Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Grade on Guns

Following the performative posturing that was yesterday's photo op between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford on gun violence in Canadian cities, a salutary intervention by my colleague, David Chariandy, into the recent shootings in Scarborough and those who would seek to dismiss or de-complexify the politics of disenfranchisement and the economics of disadvantage that are always part of the equation of crime and/in racial minority communities. Click here to read more.

Then, too, following upon recent events in Colorado, and especially President Obama's rote platitudes and outright refusal to open up a conversation about gun control in the US, made me think how prescient a recent episode of Aaron Sorkin's amazing new series, The Newsroom, was. In it, the recently re-galvanized prime time anchor, Will McAvoy (played by the brilliant Jeff Daniels), decides to take on the gun lobby and their political and media pundit apologists. He does so by excerpting a series of clips in which people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh decry the limits that Obama is surely going to place on Americans' right to bear arms; this is then followed by a scorecard from the Brady Campaign (an initiative begun by the wife of Jim Brady, the White House Press Secretary shot during John Hinkley's assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan) tallying the Obama administration's performance on a number of key issues related to tighter regulation of guns. On all counts, as McAvoy, points out, Obama receives a failing grade.

Michael Bloomberg, a mayor several thousand times smarter (and thinner and richer) than Rob Ford, tried to open up and honest and enlightened debate by suggesting that gun control become a major issue of the upcoming presidential campaign. But Obama refused to bite. I don't get it. Would alienating the gun lobby really lose him that many more votes? And how many more might he gain? I don't know if Sorkin, whose series is so-far pulling its plots from real-world headlines (most recently the Arab Spring), will catch up to or plan to intervene into this fall's presidential campaign. But thank heavens he's back on television and giving us, as with The West Wing, an imagined political discourse we might one day aspire to north and south of the 49th parallel.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Effort over Time

Heidi Strauss and adelheid dance projects' this time was a splendid way to finish my 2012 Dancing on the Edge experience. The piece, as the program notes inform us, is a response to a 1970 play by Ken Gass. Until his recent and unceremonious firing, Gass was Artistic Director at Factory Theatre in Toronto, where Strauss has worked as dance-artist-in-residence for the past several years. Indeed, Strauss has choreographed frequently for theatre and opera, and while this time is a wordless performance, the narrative it crafts out of its intense physicality, combined with the canny use of lighting and projections, suggests that Strauss is a choreographer who is very comfortable with theatricality.

In the case of this time, that theatricality began with the transformation of SFU Woodward's Studio T, where the performance took place. Upon entering, we discover that the black box space has been reduced in size by about one-third, an internal wall having been erected, and through which, we soon discover, the seats have been arranged on opposing sides, with audience members, once positioned, facing each other like sports fans cheering for different teams. However, as we wait for the performance to begin, we have something other to watch than each other; below each set of raked risers is a long and narrow screen, on which we glimpse a loop of projected images of dancers Justine A. Chambers and Yuichiro Inoue, presumably in rehearsal for the piece.

Turns out the sporting arena metaphor is an apt one. Upon entering, Chambers and Inoue, dressed casually in street clothes and both wearing trainers, eye each other warily while leaning in the doorway, or sitting down next to the opposite wall, or circling each other gladitorially in between. At this point, the house lights are still up and there is no sound other than the tap of the dancers' shoes on the floor. Gradually music builds and the first of a series of horizontal shafts of light bisects the floor, and the dancers begin a contest of wills that, we eventually discover, is less about self-expression than collective submission. When, after 45 minutes of intensely physical movement, Chambers and Inoue end up in a clutch on the floor, we get that this is not about a "you" or a "me," but an "us"--and what it takes for "you" and "me" to become that "us." If one definition of power is the expending of effort over time, then this piece demonstrates just how much more effort it takes--and how delimited our time might be--to give up power.

It's a lesson that is equally apt for an audience that becomes an "us" (that is, something more than the sum of our individual selves) through compelling performances such as this one.


Friday, July 13, 2012


Last night I experienced the most magical kind of dinner theatre. At the westside home of some friends of hers, my colleague in Anthropology at SFU, Dara Culhane, gathered together a mixed group of additional friends--some of whom knew each other, many of whom didn't--to watch and listen to her perform her one-woman show Uabhar, which she has been workshopping for some time under the direction of Noah Drew.

Uabhar, we learned, is an Irish Gaelic word that has some 25 different meanings, ranging from vainglorious pride to loneliness. It is also, we further discover, what links Dara, willful daughter, to her father, Garry, a largely absent (and, for that, impossibly large) presence in her life. Over the course of two acts, using a mix of textual documents (including a wonderful trove of letters from her father that serve variously as mnemonics, props, and narrative prompts), and adopting an extraordinary range of voices, Dara has crafted a beautifully intimate piece of memory-theatre that asks, among other things, how we can achieve reconciliation without forgiveness.

Dara is not a professional performer, and so it was incredibly brave of her to not just share this work with us, but also perform it herself. On top of that, following the two very emotionally intense and likely exhausting acts, she made herself available to receive our critique. Which we duly gave in one of the more spontaneous and generous and constructive examples of a performance talkback I have ever witnessed. Responding seriously to Noah's questions about what worked, and what we felt didn't, we had much to say. But the gist of it can be boiled down to this: it's an extraordinary show, and one that is already production-ready. Watch for it soon on the local stage.

And on top of all of this we got dinner--a feast of salmon and salads and desserts that fed the conversation around Dara's piece for some time after the performance proper. Now that's my kind of theatrical experience.

