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.


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