Sunday, March 31, 2013

Micro Voyages

I missed Boca del Lupo's The Voyage when it was first staged as part of their "micro-performance" series last fall. Given the buzz then, I made sure to see it this time around. And so yesterday I made my way to Granville Island, briefly bid adieu to the brilliant late afternoon sunshine, and submitted to being locked inside a shipping container for 20 minutes. The experience was underwhelming.

The Voyage is about human trafficking, Vancouver being a favoured port of entry for the smuggling of illegal migrants across the Pacific and into North America. All this we are told in advance of the show, as we gather at The Anderson Street Space (TASS) headquarters of the company. And this: that the show will place us "in the shoes" of someone being trafficked.

The experience starts with the assembled audience (there were about 15 of us in total) being loaded into a panel van waiting at the entrance to TASS. It's cramped and hot, and the van is prone to sudden starts and stops. But at least there's still light. And, oh yeah, an accompanying audio track. I knew that the whole premise of The Voyage was sensory: visual deprivation on the one hand, and acoustic immersion on the other. However, I didn't expect the latter to include the looped meta-commentary from media and political pundits that frames this simulation of being trafficked. It immediately took me outside my body--the ring of sweat forming around my neck, my awareness of how closely I was pressed up against the person squeezed in next to me--and reminded me not just that this was "a show," but also here's what you should think about it.

Ditto the chorus of voices that ends the audio while we are inside the actual container (located on the old loading dock between Emily Carr University and the Granville Island Hotel). The minute its door was bolted closed and we were plunged into a darkness unlike any other I've experienced in the theatre I was back inside my body. That sensory awareness only increased as the sound score (created by Jean Routhier and Carey Dodge) began, starting with the tell-tale bleats of the forklifts used to load heavy freight onto boats. When, half-way through, we hear the sounds of laboured breathing I had to briefly catch my own to determine it wasn't coming from me. And once the container "arrives" in Vancouver and there is a banging and cry for help, I was momentarily tricked into thinking it was coming from one of my fellow audience members.

But then, just before the doors of the container open and we are "released" back into the bright sunshine and our equally shiny Vancouver lives, we are returned to the meta realm, with a final loop of what I assumed were testimonials from trafficked individuals. In a piece that is otherwise brilliantly constructed around the conceit of "showing-by-not-showing," this insistence on telling at the beginning and end is perplexing and, it seems to me, fundamentally at odds with the experience of bodily empathy at the core of the work.

Kudos to Sherry and Jay and the whole Boca team for attempting to get us to see more feelingly in The Voyage. I just wish they trusted their audience to connect the social and political dots.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ways of Walking

DanceHouse's fifth season ended last night with an energetic walk on the wild side of contemporary dance. Carte Blanche, the Bergen-based Norwegian National Company of Contemporary Dance, presented Corps de Walk, by red-hot Israeli duo Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar (she is resident choreographer for Batsheva Dance Company and he is an in-demand video, music, and performance artist). Set to a driving electronic score by DJ Ori Lichtik, this relentless 60-minute pushing of the limits of unison is as high on concept as it is on technique.

Using a "system of walks" as the architectural basis for her movement vocabulary, Eyal is clearly referencing in the title of the piece the traditional corps de ballet, the army of anonymous dancers who don't get to electrify with their virtuosic jumps and pirouettes and lifts, but without whose expert execution of the "simpler" steps a work would be unrecognizable as classical ballet. Those steps require a strong inner body core (a grounded pelvic floor combined with an elongated spine), and from the opening tableau of the Carte Blanche ensemble standing in a circle, arms stretched above their heads like tree branches, to the patterned use of deep pliés throughout the work, Eyal is drawing our attention--almost in a Labanesque, eukinetic way--to the very bodily mechanics of walking, on or off the stage. Finally, in terms of puns on the word "corps," there's the ghosted "e" we are wont to append to the end,  not least as Eyal and Behar send the Carte Blanche dancers out on stage clad uniformly in flesh-toned, skin-hugging lyotards, their hair likewise painted white, and, most eerily, sporting white contact lenses. Combined with the deliberately robotic movement patterns--the precise head turns, foot pivots, hip thrusts, finger splays, elbow bends, pelvic tilts--that keep repeating at a steady pace as the dancers move into and out of different group formations (often initiated by shouted commands by one or another of them), at times it's almost as if we're watching an episode of The Walking Dead.

