Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Upcoming Premieres

In the spirit of shameless self-promotion, allow me to draw readers' attention to two short theatre pieces I have recently written that will receive their premieres in the coming months.

The first is a monologue called "Counting to Infinity," which will receive a staged reading at Studio 1398 on Granville Island (1398 Cartwright Street, 3rd Floor) on April 23rd at 8 pm as part of Solo Collective Theatre's 2012 Emerging Playwrights' Competition. Full details here.

Also, for those who might be in the Toronto area at the beginning of June, another short piece I wrote, Positive ID, will receive its premiere at the Alumnae Theatre as part of the 8th annual InspiraTO Festival of Ten-Minute Plays. It gets 5 performances over 10 days beginning June 1st. More details here.

Believe it or not, I am actually working on something that has two acts.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gallim Dance

DanceHouse ended its 2011-12 season in spectacular style last night, with what for me was the highlight of the four shows presented this past year: Gallim Dance's Blush. The New York-based Gallim is the brainchild of Artistic Director and choreographer Andrea Miller, who was a member of Ohad Naharin's Batsheva ensemble before founding her own company in 2007. The influence shows, as Blush begins with a lone male dancer on stage twisting and undulating his body in some gaga-inspired ways (and I'm not referring to her Ladyship here). At the same time, the dancer's slow, deliberate contortions bring to mind aspects of butoh, an influence further compounded by the fact that all six dancers in the piece are covered head to toe in white body paint, which through repeated contact and exertion gradually wears off over the course of the hour-long piece, revealing the rosy skin underneath.

Following this opening solo, three women dancers position themselves just inside the downstage left corner of the taped square that prominently demarcates the primary zone of contact for the piece. Behind the women, just outside the upstage boundary of the square, the three male dancers lay on their sides, with their backs to us. As the men slowly inch across the stage, the women move inside the square in a series of squats and knee folds, gradually unfurling their bodies to full verticality. There is something coquettish, almost preening about this movement, as if the women are trying the catch the men's attention, which remains steadfastly turned away from them. And, indeed, much of this work seems to be about sexual combat, a reading aided by the costuming, which puts the men in Spartan style diapers, the women in leotards with cinched waists, and both groups in gladiatorial-style ankle braces. So its perhaps no surprise that when the men finally do notice the women, two of them immediately grab the nearest available one, and start flinging her back and forth between them.

This trio, with the dynamic Arika Yamada (on whom my eyes were riveted throughout the piece) at its centre, foregrounds the incredible athleticism of all the Gallim dancers, as Yamada goes from hanging upside down off of one of the men's shoulders to balancing on another's outstretched quadricep in an instant. Yet for all the dancers' gymnastic ability, there is also an intrinsic grace to many of their signature moves. The arched backs on the women's swan poses, and the men's leg extensions particularly caught my eye. As did the repeated leaps into the air performed by all the dancers throughout the piece. Not only did it seem during these leaps that the dancers were able to stay suspended in mid-air for longer than humanly possible, but at their highest point off the ground it also felt like they were able to draw on extra reserves of energy to punch their bodies into some durationless fourth dimension of time-space surcease, their bodies, like Zeno's arrow, fully locomotive and motionless all at once.

There were many such heart-stopping moments throughout the evening, but for me a definite highlight was the male pas de deux near the end. It begins, in half-light, with the two men running together around the perimeter of the stage, one apparently supporting--or is it restraining?--the other. By the end, each man will take his turn chasing after the other, with the pursuit eventually ceding solely to the supporting partner from the opening, who is ultimately unable to catch up with his desired quarry and reestablish the embrace. In between, however, the men are in almost constant contact, with the movement, showcased in a series of simple spots, at once muscular and impossibly tender, reminding us that there is often very little that separates the blush that blooms from within and the bruise that marks from without. The physical (dis)coloration is the same, even if the emotions behind each are not.

Making use of a very eclectic musical score throughout, Blush ends with Wolf Parade's anthemic "I'll Believe in Anything," the dancers now exploding across the stage in separate abandon and then ecstatic union. When one of the women pauses and begins to tug at the floor tape, the others slowly mass in front of her, pulled inside the very square--as, most assuredly, are we--that she is pulling up. A final coup de théâtre that very much made me a believer of this extremely talented company and choreographer.

