Thursday, December 19, 2013


… on this trip I have experienced the stage work of the English director John Tiffany. I wrote about his sublime remount of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway a few posts ago. And last night, at the Royal Alex in Toronto, my family and I took in Once, the musical adaptation of the indie film starring and featuring the music of The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Tiffany directed this work to acclaim in 2011--also on Broadway, where it is still playing. Now a North American touring production has just landed in Toronto.

While Once frequently trades in as many clichés as it upends (not least regarding ethnicity and gender), what makes it refreshing as a work of romantic musical theatre is how many of that genre’s apparently unassailable conventions it eschews. For the Guy and Girl leads (played here by Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal), there is no star-crossed happy ending (she gets a piano instead). The performers, who remain on stage throughout the two acts, play all their own instruments--which, befitting an Irish folk-infused score, are mostly string- and bellows-heavy (when's the last time you saw a mandolin and a concertina featured in a big-budget musical?). And the movement, by longtime Tiffany collaborator Steve Hoggett, is deliberately low-key and pedestrian, employing a simple yet richly symbolic gestural vocabulary to texture a song, but also knowing when to use stillness in the same context, and combining brief bits of simple group unison with set and scene changes in a completely fluid and organic way. The mostly unsentimental book by Irish playwright Enda Walsh demonstrates a similar plasticity in terms of its relationship to the songs (all of course well-known from the film), and also manages to get in a clever critique of certain ideologies of linguistic translation in its use of surtitles.

All of the performers are ridiculously talented. Unlike at times in John Doyle’s recent Broadway remounts of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company, here the fact that the singer-performers also play their own instruments never feels like a gimmick. Because of course the whole premise of this story is making beautiful music together--for which everyone involved in this production deserves kudos.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why I Don't Live in Toronto

Well, in addition to this view from outside my parents' front door in suburban Burlington yesterday morning, there is the fact that Rob Ford continues to serve as mayor--if in name only. Following a brief break, Toronto City Council was back in session beginning this Monday, with Speaker Frances Nunziata calling for a return to more civil discourse. The civility lasted all of a minute, with Mayor Ford once again leading the show, calling fellow councillors corrupt, getting into an argument with another about voting procedures, dancing in council chambers, and issuing an impromptu apology to Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale for insinuating last year that he was a pedophile. Read all the details here.

Last night we went to a holiday concert at my niece Erika's high school in Oshawa. She's in a special performing arts program, and judging by last night's offerings, its vocal and musical programs are very rich. 

Today we're finally going in to the belly of the beast itself, with a planned visit by me and Erika (who's been allowed to skip school because her favourite uncle's in town) to the David Cronenberg show at the TIFF Lightbox, and then an evening performance of the musical Once, currently playing at the Royal Alex.

Home tomorrow, weather and flight schedules permitting.


Friday, December 13, 2013

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

It was instructive to see The Life and Death of Marina Abramović after having toured the Whitney Museum’s show on 1970s performance art in New York City earlier in the day. On the one hand, the heavily industrial, epically scaled, and highly operatic work now playing at the Park Avenue Armory through December 21st couldn’t be further from the anti-spectacular, makeshift and micro aesthetic of the loft and storefront performances by Jack Smith and Jill Kroesen and Sylvia Palacios Whitman and Squat Theater whose surprisingly extensive and well-preserved documentary traces comprise the Rituals of Rented Island show. At the same time, much of this performance art, I was interested to discover, was very theatrical, especially as it focused explicitly on objects and narrative.

That was never really the case with Abramović’s early performance art, which largely used the artist’s own body to explore, over long durations of time, extreme physical and emotional states. However, Abramović’s collaborator on Life and Death, Robert Wilson, was immersed in the New York scene documented at the Whitney: Rented Island showcases one of his early loft pieces, which featured some of his earliest light- and movement-based work. Perhaps not surprisingly from the director of Einstein on the Beach, it was the way Life and Death was lit and choreographed that I was most taken with. Wilson uses a bank of fluorescent footlights and a series of follow-spots in especially canny ways, and the repetition of different massings of bodies on the stage during many of the scenes not only evoked images of Communist-era militarism but also nineteenth-century tableaux vivants—appropriate for the artist who took performance art into the museum and turned it into a kind of living diorama. Of course, the music is also gorgeous, featuring not just the haunting vocals of Antony, but also additional contributions from Nico Muhly, William Basinski, and the Svetlana Spajić Group, whose keening Serbian folk songs were a perfect counterpoint to Antony’s lyricism.

Not that everything worked. The whole piece could have been at least a half-hour shorter, with many of the scenes going on for just a shade longer than was necessary, self-indulgence perhaps being the necessary byproduct when so many outsized artistic egos are collaborating together. Which brings me to Willem Dafoe as the narrator. Like Abramović, Dafoe is now something of an ex-communicant from the avant-garde performance scene, having long ago been banished from the Wooster Group. And so his presence in this piece carries several additional layers of meaning. Certainly he shoulders the bulk of the work as far as storytelling goes—but it is nearly impossible to separate the many roles he plays here (from Tito to Ulay) from the impish, slightly demented self he necessarily brings with him courtesy of his many film appearances and that inimitable voice.

As for Abramović herself, she is at once the centre of this piece and paradoxically absent from it, spending much of the show offstage, or quietly observing scenes from the sidelines. The one time she does stand alone in the spotlight downstage, it is to sing—by and large a mistake. Having turned herself into a bona fide personality with her Artist is Present show at MOMA in 2010 (and having, in many people’s minds, concomitantly pronounced the death of performance art by acceding to and even willfully abetting not just its reperformance, but its institutionalization), it makes sense, on one level, that she would turn to the theatre to explore the different personae that could never be a part of the focused and durational explorations of self (her own and others’) that formed her performance art practice. (And masks—from the death masques that cover the faces of Abramović and her two avatars on their funeral biers at the top of the show to the face paint that most of the other performers sport—are featured very prominently in Life and Death.) Many of those personae, we are given to understand, derive from Abramović’s painful childhood and this work functions, on one level, as an elaborate form of artistic therapy, one in which Abramović exorcises, especially, the painful memories of her physically and emotionally abusive mother.

And, indeed, at the end of the show, as Wilson pulls out all the deus ex machina stops and hoists Marina and her two angel-avatars into the air on pulleys while Antony and performer Oren Bloedow sing of “Volcanoes of Snow,” we get a sense that the artist is exactly where (when not branding herself on umbrellas and coffee mugs in support of the performance art institute she is apparently building on the Hudson) she has always wanted to be: starring in her own Greek tragedy.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Glass Menagerie (and Kinky Boots) on Broadway

Yesterday was our big Broadway day in NYC, with a matinee and evening performance. For the latter we chose Kinky Boots, a frothy confection that is hard to resist, featuring a fist-pumping, feel-good score by Cyndi Lauper, a star-making performance by Billy Porter as Lola, the drag queen-turned-shoe designer, and miles and miles of lace-up leather and latex. As Richard leaned over and said to me during the rousing final number, if Harvey Fierstein is writing the book, everyone is eventually going to end up in six-inch stiletto heels. This musical adaptation also goes a distance—though not as far as it could have—toward correcting some of the bizarre and frankly homophobic sexual politics of the British film upon which it is based (which I happened to watch on the plane to New York).

However, it is the afternoon production I wish to focus on in this post. For that we chose The Glass Menagerie, as apart from a mediocre staging of two of his later one-acts at the Kennedy Center several years ago, I had never seen a Williams play performed live. This production by John Tiffany (Once, Black Watch) received raves when it opened at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard earlier this year, and with the entire cast back—including the incomparable Cherry Jones as Amanda—for the Broadway transfer, it seemed like a good bet.

We weren’t disappointed. The first thing that stands out upon entering the theatre is Bob Crowley’s stunning set, with the Wingfields’ cramped living and dining rooms an island of wood floating just above a shiny pool of viscous black liquid—the wellsprings of Tom/Tennessee’s dark and unrepressable memories that also, famously, serve as the source of his creativity. For this is, as our narrator Tom (a subtle and suitably restless Zachary Quinto) reminds us at the top of the show—in a speech that I think it is fair to say helped change the course of modern American drama—a “memory play,” in which Williams counters the standard “tricks” of the “stage magician” by presenting not “illusion that has the appearance of truth” but “truth wrapped up in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Tiffany takes seriously this opening injunction, and builds a production that soars as a result of its symbolist effects, not in spite of them. From the stylized movement work and mimed gestures of longtime collaborator Steven Hoggett to the haunting music of Nico Muhly and the twinkling lighting by Natasha Katz that reappears throughout the two acts in that inky pool surrounding the stage: the design choices and stage effects all succeed in complementing and even elevating—rather than flattening, as if embarrassed by—the dream-like poetry of Williams’ text.

