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.