DanceHouse has just announced its next season. To use their tagline, I recommend getting in on the ground floor early.


Friday, March 16, 2012

More Arts Deaths (and some ideas for rebirth)

I was distressed to read in today's Globe and Mail that the annual Siminovitch Prize in theatre, awarded on a rotating basis to the best playwrights, directors, and designers in this country, and at $100,000 won of the richest arts awards in this country, is coming to an end after this year's competition.

This comes on the heels of Marsha Lederman's article in yesterday's Globe about the increasingly bleak cultural landscape here in Vancouver, what with the Playhouse's recent demise being followed by news of the imminent shuttering of the historic Ridge Cinema, an exodus of talent from the region in the performing arts generally, and, just today, the announcement that Book Warehouse, one of the last independent chains in the city, and a strong supporter of the arts, would be closing operations after 32 years in business.

And it's not like we can look to the provincial government for support, with Minister for Community, Sport, and Cultural Development Ida Chong's recent remarks on the Playhouse's demise indicative of the art-as-afterthought, sink-or-swim mentality of the BC Liberals to culture generally. And is an appeal to the robocalling Tories in Ottawa is even an option?

That leaves the city. And while it may be, as Heather Deal notes in the same Georgia Straight item above where Chong is quoted, that there can be no more bailout money for the Playhouse, if Gregor Robertson's Vision council is serious about making Vancouver the most sustainable city in the world, then part of their plan has to include a comprehensive cultural strategy for the city.

As part of that plan, they should look at the precinct around the civic theatres on Hamilton Street, especially if the Vancouver Art Gallery does indeed move to Lardwell Park. Presently the Queen E and Playhouse are just containers for the art presented on their respective stages, and the area adjacent them is a dead zone (except for the masses of people crossing the viaduct to get to Rogers Arena for the Canucks games). This needn't be the case, even when the theatres themselves are dark. The plaza outside the Queen E is a wonderful space that is woefully underused. Why isn't the restaurant that used to be there operating, preferably with a star chef at the helm? With the Library Plaza and CBC studios nearby, Gastown and SFU Woodward's mere blocks away, and a resited VAG potentially in the offing, the whole area could become a cultural hub of the sort that works so well in Melbourne, with its performing arts precinct in Southbank (taking a page from that other Southbank, in London) and galleries and civic plazas in nearby Federation Square.

Melbourne is often cited alongside Vancouver as one of the most livable cities in the world. In addition to tackling the affordability and housing issues that will surely threaten to displace us from that list in the very near future, folks at city hall would do well to look at the cultural planning and infrastructure that has gone into making Melbourne a hotbed of artistic production and export. And I'm not just saying this because I'm a huge fan of Chunky Move.

Recommended reading on this front for Mayor Robertson and Councillor Deal is Jon Hawkes' book The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture's Essential Role in Public Planning (2001). Needless to say, Hawkes is from Melbourne.



I disagree with Kevin Griffin's review of Serge Bennathan and Les Productions Figlio's premiere of the Rio Tinto Alcan Award-winning Elles, on at The Cultch through this Saturday. Griffin found the work "confusing," which was a barrier for him in terms of feeling his way into the piece (as Bennathan, in his choreographic notes, states is his purpose).

For me, the work was all too accessible in its meaning, with the balletic inspiration of Giselle (which Bennathan has talked about repeatedly in publicity for the piece, and which Griffin makes no mention of in his review) overdetermining how I received this exploration of female power and energy--not least in the repeated references (via the fluttering hands and arm movements especially) to the famous Wilis. In other words, the barrier to feeling for me last night was too much (literal?) understanding.