At the same time, in listening to that text spoken with such care yesterday afternoon I was reminded of just how much social commentary Williams does manage to weave into his play. In addition to the economic hardship of the depression that serves as the backdrop to single mother Amanda’s increasing desperation to see her children—and especially her fragile daughter Laura—financially settled, we are reminded more than once of the Spanish Civil War, and in a way that is meant as much as an indictment of America’s blinkered self-absorption as of Tom’s and Williams’. When, at the end of the play, Amanda issues her famous final dismissal of her son—“Go to the moon, you selfish dreamer”—it is hard not to read this as telegraphing in part Williams’ own self-doubts about the interiority that would become such a defining focus of his oeuvre.

As delivered by Jones, however, that line is filled with so much more than mere maternal disappointment: we also hear a rending womanly regret that conveys just how much she understands—and has internalized at great personal cost—the gendered divide that allows men like Tom and his father (the phone company man who “fell in love with long distances”) to succumb to wanderlust while she and Laura can only settle for so many forms of domestic confinement. And this, in addition to an incandescent performance by Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and a sterling turn by Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller, is the true revelation of this production: the way in which Jones resists playing Amanda as a one-note gorgon. In her speeches about her youth and her obsession about seeing her children securely launched into the world we see a mother not so much living through her children as living for them. This is a woman who knows more than most—and certainly as much as her son—how fine is the line between illusion-as-truth and truth-as-illusion. We see Jones walk that line with perfect precision over and over again in this production. It is a performance, like the play, for the ages.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fun Home at The Public

Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed graphic memoir Fun Home is not the first text one would expect to be adapted into a musical. The book is a self-consciously literary investigation into the author’s complicated relationship with her father, who in addition to teaching high school English and running the local funeral home was also an obsessive home renovator and closeted homosexual who committed suicide by stepping in front of a truck only a few months after his daughter announced her own coming out. It doesn’t exactly scream out for the standard song and dance treatment. But then, her scores for the Broadway hits Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek: The Musical notwithstanding, composer Jeanine Tesori’s most interesting work has always been in a darker vein: think Violet and Caroline, or Change. And, as the bassoon notes emanating from the pit during the orchestra’s pre-show tune-up announced, this is a deeply mournful work, one that understands that all stories of kinship—not least one as complicated as this—must be written in a minor key.

It helps, in this regard, that Tesori’s collaborator on the book and lyrics for Fun Home is the respected lesbian playwright Lisa Kron (The Well, 2.5 Minute Ride), no slouch in the family memoir department. Kron’s adaptation of Bechdel’s memoir is a marvel of intelligent condensation, one that focuses on key scenes to build character and an emotional through-line, while also respecting the atemporal, non-synchronous, retrospective and self-doubting chronology employed by Bechdel in the book’s visual panels and written captions. A compulsive diarist from a young age, Bechdel makes a point of emphasizing in the book the unreliability of her documentary record of her home life, itself a testament to what she was intuiting behind the apparently placid façade of her parents’ marriage—which is brought out nicely in the musical’s one razzmatazz number, with the entire cast joining in a parody of The Partridge Family. Splitting the character of Alison into three also helps with the book’s unique plot challenges, with Alison the jobbing 40-year old cartoonist (Beth Malone) a constant on-stage presence struggling to come up with the right captions as she looks back on her younger selves: a college-age Medium Alison (Emily Skeggs); and a 10-year old Small Alison (a remarkable Sydney Lucas). All three Alisons are superb, and each is given a breakout number that marks a pivotal point in Bechdel’s queer life: Small Alison sings of her fascination for a butch delivery woman and her “ring of keys”; Medium Alison sings about “changing her major to Joan,” her first girlfriend at college (played here by Roberta Colindrez); and grown-up Alison sings about the final car ride with her father, counting the “telegraph wires” as she struggles to find a way to broach all that remains unspoken between them.

The rest of the cast is equally compelling, with Tesori and Kron correctly recognizing that while Fun Home is focused primarily on the complicated relationship between Alison and her father Bruce, the family’s secrets affected everyone, including brothers Christian (Griffin Birney) and John (Noah Hinsdale) and mother Helen (the brilliant Judy Kuhn), who is given a heartbreaking lament of what she’s sacrificed to a marriage that was a lie in the song “Days and Days.” Joel Perez also stands out as Roy, the Bechdels’ babysitter and sometime yard-worker, who also happened to be one of Bruce’s teenage conquests. Finally, special mention must go to the amazing Michael Cerveris, who plays Bruce with just the right degree of narcissism and repressed rage, and who in the show’s penultimate number sings of how he lavishes onto his house all that he could not acknowledge in himself.

This is a beautiful and intelligent work of musical theatre translation. I’m so glad we got a chance to see it.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Isa Genzken and Isaac Julien at MOMA

On this, our first full day in New York, Richard and I decided to walk up to MOMA from our midtown hotel to take in the Isa Genzken retrospective. One of Germany's preeminent postwar artists, Genzken works across a range of media, including painting, photography, sculpture, film, and mixed-media assemblage. We had first encountered her work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 2009, which I wrote about here. This time around, seeing the full arc of Genzken's career, one understands how crucial space is as a concept in the artist's work: from her early interest in acoustic space (radio antennae stuck in blocks of concrete, geometric sound waves beautifully carved from wood, photographs of ears) to her stunning late career installation-cum-assemblages, which at once repurpose the detritus of consumer culture (see image below) and continue her longstanding architectural referencing of the built environment to comment on post-9/11 politics.

Also on view in the second-floor atrium is an immersive film installation by Isaac Julien called Ten Thousand Waves. Projected onto nine double-sided screens, the 55-minute piece stars, in one of its sequences, the Chinese film star Maggie Cheung as the sea goddess Mazu, leading lost fishermen to safety in a retelling of the 16th-century "Tale of Yishan Island"--a reference, in this case, to the 20 Chinese migrant workers drowned in a flood off the coast of northwest England in 2004. Another section, mixing images of modern-day and old Shanghai, and this time focusing on actress Zhao Tao, is a riff on a classic film from the 1930s called The Goddess. Accompanied by a rich soundscape, the work is mesmerizing and represents a spectacular return to form for the British artist.

Finally, there was also a small but brilliant exhibition called There Will Never Be Silence, the focus of which was MOMA's recent acquisition of the score for John Cage's iconic 4'33''. Around this, the curators showcase a range of different conceptual, minimalist, and Fluxus artists who were influenced by Cage or were, like him, working across media to challenge notions of space, time, materiality, and objecthood. These include Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner, and Yoko Ono, among others. The show, in its tracing of artistic influence, also reminded me of another London exhibition, this one the recent Barbican show on "The Bride and the Bachelors," which explored the ongoing engagements with Marcel Duchamp and his work made by Cage, Merce Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, and about which I also wrote here.

No photography was permitted in the Cage show at MOMA, but no such interdiction was in force in their upstairs modernist galleries. And so I close this post with the following inter-artistic reference, which represents my second encounter in six months with a version of Duchamp's first--and, to my mind, most important--ready-made:


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Jack and the Beanstalk at the York Theatre

Last night Richard and I had the privilege to be among the first audiences to see a production in the restored York Theatre, on Commercial Drive at East Georgia. Theatre Replacement's Jack and the Beanstalk: An East Van Panto officially inaugurated the newly renovated space last night, just over a century after it first opened in 1912, and more than 30 years after Tom Durrie founded the Save the York Theatre Society in 1981 following the Vancouver Little Theatre Association's vacating of the building and its conversion to a cinema.

Durrie was in attendance last night, as were a host of civic and provincial dignitaries, prominent local arts producers and administrators, the generally excited public, and a gaggle of even more excited kids. As with the equally important renovation of the Stanley Theatre on South Granville, the architectural challenge for the York was clearly to fit a fully functioning 400-seat theatre (complete with flies and wings) within the existing footprint while also creating a visually interesting street facade. From what I was able to see and explore last night (which didn't include the stage, as Richard and opted not to stay for the after-party), this has been accomplished--the sole expense being, as again with the Stanley, significant lobby space. Indeed, the York's downstairs and upstairs lobbies are even smaller than the Stanley's, just a long thin wedge between the box office and the bar in the case of the former, and into which several hundred bodies were crammed last night to listen to Vancouver East Cultural Centre Executive Director Heather Redfern's opening remarks at a pre-reception. The Cultch, now a thriving arts juggernaut on the east side, will oversee the York Theatre, mostly renting it out to outside presenters, but also, as in this case, partnering with local companies and organizations to premiere new work or host important touring productions (as will be the case during the PuSh Festival, when Tanya Tagak's take on Nanook of the North opens there).

