Thursday, December 18, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 15

Last night was our final official rehearsal before the holiday break. To begin with, there was a considerable amount of shuffling of positions on the floor, with the elimination of a whole row from Group B (mostly owing to people dropping out). Mercifully, I stayed put. After that, we learned how to fall properly to the ground at the end of the "India" section, including how to avoid stepping on the head of the person behind us for those of us in the last two rows.

Then it was on to a general review of all the sections, refining some of the trickier moves in each, such as the "Where's the Bunny?" pirouette from "Cumbia." I still don't have that one down--at least not as expertly as Gatis, who was coaxed on stage by Lara to demonstrate for our benefit. But I'll work on it over the holidays. More successful was perfecting the cross of Groups A and B in the middle of "India," with all of us definitively arriving at a consensus about how many marks we are to move at a time, and with the lines from each group now aligning nicely during the little circle move we all do in the middle. Whew!

At the end of the two hours, Lara praised us all for how far we'd come since we started this process. She said we were going to blow Sylvain's socks off when he returns in January. But to do that, she reminded us, we needed to practice over the holidays--preferably just with the music, and not the videos, so that we could listen for cues and learn to anticipate what move was coming next.

A large group of us then began a semi-epic journey along Main Street to find a bar that could accommodate us for a celebratory drink (I think there were about 20-25 people in total). Ling, who was our ringleader, announced that the folks at The Cascade Room, whom she had originally been in touch with about holding their back space for us, had sold us out and given up the room to another large party. So after various desperate telephone calls, she received confirmation that The Whip could take us. Except that when the first wave of us arrived, the aggrieved hostess was aghast to learn that the six people she had anticipated had morphed into a double digit mass. After various other suggestions (The Narrow, The Anza Club), we tramped to nearby Main Street Brewery, which more or less had the space to accommodate us.

It was nice to get to chat with some of my fellow dancers at more length outside of rehearsal. I learned, for example, that Cheryl writes for the Courier; that Ling has previously lived in London and Berlin, working in the arts and entertainment industry, and that after several years in Vancouver she was still finding it hard to make new friends; and that Jessica, the virtuosic mover at the front of my row, did her dance degree at SFU, and is a good friend of my student Alana Gerecke. I also discovered from Caroline how quickly she and Lara and Anna had to learn the piece from Sylvain at the end of October, and from Lara that she was going to be part of a new work at Chutzpah! choreographed by Vanessa Goodman, and featuring Lisa Gelley and Josh Martin from the 605 Collective, alongside top Vancouver dancers Jane Osborne, Bevin Poole, and James Gnam (who studied alongside Lara at the National Ballet School--something I'd learned on Monday having coffee with James).

A common refrain in my conversations with my fellow community dancers was what we were all going to do come February, after our public performances of the piece. We're already anticipating being bereft without our regular Monday and Wednesday evening rehearsals and many of us would like to find a way to keep the group going--not just as an occasional social gathering, but actually as a regular community dance project. Super talented husband and wife team Mark Haney and Diane Park apparently have access to space at the Roundhouse and the Moberley Arts and Cultural Centre and, even better, may have successfully convinced Jessica over her second beer to take creative charge of our motley crew come February/March.

In the meantime, members of the group (again, chiefly Mark and Diane) have taken it upon themselves to organize two additional and self-directed workshops of Le Grand Continental this Saturday and two weeks hence, on January 3rd. Non-professional, volunteer performers wanting to give up their free time to rehearse more? Clearly something--nay, everything--about this project is clicking.

I am so stoked for January!


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 14

Having learned the last minute or so of "Champagne," we've now got virtually all of the choreography under our belts (which I realize might not be the appropriate metaphor in this case). The ending of this section is perhaps my favourite, consisting as it does of nine counts of eight of improv--the last three of them jumping up and down in ever wilder abandon.

"Cumbia" and "Champagne," among the hardest sections to learn, are now looking really good and I feel pretty comfortable that I've got most of their moves down. It's now a question of putting everything together and reviewing the earlier sections that we learned. At home, before rehearsal yesterday afternoon, I had a complete mental lapse when I couldn't remember a particular transition in "Ima." It came back to me eventually, but the episode is a reminder of why it's important to keep going back over what we've already learned, no matter how comfortable we may think we are with the material.

Which is what we did for the last half of the rehearsal, running through all six main sections in succession, and additionally learning our waves of collapsing domino rows at the end of "India" (another favourite bit, as after that we're just lying on the ground for a minute and a half--though I may regret saying that come our move outdoors at the end of January).

Wednesday is our last rehearsal before a two-week holiday break. The delightful Ling has organized a group drink at The Cascade Room afterwards. I think it's a perfect opportunity to take over the room and demonstrate to everyone our amazing moves.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 13

We continued learning the rest of the choreography attached to "Champagne" last night. After the opening bit, which has all of us fanning out from a clump in the centre (where we've arrived at the end of "Cumbia") in a loose blooming flower configuration, we find our way back to our spots in the grid and basically it's full throttle from there until the end.

The choreography in this section is faster and more hard contact--a lot of jumping up an down, which means potential joint and lower back pain if you don't land right. It also means we'll be ending each performance more or less completely spent.

Can't say this is my favourite section, but a silver lining is that a lot of the choreography draws on phrases--or variations thereof--that we've already learned. For those of us in Group A that additionally means that we don't have to relearn the arms that go with our Charleston steps!

Lara, who was working us pretty hard last night, also went back to "India" to drill the waltz steps and particularly the quick catch step that needs to lead into the second of these. I'm still having trouble with this, in part, according to Caroline, because I'm overthinking it. And, indeed, when, just as we were beginning a run-through of "Cumbia," I did it on my own quickly, without the music, it was there in my body all along.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 12

Last night marked something of a milestone in our rehearsal process for Le Grand Continental. Not only did we learn the last few moves in "Cumbia," but we were also taken through the start of the penultimate section of "Champagne." This means that apart from the rest of "Champagne" (which we will presumably be learning on Wednesday), the piece's intro and conclusion, and a short section in the middle when we're lying on the ground and most of the movement is mercifully ceded to a group of children who will join us in January, we now more or less have all the choreography in our bodies!

To mark this achievement Lara had us put all six sections together in order ("Gogoprado," "Stockfunk," "Ima," "India," "Cumbia," and the start of "Champagne") with the music for our first (again, more or less) continuous run-through. We stumbled through it, some better than others. I had several brain farts along the way when I couldn't remember for the life of me what step came next. But the important thing was that I kept moving and always found my way back into the choreography. And while our lines were looking a bit amorphous and misshapen at various points--especially in Group A, as we were missing several dancers--we did remember to check in with each other and recover our grid formation when we could (or when Lara shouted at us to do so--which, I have to remind myself, won't be happening in performance).

Of no less minor consequence was the fact that my position has changed on our dance chess board! Caroline informed both Hilary and I of this news at the top of rehearsal: specifically, that Hilary was being moved to the back outside edge (gulp!), and that I was being moved as well so that we might stay together (awww...). At least for the time being, as Caroline let us know that our current positions may very likely change again, not least because she herself covets Hilary's spot.