That said, there was some stunning movement on display last night, and it was a treat to see these eight incredibly talented women lined up on stage (Bennathan plays at various points with the traditional notion of a corps de ballet). As for the stage itself, I was reminded last night just what a small footprint The Cultch's Historic Theatre has, even post-renovation (and even with the first few rows of orchestra seats removed), for dance. At times it felt (see, I guess muscular empathy did get through to me on some level) as if the dancers were going to fly into our laps, or tumble off into the wings, when the movement was at its most frenzied. To be sure, this creates a wonderful sense of intimacy between performers and audience. But one has to wonder about the degree to which the limited space sometimes constrains rather than fully unleashes the creativity of the dance artists who use it.

Speaking of The Cultch, Heather Redfern's absence in giving the curtain speech last night reminds me that I have been remiss in this blog in acknowledging the recent passing of Redfern's partner, the late great Jim Green. The tributes have been many and fulsome, and so I won't add to them here--except to say that he was the greatest mayor Vancouver never had. And that we have Woodward's, his gift to the city, to remember him by.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

West Coast Mammals

Above is the rather lopsided origami paper airplane that I made with the help of Melissa Tsang yesterday at the Instant Coffee workshop at the Western Front that the West Coast Mammals attended.

WCM is the Vancouver/Surrey culture vulture offshoot of Darren O'Donnell and the Toronto-based Mammalian Diving Reflex's ongoing collaborations with the students of Bridgeview Elementary in Surrey on different projects that have appeared at past PuSh festivals (see my previous post on this year's Eat the Street). Led by Donna Soares, Melissa, and Amy Fung, the idea is to keep engaging interested students in arts and culture in the Lower Mainland by taking them to different monthly events. In February it was Winterruption on Granville Island, which I was unable to attend.

But I was free yesterday, and after meeting at the Commercial Skytrain stop at 11 am, Donna, Melissa, Tanille Geib (like me, a new WCM member) and I hauled it out to Scott Road to meet up with Ramen, Carmen, and Jordan. It was a small turnout (Spring Break starts tomorrow after all), but the interest and enthusiasm were high, stoked initially by a visit to the rehearsal space and administrative offices of the Vancouver Opera, where Melissa oversees the company's Opera in Schools division. In addition to getting a tour of the props and costumes departments, we also sat in on the first 45 minutes of the sitzprobe for the company's upcoming production of The Barber of Seville. Sitzprobe, the kids and I learned from Melissa, is the German term for the first "seated" rehearsal when the orchestra and the singers (who up until then would have been preparing separately) get together to go through the opera together. It was fascinating to get this glimpse behind the scenes, and to see the remarks made by the conductor. Best of all, we stayed long enough to hear the lead baritone sing the famous "Figaro" aria that I of course remembered from Bugs Bunny, but that the kids recognized from Spongebob.

After that it was off to the Front for some paper-folding and joke-telling, then nachos on Main Street. A whole lot of fun, and I look forward to the next event.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Vancouver Playhouse: RIP

Just learned the news of the Playhouse's shuttering. I've long been a critic of the programming and management of this institution, and after the city's recent rescuing of a portion of the company's debt, the news isn't completely surprising.

Still, it is very very sad. The city needs a resident (preferably repertory) theatre company with a full season to anchor the scene. I guess the Arts Club now fills that mandate. But, ideally, someone else (Blackbird, maybe?) will step in to fill the awful void of a darkened house.


Madly Inspired Dancing by Ballet BC

Another stellar program of dance last night by Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar, one that especially showed the depth and range of the company, and one that was also notable for the memorable music that inspired each of the three featured works.

Leading off was Molnar's own between disappearing and becoming, the piece that was most obviously indebted to classical principles. Set to selections from Hildur Gudnadóttir's haunting cello suite Without Sinking, the choreography placed the women mostly on point, entering and exiting the stage like fluttering birds, but also showing their collective strength when massed as a corps. There were also impressive moments of partnering that showcased the women's extensions and turns, and the men's powerful lifting. Yet alongside this, Molnar also threw in more contemporary movement, often done in unison, with limbs collapsing and twisting at elbows and knees in ways that showed her familiarity with Forsythe's improvisation techniques. Bonnie Beecher's inspired lighting design featured multiple fades and blackouts that, alongside the music, contributed to the sense of ephemerality and in-betweenness structuring the piece, with the dancers often caught in the middle of a movement phrase--"the space where," as Molnar writes in her program notes, "disappearing and becoming are one."