Richard and I had tickets for the last row of the balcony (GG), but there was nothing wrong with our seats. The sight lines were perfect, the acoustics impeccable, and the show itself a total gas. Charlie Demers' script, in adapting the venerable fairy tale to its local setting, does not spare the satire (even when directed at several members of the audience) and also doesn't talk down to its pint-sized viewers, whose wonder and energy must inevitably sustain the piece. Veda Hille's score is another marvel of offbeat syncopation and humour, and I was thrilled to see she'd incorporated into it another version of Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" (complete with trademark headband). Amiel Gladstone's direction was snappy in tempo and filled with wonderfully visual bits of stage magic. The actors, all except for lead Maiko Bae Yamamoto (who should perform--and sing--more often) in multiple roles, filled their outsized panto peronas (quite literally in the case of Allan Zinyk, who played both the Giant and Jack's mom) with charismatic aplomb.

In short, it was a wonderful way to open an important new cultural space in the city. Congratulations to all involved in getting us to this moment.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Jacques and James at the Firehall

Local dance artist James Gnam, Co-Artistic Director of the plastic orchid factory, and Montreal-based Jacques Poulin-Denis, of Grand Poney, star in two paired talking dance solos at the Firehall Arts Centre through this Saturday evening.

Gnam and Poulin-Denis have been collaborating for the past couple of years on a new work called The Value of Things--which, according to Deborah Meyers in the Vancouver Sun yesterday, will premiere in Montreal in January. However, they've briefly taken some time away from that project to revisit in this program two earlier works from their solo repertoires.

In James, last seen at the 2011 Dance in Vancouver Biennial, Gnam uses his personal (and working) relationship with The Nutcracker (which he has danced more than 300 times) as the starting point to explore the institutional ideology of classical ballet training more generally. Working with battery opera's Lee Su-Feh, and combining spoken text and movement, Gnam weaves an autobiographical tale that moves from memories of his first 10-year-old walk-on part as one of dozens of skipping children from the National Ballet of Canada School to behind-the-scenes anecdotes about adult roles as a fill-in Cavalier in a 2008 semi-professional production in North Vancouver and his first time playing the Prince as a member of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Particularly in these last two sequences Gnam and Lee strip away the romanticism of ballet--and the sugar-coated fantasy of The Nutcracker, especially--revealing the economic and bodily labour, or work-time, that goes into the "timeless" execution of these familiar, and apparently effortless, steps.

For example, we learn that Gnam took the North Vancouver job following the collapse into financial insolvency of Ballet BC, of which he was then a member. Needing a job, he took the part of the Cavalier, whose main task is to accompany the Sugar Plum Fairy in the penultimate sequence of Act 2, a classically gendered scene of ballet partnering that is here recreated by having Gnam reproduce, to the strains of Tchaikovsky's music, various poses of male structural support, holding his invisible teenage partner's waist as he first moves her into a penchée and then dips her into an arabesque. However, in the studio there wasn't time to rehearse the Cavalier's solo variation that is meant to follow this pas de deux, and so as Gnam explains, when the music for said variation came on in performance he simply remained immobile, as he had nothing prepared to display.

Similarly, Gnam's debut as the Nutcracker Prince was a far less starry-eyed experience than one might at first expect. Suffering from food poisoning, weak with fatigue, and having dragged himself to class for the first time in more than a week, a still shaky Gnam is informed by the rehearsal director at the barre that he'll be going on as the Prince that night because the company member with whom he was sharing the part had broken his foot. This scene--and the piece as a whole--ends with Gnam repeating the sequence where the toy Prince, having magically come to life before Clara, steps from fifth position into a plié, before executing an explosive tour en l'air that is mean to end with the dancer landing on one knee, extending the other leg forward as he bows deeply before Clara. In that original Montreal performance, Gnam tells us, with his recent illness still lingering in his body, he had to extend a hand to the floor on the landing. But here, as he then goes on to show us, the wobble is allowed to become, in this retrospective excavation of dance memory, a signature part of the movement, with Gnam repeating it over and over again until he gets a smile from the statuary Drosselmeyer perched atop the Stahlbaums' clock.

In this moving and conceptually rich talking solo, Gnam and Lee have created a work that stands alongside the talking dance portraits of Jérôme Bel (particularly Véronique Doisneau and Cédric Andrieux), in which speech is used to ex-pose (in the double sense of presenting through exposition and decentering through arrested, suspended, and fragmented movement) the conceit of technical virtuosity, revealing in turn (quite literally in this case) the material conditions which always circumscribe moving bodies on stage. (The overlaps with Bel were confirmed in conversation with Natalie Lefebvre Gnam in the Firehall lobby, whose own material labour as a dance artist hovers over this presentation of James, her husband informing us at the start of his solo that but for an injury to Natalie's knee that he was accidentally responsible for, she would have been dancing on the program alongside him.) And, on that note, I'll just end by mentioning that it is a deconstructed port-de-bras phrase that serves as the choreographic refrain of the piece, one that links the various classic scenes from The Nutcracker that Gnam recreates for us. Perhaps the simplest move in ballet from an audience perspective, it is actually one over which the dancer labours intensely in order to make it seem effortlessly graceful.

Poulin-Denis' Cible de Dieu begins similarly to James, with the dancer striding boldly on stage and addressing the audience directly. We learn that the piece we are about to see is as a result of Poulin-Denis' recent training in circus techniques, particularly balancing acts. However, we are also told that the chair on stage is not the one Poulin-Denis normally works with, and so tonight things might not necessarily go according to plan. Couple that with the fact that Gnam, up in the tech booth, can't seem to get the music to work and, well, things are off to a very rocky start indeed. But the charismatic Poulin-Denis is undaunted and after getting the audience to hum along to the familiar strains of Beethoven's Für Elise, he begins to dance with the chair.

Needless to say, given my fascination with chairs as both aesthetic objects and supports/props for movement (not to mention the fact that Poulin-Denis' chosen chair was a Thonet bentwood knock-off), I was primed with expectation. However, the various feats of balance and physical dexterity that Poulin-Denis goes on to perform notwithstanding, the point here is that this particular substitute chair is not an aid to the dancer's movement, but rather an impediment, and even as we continue to hum the notes to Für Elise as encouragement, Poulin-Denis eventually breaks off in frustration. Later he is similarly thrown off by the presence of someone from his past who is apparently in the audience. And on it goes, with Poulin-Denis moving back and forth from issuing abject apologies to the audience for all that is going wrong to stunning feats of choreography in spite of this.

All of which, it gradually becomes clear, is Poulin-Denis' way of addressing by not addressing what should logically be the most insurmountable obstacle to his performance: his prosthetic leg. Indeed, it was only midway through his first sustained sequence with the chair that I even noticed that below his right knee Poulin-Denis wears an artificial limb. And it is only when, a bit later on, it comes off that we realize how conceptually central and practically insignificant the prosthesis is to the dance in this piece. By that I mean that the balancing act Poulin-Denis subsequently performs on one leg--no less virtuosic because, all of a sudden, more visually unassimilable--is meant to challenge our expectations not just of the body who is dancing, but also how that body is dancing.

Sounds an awful lot like the ideological apparatus of ballet itself.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Eddie Izzard at The Orpheum

Human sacrifice as a metaphor to understand the history of western politics; monotheism as an efficient means to streamline belief; moles digging for gold; the relationship between the Kraken and right-wing foreign policy; the myriad applications of the French phrase et voilà; the "non-mammalianness" of equestrian dressage and doping in sports: these are just some of the topics addressed by the hysterically funny British comic Eddie Izzard in his Force Majeure show at the Orpheum last night.

I have long been a fan of Izzard's, and not just because he's a straight man who likes to wear women's clothes and put on make up. While he was in a very smart tailored suit last night, Izzard was sporting a pair of heels (in which he pranced and darted about the stage quite spryly) and flashing bright red nail polish and expertly plucked eyebrows. And he did not shy away from addressing his penchant for transvestism, telling us about how as a teenager he used to hide his filched lipsticks in a shoebox with a false bottom and how this related to his two other youthful obsessions: joining the elite UK special forces organization SAS and learning languages.

But beyond the fact that Izzard is a dude who embraces his femininity and his love of the Die Hard film franchise with equal fervor, what appeals most about his comedy is that in its content it is sophisticatedly intellectual and unabashedly political without talking down to or hectoring its audience (which, in Izzard's case last night, was remarkably diverse), or forgetting that the point is to tell a joke; and in its form, it is gloriously free-associative and meandering and rich with narrative embroidery and physical and vocal embellishment without ever losing the through-line of the story. This latter point was most evident in Izzard's encore, in which he brought together almost of all of his references over the previous two hours (including those stomping Kraken and digging moles) in a dazzling display of comic virtuosity.

