Sunday, February 12, 2012

Elsewhere Bodies

Along with Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor would seem to be one of the current It-boy choreographers of the ballet world. But not necessarily because of his facility, as with Ratmansky and Wheeldon, for re-imagining and re-invigorating traditional story ballet. Rather, McGregor--a conceptualist choreographer par excellence--is sought after precisely for the ways in which he is able to make classically trained dancers move in such radically new ways, shifting the axes of their bodies, in particular, from the form's built-in predisposition toward vertical alignment, precision, and symmetry to a new circuitry based on horizontal dispersion, unsteadiness, and asymmetry. Re-wiring kinesthetic expectations--both those of his dancers and his audiences--is what McGregor's aesthetic is all about.

And most of his experiments in this regard start with his own company, Random Dance, formed way back in 1992, long before he became resident choreographer of London's Royal Ballet (in 2006). A research cauldron that McGregor uses to explore, among other things, the relationship between technology and live bodies in both the creation and delivery of dance performance, Random Dance was at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday in DanceHouse's presentation of their acclaimed work, Entity, which has been touring the world since its premiere in 2008.

If, as many cognitive scientists have suggested, knowing begins at the level of sensory-motor recognition and enactment, with embodied patterns and behaviours that we first observe, incorporate and then repeat in a manner that is at once mimetic and deeply kinesthetic, then McGregor (who, it should be noted, has been Artist-in-Residence at Cambridge University's Department of Experimental Psychology since 2004) wants to interrupt the received social and physical messages we routinely send from our bodies to our brains and back again. Why, to move left or right, or forward or backwards, do we automatically lift one leg first? What if the movement begins with a dipped shoulder, a thrust pelvis, or a bobbing head? What if, instead of extending a limb, as expected, we fold it, or cross it over another? Why not see pointing and flexing as consubtantial rather than oppositional?

By asking himself--and his dancers--such questions, McGregor is able to compose some startlingly original movement patterns. And if, in Entity, those patterns begin in a bodily architecture based on the ideal proportions of da Vinci's Vitruvian Man (in addition to various mathematical projections that reference Fibonnaci numbers and the Golden Mean, McGregor's dancers are exemplary in their archetypal perfection), they do not end there. Indeed, the undulating spines, twisted poses, and recombinant partnering of the 10 dancers in this piece force us to rethink, again and again, the whole premise of natural, designed, and engineered movement.

On that score, I have come to realize, in writing this post, that I don't really have the language to describe in any precise detail what the movement in Entity actually looks like. I could say that at times last night I was reminded of the drag ball voguing from Paris is Burning, or the playground roughhousing of children, or amoeba darting and shifting under a microscope, or droplets of water detaching and reattaching themselves on a smooth surface. But this somehow makes the piece sound like an extended, and overly studied, exercise in movement analogy--a reading McGregor in part encourages via the opening and closing projection nods to Eadweard Muybridge. However, this ignores the obvious sensuous pleasure that McGregor takes in so muscularly exploring different proprioceptive responses to the elsewhere of bodies moving through space. And the equally obvious delight we take in discovering that elsewhere within ourselves: as we twist and contort our torsos while watching, and then again as we struggle into our coats after the piece is over.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #15/Critique #1: Taylor Mac at Club PuSh

At Club PuSh last night, Taylor Mac closed out the 2012 Festival with a show that, to me, represents the essence of PuSh: providing a shared experience of uncommon artistry that also reveals something about ourselves (and the world) we did not know, or wished not to examine, or maybe had willfully forgotten. Having toured The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac to the Festival and Club in 2009, this new work was born from a lazy, throwaway remark made by a reviewer of that earlier show, and then subsequently picked up by several other journalists: namely that Mac was a cross between David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Tiny Tim--in other words a gender-bending, glitter-wearing "niche performer" who plays a ukulele.