Next up was Aszure Barton's Vitulare, another world premiere, and set to a range of choral and folk music from around the globe. Her choreography likewise drew mostly on folk traditions, with traces of everything from Celtic line- and step-dancing, to Russian knee-bends, and the familiar circle of the Jewish hora. To see the full company lined up horizontally downstage and raise there arms en masse to place behind each other's backs as a prelude to the quick-quick-slow step sequence that is the basic grammar of so many of these traditions slapped a giddy smile on my face that didn't leave until the final curtain call. But it was Alexander Burton (a stand-out in all three pieces of the evening) breaking ranks and teaching his fellow company members to bust a few hip hop-inspired moves (nothing if not the measure of its own folk tradition) that really got this party started. Barton's work couldn't have been more different from Molnar's in style and tone, and yet both pieces were equally captivating to watch--not least for how fully and transportingly the entire company embodied the aesthetic of each.

Swedish choreographer Johan Inger's Walking Mad closed out the evening, and was the work with the most obvious musical and choreographic pedigree. A hit ever since its premiere in the Netherlands in 2001, the piece is set to Ravel's Boléro, but in a way that is more send-up than homage of that composition's romantic clichés. It begins with dancer Gilbert Small, clad in a trench coat and top hat mounting a set of stairs from the orchestra pit and "lifting" the curtain to reveal a stage strewn with several pieces of clothing, a large wall looming upstage. Rachel Meyer appears and starts picking up the clothing. Small removes his coat and offers it to her. She refuses to take it, exiting with a bemused smile. Small then peers around one end of the wall, which is the cue for Maggie Forgeron to emerge from the other side and then mime grabbing his top hat, placing it upon her own head. The madness has begun. Indeed, when Forgeron places her head against Small's chest as the first strains of the famous snare drum and trilling flute that open Ravel's music are heard, and they begin an athletic pas de deux around the wall, you know this isn't going to be what we've come to expect from this composition.

The wall is a key prop throughout the piece. It moves forwards and backward, up and down; people pop out of doors that line it, get enclosed within its wings, slam against it, jump onto or even over it. It's certainly the impetus for some witty sleights, but also for some dextrous dancing, particularly by the three women, Meyer and Forgeron being joined by a superb Alyson Fretz on this particular evening. But the wall also marks a tonal division in the piece, as after most of the dancers disappear behind it (leaving behind their trench coats) and the Ravel music ends, Small and Meyer are back where they started. Only this time they dance a moving pas de deux to Arvo Part's Für Alina, music that in its stark minimalism couldn't be further from Ravel's. Small and Meyer are gorgeous together, but I'm not sure the juxtaposition entirely works.

What I am sure of is that Ballet BC keeps moving from strength to strength. The 2012-13 season has just been announced, and it includes a partnership with PuSh (yay!), not to mention a new Giselle by resident choreographer José Navas. In the meantime, I look forward to the last offering of this season, a full-length version of Navas' Bliss, the hit of last year.


Saturday, March 3, 2012

Musical LINES

Am rushing around like crazy today, so just a brief note to say that the Vancouver International Dance Festival kicked off last night in fine style with San Francisco's Alonzo King LINES Ballet in a double bill in a double bill at The Centre. The dancing was gorgeous, and I have a new favourite crush on company member Michael Montgomery, who moves with a sinewy grace and charismatic energy perfectly suited to King's choreography.

But equally compelling were the scores. King, who frequently collaborates with and commissions from contemporary composers, set the first piece, Resin, to a selection of traditional Sephardic music culled from the National Sound Archives in Israel, which he then mixed with Judeo-Spanish songs and Turkish and Moroccan cantorial music.

For King's updating of the Ballets-Russes' Scheherazade, composer and tabla player Zakir Hussain reinterprets Rimsky-Korsakov's original music via traditional Persian instruments and sound structures.

The program repeats tonight, and while the price tag is a bit steeper than usual for VIDF offerings, it's well worth it.