And yet as much as the costumes and choreography emphasize sameness over difference (the hallmark of any great ballet dancer being the ability to perform flawlessly the same steps over and over again), for me the absolute indexicality of these dancing bodies (and pointing with index fingers becomes an important recurrent motif throughout the piece) broke down the longer the piece went on. All thirteen Carte Blanche dancers are on stage for almost the entire duration of the piece, and the longer we look at them moving together the more we are able to see how they likewise move apart. And I'm not just referring to the fact that the dancers are different shapes and sizes, that, for example, one of the male dancers is black, another bald, and one has a mustache. Rather, I refer to the fact that one of the things that remains so entrancing about a corps de ballet, like the ballet performed every day by hundreds of pedestrians crossing a busy intersection, is that while we may all be moving with the same purpose and intention, even in something as habitual as walking one cannot help but distinguish personality in form.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Balm in Gilead at Studio 58

As I've written in a previous post, playwright Lanford Wilson and producer/cultural impresario/all-round force of nature Ellen Stewart (who died within months of each other in 2011) more or less invented Off-Off-Broadway. When Wilson's Balm in Gilead opened at Stewart's La Mama ETC in 1965 and became an instant hit, New Yorkers suddenly cottoned on to the Lower Eastside as a destination for cutting-edge theatre. Vancouver audiences can see what all the fuss was about by heading to Studio 58's current production of the play, on through April 7th. 

Balm in Gilead is set in an all-night diner in New York City frequented by prostitutes, hustlers, junkies, pushers, and the generally destitute. It is famous for its overlapping dialogue; director Bob Frazer and set designer Naomi Sider have additionally emphasized the immersive qualities of the play by placing  most of the audience within booths that form part of the stage space, and that at various moments might be occupied by different characters in the play. It is a most effective choice, as it gives us the opportunity, depending on where we look, to eavesdrop on the multiple mini-dramas that overlap, intersect, and divide the denizens of the diner, an acoustic roundelay that, together with the singing in the round that weaves throughout the two acts, highlights the cyclical structure of Wilson's play and the downward spirals of most of the characters' lives.

That's not to say that individual actors in the large ensemble cast don't get a chance to shine in the spotlight, and standout monologues include those by Stephaie Izsak as schoolteacher-turned-prostitute Ann, Patrick Mercado as a wise and observant Dopey, and especially Chirag Naik as the hopped-up junkie Fick. Even actors who have only a few lines of dialogue still dazzle with their physical presence: Julie Leung, for example, is mesmerizing as Babe, a heroin addict whom we watch shoot up at the top of the play and thereafter spend the rest of Act 1 trying not to fall off her counter stool.

There is a plot buried in all of this, one that concerns the doomed romance between Joe (Chris Cope), a small-time pusher who runs afoul of a bigger dealer, and Darlene (Masae Day), a naive young transplant from Chicago. Act 2 opens with a 20-minute monologue by Darlene describing her former boyfriend, an albino, and their planned marriage that somehow never came to pass. It made a star of Laurie Metcalf when the play was revived in 1984 in Circle Rep/Steppenwolf Theatre coproduction directed by John Malkovich. Unfortunately, it doesn't hit the right notes of wide-eyed humour and heart-breaking pathos in this production because Day's performance, here and elsewhere, is a bit too flat and affectless. This is a problem in an otherwise compelling production, as Darlene is meant to be the empathetic soul of the play.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Birds On a Wire

After a couple of productions that were somewhat conceptual and narrative in nature, it was nice to have a new piece from Peter Bingham and his EDAM dancers that was more physical and "classically" contact.

