Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Funny Valentine at the Firehall

Dave Deaveau's My Funny Valentine, on at the Firehall Arts Centre through March 2 in a Zee Zee Theatre production directed by Cameron Mackenzie, is based on the 2008 murder of Lawrence King, a gay 15-year-old murdered by the male classmate to whom he had given a Valentine's Day card. Coming exactly 10 years after the murder of Matthew Shepard, and with a similar gay panic defense being mounted in the subsequent trial, the case drew international attention.

Just as the Shepard case inspired Tectonic Theater Project to interview residents of Laramie, Wyoming affected by the killing, and to stage their voices in the much produced and multi-award-winning The Laramie Project, so has Deveau done extensive research into the press and interview responses of different members of King's hometown of Oxnard, California. However, eschewing TTP's route of producing a large ensemble work of documentary theatre, Deveau has chosen to craft a series of fictional monologues based on what I'm assuming are composite characters developed out of his research, and all delivered by a single actor, in this case the hyper-talented Anton Lipovetsky.

Lipovetsky, identified as The Collector in the program, is already on stage when we enter the theatre, unshaven and scruffily dressed, busy sifting through papers and clippings and photographs that form a circle around a small shrine of objects and artifacts (the set and costume designer is Marina Szijarto). Snatches of media reports about the shooting are broadcast as audience members settle into their seats, appropriate given that the first voice we hear from Lipovetsky once the performance begins is that of the small potatoes local reporter who first broke the story. Among other things, we learn that he interrupts some romantic canoodling with his wife in a rented motel room because, in turning on the TV to drown out the sounds of their lovemaking, he nevertheless still has enough hard news instincts to know a scoop when he sees one. Details like this reveal Deveau's own sharp instincts as a playwright: not just that one can tell King's story in this circumlocutionary way without sacrificing any of its drama, but also that our identification with each character whose voice we hear over the course of the next 90 minutes will in part stem from what about each goes on in spite or despite or even as a result of King's loss.

Those characters include an 11-year-old girl dreaming of a career in the glamourous world of high fashion; a homophobic salesman whose son went to the same school as King; and two teachers--one male, the other female--differently affected by King's murdered. The voice of the female teacher, Helen, is the only one that recurs in the play, and it is also where Deveau's writing, Lipovetsky's acting, and Mackenzie's directorial choices combine to produce the most affecting results. Helen, who is always searching in her purse for something she cannot find, or spilling coffee or wine down the front of her blouse, has been completely undone by King's death, even as she rouses herself--and others--to action, losing her feckless husband in the process. And in the course of revealing how--as a teacher, a woman, a person--her heart has been broken as a result of these events, Helen also reminds us what is so unfunny about them: that tolerance is not enough; that gun control is not enough; that even hate crime legislation, in paradoxically memorializing the crime and its victim(s), fails to interrogate adequately the violence that produced that crime in the first place.

As I have written elsewhere, also in connection with Matthew Shepard, part of this interrogation involves acknowledging that Shepard and King and Aaron Webster and Brandon Teena and Sakia Gunn and Reeva Steenkamp and the women at the École Polytéchnique and from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, died not because they were queer or feminist or prostitutes, but because their killers were all straight men. This play, in making its "gay protagonist" an absent presence, forces us to confront this issue. Like Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, it deserves to be seen every February around the world.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chutzpah! 2013: Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company

The third and final of the dance offerings in this year's Chutzpah! Festival showcases the return of the acclaimed Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, in the North American premiere of If at All, the latest evening-length work by Artistic Director Rami Be'er.

Be'er favours dramatic openings, often solos by female dancers that begin in silence. Such is the case here as the curtains part to reveal a long-limbed, raven-haired beauty in a square of white light centre stage, and with a plié that just won't quit. Slowly, she makes her way upstage, pausing under an illuminated orb that resembles a full moon. She bends deeply at the knees once more, clasping her hands in front of her and circling her arms about her torso in ever-widening arcs, as if she is stirring a cauldron.