I was a bit traumatized at first--I'm not good with change. But I quickly got used to things and one of the happy byproducts of such shuffling is that one gets to kibitz with more people. I'm now between Leslie and Cheryl, who is a lot of fun, and near enough to Sara and Jane to engage in plenty of witty banter at the back of the room.



Friday, December 5, 2014

things near & far at The Firehall

As they indicate in a note included in the program to things near & far (on at the Firehall Arts Centre through this Saturday), Anne Cooper, Ziyian Kwan, and Ron Stewart have been friends and dance colleagues for three decades. During that time, they have collaborated in separate pairings on many works for local choreographers. Yet until now they had never danced together on stage as a trio. Seeking to remedy this, they collectively commissioned two choreographers whose work inspired and challenged them to build new pieces on and for them. That one of these choreographers, Josh Martin, was younger and local and the other, Tedd Robinson, older and from Quebec, was also a deliberate choice. The resulting commissions are at once in dialogue with each other (both are called dwelling) and with the embodied dance histories of their performers, revealing in their own distinct ways how separate parts fit into a whole.

For Martin this means beginning with the accumulated dance repertoires that already reside in the dancers' bodies from a lifetime of performance. Walking out on stage with both the stage and house lights up, Cooper, Kwan and Stewart pause and adopt distinct poses, or make a specific gesture, before quickly exiting. They do this a couple of times before eventually coming together to help each other remember a succession of moves, using their bodies and their voices to indicate how their arms are meant to be held, or in what direction they are meant to travel across the floor. At a certain point, however, they actually drop to the floor, their heads and arms and torsos pierced by the shafts of bright white light that lighting designer James Proudfoot sends across the stage. To a gorgeous score by Stefan Smulovitz, Martin infuses his own choreographic sensibilities into the work by having the trio engage in extended floor work that draws on and adapts several of hip hop's trademark moves: rolls into suspensions anchored by an isolated and locked arm; a wrapping around of the legs and circling into verticality before a liquid and seemingly boneless collapsing at the joints sends the dancers' bodies back down to the floor. What I especially liked about this work is how the patterns approached but never quite fully meshed into full-on unison movement: which is to say that the dancers were moving together but also in response to each other. I also liked seeing what Martin's choreography looks like slowed down; this is, dare I say it, his most mature work to date.

In his piece, Robinson takes the metaphor of building a work and literalizes it for us on stage. It begins with Stewart, clad in a white canvas shift and bodice, shuffling centre stage on his toes. Positioned there is a thin length of builders' wood, supported by two tiny foot stools. Balancing his body over the wood, Stewart takes a hand saw and proceeds to cut the wood in two. Cooper, having emerged upstage left, her body also wrapped in a similar tarpaulin-like garment, balances the two bits of cut wood on her head and then exits from whence she came. Finally, Kwan's bit of balancing consists of stepping onto the two footstools, now inevitably orientalized into the distinctive Geta platform sandals worn by traditional Geisha, shuffling on them towards the downstage left footlight, and then blowing some glittery confetti off of the piece of paper she is holding. After this ritual preparation of the space, it is now ready for a collective act of creation, which in Robinson's case means demonstrating the choreography inherent in carpentry. Donning plaid work shirts over their white dresses, the dancers grab additional planks of wood leaning against the stage right wall, take up nail guns and with the precision and timing we associate with the best group dancing erect a perfect square enclosure. Into which they eventually step, enacting a final act of balancing via the successive wearing of the footstools on their heads. Featuring the contributions of longtime musical collaborator Charles Quevillon, Robinson's work is typically elliptical, but also firmly grounded in the material world.

As are each of these wonderful dancers, who bring both works on this unique and satisfying program to  life through their embodied collaboration.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 11

It must be flu season, as there were many absent bodies at last night's rehearsal. And several more who did turn up were sniffling and blowing their noses, or else wrapped in even more layers of clothing than usual--despite the always near-stifling conditions in the Ukrainian Hall (my spot, in particular, seems to be directly underneath a vent that only emits hot air).

On top of this, Lara announced she'd fallen on her chin earlier in the day at The Dance Centre, suffering a mild concussion! And yet, there she was, alongside Anna (Caroline was also absent), leading us with her trademark calm aplomb through the next section of "Cumbia." Lara is right that it's much easier to get the hang of this section's more free-flowing moves and multiple changes of direction in person in the rehearsal studio, rather than following the video at home. I'm feeling much more confident with where we've gotten to so far after last night. I also love that Sylvain has given us several freestyle moments in this section, where we can just shimmy on the spot for multiple counts. My kind of choreography!

That said, I am still planning to make it to the extra movement clinic this Saturday, especially as I had to miss the last two.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 10

Last night I was late to rehearsal, as there was an important Senate meeting at SFU that I needed to attend. I arrived to find everyone sprawled on the floor as Lara and Caroline and Emily were rearranging the chessboard of our positions for the piece. Mercifully, my partner in dance crime, Hilary Meredith, had protected my spot in my absence, as for a moment it apparently looked like I might be moved to an outside edge (!?!).

Emily had also sent me the video for the new section we were learning, "Cumbia," in advance. I had practiced as much as possible on my own, and was pleased to discover that where the group was upon my arrival was also more or less where I'd gotten to on the video. Except I was following Sylvain's much more slowly delivered explanations of each move; with the music, as I discovered, things moved much more quickly, which made for a bit of confusion.

I also could have sworn that the coat flip turn and move on the video was done on the diagonal--but we'll resolve that question on Wednesday.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Threshold at EDAM

EDAM's 2014 fall choreographic series featured new work from Artistic Director Peter Bingham alongside premieres from Serge Bennathan, of Les Productions Figlio, and dumb instrument Dance's Ziyian Kwan. If there was a theme connecting the works, we might say it had something to do with the choreographer-as-observer, at once inside and outside of the work, looking in.

Bennathan's just words opens with the choreographer in a spotlight, flanked by dancers Karissa Barry and Hilary Maxwell. He begins a humourous address to the audience, at one point even singing--badly. In the meantime, Barry and Maxwell have begun to move, flailing their arms and slowly encircling Bennathan, who eventually recedes stage right as the piece gives way to a highly physical and increasingly aggressive duet. Martial arts moves combine with early La La La-esque running falls that make canny use of the cavernous depths of the EDAM space (another common theme among the works). At the same time, there are several affecting moments of quiet tenderness in the piece, as when the two dancers, slowly walking downstage with their backs to the audience, reach out their arms, find, and then clasp their hands together. The juxtaposition of velocity and stillness in the movement finds its corollary in the two other texts that Bennathan reads to the audience, in which we are reminded about both the ephemeral beauty and the labourious pain of dancing. At one point in one of Bennathan's recitations, a port de bras is mentioned, and the image triggered in my head encapsulated the dialectic of the piece: among the simplest of movement phrases from an audience perspective, it is nevertheless one over which the dancer labours and strains--precisely in order to make it seem effortless.

