic of the institutionalized exercise of power among the network of ruling elites in Scotland, with Duncan and Macduff and even, it is suggested at the very end of the play, a newly crowned Malcolm just as ruthless and violent and Machiavellian in seeking to establish their dominion over all others. Additionally, Müller inserts scenes showing that the people who pay the greatest price in such a system are not potential elite rivals, but rather the rank and file lower class subjects (the grunt soldiers, the servants, the peasants) whom the ruling classes dispatch to carry out their dirty work--or merely dispatch. In so doing, Müller inherited and extended the socially critical theatrical legacy of Brecht in the GDR, asking with pointed historical reference how Soviet-style communist rule in 1971 differed from life in Germany under the Nazis.

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after Bosnia, after the end of Apartheid, after the Rwandan genocide, after 9/11 and the war on terror and Abu Ghraib, after the Arab Spring: after all the afters, how do you, as Harris asks in her note, make Müller's themes newly relevant "forty years later for an audience in Vancouver"? I certainly agree with this production's creative team that those themes are perhaps more resonant than ever. I just think that in striving to demonstrate this, we are given a mish-mash of cultural references that are more confusing than coherent in their tone.

Indeed, it is the overall tone of this production (or the lack thereof) that I found the most vexing. It veers wildly from reveling in grotesque humour to solemn sermonizing, not just within single scenes, but often individual speeches. I appreciate how this is in itself an appropriate alienation-effect, keeping the audience off guard in terms of how and with whom we should be identifying in the play. But I think the comic and the serious in Harris' staging operate less in a deliberately dialectical and destabilizing theatre of ideas sort of way than in a more inchoate and impressionistic theatre of images sort of way. The abundant use of technology in this production might actually be more of a hindrance than a help, both in terms of the live video streaming (I'm not sure I understood the point of the witches' doll scene) and the pre-recorded episodes.

A case in point in terms of the latter is the scene in which the drunk and lame Porter rouses himself to attend to the knocking of Macduff and Ross. Sarah Afful's on-stage interaction with Evelyn Chew and Courtney Lancaster (who play soldiers, but who also double, along with Afful, as the three witches) is very funny and affecting. But her slow hobble to the stage exit is followed by an even longer video sequence in which we follow on closed-circuit TV her progress along the length of Performance Works' vertical lobby to the main outside entrance to Granville Island. The Porter's reward for letting Macduff and Ross in is having the hand severed from his one remaining arm, but the shock of this gratuitous violence is undercut not just by the distancing effects of the video medium, but because that medium had also previously established the tone of this scene as one of comic play. Thus, when Macduff and Ross "re-enter" the stage and toss a prosthetic hand at the soldiers (who like us have been following the events on screen) it elicits a giggle rather than a gasp.

In fact, this is the case with all of the bodily appendages that get hacked off and prosthetically waved around in this production, and I have to say that I was a bit underwhelmed by what I had expected from earlier reviews to be a stage awash in blood and the detritus of human violence. Bright splotches of red do splatter the stage (and individual actors' bodies) at several strategic moments, but not enough, I would argue, to signal the mise-en-scène of theatrical extremity and horror that I think Harris and her crew are after here. Either go all out like Polanski and flood the stage in rivers of blood (expensive and not easy to clean up, I admit), or else telegraph the shock of the violence in other, more subtle ways. To this end, the single red splotch of colour that found its way onto the otherwise immaculate white blouse of Jennifer Mawhinney's Lady Macbeth during Duncan's murder (likely an accident) was far more visually powerful to me than the various drips and pools that collected over the course of the evening on the stage floor, and which anyway in the end had more of an inadvertently humourous acoustic effect, as in stepping through them the actors' shoes inevitably became sticky, a sound thereafter reproduced whenever they walked on stage.

The uneasy tension between the comic and the serious extends, in my mind, to problems in transitions between scenes, and to an at times indistinguishable doubling of roles. It is perhaps Harris' point to suggest that the witches and the soldiers are more or less of a piece in terms of their powerlessness to predict anything other than what is the normal course of events under a dictatorship. But modulating performances and vocal registers a bit more would at least help audience members distinguish who is who in a given scene, especially when performers rush on and off the stage in such a frenzy.

There is a great deal to admire in this production, not least another fantastic performance by Mawhinney (so amazing in Theatre Conspiracy and Rumble Productions' Blackbird). And everyone involved is to be applauded many times over for realizing that Müller's play had an afterlife in English. I'm just not sure they are yet sure of what--or who--they were after in their staging.

Nach, nach?


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Congratulations Alana!

Kudos to my doctoral student Alana Gerecke for being named one of fourteen 2011 Trudeau Scholars. As a result of the award, Alana is eligible to receive funding of up to $180,000 over the next three years in support of her research on site-specific dance and urban publics.

Read all about Alana's groundbreaking work here.


Harper Watch #1

So it didn't take long. After introducing his new cabinet to the public and then absconding into the Ottawa afternoon, the newly major Stephen Harper had his staff quietly issue a press release announcing three new appointments to the Senate.