What is conjured from this opening is another of Be'er trademarks, and what for me makes his work so compelling kinesthetically and emotionally: the full company bursting onto the stage full throttle to anthemic music, closing ranks in a circle, before breaking off into separate (and often separately gendered) group formations that showcase Be'er's full body choreography in recurring patterns of unison and canon movement, often supplemented by his own lighting and costume designs.

In the case of It at All, the sequence that really grabbed hold of me at the beginning was the one featuring the seven male company members who, clad in full blooming grey skirts, one by one break out of the circle and fall to the ground at the lip of the stage in front of individual orange floor spots (except for the man furthest stage left, who had no floor spot in front of him, and who remained motionless on his side until the very end of this sequence). Eventually the men raise themselves onto their elbows and knees, their faces now square with the floor spots, and begin to repeat a few simple movements with their arms that involve variations of support and release at the joints, and that through successive serial additions become mesmerizing. Indeed, the patterns gradually become faster, more complicated, the men rolling stage right to the next floor spot as each takes a vertical solo turn upstage before returning to the line (maybe because I'm teaching it on Friday, I was reminded a little bit of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's famous Rosas Danst Rosas here).

It is Be'er's ability to combine this kind of highly structured group movement with more free-flowing solos and duets that makes his work so unique. Not that everything last night was perfect. I think the piece as a whole was too long, and there were some awkward transitions. But it's a credit to the folks at Chutzpah!--and a boon to local audiences--that Vancouver continues to remain a tour stop for what is perhaps the best known contemporary Israeli dance company after Batsheva.

If at All continues tonight through Saturday at 8 pm, with an additional 2 pm matinee on Sunday. It is preceded by Zion, a courtship duet by Barak Marshall (of BJM's Harry fame), and danced winningly by local talents James Gnam and Rebecca Margolick.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Widening Gyres and Full Body Scans

In the famous opening stanza to W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming," we are told:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I've found myself returning to these lines over the past few days as I've struggled to articulate here on this blog (not usually a problem for me) my response to Body-Scan: Sweet Gyre, a piece created by Lee Su-Feh (of battery opera) and Benoît Lachambre (of Par B.Leux), and performed last week as part of The Dance Centre's Global Dance Connections series. A work that, in the words of its choreographers, "recyles, re-uses, and re-imagines" elements from an earlier 2008 collaboration for six dancers, here Lee and and Lachambre--together with Jesse Zubot, who provides live musical accompaniment--loose the full panoply of their anarchic creative energies upon the audience. And if, like me, one cannot find a stable formal or thematic centre upon which to pitch one's interpretation of the piece, that doesn't mean one won't continue to turn and turn around in one's head its spiraling layers.

For me those layers are composed of contrasting movements and sounds and scales and textures and colours:

- Lee's slow, durational, pause-punctuated immersion of her body into the pile of sleeping bags downstage vs. Lachambre's jerky skittering of his chair horizontally upstage left to right

- or, later, Lee, now on the chair dressed in a sleeping bag skirt and vest, slowing wending her way to the microphone near Zubot in order to coo into it like a bird vs. Lachambre's manic flitting about the stage saying "I love you," the sound of aluminum clothes pins jangling in the pockets of his hoodie

- the double-sided sleeping bags themselves: vibrantly coloured on the outside when scattered on the floor, or strung together along a rope upstage; but turned inside out and affixed to a succession of step ladders of different heights, they reveal monochromatic portraits of the dancers in the original 2008 piece

- and, finally, the piece's closing tableau: blue tarpaulin pulled above the audience to fashion a synthetic sky, while below us, on stage, artificial turf is rolled out, upon which Lee and Lachambre, in custom-made outfits of oiled laytex, slowly turn and turn and turn

I couldn't always make sense of what was going on before me, but I always had some sort of sensory reaction to what I was witnessing. I was never less than fully engaged. Which is, after all, what one desires from live performance. As my friend and colleague, DD Kugler, said to me afterwards, we all owe a debt to artists like Lee and Lachambre, who in pushing the limits of what dance and performance is and can be, allow the rest of us to have room to experiment and play in our own very modest ways.