Hence Comparison is Violence, or The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook, in which, as Mac tells us, he sets out to explore, and either own or debunk, the analogy. In the process, he not only pays tribute to both artists' repertoires, but also contextualizes the links between them--and his own--in terms of a larger history of artistic influence and theatrical self-definition and re-invention. As Mac says at one point, referencing his own anxiety and shame at being seen as a Hedwig wannabe (a role for which he was at one point considered in the off-Broadway production of the John Cameron Mitchell/Steven Trask musical), the violence of comparison comes from its unthinking reductiveness, the way in which in our consumer culture we use it as a handy shorthand to signify taste and thus authorize a particular kind of acquisitiveness, be it in terms of financial or cultural capital. Whereas for Mac, who would never deny the importance of cultural influence and aesthetic mixing, what we should be doing is taking the time to provide a broader genealogy for why, as but one example, we think Lady Gaga is the new Madonna, and what each singer's immersion in the New York club scene in the late 90s and 70s, respectively, tells us about the different "subcultural" aesthetic currents then circulating, eventually "trickling up" to the pop cultural surface that is the terra mobile that most of us surf or skim.

However, as Mac also reminds us, there is a hole in the ozone layer, and these molecules of aesthetic influence are in danger of escaping forever unless we catch them and parse them and tell their stories in shows such as this one. And in our responses to them. Indeed, as engaged spectators, we are Mac's collaborators and co-creators (a point brilliantly illustrated last night not just through a bit of anti-matchmaking, but also through a closing sequence of collective mime involving a bit of imaginary chewing gum) and, as such, our duty is to honour the past in the present so that we can, in Mac's words, dream the story forward.

In this wise and wonderful work, Mac demonstrates to us that he is at once a performer working in the grand tradition of theatre and song and one unlike any other.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Push 2012 Review #14: Eat the Streets Awards Ceremony at the Roundhouse

Although I didn't get the chance to dine out alongside them at participating Vancouver restaurants these past two weeks, I did make time this afternoon to watch the children from Bridgeview Elementary hand out their "best of" awards at the Roundhouse in an event presided over by Mammalian Diving Reflex impresario Darren O'Donnell. Eat the Streets is the third PuSh Festival piece that O'Donnell's Toronto-based MDR has done with Bridgeview students (or the "Jury from Surrey" as he dubbed them today), after 2009's Children's Choice Awards (in which students rated different PuSh shows that year) and 2008's Haircuts by Children (in which yours truly handed over his locks to apprentice stylists from the school--see photo below). This time round, a posse of 25 students or so were divided into three groups and ferried to different restaurants in Gastown and environs, including Nuba at The Waldorf, Nicli Antica Pizzeria, Chill Winston, Calabash Bistro, Chambar, Subeez, Irish Heather GastroPub, and The Old Spaghetti Factory.

Encouraged to be adventurous in their ordering (including experiments with venison carpaccio and duck foie gras at Chambar and spicy jerk chicken and curry at Calabash), the budding foodies were also given license to inspect and comment on everything from the cleanliness of the washrooms and chefs' uniforms to the comfiness of the furniture, ambience, and overall decor. Asked to write up their thoughts for the blog accompanying the project (see, which also includes ample visual and other documentation provided by O'Donnell), the students also came up with the final award categories and composed their respective jury citations for the various winners. Most of the participating students, plus a few alumni from Children's Choice and Haircuts, took a turn presenting an award this afternoon, and I have to say they were all very discriminating critics--not to mention, in several cases, born performers. Conscripted to represent Nicli Antica, whose representatives were unable to attend the ceremony, I am pleased to say that I picked up three awards on their behalf: Best Ice Cream; Best Smelling Washroom; and, finally, Scariest Washroom, the kids apparently having been spooked by how loud the self-flushing toilets are.

It was a huge amount of fun, and a delight to see how O'Donnell and assistant Donna coaxed even the shiest of students out of their shells. Best of all, it was announced that MDR is launching a Western Mammalian offshoot and plans to continue its hugely successful and creative partnership with the students and staff of Bridgeview, whose principal was also on hand to attest to how rewarding that partnership has so far been.

I can't wait to see what O'Donnell and the students cook up next. In the meantime, it's off to Club PuSh tonight, for Taylor Mac's Comparison is Violence show, and of course the not-to-be-missed PuSh Wrap Party.