Then, too, there was the fact that Izzard was so generous in the length of his set. When, after ninety minutes, he announced he'd be back after a short interval, I couldn't believe it. How did he have anything left? And then following his encore he said he'd be available after the show to take questions in the lobby. Richard and I didn't stick around but had we done so I would have liked to have asked him about his claims to be working toward a London mayoral bid in 2020. There were more than a few Rob Ford references in Izzard's routine last night. Not that Ford's is a civic career Izzard would ever seek to model his own on. However, you can bet that as a politician Izzard would be damn funny--in the very best kind of way.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dance in Vancouver Programs 1 and 2

The 2013 Dance in Vancouver Biennial ended last night at the Dance Centre with a reprise of this year's mainstage programs 1 and 2--only in reverse order from how they played Wednesday evening.

Leading off the 7 pm program was A Crazy Kind of Hope, conceived and directed by Sarah Chase, of Astrid Dance, in collaboration with Toronto-based performer Andrea Nann, Artistic Director of Dreamwalker Dance. Excerpted from a longer work-in-progress, the piece begins with Nann standing on a bench upstage right, looping her arms in a series of graceful arcs as she begins to tell us a story of the Chinatown origins of her Uncle Wayne's carp pond on Hornby Island. This conceit of matching a series of repeated gestures to a gradually unfolding narrative continues with Nann's description of a subsequent trip to Tofino with her husband and daughter, and finally culminates in a stunning loop of ninety-nine arm waves (11 circuits of 9 gestures each) in which Nann brings together the spirit of her daughter, who died very young, with the brother she never knew. The piece unfolds like a beautiful mathematical equation, our delight and wonder increasing as, through the accumulation of repeated gestures, we start to recognize the work's patterns.

Next up was Vancouver stalwart Joe Laughlin's Left. In this iconic work a male dancer (Kevin Tookey) in Elizabethan ruff and cuffs is at once seduced by and himself attempts to woo a teacup, positioned centre stage. And we in turn are seduced not just by Laughlin's precise choreography, as Tookey steps daintily around and gingerly balances with the focalizing piece of china, but also by James Proudfoot's amazing lighting, which expands and contracts the spotlight around (and at one point within) the teacup to dizzying effect.

Following the intermission, Wen Wei Dance Artistic Director Wen Wei Wang unveiled a work in progress called Made in China, co-created and performed with Gao Yanjinzi, Artistic Director of Beijing Modern Dance Company (and seven months pregnant!), Qui Xia He, of the Vancouver-based Silk Road Music ensemble, and the multi-talented video and sound artist (and SFU Contemporary Arts alum) Sammy Chien. The piece uses movement, music, spoken word, and projections to explore the collaborators' common cultural and different personal relationships with China. Seeing Wang, in particular, interact with the black and white palette of Chien's live video projections was mezmerizing, and I look forward to the unveiling of the full piece.

Finally, the evening closed with an excerpt from Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg's Highgate, her intensely theatrical and mordantly funny take on Victorian funerary culture. Very much a work of dance-theatre, in which text and movement are fully coeval, the piece focuses on Mrs. Graves (Friedenberg) and her trio of professional mourners (Alison Denham, Bevin Poole, and Susan Elliott), who are linked not just by their testaments but also by their vestments of mourning. By that I mean that costume designer Alice Mansell's shared skirt for the women plays a starring role in the work, leading to many of the wonders of Friendenberg's choreography as the dancers bend and twist and contort their bodies into various states of lamentation--all to the precise cues of Marc Stewart's richly immersive score. Needless to say, Friendenberg herself is a compelling performer, and her Mrs. Graves will go down with Goggles as one of her most memorable characters yet.

Afterwards I once again led a talkback with the artists from the 9 pm program, and after worrying how I would put Wang's and Friendberg's very different works together, we ended up having a very interesting conversation about compositional process and cross-disciplinary collaboration. All in all it was another great edition of Dance in Vancouver, and I'm so glad I was able to participate in my own small way.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Dance in Vancouver Programs 3 and 4

The 9th Biennial Dance in Vancouver Festival is on at the Dance Centre through this Saturday. Curated this year by the Toronto-based Jeanne Holmes, Artistic Producer of the Canada Dance Festival, DIV 2013's mainstage shows highlight the depth, range, and diversity of contemporary movement expression in this city. Lucky enough to have been asked by Associate Producer Claire French to lead talkbacks after the 9 pm shows last night and on Saturday, I decided to take in the 7 pm presentations as well, thereby getting a chance to see and comment on the full line-up.

First up last night was Ziyian Kwan/dumb instrument Dance's the neck to fall. A virtuosic interpreter of others' work in Vancouver for several decades, the neck is actually Kwan's choreographic debut. It's a piece that announces a major new compositional voice in the city. Inspired by the words of the Canadian modern dancer and somatic instructor Amelia Itcush (who pioneered the teaching of Alexander, Mitzvah and her own Itcush techniques in this country), Kwan's solo combines explosive movement and plosive speech to explore, among other things, the body's relationship to external objects and external commands. One of the most memorable sequences for me was when, near the end of the piece, Kwan lifts up a large cardboard box positioned upstage left to reveal a wooly stool underneath. Eventually turning the stool on its side, Kwan rolls her body with and over it in a series of lyrically graceful waves that make both body and stool extensionally (and elastically) equivalent.

The second work on the 7 pm program was DVOTE, a choreographic and performance collaboration between Vision Impure's Noam Gagnon and Nova Dance's Nova Bhattacharya, a classically trained Bharatanatyam dancer who brings that training to her work in contemporary dance. The work opens with the two dancers, clad all in black and with their faces obscured by masks, in a limb-to-limb tussle/clinch on the upstage right edge of a black square that has been taped down in the middle of the stage. Pulling themselves apart, each proceeds to move in the opposite direction around the perimeter of the square. During this sequence Bhattacharya is mostly vertical, whereas Gagnon's body is more horizontal and oriented to the floor, a visual contrast that establishes not just the different dance idioms being combined in the piece, but also perhaps differences in gender and bodily energies. Eventually, however, those bodies collide, and into the maw of the black square they inevitably tumble. It is not entirely clear to me if this recombining is meant to be harmonious or violent; nor am I sure what to make of the ending of last night's excerpt, which sees the two dancers edge very close to the first row of the audience before the final blackout.

After a 45-minute intermission (long enough to grab a quick glass of wine and a bit of conversation at the pop-up bar DIV 2013 has established at the Vancouver International Film Centre around the corner on Seymour Street), it was time for Program Four. I've written about the plastic orchid factory's _post twice before: here and here. What was interesting this third time was to see how the excerpt from the piece that choreographer James Gnam had chosen to present had been reconfigured for a proscenium stage. Originally, the work had been presented (also at the Dance Centre) in the round, with the audience encircling the dancers, and in the talkback afterwards Gnam commented on the challenge of reconceiving the effects of intimacy and proximity he and his fellow performer-collaborators were striving to achieve in the piece. Nevertheless the conceptual bones (as in the material imprinting of the history of classical ballet upon the body) and the theatrical effects (all of that tulle!) remain as strong as ever.

The evening ended with battery opera's Lee Su-Feh performing her solo Everything. Set to Barry Truax's I Ching-inspired electroacoustic score, the work makes use of Daoist ritual objects--a clutch of ruby red joss sticks, incense, spirit paper--to explore the bodily labour involved in negotiating the chance intersections of history, space and place. By that I mean that, as Lee outlined much more eloquently in our talkback, the work is in part an investigation of what it means for her as an ethnic Chinese immigrant from Malaysia to bring the cultural histories embedded in her body to bear (quite literally) on work she creates in a region where traditional Indigenous territories have been overlain with the history of settler colonialism.

As last night's program attests, Vancouver dance is not just physically experimental, but also intellectually rigorous. I look forward to Saturday.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

The God that Comes at the Cultch

Following its workshop presentation at Club PuSh last January (which I wrote briefly about here), Hawksley Workman's The God that Comes has returned to the city, where it is on at the Cultch's Historic Theatre through November 24.

Richly reverberatory (musically, theatrically and politically), The God features Workman, in collaboration with the Halifax-based 2b theatre company's Christian Barry, delivering a one-man, rock-operatic take on Euripedes' Bacchae. Playing all the instruments (including drums, two sets of keyboards, electric and acoustic guitar, ukulele, recorder and, in one especially sybaritic moment, harmonica), Workman also makes canny use of several loop machines, which on a purely practical level allow him time to move from instrument to instrument, or to make a brief costume change. However, against these multiple repeating tracks he can also pitch a voice that in its register, dynamic range and sensual intensity sends each chord of music--in true cabaret and glam rock fashion--directly to the groin.