There is no lacking of conviction or passion in these two performers, and if drowning in the alchemical results causes our own aesthetic expectations to fall apart, we are the better for it.


Chutzpah! 2013: LEVYdance and Sidra Bell Dance

Last night's dance pairing at the Chutzpah! Festival was a study in contrasts, visually and choreographically.

First up were three short pieces by San Francisco-based choreographer Benjamin Levy. I was most taken by the riveting solo co-choreographed with Rachel Lincoln, and danced in a square of white light by an electric Josianne Valbuena, whose opening pulsing and jittering of her body to a score that sounded at once like crackling fire and cleansing rain had me immediately captivated. This was bracketed by a duet and quartet, the dancers, preppy in an American Apparel sort of way, engaging in some interesting but hardly mind-blowing contact improv-inspired movement patterns.

Then it was the turn of Sidra Bell, of New York, who adopted a goth aesthetic for her 35-minute piece, Nudity, sending out her three female and two male dancers androgynously clad in sheer black tops, white face paint and eyelash extensions, and each sporting a long black braid. There were some interesting moments, aided by canny lighting, where Bell drew comparisons between the vertical silhouette of classical ballet and more contemporary subcultural movement styles such as voguing; however, the extended riff on and deconstruction of the regimentation and rigours of dance training went on far too long. And sending her dancers out into the audience not once, but twice, was just plain gimmicky.

There was much besides the volume that needed to be dialed down in this piece.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

BJM at 40

Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, now simply known as BJM, is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a company. Currently touring the country in celebration of that milestone, the troupe (which since 1998 has been under the artistic direction of Louis Robitaille) arrived in Vancouver this weekend as part of DanceHouse's current season, presenting a mixed program that roused last night's audience to an ecstatic standing ovation, but that frankly left me nonplussed.

Much has been made of BJM's evolution, over the course of its history, from a ballet to a contemporary dance company. And yet what the three pieces presented last night most demonstrated to me was a surprisingly tenacious adherence to some pretty basic classical conventions, especially with respect to the gendered dynamics of partnering. From what I could see, in BJM's world, female dancers mostly exist to be lifted and male dancers to do the lifting.

Indeed, in Cayetano Soto's Fuel, which opened the evening, when the women aren't being pushed and pulled by the men, they are reduced to animatronic dolls, spinning robotically in place. Things got mildly interesting for me when, near the end of the piece, the strict opposite sex partnering that had dominated to that point is interrupted by an intense and athletic male-male duet. But otherwise I kept finding myself staring into the bright lights directed at the audience from an industrial massing at the back of the stage.

Next up was Closer, a pas de deux choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (aka Mr. Natalie Portman) for BJM dancer Céline Cassone, here partnered by the sturdy Alexander Hille. Cassone, with her shock of reddish-pink hair, is certainly a captivatingly graceful dancer, but she is hardly ever out of Hille's arms. And while the steps are both pretty and technically accomplished (proving that Millepied might not actually be such a surprising choice to head an institution like the Paris Opéra Ballet), the lack of expressiveness and emotional connection between the dancers (I saw Hille more than once look away from Cassone and out over the audience, as if wondering, like me, when Philip Glass's piano score would ever end) left me cold.

The evening concluded with Barak Marshall's Harry, a 40-minute dance-theatre piece composed expressly for the BJM company. Ostensibly the story of the eponymous title character's complicated love life, it actually begins with his death. The leitmotif of returning to Harry's graveside to offer spoken word commentary, which under most other circumstances would get me tremendously excited (the combining of text and movement being a focus of mine), ended up reinforcing my overall frustrated response to Robitaille's programming. That's because these scenes always devolved into couples bickering, the piece's overwhelming heteronormativity being just one of the obstacles to my enjoyment of it. Another was the jarring clash of tones, with scenes abruptly careening from whimsical to sombre as a war theme is suddenly introduced (the piece is loosely framed as a postmodern take on Greek drama, complete with capricious Gods manipulating events, but as with the sudden and bizarre allusion to Les Misérables, these winking references didn't always work). Don't get me wrong: there was some stunning dancing on display here, particularly to the Israeli folk songs that formed part of the eclectic score.

