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?