In this, Workman and Barry follow Nietzsche in distilling the essence of Euripedes' story down to a dialectical opposition between the regulatory governmentality of the Theban boy-king, Pentheus, and the anarchic sexual abandon of a transvestic foreign god, Dionysus. That Dionysus also happens to be Pentheus' cousin is a further complication of kinship exacerbated by the fact that Pentheus' own mother, Agave, has abandoned her domestic duties to follow the god's rites on Mt. Cithaeron. Here, too, this version of the myth is following the standard line of pitting rebellious femininity against repressive masculinity.

And while this might be a somewhat reductive reading of Euripedes' story (Workman and Barry conveniently get rid of Cadmus and Tiresias), playing with these ideological binaries does produce some truly thrilling musical and narrative contrasts. Most stunning in this respect are the duets (if that's the right word) between Pentheus and Agave in "Remember Our Wars" and between Pentheus and Dionysus in "If Your Prayer." In the former Workman sings into a bullhorn as the warrior-king recounts with pleasure the bloodlust of battle, and then switches to a regular microphone and a quasi-falsetto to give us a very different take on those events, with a war-weary mother suggesting she has taken to the hills as a kind of ecstatic mourning. In the latter, Workman seems to be channelling Charles Mee (whom he acknowledges in the program notes, and whose Bacchae 2.1 my students and I will be discussing in class tomorrow) as much as Euripedes, as the song's conditional phrasing suggests, among other things, that Pentheus' political power is just a front for the sexual humiliation he truly craves.

In the end, as Workman sings an epilogue called "They Decided Not to Like Us," there can be no mistaking which side of the Bacchic equation he favours. For Dionysus, we must recall, is not just the god of wine, but also the god of theatre. And Workman is gloriously, unapologetically theatrical. If all else fails there is still this space of the theatre for the outcasts and freaks of society to gather to imagine a different world.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Getting a Sense of Wen Wei Dance

There were some truly sublime moments in the second half of last night's performance of Wen Wei Dance's 7th Sense, presented by DanceHouse at the Vancouver Playhouse: Ballet BC alum Alyson Fretz being pushed and pulled and nudged and nestled by the other dancers at the outset, before leading them in a series of gorgeous sequential line movements that evoked images of Chinese dragons undulating and being shaken at a New Year's parade; choreographer Wen Wei Wang and performer Brett Taylor in a moving duet in the middle that featured stunning lifts and spins; and the closing duet between Taylor and Jung-Ah Chung (a tiny powerhouse of a mover) that ended memorably with Taylor on all fours and Chung perched on his back, both staring out at the audience.

However, the precision and control of these sequences were in sharp contrast to the general shapelessness of the group improvisations in between, with the inchoateness of the individual dancers' movements and their at times mystifying explorations of scenic space (in which one body might be firmly positioned in front of another, thereby obscuring the latter's movements) reading to me as too much filler. I get, from Wang's program note, that such contrasts were part of the exploratory process of building the work. And yet, while by no means do I think dialectical oppositions always need to result in synthesis, Hegelian that I am, I do prefer there to be some sort of sense-connection (cognitive and kinetic) between them that leads to a new form of perception.

Which is why I am also at a loss in figuring out how the first half of the work fits with the second. A compact 20 minutes, 7th Sense's first act appears to take its cue from Wang's efforts to infiltrate or insert himself between the rest of the group of dancers, massed to begin with upstage left. Oblivious at first, the dancers eventually turn on Wang (quite literally), encircling and threatening him with a series of cartoonish martial arts moves. A metaphor, perhaps, for the choreographic process. Whatever the case, I did learn at intermission that this opening was relatively new, Wang having scrapped his original concept after feeling dissatisfied with it at the work's premiere in Edmonton in February.

I am sure Wang will continue to refine the rest of the work as well, and I look forward to revisiting it again in the future--when I have no doubt my sense of what it will have become by then, and what it was now, will have changed.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along

When it opened late last year in London, the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along was praised for having finally cracked the structural nut of one of the composer's rare flops. Premiering on Broadway in 1981, at the critical height of Sondheim's collaborations with director Harold Prince (Sweeney Todd had debuted to acclaim in 1979), the original version of the musical was panned for its confusing plot and closed after only 16 performances.

Based on the Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman play of the same name, Merrily famously unspools in reverse chronology (much like Harold Pinter's Betrayal, which had opened on Broadway just the year before, perhaps accounting for some audience fatigue with the dramatic conceit). In the first scene, set in 1977, we are introduced to our protagonist, Frank Shepard, a big-time Hollywood film producer who, we learn, has abandoned his earlier aspirations to write musicals and, along with them, his writing partner Charlie and their mutual friend, Mary. Thereafter we gradually learn how Frank "got here" (as Sondheim's opening number repeatedly declaims), moving backwards in time to discover, in turn: the fatal split between Frank and Charlie; the break-up of Frank's first marriage as a result of his affair with his leading lady, Gussie; Frank and Charlie's first big hit; the early days of Frank and Charlie and Mary trying to make a go of their respective careers in New York; and, finally, the initial meeting of our three main characters in 1957 (catching the launch of the satellite Sputnik from an apartment rooftop) and their revelling in how "everything's gonna change" because "it's our time." Though, of course, the musical is based on the earlier Hart and Kaufman play, with the somewhat too talky book adapted by George Furth, it is possible to read Merrily as Sondheim's self-reflexive comment on the state of his own career at the time. Which perhaps explains some of the Schadenfreude the New York critics took in "bringing him down" over the original production.

A more interesting reading to me, having just seen with Richard the Menier production last night in a "live capture" simulcast at the Scotiabank Cinemas, has to do with Sondheim's critique of heteronormativity, and marriage in particular. The trio of friends at the centre of the plot, superbly played by Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell, and Damian Humbley, form an art-life bond that, initially at least, is posited as an aesthetic, economic, and political alternative to conventional relationships. And director Maria Friedman certainly plays up the homosocial elements of Frank and Charlie's partnership, with Mary, unrequitedly in love with Frank, the classically Sedgwickian female pivot through which they filter their affection for each other.

Then, too, as Richard pointed out, Sondheim's score also seems to be doing something interesting, using the reverse chronology of the play to strip the complexity of the orchestrations and tonal structures back to essential core elements that the composer seems to be associating with a classic era of musical production in America. Not that I think Merrily is inherently nostalgic. Rather, I think that what Sondheim is showing us is his own compositional process, a process that is both complexly innovative and richly historical, at once creative and deconstructive. And all of this within a score that has been read as one of his more accessible (and there are witty allusions to Frank and Charlie needing to write more hummable tunes).

A previous London revival of Sunday in the Park (also starring Russell) eventually made its way to Broadway. We'll see if this Menier version of Merrily also crosses the pond and finally gets its due in New York.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

10th Anniversary PuSh Festival Launch

The 10th anniversary celebrations for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival--which runs January 14-February 2, 2014--were launched last night with a party at The Imperial Room on Main Street.

Hosted by Charlie Demers and curated by Woodpigeon's Mark Andrew Hamilton, the evening featured a line-up of local musicians covering the songs of fellow Vancouver artists past and present. Highlights included Veda Hille's smoking version of Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" (complete with Mike Reno-esque head band, but sans the hot pink leather pants) and The Wintermitts's closing take on Carly Rae Jepson's ubiquitous "Call Me Maybe," which had the crowd (led by yours truly) up and dancing.

Programs for the Festival were flying off tables, and our website goes live today for ticket sales and PuSh Pass bookings. It's a stellar line-up of shows, so be sure to book early. You can do so here.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sushi on the Menu

Liquid Loft's Running Sushi, which concluded its run at The Dance Centre yesterday evening, arrived in town as one of the buzzed-about international shows of the fall season. Peter Bingham even talked it up to EDAM's Friday night audience. Fortunately Richard and I had already reserved our tickets.

Founded in 2005 by choreographer Chris Haring (who had previously worked with UK dance-theatre giants DV8 Physical Theatre and the late Nigel Charnock) as a collective with musician/sound artist Andreas Berger, Canadian-born dancer Stephanie Cumming, and dramaturge Thomas Jelinek, the Vienna-based Liquid Loft produces conceptual work that combines movement and text with unique soundscapes and stage designs. The conceit for the duet Running Sushi is that the audience selects from a "menu" of scenes in advance of the performance, with Cumming and fellow dancer Johnny Schoofs emerging from the theatre to proffer a platter of freshly made sushi to audience members in the lobby, each of the 12 pieces cued to a card, with the order of sushi selection determining the order of scenes the dancers then perform.