I just wasn't as wild about Harry--and the program of which it was a part--as everyone else seemed to be.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Chutzpah! 2013: Lesley Telford's Brittle Failure

Coming hot on the heels of PuSh, any other performing arts festival in the city would, even under the best of circumstances, be a challenge for my energy and attention. Fortunately, Chutzpah!, Vancouver's International Showcase of Jewish Performing Arts, always finds my sweet spot with its abundant programming of cutting-edge contemporary dance (Artistic Director Mary-Louise Albert is herself a former dancer and dance instructor). What's more, this year's three dance offerings have been bundled into a very attractively priced ticket package. Who could resist?

Last night the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre featured the return of Vancouver-born choreographer Lesley Telford, who is presenting a new work called Brittle Failure. A collaboration with Japanese scenographer Yoko Seyama, the piece opens with hundreds of tiny white paper houses lined up in neat rows on the stage. In terms of size, scale, and uniformity, one is reminded of architectural models for planned communities or, worse, a concentration camp. Dancer Clyde Emmauel Archer emerges from the wings and picks up one of the paper houses, placing it gently in the crook of his elbow, behind his knee, in the small of his back, all the while slowly moving (sometimes standing up, sometimes along the floor) clockwise around Seyama's fragile installation. He is soon joined by fellow dancers Iratxe Ansa and Miguel Oliviera, who begin an increasingly energetic duet upstage left, one that constantly threatens to spill over and upset the tidy rows of houses.

Indeed, the couple's movements seem deliberately counterpointed to Archer's as soloist: where he moves slowly and deliberately, respecting the architectural integrity of one model house at a time (and later using spoken word to reflect on his own childhood home), they move more quickly and cavalierly, at one point piling up dozens of houses in each other's arms, an image that succinctly encapsulates our natural acquisitiveness--whether for real estate or for memories. There are several other stunning visual effects created throughout the piece, as when a wash of moving lights cinematically animates the rows of houses, or when, in a coup-de-théâtre, the mat upon which the houses have been neatly aligned is pulled up by two wires, causing the houses to tumble into each other, creating an instant shantytown that is very quickly swept away.

As for the dancing, I was most taken by the two duets--between Ansa and Archer, and then between Ansa and Oliviera--that conclude the piece. The first is by far the more physical, the strength of one partner's fragile hold tested by the counter-weight of the other's oppositely straining body, Ansa and Archer enacting their own "brittle failure," which as the program notes remind us "is a technical term used to define the conditions under which solid materials fracture under pressure." Then, in the final duet between Ansa and Oliviera, Telford seems to be asking under what conditions might those broken pieces be put back together, a final origami abode placed gingerly between one foot of each of the dancers as they slowly pivot around it and also raise it delicately aloft, careful now not to crush what real or imagined space binds them together: "safe as houses."

Brittle Failure shares a program with a remix of work by local hip-hop favourites 605 Collective, as well as a moving duet by Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili, danced by Oliviera and Telford herself. There is one more performance tonight at 7 pm.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

PuSh 2013: King Lear

It was nice to bookend this year's PuSh Festival with another international take on King Lear, this time a one-man version from Taiwan's Contemporary Legend Theatre, featuring Master Wu Hsing-Kuo in a virtuoso performance that mixes traditional Peking Opera singing and dancing with more contemporary martial arts and Western theatre techniques.

Wu tells Lear's story in three parts. In the first, "The Play," we are plunged immediately into the heart of the protagonist's megalomaniacal madness. In the second, "The Playing," we witness Wu's performative transformation between several roles, including the Fool, all three daughters, and a stunningly accomplished and very moving alternation between Edgar and his now-blind and repentant father, Gloucester. Finally, in "The Player," things are stripped down to reveal the actor behind the role, with Wu's own relationship to the play, its parts, and his own art the focus of deconstructive analysis.