Kwan's bite down gently & howL--which, full disclosure, I was privileged to have glimpsed in advance as it was being built in the studio--is the choreographer's quixotic take on the story of "Goldilocks and The Three Bears." It begins with the lights (expertly overseen, as always, by designer and technical director James Proudfoot) slowly coming up on the four dancers in the piece, each hibernating on (or over or beside) a chair placed strategically about the stage. Going counter-clockwise, Barbara Bourget, as Mama Bear, is tucked into a ball upstage left; Vanessa Goodman, as Baby Bear, is bent at the waist upstage right and facing the backstage wall; James Gnam, as Papa Bear, is sprawled sexily over his overturned chair stage right; and, centre stage, perched on a stool and with her bare back turned to us, is Kwan, hair of course dyed blonde, and from the waist down clad in a brown bear costume. (The brown fun-fur onesie, complete with detachable paws, was designed by Diane Park, who along with her musician husband, Mark Haney, is dancing in Le Grand Continental with me.) As the music begins, Kwan slides her hands down the length of her back, first flipping out the stubby bear tale upon which she has been sitting (a witty gesture somewhat obscured by the still dim lighting at this stage), and then throwing the arms of the costume over her shoulders before slipping into each, tying up at the front, and turning to face us. This sequence importantly establishes the dreamlike state governing the piece as a whole, a liminal space (to adapt the title of Bingham's piece) between sleep and wakefulness in which we are watching Kwan-as-Goldilocks-becoming-bear. It's a sleight-of-body that gets telegraphed immediately in the deliberately awkward, lumbering gait that Kwan adopts as she trudges toward and eventually slams into the backstage wall. Needless to say, such a move is likely to rouse fellow slumbering bears, and the piece eventually unfolds as series of signature solos for Bourget, Gnam, and Goodman, each set to--wait for it--an iconic Nancy Sinatra song. Thus, Bourget, in a fur-collared black dress and pill-box hat with veil momentarily casts off a lifetime (or maybe it's only a winter's worth) of regret and rediscovers her bossa nova moves to "As Tears Go By." Gnam, sporting a toque and aviator sunglasses, is all thrusting pelvis and sexy swagger, during "Indian Summer." And Goodman, in her herky-jerky twitching and casual abuse of her Teddy Bear to "Bang Bang," hints at some possible childhood trauma. Indeed, all is not cosy and tender in this family ménage, and when the three dancers do eventually come together in a clinch at the climax of the work, their previously functional solo movement morphs into fractious verbal dysfunction. Throughout, Kwan is watching expectantly, and occasionally intervening, the dreamer at once fascinated by and seeking to make sense of her own dream.

The evening concluded with Bingham's Liminal Spaces, a trio danced by Walter Kubanek, Olivia Shaffer, and Chengxin Wei. The piece begins as a vertical corridor of movement along the stage left wall, each of the dancers experimenting with different levels as they move in response to and close proximity with each other (and the adjacent wall). But apart from the occasional hand on back for support, or to telegraph spatial distance, the dancers do not touch. It is only when they move out into the rest of the space and they give themselves over to the contact improvisation that forms the core of Bingham's aesthetic that we begin to see and apprehend the previously invisible kinesthetic awareness and structures of bodily support undergirding the movement. The score to this work is comprised of a cello solo by Peggy Lee, over which Bingham speaks text, soft and not quite intelligible during the stage left corridor section, but gradually becoming more clearly enunciated as the contact phrasing gets more vigorous and complex. At one point in the text, Bingham asks whether or not a tree knows it's doing a good job as a tree (or something to that effect). As the dancers arrange and rearrange themselves into a bodily stack upstage at the conclusion of the piece, the question becomes explicitly self-reflexive. But hardly rhetorical. In this gorgeous and sublimely danced work, the tree/trio performs magnificently, each of its rings in perfect sync.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 9

Emily Neumann, our inestimable stage manager, made several revelatory announcements at the top of last night's rehearsal, including: 1) that they were now recruiting for several children between 8 and 13, who apparently will have key walk-on roles during the performance, and; 2) that Sylvain has been known to veto participants' more outrageous costume choices. I didn't even know we had to think about costumes. Worrying about staying dry is all I have been preoccupied with so far. But even here Lara disabused me: apparently there hasn't been a performance yet of Le Grand Continental when it hasn't rained. And that was all before Vancouver in January!

Far more comforting to me was my conversation with Jane Westheuser during our pre-rehearsal practice session and warm-up. Jane is co-president of the Board of the Vancouver Fringe Festival and a loyal PuSh patron (not to mention a fantastic dancer). She has been surfing the Internet for clips of past performances of the show and said that during the New York production there were all kinds of people messing up at different points and forgetting their steps--but still having lots of fun. It reduces the pressure somewhat to know that even in the Big Apple community dancers are fallible.

That said, last night went pretty well. Practicing at home from the video for "Gogoprado," the section we learned on Monday, I was initially in despair. On my own I had a hard time remembering the sequence of steps during the repeats. But with some help during warm-up at the Ukrainian Hall, things eventually got into my body--even the crocodile arms (more or less).

After having put "Gogoprado" together with "Stockfunk," the section that comes after it, we spent most of our time locking down the cross of Groups A and B during "India." It's the trickiest bit so far, not least because one of the groups is smaller than the other, and so working out how big each group's steps need to be in order to arrive on our final marks requires lots of precision. Then, too, we don't want to give the impression to the audience during this bit that we're only worrying about following our marks. Thank heavens I'm not in either of the lines initiating the cross; instead, all I have to do is follow Hayley to my left (who is an expert guide) and keep my eyes peripherally attuned to Eva behind me and the lovely woman with the head band whose name I should know by now in front of me in order to ensure that our vertical alignment remains more or less in tact. Simple right?

Unfortunately, I have to miss most of next Monday's section due to an important Senate meeting at SFU where I have to represent on behalf of the new Institute for Performance Studies. I let Emily and Lara know; Lara in turn let me know that we would indeed be learning a new section and that it was the hardest one yet.

Just my luck.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 8

I have only one thing to say about the new section introduced at last night's rehearsal: curse those crocodile arms!


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 7

Last night we made it through all of the "Stock Funk" section, which ended up being a lot of fun. The second half of it is very high energy, and while there are definitely some tricky moves, once you put it all together and give yourself over to the music (rather than counting obsessively in your head), you really start to groove.

Our places on the dance chess board are also slowly solidifying. Mercifully, I've remained on the inside, and--even better--am next to some very strong movers. Following Hayley during the cross of the two groups in "India" made my job a whole lot easier.

A short post this very early morning, as I'm off to the airport in a few hours for a conference--where, coincidentally, I'll be talking about Vancouver dance.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 6

Last night was our first rehearsal at the Ukrainian Hall with both groups together, and also the first rehearsal without Sylvain present. But Lara, together with Caroline and Anna, did a great job in his absence as we made our way through most of "Stock Funk," the very beginnings of which we had learned on Wednesday of last week.