Given titles like "fruit," and "birth," and "dream," and "manga," the scenes play out on a long, rectangular raised white dais, with Cumming and Schoofs positioned at opposite ends, flipping through their respective stacks of cards to prepare for the sequence that comes next. Although I couldn't figure out how it was done, the set was somehow ingeniously miked/wired by Berger to pick up the dancers' voices, as well as every nuance of additional sound they made with their bodies (jiggling bellies, for example), or with props like chopsticks (which were variously twisted into an orange, stuck into the dancers' hair, or arranged like rungs on a ladder between their arms).

As Haring has commented, the piece was conceived and choreographed to look like the embodied equivalent of Japanese manga. Dressed alike in jeans undershirts, Cumming and Schoofs were very much cartoon figures, an animated Adam and Eve playing out the dailiness of their relationship as a series of flat, mostly static, and non-sequential panels that are all surface and no depth. To this end, the movement, while precise and carefully calibrated to the acoustic score, was deliberately banal and mostly interchangeable, an outline sketched by the performers in blue and grey that the audience was then left to colour in. The effect was like that of a slide-show where the pictures all start to look the same, producing an uncanny sense of deja vu that is at once comforting and unsettling. Or, on the other hand, think of those traveling boats of sushi filled with maki and tuna rolls that individually all look--and frequently taste--the same but that collectively add up to a very satisfying meal.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Drawing Inside and Outside the Lines at EDAM

EDAM's fall mixed program, inside the lines/the lines inside, was just the kind of treat that was needed on a rainy evening following Halloween.

Artistic Director Peter Bingham started things off with Reinventing the Curve, a new contact duet danced by Monica Strehlke and Farley Johansson. The piece begins with Strehlke closing her eyes and Johanssson whispering her name; Strehlke leans into the call, and this becomes the mechanism for a solo exploration of the body moving through space, with Strehlke guided only by Marc Stewart's music and Johannson's beckoning signposting. Eventually Strehlke comes to a stop and the sequence is repeated, this time with Johansson closing his eyes and Strehlke serving as guide. Physical contact is, however, eventually made by the two dancers, with two sequences of inventive partnering featuring great floor (and wall) work especially standing out. In between, Bingham also includes a long stretch of unison movement--unusual for him, but structurally very effective in this piece.

Next up was New Raw, a piece created and performed by Deanna Peters in collaboration with Molly McDermott, Elissa Hanson, and Alexa Mardon. It's a fierce exploration of grrrlness that uses an eclectic musical score and a range of bodily tempos and rhythms to show a spectrum of female "fronts." Of particular interest in that respect was that all four performers are introduced to us with their faces turned away or obscured. By the end of the piece, however, as they move back and forth between upstage and downstage, showing us just how fully in their bodies they are, they are very much in our faces, and the piece builds to a thrilling climax.

The final piece on the program was my colleague Rob Kitsos's Con-found, an experiment in real-time composition created in collaboration with students and alumni from SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts. Losing things--wallets on rollercoasters, phone numbers, one's memory--becomes the thematic refrain around which the performers build a series of movement, textual, and musical phrases, choosing when and how to build the work as a whole in the moment of performance itself. The text may, at times, have dominated the movement, and sometimes transitions were lost in the confusion of bodies criss-crossing the stage; however, there were also sublime moments of supplementation and synchronicity, when the repetition or steady accretion of a simple gesture (hands fluttering before chests) and the arrangement of bodies on stage (in horizontal or vertical lines, in aligned pairs on the floor or against a wall) were starkly beautiful.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Dancing Emily Dickinson

I enjoyed the talkback more than the performance itself.

Last night, at the Cultch, iconic Canadian solo dancer Margie Gillis and American actress Elizabeth Parrish presented the world premiere of their spoken word and movement collaboration, Bulletins from Immortality... Freeing Emily Dickinson. The work was much as I have just described it: Parrish, armed with a talismanic black notebook, read from Dickinson's poems while Gillis interpreted the words in movement. I was relieved to see that the poetry was presented unadorned, without any additional biographical scaffolding. Parrish has a rich and sonorous voice, one that captures the unique syncopation of Dickinson's meter and slant rhymes. However, I found Gillis' dancing a bit too mimetic for my liking, with the result that the movement became largely illustrative rather than aesthetically juxtapositional or conceptually dialectical (which, I would argue, is at the heart of Dickinson's disputational poetry). That said, Gillis remains one of the most emotionally open performers working today, and however diminished her range of movement in this, her fortieth year of dancing, her presence on stage is still a force to be reckoned with.

Then came the talkback, where the architecture of the piece was revealed to have a few more layers of complexity than at first might be supposed. For example, Parrish discussed her choice of poems, noting that they were carefully selected to provide a thematic and emotional through-line to the piece. And in answer to my question of how one dances Dickinson's famous dashes (which, as I further explained, was meant to solicit thoughts on how the distinctive punctuation, as a marker of breath and musicality in the movement of a poetic line on the page gets translated into a line of movement on stage), Gillis talked in detail about how the choreography throughout the piece variously follows, anticipates and is in synch with Parrish's voice.

As Gillis noted in response to another question, she has been dancing to literary works since the start of her career, and we can thus trust that she knows what she's doing. Judging by last night's enthusiastic response to this work--and my caveats notwithstanding--she's right.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Modular Music on Main

Last night, as part of Music on Main's Modulus Festival, Artistic Director David Pay programmed two song cycles for the 9 p.m. concert at Heritage Hall that couldn't have been more different. Yet the pairing absolutely worked.

First up was the world premiere of The Perruqueries, a set of five songs on the theme of "wigs gone awry," with text by Bill Richardson and music by Jocelyn Morlock, Modulus' composer-in-residence. The duo was commissioned by soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen, baritone Tyler Duncan, and pianist Erika Switzer, and it proved an inspired collaboration. An adept of meter and a master of silly rhymes, Richardson's verse is suitably bathetic, adopting a mock heroic form reminiscent of Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock as he describes several follicular fiascos both factual (the opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, the hockey player Bobby Hull, the artist Andy Warhol, and a janitor at the CBC named Albert are all subjects) and fictional (a nursery rhyme about a pig and a thug and an elegy about real estate round out the offerings). Morlock's score matches Richardson's referentiality, a pastiche of musical quotations ranging from Puccini to the Canadian national anthem. All of this is handled by Dreidger-Klassen and Duncan with just the right mix of personality and dramatic flair, their voices rich and sonorous, their diction impeccable, and the personas they adopt never upstaging the music, which was played with spritely aplomb by Switzer.

After a brief set change, we were treated to four songs by the American composer Caroline Shaw, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize in music for a choral work that will receive its Canadian premiere this evening as part of the final program of the Festival. I gather that Shaw composes mostly for--and upon her own--voice. Last night she shared with us four traditional songs from her native North Carolina, all in their way meditations on death and passing in which, as she told us, she was trying to "liquify" the notes. She was aided in this endeavor by the Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook on violin, Jonathan Moerschel on viola, and Eric Byers on cello), who plucked and knocked their instruments as much as they drew their bows across strings. As for Shaw's voice, it's a beautiful instrument, not necessarily wide in range, but pure of timbre, with Shaw able to stretch notes horizontally in a way that is deeply resonant both acoustically and emotionally. Not so much the sound of lamentation as of consolation.

After a day that included a memorial service, it was an appropriate end to the evening.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Ballet BC's Tilt

Last night Ballet BC's season opening program, Tilt, debuted at the Queen Elizabeth. I regret that an imminent dash to the airport means I cannot do the three works that make it up full justice. But suffice to say that in conception and execution the program definitely shows the company has reached a higher level. As a colleague from UBC exclaimed to me during the second intermission, "these dancers are fantastic!"

The evening begins with a world premiere from Finnish choreographer, Jorma Elo, whose 1st Flash--set to Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D Minor--has become a staple of the Ballet BC repertoire. I and I am You once again displays Elo's amazing musicality, built as it is around several familiar pieces by Bach (and one Schumann fugue). It features some stunning ensemble work from the men, punctuated by beautiful duets.

Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar also debuted a new work. 16 + a room, featuring the full company and three apprentices, also has a distinctive score, only this time it is an electronic one by Dirk P. Haubrich. Drawing on an eclectic range of source "texts" for the piece, the work features some of Molnar's most inspired choreography, with the men again working very tightly as a group. Solos by favourites Livona Ellis and Rachel Meyer also stood out. I do wish, however, Molnar would find a way other than running and sliding to get her dancers on and off the stage.

Finally, the evening ended with a reprise of Johan Inger's Walking Mad, set to Ravel's Bolero and featuring a moveable wall. It was interesting to experience the reaction of audience members who weren't expecting the coda, a quiet and deeply affecting duet between Gilbert Small and Makaila Wallace that is danced to the music of Arvo Pärt. Whipped into a frenzy by Ravel's crescendoing orchestral score and Inger's fast and furious unison movement, one is jolted suddenly into another emotional register with the lone piano and the slow, mournful movement that follows. A fitting final act for Wallace, who I understand is retiring after this program.