A co-presentation with the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association and Taiwanfest, it was wonderful to see the cavernous Centre on Homer Street filled with so many audience members appreciative of this fusion of forms. It was also an honour to meet Master Wu and his wife at a reception after the show.

Then it was off to Club PuSh with Richard and PuSh Development Manager Jocelyn Macdougall for the Festival's closing party, always a riotously fun, karaoke-filled good time. We didn't stay long, but long enough to see Jocelyn and Human Library curator Dave Deveau kill their songs; to witness the cast of Ride the Cyclone each take a turn at the mike (and the cast of Prudencia a turn at the bar); to shake Martin Chaput's hand and have a brief word with Marcus Youssef; to debrief on the Club's successes with co-curator Tim Carlson; to greet Juniper Shuey in the lobby and talk with him about how taken he was with Winners and Losers; to speak briefly with Sad Sack, By Night curator Vanessa Kwan; and to give Executive Director Norman Armour a bear hug when exiting.

Twenty days, seventeen shows, eight receptions, four speeches, one talkback, and too many amazing moments of pure performance magic to count. I'm absolutely exhausted, but already I can't wait till next year--our 10th anniversary.

See you there.


PuSh 2013: The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart comes to the PuSh Festival (in a co-presentation with The Cultch) from the National Theatre of Scotland, whose recent credits include such acclaimed works as Blackwatch and a one-man Macbeth starring Alan Cumming that is heading to Broadway this spring.

Written by David Greig (The American Pilot), Prudencia tells the story of its eponymous heroine (played by a radiant Melody Grove), a folklorist from Edinburgh who studies the border ballads. Famously compiled by Sir Walter Scott in his 1802 volume The Minstrelsy of Scotland, these narrative songs from the Middle Ages tell of raids and battles along and across the border between England and Scotland, but also frequently recount supernatural events, including encounters with the devil. It is the latter kind of ballad that is of most interest to Prudencia, a traditionalist whose focus on form, thematic content, and social history puts her at odds with her "post-post-structuralist" academic colleagues, including motorcycle-driving arch-nemesis Colin Syme (Paul McCole), who sees the border ballads as of a piece with the tribalism of contemporary football songs. When, following a humiliating panel discussion at a conference, Prudencia and Colin find themselves marooned in a tiny Highland town because of a snow storm, the strangeness of Prudencia's undoing kicks into overdrive. First, there are the local denizens (Alasdair Macrae, Annie Grace, and David McKay) of the pub Colin and Prudencia stumble upon, who proceed to re-enact the previous night's ribald revelries for the one among them who cannot remember what happened. Then there is the B&B into which Colin has booked Prudencia and himself, and toward which Prudencia, escaping the pub sans Colin, blindly stumbles at the midnight hour of the winter solstice, only to find herself a captive of its owner, who is--you guessed it--the devil himself (McKay again)

In other words, Prudencia goes from studying the ballads as historical artifacts to living her own very real version of one--which, when she discovers the infinite holdings of her host's library, is maybe not so bad a place to spend eternity. But hell, in this case, is other people's footnotes, and when she stumbles upon the proceedings of the conference that precipitated her undoing, Prudencia decides it's time to escape the underworld and slip back through the crack in the pavement of the Costco parking lot and join the world she left behind. Fortunately, her intimate understanding of the balladic tradition means she knows what she needs to supercede its narrative clutches: a knight and his steed, or in this case a pot-bellied professor and his motorcycle.

All of this is told interactively, the venue for the production (in this case a perfectly cast WISE Hall) doubling as the pub Prudencia and Colin stumble upon, and with other scenes--many of them highly physical--told in and around patrons' tables. Additionally this means that depending on where one chooses to sit, one might find oneself at any moment conscripted as part of the action. But thoroughly charmed by the story being told (not to mention the free dram of whiskey warming our bellies), we willingly comply, seduced by the enthusiasm and charisma and incredible talent of all the performers, who in addition to fully inhabiting their respective characters, also sing and play a host of traditional instruments, including fiddle, table accordion, guitar, bagpipes, and several types of recorder.