Me getting my haircut by a Bridgeview student at the 2008 PuSh Festival


Push 2012 Review #13: After Trio A and Beginning at The Dance Centre

This year the PuSh Festival has once again partnered with The Dance Centre to present an international offering of challenging conceptual dance (see, as well, last year's "Sound Machine" by the Swiss-based compagnie drift). In this case, Croatian-born, Amsterdam-based dancer and choreographer Andrea Božić has brought to Vancouver two interdisciplinary works that also make bold use of video and sound.

In the first, and most interesting, piece, "After Trio A," Božić enters into a dialogue with one of Yvonne Rainer's most famous postmodern dance creations, "Trio A" (1966). Rainer's piece was made to accompany/illustrate her equally famous "No Manifesto," which announced her rejection of spectacle and virtuosity and sentiment and audience involvement and heroic imagery. Instead, "Trio A," with its simple pedestrian movements and straightforward presentation of the body in fluid relation with space (walking, running, stretching, bending, squatting, extending) sought to build a basic grammar of dance from processes of bodily recognition and repetition rather than theatrical absorption and transcendence. Božić's work actually shows the labour that goes into such simplicity by having two local dance artists (Anne Cooper and Claire French) learn a sequence of Rainer's choreography live in front of the audience, and then repeat the movement as best they can a number of times.

Watching a television monitor positioned downstage, French begins by tentatively hopping in place, chopping the air, lying down on the floor. With no access to the video itself, we have no way to judge how well she is doing. However, that is soon remedied when images of Rainer dancing her original choreography are displayed on one of two monitors mounted from the rafters. French now goes back and forth between the two screens in copying the movement, and we go back and forth between her live dancing body and Rainer's virtual one, the usual process of mimetic representation reversed in this case, and the out-of-syncness of the movement actually helping to frame and amplify each distinct gesture and step, as well as the pauses between them. This becomes even more the case when a live video feed of French's live dancing body watching Rainer's recorded dancing body is displayed on a second monitor.

But things don't stop there. At a certain point Cooper joins French on stage, her real-time instruction in the choreography coming from her watching and imitating of French watching and imitating Rainer. After a few circuits through the sequence together (which also include video artist Julia Willms coming on stage to juggle some glow-in-the-dark balls and sound artist Robert Pravda raising and lowering a stereo speaker attached to a pulley), the dancers then take successive solo turns repeating what they have just learned alone, this time without the aid of the Rainer video. Interestingly, Cooper was able to remember more of the choreography than French, and it was impossible, given the structure of the piece, not to interpret this in terms of of a dialectic of mediation and embodiment, mimesis and kinesis.

I was less taken with the second piece on the program, "A Beginning." It's another dialogue, in this case between Božić, as dancer, and Willms, as visual artist. Dressed all in white, Božić positions herself upstage, in front of a large white screen. As Božić starts very slowly to move, Willms, seated at a drafting table stage right, starts to trace her outline in black marker, which is then via another live video feed projected onto the screen. At first dancer and artist are more or less in sync and the residual outlined trace of Božić's body is recognizably anthropomorphic. But then Božić starts to play with Willms, either speeding up or slowing down her movements, going forward or reversing. The drawn shapes start to look distorted and grotesque. Soon enough, however, it is Willms who is playing with Božić, moving her paper back and forth, faster and slower, drawing spirals and lines that Božić must dance to, even colouring in the white clothes of her body. And if this is indeed a contest between artistic media, it has to be said that by the end of it Willms wins. For me, the piece is more effective visually than it is on the level of movement, with Willms emerging as a kind of Twomblyesque animator of the dancing body.

Božić and company continue at The Dance Centre through this evening, when Cooper and French will learn a whole new sequence of Rainer's signature work.


Friday, February 3, 2012

Push 2012 Review #12: El Pasado at SFU Woodward's

The Argentinean writer and director Mariano Pensotti borrows from film an aesthetic of seriality and simultaneity for his large-scale theatrical creations. Both were on display in La Marea, a site-specific work that unfolded in the storefronts of the 100-block of Water Street in Gastown during last year's PuSh Festival. And both are also on display in his latest offering for PuSh, El pasado es un animal grotesco (The Past is a Grotesque Animal), now on at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's through tomorrow. However, Pensotti is also deeply wedded to telling stories, and for all the industrial staging and spectacle that go into his pieces, at their heart they remain about the desire for, and the drama of, human connection.

