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.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dances for a Small Stage 29

For their 29th incarnation, MovEnt's Dances for a Small Stage decamped from their longtime home at the Legion on Commercial Drive and took up residence this past Thursday through Friday at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre on East 10th. Not only did that mean I could walk to the event secure in the knowledge I would get in (another innovation of Artistic Producer Julie-anne Saroyan coming in the form of advance on-line ticket purchase), but should I have wanted to I could have also purchased a steaming plate of perogies. But as Saroyan announced in her curtain speech, everything else was the same, not least the series' signature 10 X 13-foot stage.

In addition to the dance quotes supplied by emcee James Fagan Tait as mini-entr'actes, props were a theme in last night's offerings, as was the use of voice-over text. Leading things off was Lara Barclay in the first of two excerpts from James Gnam and plastic orchid factory's post_v2.0. I reviewed the first version of the full-length work here. It was interesting to see some of the piece's signature effects reworked, including Barclay's manipulation of piles of tulle in such a confined space, which from my perspective at the back of the auditorium had the uncanny effect of accentuating and extending almost beyond belief the arabesque that she uses at one point to lift the material off of her body. MACHiNENOiSY's Daelik was next up, also with pliable material in tow, in this case several shiny metallic sheets which he proceeded to sculpt into little silver android-like shrubs. Waving a final single sheet in front of himself as he pivoted behind the privet hedge he had fashioned, Daelik eventually laid down upstage and dismantled his work, covering himself in the sheets. Just when I thought things were getting a bit tedious, we got the coup-de-théâtre we'd been waiting for, as Daelik rolled and flipped horizontally across the stage, the metallic sheets flying off of him in a gorgeous shimmery molting.

Dayna Szyndrowski and Elisa Thorn win the award for the most innovative improvisation of the evening, combining tap, live harp music, and recorded voice-over from Nina Simone to create an ode to the freedom of movement (acoustic and kinetic) in open to somebody else. Then it was back to another excerpt from post_v2.0, this one featuring Sammy-Jane Gray, Bevin Poole and Lara Barclay again in Gnam's witty take on the corps de ballet from Swan Lake. In their saucer-like tutus, in or out of unison, whether rising elegantly on demi-point or bending to show us their behinds in a Miley Cyrus-esque twerk, these swans cannot fail to delight. The final piece on the first half of the program was Jean-François Duke's Eva... solo for Jean. The choreography, tied very explicitly to a song by Marie-Jo Thério, was a bit too pantomimic for my liking, but there is no denying that Duke, here from Quebec City in part to learn from and export Saroyan's small stage concept to la belle province, is a gorgeous mover.

First up following intermission was Kirsten Wicklund's Ancient Lace, which started as a fairly conventional pas de deux for Wicklund and partner Hayden Fong--until the gender roles of pursuer and pursued were rather cleverly upended. And, as always, it is eye-opening to see classical ballet lifts transported to such a confined space. Julianne Chapple's sea/unseen is set to an audio loop of voices talking about near-drowning experiences; unfortunately I couldn't see the first half of Chapple's evocation of the watery murk we were hearing about, as it was mostly confined to floor work. She does get vertical near the end, but only after first removing her white shift and underwear and dunking them, along with her long mane of hair, into a bucket of water on the stage. A bit too mimetic, perhaps, but the watery spray coming off of her hair as she then spun about was nicely captured and amplified by the light.

After a quick mopping of the stage came Farley Johansson's in Bipedicularity, which is as apt a title as I can think of for Johansson's explosive mix of contemporary, hip hop, and acrobatic movement. Breaking horizontally, suspending himself vertically, and just generally defying the laws of gravity, Johansson's virtuosic display of sharp, sudden, hyper-fluid energy was a reminder that a small stage doesn't mean you can't think (and do) big. Finally, the evening ended with co-curator Karissa Barry's evocative "the last part of the beginning, starting at the end," a duet for Barry and Jessica Wilkie that had them both in Tara Cheyenne-like goggle and hoodies, confronting the apocalypse with precise unison and non-unison movement.

A rich evening of dance. I look forward to what's in store for number 30.


Monday, September 9, 2013

How Not to Fringe

I didn't mean to make the first post of the fall season about what I haven't been able to see, but such has been the case with my Vancouver Fringe experience so far. My own fault, of course. The Fringe, on now through this Sunday at various venues on and around Granville Island--and on and off the Drive--always coincides with the return to school: meaning that I get to see more or less of its offerings depending on how much advance prep I've done and/or how many unexpected administrative curve balls are thrown at me. Let's just say that this year on the former front, "not so much," and on the latter "way too many."

As a performance studies colleague recently put it to me in an email, would that I had "a circa 1985 Delorean to buy more time (and could wear acid wash jeans without shame)."

Yesterday, however, I thought I had a reasonable window in the late afternoon. And so I hopped on my bike and raced down to Granville Island to catch a show--any show, I wasn't going to be choosy--around 4 pm. I blame the traffic on the seawall, but by the time I made it to the Island everything had already started or was sold out.

To be expected on a sunny weekend day. And good for the performers. As for me, I contented myself with watching the touts flog their shows to patrons in line (always fun), and with collecting various handbills--which I'll ideally use to help me choose a show for this weekend. Then I went into the market to buy dinner.