Oh yeah, and they also speak in rhyming couplets, the measure of any successful ballad story being, of course, the strength of its meter. On all counts, this production definitely adds up.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

PuSh 2013: The Road Forward

Marie Clements rocked the house last night at Club PuSh with the premiere of The Road Forward, a multi-media blues-rock musical developed by Clements' and Michelle St. John's red diva projects, and featuring an original score by composer, musical director, and performer Jennifer Kreisberg--who together with St. John and fellow diva Cheri Maracle make up the work's girl power vocal soul. Originally created as a 9-minute piece for the closing performance of the Aboriginal Pavilion at the 2010 Winter Olympics, The Road Forward has since been expanded into a full-length evening that mixes traditional drum songs with Clements' and Kreisberg's newly commissioned set-list, and even a few adapted classics--including a rockin' version of "Lady Marmalade" on which St. John, Kreisberg, and Maracle all get to vocalize like there's no tomorrow.

As Clements tells us in the program, The Road Forward was conceived in response to her discovery, at the offices of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia, of 40 years worth of archives from The Native Voice, a newspaper that chronicled and advocated for change in Aboriginal communities across the Americas from the 1930s to the 1970s, and about which Clements knew next to nothing. Archival images from the newspaper--many of them sourced and collected by my student Rachel Braeuer, who served as a research assistant on the project--are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage throughout the performance, and Clements and crew also make a direct link--in images and song--to the role that social media are currently playing in the Idle No More movement, with a live Twitter feed scrolling across a drum face downstage left.

It was a truly moving and galvanizing evening, one that needs to be repeated. I hope that The Road Forward returns (either to PuSh, or to another venue/festival) soon, and also that it tours. It deserves as wide an audience as possible. For the time being, I celebrate Clements' immensely generous vision and achievement, and the supporting roles that both my favourite performing arts organization and the Department of English at SFU (where Clements is currently writer in residence) played in bringing about last night.


Friday, February 1, 2013

PuSh 2013: Winners and Losers

James Long, of Theatre Replacement, and Marcus Youssef, of Neworld Theatre, are frequent artistic collaborators and close friends. In Winners and Losers, on through Saturday at SFU Woodward’s as part of the PuSh Festival, they test the strength of both bonds in a concept piece where the stakes keep getting higher and higher.

The premise is simple: the men sit across from each other at a table and begin lumping different people and places and things into one of two categories, winners or losers. At times the objects of analysis (Pamela Anderson, lululemon, ping pong--which they actually play), and the tenor of the debate, are fairly benign. But soon things get personal, as Long and Youssef start adding up each other’s credits and debits, including relationships, street smarts vs. worldly wisdom, past artistic successes and failures, and especially class privilege and literal family inheritance. Indeed, the piece turns--and turns downright nasty--on the extent to which each actor can rack up points by demonstrating how the one’s wealthy background and the other’s hardscrabble working class roots are incommensurable with their present-day social realities and political sympathies. (I won’t give things away by revealing whose house costs more, although I will note I was surprised that race factored only obliquely into the men’s perorations.) Partly scripted and partly improvised, the piece’s dramatic tension accumulates in the same way that capital does: by seeing just how far, and at what cost, one person will go to beat another--even a close friend.

And we, in the audience, are not exempt from the game’s theatrical fallout. First, socialized by a similar logic governing everything from organized sport to institutionalized education to our systems of government, we can’t help but keep score. Then, too, there are those brutal shocks of abject recognition when we discover--as of course we must in a show such as this--that some aspect of ourselves (with which we may or may not identify) qualifies us, in another’s mind, as a loser. It’s Artaudian theatre of cruelty taken to a whole other metaphysical (and meta-theatrical) plane.

Expertly directed--or should I say refereed?--by Chris Abraham, of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre (where the show travels next), this is a work that is as emotionally bracing as it is intellectually stimulating, a punch in the gut that packs deep insights into the problem of fit between people and categories. One of which is this: the problem is with the categories, not the people.