El pasado takes place on a large revolving stage divided into four quadrants, and from which we are introduced in turn (ha, ha!) to four twentysomethings living in Buenos Aires and struggling to shape a future for themselves at the start of the twenty-first century. Mario is a would-be filmmaker who has just started a relationship with a girl named Dana. Vicky is a veterinarian's assistant obsessed with her father's double life. Pablo is an upwardly-mobile advertising executive who stumbles upon a severed hand in an unmarked package left outside his apartment door. And Laura is a poor woman from the provinces who absconds to Paris with her family's life savings in order to remake herself, only to be dragged back home, broken and defeated. Indeed, this theme of attempted escape and unavoidable return plays out for all the characters, as each at one point or another over the decade chronicled in the play moves to another country with grand ambitions of starting a new life, before eventually succumbing to the weight of the past that stalks them so mercilessly.

The added conceit of the piece is that each of the character's stories is narrated to us in serial fashion by one of the other actors, who pass a wireless microphone amongst themselves to recount the different vignettes we are observing in the revolving quadrants, with their remarks then translated into English surtitles via two video monitors suspended stage left and right. Oddly, this does not reduce the drama in any way; if anything, it heightens it, and I was compelled not just by how much humour and physical action (especially involving Pablo and the severed hand he becomes obsessed with) was on offer last night, but also by the deeply affecting turns of all the actors, who in scene after scene must compete for our real-time attention, for an emotional connection, against the torrent of words that is constantly abstracting the present-tense, flesh and blood materiality of their lives into a bunch of dated calendar entries that can then be conveniently archived as part of our collective theatrical memory (the significance of all those file boxes brought out by the supernumerary stage manager over the course of the evening?).

Indeed, what Pensotti shows with this work is not just how our personal pasts, like voracious animals, are always threatening to overtake and consume us, but also how avidly we ourselves cannibalize those pasts: turning them into films (Mario) or ceding them to a friend's theatrical project (Laura); rewriting them in our own (Vicky) or, quite literally, another's (Pablo) hand.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Push 2012 Review #11: Almighty Voice and His Wife at The Waterfront

As PuSh Festival Senior Curator Sherrie Johnson and I were discussing last night after the premiere of Daniel David Moses' Almighty Voice and His Wife at the Waterfront Theatre, it's hard to believe the piece was written and first premiered way back in 1991. That's how theatrically audacious and representationally daring the piece is, made even more so in this compelling production from Canada's premiere Aboriginal theatre company, Native Earth Performing Arts, which is here vividly directed by Michael Greyeyes in a co-presentation with Touchstone and Pi Theatres as part of this year's Aboriginal Performance Series at the Festival.

The play is a two-hander told over two acts and based on historical incidents. Almighty Voice is a Cree man from the One Arrow Reserve in Saskatchewan who is arrested after poaching a cow. He escapes from prison and a manhunt is initiated by the Northwest Mounted Police. Hiding out at his mother's home with his wife, White Girl, who has already had a terrifying vision of his demise, Almighty Voice prepares for the inevitable shootout. When it comes, it is brutal and bloody. All of this is told in a fairly straightforward manner over 10 compact scenes, the titles of which are announced in a Brechtian manner by White Girl. However, this metatheatrical conceit--together with the almost deliberately anthropological/dioramic way (most of the scenes are played in a single large centre spot on an otherwise bare stage) this "true story of the dying Plains Indian" is staged by Greyeyes--is a clue to what's coming next.

Indeed, returning from intermission the audience discovers the stage now cluttered with props, the flies open to expose the wings, and a cue card dangling from the rafters announcing Act 2: Ghost Dance. The actors themselves, we soon discover, return in white face, with White Girl now additionally dressed like a Mountie and, true to the interlocutor/impresario role she now takes on, charged with getting the person she addresses as Almighty Ghost to perform his Indianness for us. Combining aspects of the vaudeville routine and the minstrel and medicine shows, the second act is a series of increasingly outrageous and high-stakes riffs on "redskin" stereotypes, addressed directly to the audience. Indeed, in Act 2 Moses doesn't just break the fourth wall, he explodes it, with both Mr. Interlocutor and Almighty Ghost coming out into the audience at various points, and each strategically playing to and upon our ideological sympathies in order to gain the upper hand.

