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.