"Stock Funk" also includes choreography we had learned for our auditions back in September. My, how quickly the body forgets. Plus that leprechaun move is a killer to nail. Ah well, we'll be reviewing it all again tomorrow, so there's time yet to perfect this section.

In learning last night's new choreography Lara told us not to worry too much about our places, or keeping our lines. However, she also let us know that we'd gradually be moving to setting our more or less final spots for the performances proper. This will mean putting the stronger dancers on the outside edges, closest to the audience. Apparently, Lara and Caroline and Anna have been making notes to this effect and last night concluded with each of us making compulsory eyeball contact with Lara and our stage manager Emily Neumann so that they could put names to faces--and so that Lara could make a preliminary placement notation next to each of our names...


Sunday, November 16, 2014

L-E-V is in the (Dance)House

Local dance artist Vanessa Goodman lead the pre-show talk with sound designer Ori Lichtik before last night's performance of House, by the new Israeli company L-E-V. She mentioned that company co-founder (along with Gai Behar) and choreographer, Sharon Eyal, would be performing in the piece, improvising a series of three solos. This was an exciting surprise, as Eyal's name was not listed along with the other six dancers in the program; I was eager to catch a glimpse in the flesh of the choreographer, long renowned for her work with Ohad Naharin's Batsheva Dance Company, who was behind the stand-out performance of Corps de Walk by the Norwegian company Carte Blanche as part of last year's DanceHouse season.

House, the work presented by L-E-V, opens with Eyal, in a skin-tight black bodysuit, shimmying across the stage to Lichtik's music. We recognize grooves derived from Tel Aviv's legendary club scene, but also traces of Naharin's famous gaga method; however, Eyal combines these into a language all her own via her interest in holding a pose just a second or two past the music's beat, and in finding new patterns within deconstructed movement.

As Eyal exits upstage, the rest of the company emerges, all clad in flesh-coloured bodysuits reminiscent of the ones worn by the Carte Blanche dancers in Corps de Walk. As in that work, about which I blogged here, this first main section of House begins with the six L-E-V dancers in a circle, each bending into a deep plié and swaying side to side with mechanical precision. Eventually, however, one of the dancers breaks free from the circle, moving horizontally across the stage in a style reminiscent of voguing--which, along with the obvious musical associations, is to a certain extent signaled by the work's title. But unlike the house walkers in Harlem made famous by Jenny Livingston's Paris is Burning (and whose moves were then hijacked by Madonna), Eyal's dancers, in "leaving things on the floor," paradoxically remain resolutely vertical.

Following a second solo interlude by Eyal, she is joined by the rest of the dancers. Three of the four men are now dressed in black, like Eyal, and additionally the tallest of these men sports high heels (as does one of the other female dancers). I frankly couldn't take my eyes off of this dancer (which is saying something, given that his confrère stage right was impressively shirtless); with his beard and ball cap, imposing lithe frame, and hoof-like heels, he looked like a giant satyr. And, indeed, this section, in its mixing of images of sexual fetishism and animality, comes across very much as a dark and dreamlike exploration of various kinds of taboo.

Finally, after a third solo by Eyal, House concludes with an electrifying display of unison movement, in which Eyal takes the phrases explored by her dancers in the previous sections and builds them into a "singular sensation" of chorus line effects, complete with high kicks and jumps. It's a rousing, spectacular finish that's hard to resist, the rhythmic entrainment of the music and the movement designed to make audiences leap to their feet--which most did last night. I confess, however, that I was more compelled by the less easily assimilable (thematically and choreographically) bits from the previous sections.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 5

Today was the big merge: Groups A and B, who'd previously been rehearsing separately, met for the first time as we put the "Ima" and "India" sections together. First we marked through the latter separately, and as I'm sure was the case when Group B watched us, it was strange and slightly disorienting to witness our confrères mirroring our movement: beginning with the opposite leg; turning in a different direction; etc.

It was a bit chaotic at first putting the two groups together, especially where we cross on the Charleston-like steps in "India." But eventually we mostly got the hang of where and for how long we were meant to travel, and after several run-throughs we had improved exponentially.

It was also a little confusing being in a new rehearsal space (the Vancouver Opera production space on McLean Drive), at least until I had a definitive sense of where was front. We had spike-marks on the floor for the first time, giving us a sense of how closely we'd be dancing next to each other, at least for the remainder of our interior rehearsals. We will have a bit more room on the Queen E plaza (which will also be marked, thank heavens), but Sylvain's note to us as we move forward with the full complement of dancers indoors was to still make our moves feel big despite the confined space.

This was also our last rehearsal with Sylvain until the new year. He heads back to Montreal, and for the rest of December we're in the capable hands of Lara, Caroline, and Anna (who'd been working with Group B up until this point). We were told that we'd be moving ahead a bit more quickly in the coming weeks, meaning that the onus is on us is to practice at home, or else take advantage of the Saturday clinics or pre-rehearsal open hours should we want to review anything.

My thinking is to get the choreography in my body as best as possible, but not so well as to be selected as one of the people who has to be on an outside line! Because then there's no hiding come performance time.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 4

Last night the film crew who are making a documentary on our making of the Vancouver version of Le Grand Continental were back at the Ukrainian Hall. It's the same team who made last year's Kiss the Rabbit, the look at Gob Squad's Super Night Shot that also doubled as a 10th anniversary celebration of the PuSh Festival. They are a really easy-going and unobtrusive team, but it was hard not to think that the camera was directly aimed at you the whole time, capturing your every misstep.

There were certainly a few of those, particularly in the new section that Sylvain introduced us to, one that will lead us into the funk bit that we all performed at our auditions. Other than that, we concentrated on perfecting the "Ima" and "India" sections, and the transition between the two. This involved Sylvain demonstrating to us just how closely we would be dancing next to each other once we merge with Group B on Saturday. Discovering how tight our movements would hereafter need to be was instructive, as I have tended to be all over the place spatially so far--traveling too much sometimes, and not enough at others. Now I'll be additionally worried about not kicking anyone, or hitting them in the head when I do my big arms.

This week is our last one with Sylvain until after Christmas. Understandably, he needs to head back to his life in Montreal. Everyone's shoulders visibly sagged last night when Lara informed us of this news--to be expected given that both the process and phenomenon of Le Grand Continental are very much tied to Sylvain and his winning personality. One plows on in spite of one's mistakes because he is so encouraging. And because he doesn't let us off the hook. One wants to be better, to get the movement just right, because he makes us believe in the importance of this.

But he has chosen well in Lara and Caroline as rehearsal instructors. Like Sylvain, they are both encouraging mentors and rigorous taskmasters. Not to mention excellent dancers! We also learned last night that they will be dancing in the piece alongside us in January. That will certainly elevate the overall impression we make. Now all I have to do is figure out a way to be near one of them in performance.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 3

Yesterday was the start of Group A's second week of rehearsals for Le Grand Continental. Arriving early to take advantage of the extra practice time made available to us, I was surprised to discover how many others were already there working with Sylvain and each other on the "India" section we had learned last week. Clearly we are taking this seriously!