Tilt is on through Saturday.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Siminovitch and Stravinsky

In the Globe and Mail yesterday an announcement of the three directors nominated for the latest installment of the Siminovitch Prize in Canadian Theatre. The prize, the most lucrative of its kind in the country, and which uniquely requires the winner to bestow a quarter of the $100,000 award upon a protégé of his or her choice, had been doling out the kudos to playwrights, directors, and designers on a rotating basis since 2001. However, after last year's award it was announced the prize would be suspended due to a lack of sufficient funds in its endowment. Fortunately, over the summer the University of Toronto and the Royal Bank of Canada Foundation stepped in to shore up the finances, and the award is back on track.

Among this year's nominees, I know Chris Abraham's work best. The Artistic Director of Crows Theatre in Toronto, he directed the original Toronto production of Eternal Hydra, which Touchstone staged in Vancouver last fall. And he also refereed the James Long and Marcus Youssef's Winners and Losers, which played the PuSh Festival this past January and arrives at Canadian Stage in Toronto this November following an acclaimed international tour. Ironically (or not), Abraham was the first Siminovitch protégé back in 2001, chosen by winner Daniel Brooks.

Also yesterday I got to my second--and likely last--VIFF film. Autumn's Spring, directed by Denis Sneguriev and Philippe Chevalier, is a moving documentary about choreographer Thierry Thieû Niang's seven-year collaboration with a group of elderly men and women from Marseilles, most of whom had never danced before, and several of whom had severe mobility issues. However, under Niang's tutelage, they produced a version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring that ended up playing to acclaim at the Avignon Festival and, eventually, at the hallowed Théâtre de Châtelet in Paris.

Every year there are usually one or two dance documentaries at VIFF--this year, for instance, there is also Toa Fraser's film capturing the New Zealand Royal Ballet's version of Giselle. Two years ago the stand-out was Bess Kargman's First Position, about six young dancers preparing for the Youth American Grand Prix competition in New York. That film, which I briefly blogged about here, was as much about the personal sacrifices as the professional talent of its young, classically trained, subjects. Autumn's Spring, in forcing us to question, among other things, what counts as dance and who counts as a dancer, shows us the joy that movement brings regardless of age--and ability.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Men in Bathing Suits

"We are the talking dead." So says Burns (Kyle Jespersen) at one point in Penelope, Enda Walsh's sly and savage take on Homer's Odyssey, on at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre through October 13 in a Rumble Theatre production directed by Stephen Drover. Burns is one of four remaining suitors vying for the hand of the most famous abandoned wife in Ithaca. Over the past 20 years he has witnessed more than 100 of his kind die trying, either failing to outlast Penelope's exceedingly discriminating selection process or, as with his friend Murray, succumbing to the suggestive rhetoric of their rivals. Among those rivals still standing are Quinn (Alex Lazaridis Ferguson), a vain alpha-male who treats Burns like his personal lap-dog; Dunne (Sean Devine), theatrically Falstaffian in his outsized bodily appetites; and Fitz (Patrick Keating), the older, drug-addled intellectual who, try though he might, cannot "forget the prize." Having all had the same prophetic dream that Odysseus is set to return this day, each man has one last chance to pitch woo to Penelope (a mute Lindsay Winch), who watches their attempts at seduction via closed-circuit television in her villa, and who, should she choose one of them, would save them all.

Did I mention that all of this takes place in a drained swimming pool (the stunning set is designed by Drew Facey), with the suitors comically clad in speedos? The metaphor is an apt one: having been deprived of their medium, the men are all message, one in which we literally see the measure of each. Walsh presents this rhetoric of masculinity as a continuum. On one end is the abject yet still idealistic Burns, who believes in the possibility of platonic love between two men, and that he shared just such a bond with the dead Murray. At the other end is Quinn, a combination of David Mamet's Ricky Roma and Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko, who thinks that men are hardwired to be competitive, that hate and mistrust are what motivate them, and that the early bird always gets the worm--or, as is the case in the play's hilarious opening set-piece (where Ferguson, especially, establishes his cartoonish he-man bona fides), the sausage.

Quinn is the embodiment of capitalist ideology. Having convinced Dunne and Fitz that if they work together to form a company whose sole goal is to ensure that one of them succeeds in winning Penelope's hand, he then purposefully scuttles Fitz's speech when it looks like that one will not be him. Interestingly, when it comes time for his own moment in the spotlight before Penelope, Quinn doesn't speak at all; instead he stages an elaborate pantomime where, conscripting Burns' help, he plays both the male and female leads in a succession of recycled romantic plots (Napoleon and Josephine, Rhett Butler and Scarlet O'Hara, Romeo and Juliet, JFK and Jackie). Perhaps because he only knows how to use words to wound he hasn't the facility for seduction of the others; or perhaps he, unlike them, realizes that he doesn't have to mean what he says. That is, he doesn't have to be sincere (hence his burlesquing of the very ideal of love), he just has to win.

I won't spoil things by revealing whether or not that's the case. What I will say is that all of the actors in this tightly helmed production are superb, forswearing all vanity to revel in the richness of Walsh's language. And I'll also plug my own post-show talk on October 10th, when I'll have more to say about the performances of masculinity on offer in the play.


Monday, September 30, 2013

John Greyson and Tarek Loubani: Redux

As I previously wrote here, filmmaker and York University Professor John Greyson and medical doctor Tarek Loubani have been in prison in Egypt without charge since August 15th. Now the Egyptian government, despite repeated entreaties from Canadian consular officials, says they could be detained for 45 more days. The two men have been on a hunger strike for two weeks and the situation is getting perilous. 

It is time for Prime Minister Harper to intervene directly. The more pressure he receives to do so, the better. 

Please consider sending an email expressing your concern to, copying Foreign Minister John Baird (


Sunday, September 29, 2013

All Over Underland

Deadlines everywhere, demanding my attention, so just a short note on the opening of DanceHouse's new season at the Vancouver Playhouse this weekend.

In his artist talk prior to last night's performance of Underland, Stephen Petronio talked about the formative influence of Trisha Brown, with whom he danced in the early eighties. Among other things, he said, Brown provided him with a model for successful artistic collaboration across disciplines. And while, as Petronio went on to note, his "full table" approach to choreography and scenography is very different from Brown's minimalist aesthetic, seeking out talented musical and design collaborators has been a trademark of Petronio's work since he established his own company in 1984.

Underland, for example, is set to the music of Nick Cave, and features costumes by Tara Subkoff, of Imitation of Christ fame, and video projections by Mike Daly. The cumulative effect is a Gesamkuntzwerk for our paranoid, post-9/11 age, bleak in tone, possessed of a raw, almost furious, energy that threatens to spill over into violence (to the self and to others), but also filled with small, achingly beautiful, moments of grace that are shattering in their combining of abjection with a kind of exaltation. Underland, as Petronio has conceived it, is a "place," materially submerged and mentally subconscious, signaled by the choreographer's own opening descent via a ladder into the stage space in the work's prologue, marking his progress with a pen (or is it a knife?) on the surface of his arm. What then follows plays out like a scratching at the wound that may have festered as a result, each subsequent sequence adding a tear or rent to the thin membrane that separates one world from another--something echoed in the deconstructed costumes by Subkoff.

But it is Petronio's whirling, complexly off-kilter, and gravity-defying choreography that is the driving engine of this piece. His dancers (all superb) throw themselves with such force into a signature horizontal arm extension, head toss and torso twist--and they travel with such speed across the stage while doing so--that one marvels at how fluidly they right themselves, bending into a deep plié or rising vertically on their toes before launching into the next impossible "tilt-a-whirl" sequence (coincidentally Cave's song "The Carny" yields some of the most jaw-dropping movement in this respect). Indeed, one of the rich pleasures of Underland is how seamlessly Petronio combines the classical and the contemporary in his choreography, with the partnering between Barrington Hinds and Natalie Mackessy to Cave's "Stagger Lee" a notable stand-out for its sheer physicality and the almost hostile toughness with which Mackessy throws herself into Hinds' lifts.

However, the work is not without tenderness, as when the quartet of Davalois Fearon (riveting throughout), Gino Grenek, Jaqlin Medlock, and Joshua Tuason enact a moving tableau vivant to "The Ship Song." The choreography here is more controlled and contained; it is about seeking out and maintaining our sense of connection--our touch--with another. The four dancers, even when momentarily separated, are in constant search of the hand, the limb, the lips, the bit of skin that marks not the boundary but the bridge between bodies.