Here's the kicker: all three were defeated Tory candidates in the last election. What's more, two (Larry Smith and Fabian Manning) had resigned seats they previously held in the Senate in order to run in the election. They now join Josée Verner in being rewarded with a patronage appointment from the PM in lieu of being duly and democratically elected by the people.

I guess that means Harpy has given up on that promise of an elected upper chamber altogether. Mark my words, there will be more such shenanigans to come.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Canadian Realpolitick

I guess the head-in-the-sand attitude I'd adopted in the immediate aftermath of the May 2nd federal election results will no longer hold. The new political landscape has been brought home to me by three separate events this week:

1. At their annual march on Parliament Hill, pro-life activists looked newly emboldened, despite what Harper said during the campaign about not reopening the abortion debate. Apparently several of his bankbenchers haven't yet received this memo, because several of them were there making speeches about what was now possible for their movement with a Tory majority.

2. The Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the case surrounding InSite, Vancouver's safe injection site in the Downtown Eastside. The city and the province want the clinic to remain in operation, backed by overwhelming statistical evidence on how many lives have been saved since its doors opened. Ottawa is arguing that the clinic's special dispensation to operate outside the Criminal Code is untenable, especially as that Code is administered federally. According to their lawyer, however, that doesn't necessarily mean that the Tories would shut InSite down, despite what previous cabinet ministers have stated.

3. And speaking of the Supreme Court, the announcement by Justices Ian Binnie and Louise Charron that they will take early retirement from the bench, combined with the mandatory retirements at 75 of three other Justices (Morris Fish, Louis LeBel and Marshall Rothstein) over the next four years, gives Harper the opportunity to recast what he has previously decried as an overly activist judiciary in profoundly conservative ways. Making the Court subservient to a Parliament whose democratic principles Harper has already proven he's more than willing to cast aside at whim would of course entrench his authority even further.

If most of the voters who chose the Conservatives this time around did so on the basis of their economic stewardship, they may be in for a very rude surprise in the coming years.

Just saying.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Kidd Pivot's Kinesthetics

At the talk-back session following last night’s performance of Kidd Pivot’s The You Show at the Cultch (which I reviewed in its Shadbolt Centre workshop phase back in October), Crystal Pite brought up once again the notion of kinesthetic empathy that she has been using in most press around the show to explain why she cast the four duets that make up the evening-length presentation in the second person. As Pite explained, when her dancers reach their arms behind them, or torque their bodies backward, or fall onto the floor, she is hypothesizing that, in witnessing those actions, we will feel something similar in our own bodies, whether as a result of our own storehouse of corporeal memories the dancers’ movements trigger, or by virtue of imaginatively simulating those movements ourselves. In the first and last pieces (“A Picture of You Falling” and “A Picture of You Flying,” respectively) she provides additional verbal cues in the form of spoken text that, through direct address, invites a further layer of identification of what we are watching.

Needless to say, this “resonated” quite powerfully with me, especially as I have just finished reading Susan Leigh Foster’s Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (2011) in connection with similar physical and affective processes at work in dance-theatre generally, and Pina Bausch’s repertoire more specifically. Drawing on Foster (whose work I’m convinced Pite has read), I’m interested in asking what the relationship is between physical motion, emotion, and social movements. I pose this question not just in the ideal terms of what action-oriented group formations and mobile politics the choreographed display of the first two terms in the equation might conspire to incite, but also, on a quite literally pedestrian level, in how the corporeal foundations of dance and theatre can get us to think more muscularly about the ways we move beside each other in the world.

In this regard, I find singularly instructive the research of Foster, who in tracing the parallel and entwined histories of kinesthesia and empathy (in neurobiology, psychology, aesthetic theory, and dance criticism) from the eighteenth century to the present suggests that choreographed dance (and movement-based performance more generally) is an especially useful critical and cultural lens through which to discuss a—by no means fixed, unmediated, or transhistorical—notion of fellow-feeling. From the influential modern dance critic John Martin’s early theories of “kinesthetic sympathy” and the spectator’s inductive muscular transference of the emotional intention of a dancer’s movement (what he first termed “metakinesis” and later “inner mimicry”) to Vittorio Gallese’s recent influential research on “mirror neurons” and the mutually resonant physical and emotional relationship between enacting, observing, and simulating movement, Foster considers the ways choreographed dance makes all the more apprehendable a notion of kinesthetic empathy that Gallese, for one, sees as foundational to human social interaction.

Foster poses the relevance of such inquiries not just to the politics of the body, but to the larger body politic, at the outset of her book: “Are there ways in which a shared physical semiosis might enable bodies, in all their historical and cultural specificity, to commune with one another?” Like Foster, I do not yet have an answer to that question, but I do think dance-theatre as emotionally and physically complex as that composed by Pite might help us reflect upon it.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Gina and Pina

Maybe it's because I have just been writing about her, but O Vertigo's La chambre blanche, which closed DanceHouse's third season in spectacular fashion last night at the Playhouse, reminded me of Pina Bausch: both aesthetically in terms of its mixing of dance and theatre; and thematically in its exploration of various states of confinement, not least those that subtend oppressive and antagonistic gender roles.