City of Crows, on at the Roundhouse through this evening as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival, begins with a trio. To live improvised music by Diane Labrosse, company members Delia Brett, Anne Cooper, and Monica Strehike begin individually with simple movements--bending at the knees, stretching arms out from the torso, jumping in place--before gathering each others' arms, and weight, and moving to the floor for the tumbling and rolling and shared structures of support that are a trademark of Bingham's choreography. At one point, with the three women stretched out on their stomachs, Brett pointed to a tiny spot on the floor. Cooper curled herself into a fetal position and moved into it; then Strehike did the same, only this time placing her body on top of Cooper's, followed, of course, by Brett. In another memorable moment, the women form a vertical line upstage right, swaying their upper bodies left to right in counterpoint, and then their heads forwards and backwards, as if balancing on a tree branch.

Following this opening (and a brief costume change), Brett, Cooper, and Strehike are joined on stage by Alana Gerecke, Farley Johansson, and Stacey Murchison, who sit downstage. Clad all in black, and with their heads just visible above the first rows of the audience, they look like birds on a wire, watching attentively like crows do, waiting for the moment when they will suddenly take flight. And fly the do, with Bingham's other signature--gravity-defying lifts--much in evidence in the partnering between Johansson and Gerecke and Murchison. All of this is accompanied by amazing black and white video images by Chris Randle; projected on a floor to ceiling screen, they create an added immersive sense of space that in several instances make it feel as if the birds are actually in the room with us.

The EDAM dancers are so engrossing to watch not simply because of how gorgeously they move, but also because they are clearly so comfortable with each other. There is an ease and familiarity in their movements, an understanding that when they torque this way, or leap that way, someone will be there with a limb or planar surface of their body for support. Which is in large part why I like watching Bingham's male partnering, especially when--as is the case here--it is practiced by the expert likes of Johansson and James Gnam, who joins the group from the stage left wings for the final sequence of the piece. In the playful toss and tumble that ensues (watched and eventually joined by Gerecke and Murchison), there is no competition or latent eroticism: it's just two guys showing us what their bodies can do when they agree to work together.

Like the way crows communicate and socialize, contact improv depends on collective intelligence and trust and mutual support. Having displayed theirs so compellingly in this piece, the EDAM company deservedly earns ours.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Basic Black

Like many in the city who went underground following the collective fever dream that was the 2010 Winter Olympics, I missed the New Zealand dance company Black Grace when they came through as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival that year. Fortunately, VIDF co-producers Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi brought them back for this year's festival, and so last night Richard and I braved the rain and made our way to the Playhouse to take in their work.

Founded in 1995 by Artistic Director and chief choreographer Neil Ieremia, Black Grace combines contemporary dance with traditional Pacific (chiefly Samoan) movement scores to create an explosive and intensely rhythmic style. This was certainly in evidence during the first two pieces on last night's program. Pati Pati, an amalgam of excerpts from older works in the company's repertoire, was highly percussive, featuring phrases built around clapping, body slapping, and vocal call and response. Likewise, the excerpt from Amata that followed took its basic compositional structure and the patterns of its floorwork from the weaves found in Samoan mats.

Following intermission, the company presented the full-length Vaka, which allowed the company to display more range in its movement vocabulary, including some delicate partnering and several graceful group lifts. While I felt the piece--like the entire program--was a little long, I was swept away by many of its sections, effectively enhanced by Bonnie Burrill's subtle lighting design and, in one stunning sequence, a series of panoramic projections.

I look forward to the company's next visit.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Picnic at SFU Woodward's

William Inge's Picnic, recently revived on Broadway, is also the School for the Contemporary Arts' spring mainstage production at SFU Woodward's, directed by Bill Dow. The first thing you notice upon entering the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre is how Dow has radically reconfigured the playing space.