Thank you Dara.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Yay for Yemayo

Havana-born, Montreal-based Julio Hong's Yemayo is an exploration of spirituality and sexuality, gender and genre, for four male dancers. Fusing a potently energetic mix of dance styles (from classical ballet to Afro-Caribbean folk dance) with a pulsatingly eclectic musical score, it was just the sort of jolt my DOTE festival experience has needed for these lazy summer evenings belatedly upon us.

Here's a link to an excerpt from the piece.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Josh Beamish: In Fragments

Local dance wunderkind Josh Beamish, who formed MOVE: the company seven years ago at the age of 17, only to decamp last year for New York, partly as a result of a lack of peer-reviewed grant funding from BC agencies, was back in town last night as part of the Dancing on the Edge Festival, presenting fragments from his work-in-progress Pierced. The piece, a full-length ballet whose composition has been facilitated by a Jerome Robbins Foundation Award, will eventually bring together dancers from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the New York City Ballet for a premiere in May 2013 at the American Institute of Dance in Washington, DC, where Beamish will begin a term as Artist-in-Residence this September. Talk about external cred!

Personally I've always been a bit hot and cold on Beamish's work. As a dancer there is no quarreling with his amazing technique, and with his apparent facility in any form. Yet I sometimes find his choreography to be overly fussy, designed to show off what he--as featured performer--can do, rather than serving a coherent whole. A case in point was last night's opening fragment, which was a solo by Beamish. I took the flowered chemise Beamish was wearing (the other male dancers were shirtless) to mean he was playing Cupid, and if so, then the preening poses and the fluttery hand and flexing feet embellishments on otherwise straightforward extensions are perhaps in keeping with the capriciousness of the character. By contrast, the concluding solo, by RWB principal soloist Jo-Ann Sundermeier, was a marvel of pared-down simplicity, an exploration of the proximate spaces of one's own body (three delicate taps by Sundermeier on the inside of her arm were stunning in their grace) in order to recover an imprint of what has been lost.

The duets sandwiched between these solos were also a mixed bag. The first and third--featuring Joshua Green and Delphine Leroux, and Green and Beamish, respectively--both felt like they hadn't yet fully worked out the relationships of the partners, especially when to bring them together and when to keep them apart (as well as what they should be doing while apart). Some of the reaches and claspings between Green and Leroux also seemed a bit tentative, which was maybe due in part to the fact that their entries into them were still being refined (or maybe because Green's body was so slick--I've never seen a dancer sweat more on stage!). However, the middle pas-de-deux, again featuring Sundermeier and her RWB colleague Harrison James, was stunning, with the dancers rarely apart, and showcasing the expert classical technique of each, not least the flexion in each of their backs. The final image of James lying on the floor, lifting his torso to the ceiling to receive the arrow he knows must come, is definitely a keeper.


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Vertiginous Encounters

Paul-André Fortier has some of the most expressive hands in contemporary dance. The legendary Quebec dancer, winner of a Governor-General's Performing Arts Award this year, was at the Firehall Theatre last night as part of 2012 Dancing on the Edge Festival, his first trip back to the city since he brought his site-specific solo 30 X 30 to DOTE, and the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library, in 2009. The audience was criminally small, which was probably an effect of our delayed summer having finally arrived. Still, I hope Thursday's opening night audience was much bigger.

The piece Fortier has brought to this year's DOTE, Vertiges, is a collaboration with the American experimental composer and violinist Malcolm Goldstein, who appears on stage with Fortier, improvising on the violin while Fortier dances. The dialogue between sound and movement is not meant to be mimetic. Except, perhaps, for a sequence where dancer and violinist advance vertically downstage in a line, with Fortier's body spasming and jerking in response to Goldstein's energetic plucking and bowing of his strings, the relationship between what we are hearing and what we are seeing is not primarily about direct correspondence and formal reproducibility. (Incidentally, this same sequence leads to a vocal call and response exchange between the two performers, in which they yell back and forth at each other in pseudo-Chinese and cut at the air with their arms, as though they are in a bad martial arts movie--not sure what that was all about).

Rather, I saw Vertiges as an encounter between different instruments--Fortier's body, Goldstein's violin--that gradually reveals their proximal relationships--in the shared spaces between notes and steps, or the breath required to sustain both--but that also insists on their necessary separateness. This was most strikingly represented for me when, early on in the piece, the two men sit across from each other on chairs and Fortier reaches out to extend his arms like a parenthesis around the two ends of Goldstein's moving bow. And then again, near the very end of the piece, when, along the plywood that serves as a very effective backdrop and projection surface for the piece, Fortier tries to embrace the shadow self of Goldstein, who is playing in front of him.

Which brings me back to Fortier's magical hands. A tall man, and long of limb, Fortier's movement often begins with a simple placement of a hand on hip, followed perhaps by the light touch of his other hand on the first hand's wrist, and then a delicate transfer of both to the opposite hip. Several variations of this kind of pattern can recur in Fortier's choreography, including with knees if, as was the case last night, he's sitting. Hands are our most proximate means of touch, and as Fortier so often works as a soloist what I read into the care and precision with which he moves his hands, first one onto another, and then both onto a different part of his body, and then maybe next onto an entirely other surface, is a deep empathy and responsiveness for how the body remains the primary means by which we extend our selves into the world. As Vertiges shows in different ways, and in different moments, that process of self-extension is always fraught with uncertainty--scraped knees, slapped away hands, turned backs--but we can't not decide to ever lose touch.