Originally created by O Vertigo Artistic Director Ginette Laurin in 1992, La chambre blanche underwent a complete choreographic revisioning in 2008. One thing that remained consistent, however, was the piece's iconic set, which, like Bausch's famously memorable mise-en-scènes, establishes the overall expressive tone and at once enables and constrains the movement patterns that will be explored within it. In the case of Laurin's work, the set is single room of a turn-of-the-century asylum or sanatorium, complete with high concrete walls, black and white tiled floor, ceiling-level windows, floor-level heating grates, and a single doorway upstage centre that opens onto a corridor containing a working faucet and a stack of buckets.

The dancer-inmates (6 women and 3 men) enter, clad only in white underwear and black street shoes. One of the men begins a sequence of movements near one of the women, who remains motionless and unflinching as he proceeds to cut, jab, and thrust at the air immediately around her, a series of potentially violent blows clearly directed toward her vulnerable and exposed body, but also just as clearly failing to find their target. And, indeed, it is the woman who finally initiates contact, blocking one of the man's would-be punches (precisely cued to Nicolas Bernier and Jacques Poulin-Denis' pulsating music) with her hand, which is the signal for the other dancers, until then lying still on the floor, to join in the fray.

And join in they do, walking, running, jumping, spinning, falling, crawling, sliding, and colliding in patterns that physicalize both the compulsive repetition and the resignation that is tied (quite literally) to the spatial and social extremity of their situation: bound within and to this enclosed and confining room and, as a necessary but perhaps unwelcome consequence, to each other. As such, the group contact between the dancers throughout La chambre blanche alternates and escalates (often quite rapidly and dramatically) between the twin poles of tenderness and aggression: one dancer is helped to scale the walls to look out one of the windows, while others are pinned against them; bodies supported and embraced one moment just as quickly get shoved aside or deliberately knocked down.

And in all of this, exhaustion provides no means of escape. The pace of this piece is as relentless as its emotional assault. Pauses are worked in to the choreography to allow dancers to switch into a version of black evening dress, don bunny masks (shades of The Shining?) and, in the case of the women, to slip on pointe shoes; but otherwise quiet, private moments, where the dancers can retreat from the intensity of the group, are few and far between. One exception occurs when different dancers break off from the physical hurly-burly to lean against and whisper into either of the miked heating grates, their amplified voices seeking to express fragments of their personal narratives that have otherwise been subsumed by the dizzying group movement. But even these snatches of individual lucidity and attempted self-differentiation eventually give way to the primal sounds of the group: screams, moans, groans, pants, giggles, laughs, and screeches replace intelligible--and individuated--speech as the evening wears on.

La chambre blanche ends with an image both gorgeous and haunting: one of the women dancers, clad in a white bodice-cum-straight jacket, flits on pointe centre-stage, the long sleeves of the jacket tucked into chinks in the asylum walls on either side of her. Laurin has stated that she first created the piece as a reaction to Marc Lépine's 1989 murder of 14 women at Montreal's École Polytechnique. In its reimagining for contemporary audiences the work has necessarily taken on additional cultural meanings and references (not least, as Carolyn suggested to me afterward, Abu Ghraib); however, this closing presentation of a defenseless, vulnerable, objectified, and institutionally immobilized woman still retains its Bauschian power.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Film Heaven

RIP Videomatica, Vancouver's premiere specialty video store. According to today's Vancouver Sun, the iconic West 4th outlet will soon be shuttering its doors after 28 years in business, a victim of rising internet downloading.

Co-owners Graham Peat and Brian Bosworth are hoping to keep the collection (which includes approximately 30,000 DVDs, 1,000 Blu-ray discs, and 5,000 VHS tapes) together, likely by donating it to a cultural or educational institution. I sure hope so, as Videomatica is still the go-to place for obscure and hard-to-find titles, or for works that have not yet been transferred to DVD. Just last fall, in fact, I borrowed Videomatica's VHS copy of John Greyson's The Law of Enclosures in order to re-watch the film for a paper I was writing.

With local philanthropist Yosef Wosk involved in the talks around the collection, maybe the recipient institution might actually be SFU. That would be fantastic, a major coup for the film program in Contemporary Arts as it settles into its new digs at SFU Woodward's.

Speaking of which: this past Thursday at SFU Woodward's saw the opening night screening of the Contemporary Arts film grads' fourth-year films. It was a long evening--16 short films over 3+ hours--but well worth it, filled with many outstanding moments, including a cameo in one of the strongest films, Lisa Pham's Landing, by the Commercial Drive location of Black Dog Video, which I guess now inevitably inherits Videomatica's mantle.

I can't do justice to all the highlights in the program, which ranged across genres and styles. But I would like to give a special shout out to three films whose creators were instrumental in the making of Objecthood last year, and whose talents--judging by there efforts here--are limitless: Graham and Nelson Talbot's Looking Up; Jessica Han's Bill, Please!; and Sammy Chien's Patterns of Liquid Stars.

You can catch all three films, along with the rest of the program, tonight at SFU Woodward's, starting at 7 pm.