While the play is still technically staged proscenium-style, rather than using the well (and its hidden wings and flyspace) at the west end of the theatre normally reserved for such proceedings, Dow has shifted the axis 90 degrees, configuring his set horizontally along the south side wall, with its exposed brick, blond wood, and steel stairs leading to the balcony. This provides the perfect backdrop to Carmen Alatorre's stunning set, a see-through plywood and steel-framed scaffolding of the Potts and Owens houses, complete with swinging porch doors and a second-story window on the latter through which the men of the town spy upon local beauty Madge Owens (a quietly coiled Amanda Williamson). A row of chairs, in a range of mid-century styles, sits in the space behind and between the two houses; here members of the cast will take turns sitting when not on stage, watching the proceedings like a Greek chorus, their positioning opposite the audience providing a nice visual metaphor for the sense of enclosure, judgment, and stifling small-town surveillance felt by many of the characters in the play, not least the two Owens sisters (Kiki Al Rahmani plays the younger, bookish Millie with a perfect mixture of frustrated longing and youthful impatience). Finally, between the set and the audience risers is a long strip of astroturf, a picnic table positioned on it centre stage, between the two houses. Much of the action will take place on or around this table. But the green carpet also extends past the set, to the Wong Theatre's normal playing space. Which, we learn at the top of the play, is not empty; rather, it contains a grand piano. Here composer Janelle Reid will sit throughout the play, punctuating its action at key moments with soaring original musical arrangements of the poetry of Sappho, the perfect librettist of unfulfilled want (which, in fact, provides the play with its closing acapella refrain).

In his directorial notes, Dow says that he sees in Picnic shades of Euripides' Bacchae, with the drifter Hal Carter (a languid Sean Marshall Jr.) the sexy stranger who comes to town and unleashes in the womenfolk hitherto suppressed passions and desires. It's a persuasive reading, not least in terms of the play's strict adherence to the classical unities of time, space and action (the plot of Picnic unfolds over the course of a single Labour Day). And the female members of the cast, most playing well above their actual ages, are collectively superb in capturing the desperation and resentment that festers in women (young and old) suffocating--in different ways--under the oppressiveness of 1950s gender conventions. (Likewise, the men in the cast together embody a social obtuseness to this oppression, which they ignore at their own peril--as the bachelor Howard Bevans, played with just the right mixture of confounded humour by the lanky Jesse Meredith, discovers when he finds himself suddenly engaged to the spinster schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney [a terrific Keely O'Brien].)

And yet this production is by no means a period piece. In preparation for attending it, Richard and I recently rented the 1955 film, starring William Holden and Kim Stanley. It seemed hopelessly dated, and watching a rather long-in-the-tooth Holden spout all those "Hey baby's" was positively cringe-worthy. But under the able direction of Dow, this young cast finds their characters' inner core of "want," and in the process they make this play exciting and new.

Picnic has one more performance tonight, at 8 pm.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Picturing Motion

Every year the dance students in Contemporary Arts at SFU curate and produce a mixed program showcasing their original choreography, and featuring the performance and design talents of their peers. This year's program, entitled Motion, Picture, was put together under the artistic directorship of Robert Azevedo and Heather Lamoureux, and has one more performance this evening in Studio D at SFU Woodward's.

Here's what I noticed last night:

  • Opposite-sex partnering that was heavy on romantic longing and bittersweet partings.
  • Same-sex partnering that, albeit in very different ways, grappled with questions of doubling and the connections between self and other.
  • A noticeable emphasis on gestural vocabularies that were variously conspiratorial, confessional, and confrontational.
  • Ensemble work that mixed serial unison in tight bodily massings with repetition of random individual phrasings scattered about the stage.
  • Some startling multi-directional lighting effects, including diagonal corridors, dappled washes from the side, and one rock star back light.
  • Double endings: once with music, once without.