What is also fascinating to witness is how spontaneously and organically we fall into small working groups during these practice sessions. Two or three people will be in the middle of a sequence over in the corner and the next new arrival will join them mid-step, quickly picking up the rhythm and inspiring the rest in the group to be just that much more fluid in their movements and kinaesthetically aware in their bodies. Such was the case with me last night, and already I feel like I've formed an important collaborative bond with several of my fellow dancers. I'm not sure I'll get to know, let alone talk to, all 80 of the participants in the piece; but I do sincerely feel like we all already have a sense of being in this thing--whatever it is--together.

I'm also curious about Sylvain's continued investment in this project. He is such a genial man and patient teacher. He's been through this process nearly a dozen times now, but clearly he continues to derive some pleasure and freshness from teaching the same choreography to each new group of community dancers. And, indeed, on some level it must be quite satisfying to watch a mostly untrained and amorphous mass of bodies come together as a well-oiled dance machine over the course of eight weeks of rehearsal. None of is ever going to be a great technician (although there are some amazing movers in the group), but neither is Sylvain letting us just go through the motions. Getting the steps right and hitting our marks is one thing; but Sylvain is just as concerned with the crispness and bigness of our hand gestures and, looking ahead, to the emotional connection we will ideally be making with our audience.

There was new work to be learned last night--specifically the "Ima" section that leads into "India." The linear thinker in me was dismayed to discover we were learning the choreography out of sequence, but when we put both sections together at the end of last night's rehearsal and it wasn't a total disaster I was somewhat relieved. The choreography in "Ima" is slower and more flowing, and there is also a bit of unstructured partnering involved that requires a careful listening to the music. I'll need to watch the video again to refresh my memory before tomorrow, but I am certainly gaining confidence as we go along. Plus it's super fun.

And on Saturday we have the big reveal when Groups A and B, who have until now been rehearsing separately, come together at the Vancouver Opera rehearsal spaces on McLean Drive. I was originally going to miss this rehearsal, but now I've decided to skip my conference in Iowa City.

Which also means I get to see the DanceHouse presentation of L-E-V this weekend, the brand new company of Batsheva alum Sharon Eyal and her partner Gai Behar, who together wowed Vancouver last year with the show Corps de Walk.

But before that is PuSh's 2015 Festival Launch Party at the Vogue Theatre tomorrow night at 8 pm, showcasing a performance of The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, a "live documentary" by Sam Green and featuring the music of Yo La Tengo. I'll have to miss it, because I'll be in rehearsal! But YOU can buy your tickets here.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ballet BC's No. 29

As Artistic Director Emily Molnar explained in her curtain speech, the title of Ballet BC's 2014-15 season opener, No. 29, is doubly significant. Not only is this the twenty-ninth year of the company's existence, but the pieces being premiered on the evening's program bring to a total of 29 the number of new works added to the company's repertoire since Molnar took over in 2009.

It is the latter number that it is most significant and it is a testament to how fresh and forward-looking Molnar has kept things since she took over that the one repeat presentation last night, Jacopo Godani's opening A.U.R.A., felt like I was seeing it for the first time. Or maybe it was the fact that fully half of Ballet BC's dancers this season are new. While I am sad to see some favourites go (Thibault and Alex, I'll miss you!), clearly Molnar has a rich pool of talent to draw from, much of it local (thank you Arts Umbrella). The fifteen dancers handled Godani's off-centre choreography and lightning quick transitions with deft aplomb, forming and deforming a series of increasingly complex grid patterns that, as I wrote upon the work's premiere two years ago, evoke comparisons to video animation.

Fernando Hernando Magadan's White Act is a world premiere that harkens back to the classic era of Romantic ballet, and in particular La Sylphide. In the first part, the men hurtle across the stage en masse while the women float past them on point, individual columns of chimerical beauty that can be reached for but never fully grasped. That this was performed to Schubert's decidedly post-Romantic Death and the Maiden made for an odd juxtaposition. Much more successful, to my mind, was the duet anchoring the second half, which was preceded by a neat video trick by collaborating artist Harmen Straatman.

The evening concluded with Vancouver-born, and until recently Madrid-based Lesley Telford's An Instant. Set to the driving, swirling strings of Michael Gordon's Weather One, and with Wislawa Szyborska's poem "Could Have" spoken in voice-over, the piece is an exhilarating, intensely physical exploration of chance as it intersects with time. What does it mean to arrive too early, or too late? To spin off axis, or lean just a bit too far to the side and risk falling? To throw oneself backwards and trust someone is there to catch you? Telford explores these questions in partnerings built on a logic of abandon and generative risk, on the split-secondness of moving one way instead of another--and the equally accidental anticipating of and/or catching up to such a move. Just when we think Emily Chessa, in leaping to the left or right, is going to plunge to the floor, Christoph von Riedemann is there to forestall gravity, and it is one of the highlights of the piece to see these two graduates of Arts Umbrella (where Telford first built an earlier version of the work two years ago) move together in such "uncontrolled" sync. Then, too, I enjoyed how Telford probed ideas of unpredictability and kinetic impulse at the muscular level, with Rachel Meyer, in particular, playing with a complex repertoire of gestural patterns throughout.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 2

So things definitely went better last night for me in the second of Group A's rehearsals for Le Grand Continental. Watching the videos and getting a bit of practice in the basement in beforehand definitely helped.

Of course, as I surmised from the videos, Sylvain was not done with us in terms of adding elements to this India section, and I've now got some added homework to do--especially in terms of nailing that one catch-step that falls on the "and" between counts in the second of the grape-viney phrases. (That's not the right term for this particular movement, but I can't remember what Sylvain--who has a wonderfully accessible and entertainingly descriptive way of labeling steps and transitions--called it.)

Sylvain also let us in on where Groups A and B cross and combine in this section, which explains why we rehearse separately in these first sessions, before coming together as one large group a week from Saturday. I frankly don't know how we're all going to fit in the Ukrainian Hall on East 10th, which is already quite full just with Group A.

Last night was much more fun than Monday: I was feeling slightly less depressed; felt more comfortable and confident in my body; and enjoyed getting to know more of my fellow dancers.

Till next week.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 1

So last night was the first rehearsal for Le Grand Continental's Group A participants. Sylvain was there, along with Lara and Carolyn, to lead us through the "India" section. Sylvain is a great and patient teacher, and we accomplished a great deal in our two hours together.

That said, I don't think I ever nailed a single run-through of the entire section, and I'll certainly need to look at the homework video and practice in the basement before Wednesday's session.

In the meantime, the PuSh team is still looking for additional participants, particularly men. Tonight's rehearsal for Group B is, like last night, doubling as a last-minute recruitment session. And I believe folks can come along on Wednesday and Thursday as well, if they're interested.