It's another way of looking at the ladder Petronio descends at the top of the show (and, indeed, in Daly's video during this sequence we see the choreographer's on-screen avatar navigating a rope bridge). And it's definitely what was created with the audience at the end, a collective exhale and explosion of applause greeting this brilliant reach across different realms of artistic and sensory experience.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bewitched: Pauwels and Wigman

Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance (1914/1926) is perhaps the most famous dance solo no one has seen—at least not in its entirety. A short clip of the beginning of the artist’s second version of the piece, made in 1926 and featuring the addition of a Noh mask and highly percussive music (Wigman first danced the solo in silence), exists on YouTube. One certainly gets a sense in watching the excerpt of the bewitching aura and gestural expressiveness that made Wigman, and this signature dance, such a captivating solo artist and a leading practitioner of Weimer-era Ausdruckstanz, or “expressive dance.” However, what the piece looked like in its entirety per force remains incomplete.

Not that this has prevented generations of dancers, using contemporary newspaper accounts and the archival research of scores of dance scholars, from attempting to reconstruct and/or reimagine the work. Belgium’s Pedro Pauwels is the latest. Working with fellow choreographers Carlotta Ikeda, Josef Nadj, Robyn Orlin, and Jérôme Thomas, Pauwels asked his collaborators to use Wigman’s Witch Dance as a basis for delving “into the roles of rhythm, energy and movement when dedicated to bewitching, spells and passion” and, in the process, “to build their choreographic vision of today’s sorcerer or sorceress.” The result is Sors, which opened The Dance Centre’s 2013-14 Global Dance Connections series last night.

As interpreted by Pauwels, the piece is divided into five parts, beginning with a fairly faithful recreation of the clip of Wigman posted to YouTube. Masked and seated on the floor, Pauwels claws at the air with his arms and pushes his bent legs to the ground, just as Wigman does. But, not least because of the absence of the familiar percussive music, this opening feels less like an orienting homage than a decidedly disorienting ghosting, with Pauwels here (and throughout the piece as a whole) conjuring a version of the uncanny that is as much about emphasizing unlikeness as likeness. This perhaps helps to explain the next section, in which Pauwels rolls about the floor with his head partly inside a brass bell, a prop I took as less a mimetic reference to a witch’s pointy hat than a Labanesque eukinetic allusion to the body’s internal resonances (more on Laban below). In the third movement Pauwels is mostly vertical, darting diagonally across the stage with outstretched arms in a long grey wrap that he wears back to front, and reminding us why, at least in her first tour of America, Wigman was both hailed as the next and panned as a derivative Isadora Duncan.

The fourth section of the work is the longest and, from my point of view, most interesting. It begins with Pauwels, now stripped to his underwear and outfitted with a body mic, back seated on the floor à la Wigman, as at the outset of the piece. However, he is also now in possession of an electric toothbrush, which he proceeds to use, and which we hear amplified via his mic. Soon he is brushing not just his teeth, but other parts of his body: the inside of his nose, his legs and feet, his armpits, his crotch. This purification ritual precedes—and then proceeds along with—a spoken-word bit in which Pauwels first channels Wigman’s voice by quoting from her letters and then her very bodily being by calling for assistance from the audience and a stagehand named Hans to aid him in his cross-gendered transformation, donning lipstick, pantyhose, and high heels and shimmying briefly to some hip-hop coming from an audience member’s iPod. Lithe and sexy, the feminine Pauwels is certainly bewitching. However, the references to Laban, the Nazis, and the 1936 Olympics in his recitation of Wigman’s correspondence are an important reminder that the poetics of Wigman’s dance sorcery are necessarily shadowed by politics, with her pioneering explorations of individual bodily expression always needing to be historicized in terms of the social movements out of which they emerged, and towards which they were conscripted.

And, so, because I have been doing some research of my own into this particular period of dance history, permit me to open a long contextual parenthesis:

As avant-garde origin myths go, one cannot get much better than Wigman, in the summer of 1913, climbing up Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland in search of a visionary artist whom she had heard held similarly radical ideas about movement. What Wigman and Rudolf von Laban shared was an antipathy toward the traditional dance vocabulary inherited from ballet, folk dance, and pantomime, and that as an expressive form was always subservient to music. Rather, they were both interested in the body as the primary instrument of movement and in developing dance that emerged directly and organically from the body’s everyday dynamic and rhythmic relationships with space. However, beyond this common core principle, Laban’s and Wigman’s theories were quite different, not least in terms of how each characterized the relationship between motion and emotion. For Laban, movement was emotion, and in his theories of space harmony (choreutics) and effort (eukinetics) he would attach the names of different affects (sadness, joy, anger) to simple bodily movements and positionings. This informed his idea of movement choirs, mass groupings of people, most without professional dance training, who could be taught basic combinations of everyday movement that they would then repeat in unison, transmitting rhythmically and kinesthetically the set of affects attached to that movement.

By contrast, Wigman insisted that movement expressed emotion, and her early solo practice explored movement patterns and gestures that evoked individual felt experiences and interior states of being, and on attuning those “inmost feelings to the mood of our time” (The Mary Wigman Book, 107). This also explains why Wigman, unlike Laban, remained wary of conscripting movement to other interpretive ends, as in the theatre. Writing in 1927, she distinguished the pure movement of her “absolute dance” from the larger “’scenic’ event” and “total” synthesis of expressive forms that characterized what Laban first called “stage dance [Tanzbühne]” and then Kurt Jooss (who had replaced Wigman as Laban’s disciple) termed dance-theatre (Tanztheater). “The absolute dance … does not represent, it is,” Wigman claimed, before positing her own version of kinesthetic empathy: “its effect on the spectator who is invited to experience the dancer’s experience is on a mental-motoric level, exciting and moving” (The Mary Wigman Book, 108-109).

Nevertheless, Laban’s and Wigman’s aesthetic philosophies were sufficiently allied as to attract mutual notice by the Nazis, whose theories of Aryan racial superiority were buttressed by the gymnastics and body culture movements then proliferating in Germany, and who were of course equally adept at employing mass choreographed movement and stylized gestures to solicit collective emotional identification with their cause. Even before the Nazis officially came to power Jooss had made his own political position clear, creating his most famous piece, The Green Table (1932); this exemplary early work of dance-theatre is an explicitly anti-war ballet, anticipating Brecht’s Mother Courage in using bold costumes, masks, original music, and a libretto by Jooss, alongside expressionistic choreography developed over seven episodic scenes, to allegorize the horrors of armed combat. Hounded to fire the Jewish members of his company, including his composer, Frederik Cohen, Jooss decided to decamp Germany for Holland soon after returning from The Green Table’s premiere in Paris, eventually setting up a new school in England.

However, Laban and Wigman equivocated (whether naively or opportunistically, depends on one’s perspective). Both accepted the patronage of the Nazi Party, and both bowed to pressure to dismiss Jewish company members or students, before separately running afoul of Josef Goebbels over their participation in the 1936 Olympic opening ceremonies, ironically a stage ideally suited (as it continues to be) to the transmission of affect through mass movement. Yet what was to have been Laban’s grandest movement choir, Vom Tauwind und der neuen Freude (featuring 1000 amateur dancers from across Germany), was scuttled after Goebbels deemed the dress rehearsal insufficiently adulatory of Nazi ideology. This made inevitable Laban’s eventual departure from Germany, first to Paris and then, with Jooss’s aid, to England. As for Wigman, she displeased party officials by demurring on a commission celebrating the leadership of Hitler, though she was allowed to contribute another group piece, Totenklage, instead, and she continued to teach, first at her school in Dresden, then in Leipzig, until the end of the war.

Wigman’s career extended past the war, with her notably creating a version of Le sacre de printemps in 1957 that the dance scholar Susan Manning sees as having an influence on Pina Bausch’s own take on the Stravinsky libretto 18 years later (see Susan Manning, Ecstasy and the Demon: Feminism and Nationalism in the Dances of Mary Wigman, 245). However, Ausdruckstanz’s transformation into Tanztheater in post-war Germany necessarily involved a careful negotiation on the part of choreographers like Bausch and Reinhild Hoffmann (who both studied with Jooss) with expressionist forebears like Wigman, emphasizing the universality of German dance-theatre’s bodily affects at the expense of its local political history.

This, finally, brings me back to Pauwels’ Sors, and its final section. It begins with Pauwels, now once again fully clothed and entering upstage right with his back to us, magically unfurling a seemingly endless length of sheer plastic from what at first appears to be his mouth but was no doubt the top of his shirt. Lifting and twirling and running with and rising and falling underneath the sheet, Pauwels weaves a gorgeous final visual spell that is certainly vivid and memorable in its emotional expressivity. However, I couldn’t help thinking it also worked to contain and bracket off the politics of the preceding section.