And it is this last point that makes Moses' play at once so groundbreaking and compellingly contemporary, for it accomplishes via its canny structure the double task of exposing both real and representational violence to us, theatricalizing Aboriginal stereotypes and then catching us in the act of succumbing to them. It is risky material, to be sure (think of some of the backlash and misinterpretation that accompanied Spike Lee's film Bamboozled), and it takes very accomplished performers to bring it off successfully, capturing both the ironic comedy and the tragic drama underlying the jokes. Happily, the incredibly talented Derek Garza and PJ Prudat are more than up to the task, and kudos must go to all the artists involved in bringing this masterpiece of Canadian drama back to the stage.

Almighty Voice and His Wife continues at the Waterfront through this Saturday.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Push 2012 Review #10: No. 2 at The Cultch

No. 2, which the PuSh Festival is co-presenting with the Cultch through this Saturday, is a virtuosic performance in search of a more tonally coherent and satisfyingly constructed play. In this solo work by Toa Fraser (who subsequently directed a multi-character film adaptation), the amazing Madeleine Sami plays all nine roles, starting with Nanna Maria, the matriarch of a large Fijian family living in New Zealand who decides one morning that she will name her successor, and calls upon her grandchildren to help prepare a feast (the second generation being "worthless"). Enlisting a range of sharply delineated voices, physical gestures, and postures, Sami then introduces us in turn to: the dependable Erasmus, charged with finding a pig to roast; granddaughters Charlene and Hibiscus, enlisted to prepare the accompanying curries; the feckless Soul, who only seems to be good for stirring up trouble; rugby-playing Tyson, who seems to be Nanna Maria's favourite, and who brings with him his English girlfriend, also named Maria; and the young Moses, whom Sami brings to hilarious life in all his childish excitability. The ninth character is Father Francis, the local priest whom Nanna Maria invites to make the event more authentically Sicilian, in honour of her dead husband, who fought in Italy during the war, and with whom she is still in the habit of communicating.

Alone on stage, save for the chair from which Nanna Maria issues her directives, Sami is able to switch back and forth between characters with expert precision, telegraphing each grandchild's relationship with the battleaxe--and with each other--via a tone of weary resignation (Erasmus) or aggrieved martyrdom (Hibiscus and Charlene) or uncertain worry (Tyson) or innocent obliviousness (Moses and, in his way, Soul). Dramaturgically, however, I feel that Nanna Maria's own motives in naming her successor, and her somewhat fickle and random manipulations of her grandchildren, are left unexplained, or else are not provided enough internal context (or conflict).

SPOILER ALERT! Early on, it appears that Tyson will be the anointed one, even though, as per Fijian matriarchal custom, it would make more sense to name either Charlene or Hibiscus. This would seem to be confirmed especially after Nanna Maria starts warming to Tyson's girlfriend, with whom she gets drunk on grog and gin while the others do all the work, and whom she starts calling her adopted daughter. But by the time the feast is prepared, she seems to be taking direction from little Moses and when, in a surprise move, she ends up picking the person who appears the least responsible, Soul, we do have to wonder if she hasn't been having everybody on. Perhaps she sees in Soul, whose dance music mix and consequent flirtation with Tyson's Maria gets the party going in a way (i.e., with fighting) that appeals to Nanna Maria, a fun-loving kindred spirit, someone who reminds her of her departed husband. A final tableau of Nanna Maria dancing with what we assume to be the ghost of said husband partly supports such a reading. But the play ends so abruptly after the announcement of Soul's elevation, and Charlene's purse-lipped command for everyone to eat, that the invitation to find more depth in Nanna Maria's thinking is denied.

All of which is not to say that the evening did not contain an abundance of other pleasures--nine of them, to be precise. Indeed, for the skill and sheer exuberance (even still, after 10 years playing the roles!) with which Sami sketches each of the characters in this work, No. 2 is not to be missed.