Full details on the poster below.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Sea Sick at the Theatre Centre

I'm in Toronto for a workshop on Performance, Placemaking and Cultural Policy hosted by York University's Theatre and Performance Studies Program (and organized by my fabulous colleagues Laura Levin and Marlis Schweitzer. The event is taking place at the new Theatre Centre space on Queen Street West (which I first visited in early May, very soon after it had opened). In addition to a great series of panel presentations from a range of artists, curators, arts administrators and cultural policy makers from across Canada, many of us also attended a performance of Allana Mitchell's Sea Sick, on at TC's main space through this weekend.

As Mitchell tells us at the top of the show, she is a science journalist, not an actor or playwright. But she is a born storyteller, and the tale she has to tell is so compelling and urgent that when TC's Artistic Director Franco Boni first heard it in 2012, he knew it deserved not just a wider stage but to be on an actual theatre stage. Based on Mitchell's award-winning book of the same title and, in turn, on Mitchell's years of investigative research that took her all over the world and, finally, to the very bottom of the ocean floor, Sea Sick explains what we have wrought upon the world's oceans in just 264 years and why this is the most troubling consequence of climate change.

It's not just that the oceans are rising and that they are getting warmer. It's also that they're getting more "sour," a process of acidification that is a result of changing pH levels due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Mitchell explains all of this in an open and accessible manner that neither dumbs down the science nor hectors the audience. Indeed, one of the surprising things about the piece is just how much hope Mitchell is able to extract from so much despair. As she notes, in the 5 billion year history of the planet, the evolution of our species is of a comparatively short duration (a few hundred thousand years). And the history of industrialization that has led us to this point is even shorter--less than three centuries. As Laura noted in the talkback, this deeper thinking about time is necessary for a more complex understanding of the depths of the ocean's connection to our survival--both physically and metaphysically.

Sea Sick will be playing this year's PuSh Festival. Given Vancouver's Pacific Rim siting, the play deserves a very wide audience. I'm glad I could see it in advance (along with PuSh Associate Curator Joyce Rosario, who presented today at the workshop) so that I can spread the word.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Modulating Movement and Music

For the latest edition (number 31) of Dances for a Small Stage, Artistic Producer Julie-anne Saroyan has teamed up with Music on Main's David Pay to curate an evening of music and dance that coincides with the launch of MoM's Modulus Festival. The result is one of the best and most tightly conceived DSS offerings in a long time.

The evening is divided into two halves. In the first, Toronto's Cecilia String Quartet (Min-Jeong Koh and Sarah Nematallah on violin, Caitlin Boyle on viola, and Rachel Desoer on cello) perform Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Opus 11. Each of the four movements is accompanied by a different dance sequence. In the first, the evening's mute maestro, Billy Marchenski, appears perplexed by the Moderato that he has failed to initiate, but that has gotten away from him nonetheless. This is followed by former Ballet BC star Makaila Wallace dancing to Karissa Barry's delightful interpretation of the Andante section; b-boy Stewart Iguidez popping and locking and dropping and posing to the Scherzo; and, finally, Vanessa Goodman, in a sheer white hoop skirt designed by Deborah Beaulieu, channeling her inner Isadora Duncan to the rousing Finale.

Following an intermission, the second half of the program proceeds as a series of short choreographic riffs on the music of John Oswald, the electro-acoustic composer from Ontario best known for his philosophy and practice of "plunderphonics"--transcribing, adapting, rearranging, collaging and just generally mashing up previously existing recordings. Most of the choreography is provided by Oswald's partner, Holly Small, who was one of Saroyan's dance instructors at York University. This includes an excerpt from Small's award-winning Radiant (2009) that was danced to stunning effect by Sean Ling and Goodman. They are joined by or alternate with Jessica Runge and Small herself for most of the other pieces, although Iguidez returns in the penultimate excerpt to display some of his own stylin' moves to an Oswald rearrangement of a Curtis Lee song. The Cecilia String Quartet also reappears briefly to perform a beautiful piece by Oswald, preLieu (1991), based on Beethoven's B-flat Major quartet.

Interspersed throughout the evening are also some vintage videos, including of Glenn Gould, whose famous humming and vocal accompaniment to his own piano playing becomes another important motif linking the expressivity of sound with that of bodily movement.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Wagging the Dog

Denise Clarke, co-founder of Calgary's legendary One Yellow Rabbit and virtuoso solo performer, recently had a really bad year. Out of that personal funk comes wag, currently playing at the Firehall through this evening.

The show, which features Clarke's signature blend of spoken word and movement, is essentially a meditation on the creative process. This is encapsulated in part via the text projections looping on an upstage screen as audience members file to their seats, including the following maxim from Radiohead's "Pyramid Song": "There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt." As the houselights dim and a bright snowy vista appears on the screen, Clarke enters upstage left, swaddled in a bulky parka. She tells us via the head mic hidden underneath her hood that she is crossing the park that separates her home from the studio where she is going to build a new piece. She is cold and depressed and not at all looking forward to the blank space of creative nothingness she is sure awaits her at her destination. Along the way, however, she is distracted by the honk of a goose, which then prompts her to take proper notice of the beautiful blanket of pure white snow that covers most of the park. Too pure to leave untrammeled--and so Clarke deposits her knapsack on the pathway and leaps into the deep abyss of both her immediate physical environment and her mental grief, counting on her muscle memory to help her find a way to move through each.

This is the first of several scored movement sequences that recur throughout the piece. Each is comprised of a relatively simple repertoire of expressive poses and gestures that get repeated at least twice--either to the refrain of Clarke's voice identifying what she is doing or listing off a series of book titles, or to the specific time signature of a well-known piece of music, such as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" or "The Emperor Waltz." The point is neither the complexity of the choreography nor the virtuosity of Clarke's dancing (although she remains at the top of her game); rather, the point is that we are witnessing Clarke find her way back to joy through movement--something the dogs in the park, if not their owners, instantly intuit. The show stages this kinetic process of discovery less as a way of feeling better than of feeling tout court.

Which makes me forgive the piece's somewhat clumsy climax: Clarke, in a salmon pink chiffon ball gown, suddenly joined by five other female dancers who descend to the stage from the audience, don their own dresses (and, in one case, tuxedo pants and shirt), and accompany Clarke in a spin around the room to the aforementioned "Emperor Waltz." But, then again, why should I begrudge this? As Clarke demonstrates in this show, sometimes it's a lot more fun to move through life in 3/4 time.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Quantum at The Dance Centre

There is so much movement in this world that we cannot see: the dance of electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, quarks, and other sub-atomic particles that is only observable via radioactive and scattering processes that take place in huge colliders and superconductors operated out of labs like CERN, on the Swiss-French border near Geneva. Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin's QUANTUM, which just concluded its run at the Dance Centre last night, is based on a 2012 artist residency he had at CERN. It is a translation into embodied movement of what for most of us remain otherwise purely theoretical concepts, including electromagnetic radiation, wave physics, and quantum states.

In this, Jobin is aided immeasurably by a crackling, chromodynamic score composed by Carla Scaletti, and especially by the "lumino-kinetic installation" designed by Julius von Bismarck. The latter is comprised of a set of overhead lamps under which three couples pulse and twitch at the start of the piece, and which will begin to sway and circle in their own electronic choreography over the course of the ensuing 50 minutes. Indeed, the dancers emerging in and out of shadow in various oscillating patterns of attraction and repulsion, or to adopt various wave-like latticed tableaux according to height, was most compelling visually.

I have to say, however, that I was distracted by the dancers' costumes, unitards which I think were meant to be evocative of lightning flashes, but which suggested to me of onesies that might be worn by a troupe of harlequins. All of which is to affirm a fundamental principle of physics: the observation of an event will alter that event.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fiercely Blue

Carmen Aguirre is certainly one fierce woman. As a skinny twenty-year-old underground revolutionary in Pinochet's Chile she smuggled supplies across the Argentinian border in a Cessna plane she'd learned to pilot with her first husband. A decade or more later, as a now twice-divorced actor working in Vancouver, she pursued an amour fou with "Vision Man," an impossibly gorgeous younger Mexican actor from Hollywood who had a weak heart (in more ways than one).

In Blue Box, on at the Arts Club's Revue Stage through November 1, Aguirre tells both stories directly to the audience while alone on stage with the house lights up for 90 uninterrupted minutes. And she does so with an unapologetic frankness that can leave many in the audience squirming. That it is the sexual politics of the piece that make many spectators--especially men--uncomfortable is something Aguirre tackles in her very first line; as she tells us, explaining the show's title, she had wanted to call the play something else, but it would have been unmarketable. As it is, Blue Box will no doubt prove a tough sell for the Arts Club's traditional subscription patrons.

Because the piece is as complex in form as it is uncensored in content. As Aguirre writes in her Playwright's Note included in the program, the only thing the two stories have in common is that they happened to her, that they both live in her body. And, indeed, the narrative structure of their telling on stage is such that they always exist in counterpoint, but never meet. Aguirre, working with Nightswimming's Brian Quirt (who originally commissioned the piece) speaks quickly but precisely, flipping back and forth between each of her stories like a virtuoso jazz musician, a soloist capable of playing--and seamlessly alternating between--two different instruments. There are no technical and dramaturgical cues--no shifts in lighting, no notable shifts in Aguirre's body--to prime us for these switches, which happen with greater and greater rapidity as the evening progresses. Instead, we have to make the effort to listen carefully, to locate ourselves in the telling of each story, and to note the accommodations required (physical, emotional, and ideological) to be open and receptive to each.

It's hard work, because likely for most of us our previous theatrical training has taught us to attempt to resolve the tension between each story. Instead, Aguirre is asking us to live with--and within--their dynamic interplay. In so doing, we are forced not only to be alert and pay attention, but also, I would argue, to question which of the stories is more revolutionary, and which more romantic.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Wayne McGregor/Random Dance

UK choreographer Wayne McGregor was back with his company Random Dance four years after DanceHouse first presented his Entity at the Playhouse. This weekend, to open their seventh season, DanceHouse presented FAR; the title is an acronym for Roy Porter's Flesh in the Age of Reason, a history of Enlightenment-era investigations into the connections between the mind and the body. Right up McGregor's alley, who has frequently collaborated with cognitive and neuro-scientists, and whose distinctive movement vocabulary is all about short circuiting the standard proprioceptive impulses sent between brain and body.

FAR is full of McGregor's trademark moves: arms and legs jerking and twitching; ribs jutting out from the torso; limbs extended at awkward angles or tilted away from the body's natural centre of gravity; lightning quick changes of direction. However, the piece begins and ends with two fairly traditional duets. In the first, a couple dances to Cecilia Bartoli's rending take on Giacomelli's aria "Sposa son disprezzata" (the same lament that plays in the episode of The Sopranos when Carmela is shown touring the Met after learning of Tony's infidelity). The dancers are surrounded by four torch bearers, and we might be forgiven for thinking we were being transported back to the late 17th century.

However, when following this prelude we start hearing Ben Frost's industrial music and the 3,200 LED lights on the giant circuit board that comprises the set's backdrop start pulsating, we know we are firmly in the here and now--or else some soon to unfold future of total sensory stimulation. In this world, bodies strut and pose and collide, fitting their bodies together in ways that at first seem strange and decidedly awkward, but that have the paradoxical effect of highlighting the dancers' incredible technique. Indeed, for all of McGregor's circumambulation in finding new pathways into a move, once there the dancers' lines remain gorgeous to behold.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the abundant partnering that provides the structural through-line to the piece. Dancers race aggressively toward each other, or else tear one another from existing group formations; but faced with the new idea of how to work together they set about solving the problem in endlessly inventive--and thoroughly supportive--variations. The closing duet is downright tender.

It was interesting watching Random Dance in FAR after having seen Ballet Preljocaj's Empty Moves. Although their styles and produced works couldn't be more different, both McGregor and Preljocaj are deconstructionist choreographers who understand that to take something apart (i.e. ballet) you first need to know how it works.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ballet Preljocaj's Empty moves

In early December 1977 John Cage took to the stage before a packed audience at the Teatro Lirico in Milan and began to read a random string of phonemes, enunciating a series of long and short, hard and soft sounds that at times approached but steadfastly refused to coalesce into any kind of intelligible words. Some thirty years later, French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj has used a live recording of Cage's performance--complete with the increasingly restless and scandalized catcalls of the audience--as the score for his Empty Moves (parts I, II & III), in which he takes a similarly deconstructive approach to choreographic phrasing.

At the start of the piece, Preljocaj's four dancers--two men and two women--enter upstage left and mark their spots on the floor with a bit of tape. One of the women extends her leg and upper body into a horizontal plank; one of the men then grabs her outstretched arm and turns her, setting off a chain reaction of movement in the other dancers that flows more or less continuously over the next hour and forty-five minutes. Twice more during the course of the work the dancers will return to this spot and repeat the same opening sequence. However, the dance that follows in each of the three sections defies interpretive synthesis. Partnering combinations change; unison movement becomes faster and more percussive or slower and more flowing; extended floorwork is traded for jumps and hyper-verticality; the men drag the women around like rag dolls and then the women do the same to the men. The only constant is the materiality of the dancers' bodies and the endlessly inventive movement vocabulary Preljocaj deploys on and through them.

To this end, the virtuosity of the dancers--who are simply flawless--mirrors the virtuosity of the vocal music produced by Cage, who remains precise and unperturbed in his recitation despite the ever-mounting impatience and hostility of his audience. Except that what is enacted in Empty moves is anything but mimeticism. Which is also to say that the real revelation of Preljocaj's choreographic experiment in this work is that together the movements of his dancers' bodies and the grain of Cage's voice produce a reversal of figure and ground. For over the course of the piece it becomes more and more clear that to the extent the Teatro Lirico recording functions as a musical score, the dancers are reacting as much to the whistles and claps and verbal abuse of the Milanese as they are to maestro Cage. Then, too, our own restlessness watching 90+ minutes of rigorously abstract movement (exacerbated last night by a stiflingly hot and airless studio at The Dance Centre) necessarily becomes part of Preljocaj's choreographic score.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Making the Cut

So I recently had my very own "I Hope I Get It" moment when, along with several other community hoofers, I put my dancing skills on the line at a recruitment session for a free outdoor show that will be performed at the 2015 PuSh Festival in January. Le Grand Continental, choreographed by Montreal's Sylvain Émard, is a big, joyous celebration of social dancing that puts non-professional movers between the ages of 10 and 75 through their paces as they perform a mash-up of styles in a 30 minute re-imagining of a traditional line dance. Since its debut at Festival TransAmériques in 2009, the piece has been performed in cities all across North America with casts ranging in size from 60 to as many as 200 (at Le Grand Continental XL in Montreal in 2011). Vancouver will be the eleventh iteration of the show, where the cast will number around 70 or so.

Coincidentally, last Thursday evening at the Roundhouse I was number 11 of approximately 30 hopefuls. Our task was to follow Sylvain and rehearsal assistants Anna and Caroline in learning the three-minute "funk" section of the piece--a tiny portion of which you can view here. Apparently I made the grade, as PuSh Associate Curator Joyce Rosario emailed on Wednesday evening to welcome me to the project!

Truth be told, the odds were in my favour, and not because of my PuSh insider connections. The goal is to have an equal representation of male and female dancers, and I was one of only two men at the Roundhouse recruitment session.

Whatever the case, I am beyond excited! Twice weekly rehearsals begin early November and we go pretty much non-stop (except for a brief holiday break) until the four scheduled performances on January 24 and 25 (mark your calendars now!). I plan to blog about our progress on a regular basis, maybe even sharing some inside photo documentation--so stay tuned.

In the meantime, I'm back in the studio with Tara Cheyenne on Monday afternoon. Who knew I'd be turning into such a dancing dynamo so late in life.

"One--singular sensation..."


Monday, September 15, 2014

Fringe 2014: Roller Derby Saved My Soul and Definition of Time

Another splendid weekend to bookend my 2014 Fringe experience. And, again, two very different shows--though, as before, with a connecting thread.

Owing to a late morning start and abundant seawall traffic, I made it to the False Creek Gym just as they were shutting the house for the start of the noon hour show of Roller Derby Saved My Soul. Nancy Kenny's one-woman show is about Amy, a shy 30 year-old who lives in her younger sister June's shadow and harbours fantasies--nurtured by her love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer--of being a superhero. She gets her chance when June invites her to watch one of her roller derby games as a belated birthday present. After the game Amy finds herself in front of the recruitment table, mesmerized by the Glamazon Diana, and in a bewitched fog she suddenly sheds her inhibitions and signs up as "fresh meat."

What follows is a classic tale of heroic redemption. The bookish Amy--who prefers the movies to real life--quickly finds her skating legs (quite literally), blooming into a natural jammer. After the requisite hiccup of adversity and self-doubt, she triumphs by reconciling with her sister, getting the girl she thought out of her league, and--most importantly--saving the day for her team.

If you think this sounds a bit like Ellen Page in Whip It (minus the lesbian sub-plot), you'd be right. However, the stock dramatic arc notwithstanding, Roller Derby Saved My Soul is in no way derivative. This is thanks to two things. First, there is the show's taught writing, which confronts the cliches of genre (and gender) head on, upending them with the comedic one-two punch of timing and surprise--including some of the saltiest language about lady bits I've heard in a long time.

Then there is the performance by Kenny, who is as convincing in conveying the vulnerability of Amy as she is the bombast of June (not to mention the seductiveness of Diana). A naturally charismatic performer, Kenny is a also a gifted physical comedienne. She is clearly an experienced roller derby-er, and yet she is also able to translate kinetically to the audience what it feels like to be the unbalanced newbie trying on her skates for the first time. She's also hilarious as an increasingly inebriated Amy trying to keep up with her teammates (and the audience) in a drinking game to The Police's "Roxanne." Great stuff.

Movement is even more on display in Definition of Time, a quirky but strangely affecting dance-theatre piece that I took in at The Cultch after a pleasant cross-town bike ride. Conceived and choreographed by Iris Lau, the show was devised with the help of a slew of current SFU Contemporary Arts students and recent alums. These include performers Marc Arboleda, Elysse Cheadle, Shannon Lee, Carmine Santavenere, Clara Chow, and composer Elliot Vaughn, whose live score (featuring keyboards, violin, and percussion using everyday found objects) is simply brilliant. The text is by Adam Cowart, which is alternately allegorical and absurdist in its playing with various theoretical and material concepts of time.

Not that there is any real narrative through-line. The piece is more of an amalgam of fragmentary episodes, exploring through different choreographic structures and bits of physical theatre what it seems best to call the spatialization of time, giving it sensory dimension via different bodily encounters. To this end, I wish Lau had trusted herself a bit more in lettering the dancing speak for itself in the piece, rather than embellishing so many of the movement sequences with objects and additional dramaturgical effects. In the partnering, especially, there are often two or three other things going on that clamor for one's attention.

That said, I liked that the piece retained its rough edges. Though too long and overstuffed with too many ideas, there were myriad things to savour throughout.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dance Centre Season Launch

Yesterday evening The Dance Centre launched its 2014-15 season with a cocktail party and showing of DC artist-in-residence Shay Kuebler's work-in-progress, Glory. I counted it as a good sign that on the way to the event we ran in to both Lesley Telford and Emily Molnar, the former in town to create a new piece for the latter's company members at Ballet BC--which will have its premiere in November.

The showing of Glory began with a POV film clip of a drunken man stumbling along a dimly lit road late at night. He falls to the ground and when he looks up he (and we) see a hooded figure staring at him off in the distance. But when he looks again the figure is gone. So begins a cat and mouse game that ends with our protagonist taking shelter in an abandoned building, using a flashlight to navigate its warren of rooms and every now and then catching his pursuer staring at him through a window. It is at this moment that we notice another beam of light being directed across the stage, this one attached to a live body, presumably the reverse avatar of our onscreen hero. As he flails about in the dark, we soon detect that he is being shadowed by four or five others, who emerge silently and stealthily from the wings to encircle the terrified torch bearer, menacing him with an assault of kinetic energy he can sense but not see.

The sequence, which is accompanied by creepy Psycho-esque music, is a suitably vertiginous and sensorily disorienting opening to a work that, as Kuebler subsequently told us, explores the glorification of violence in various forms of media such as films, television, and video games. Kuebler, who grew up practicing martial arts and watching kung fu and action movies, is interested in investigating through movement those moments when violence is spotlighted and amplified on screen: whether it be the slow motion impact of a bullet to a body; a prolonged death scene; a four-on-one fight that just won't quit; or the self that is subject to violent manipulation by external forces. The paradox is that these scenes, as enacted by Kuebler and his amazingly talented dancers (many of them cohorts from the 605 Collective), at once break down as "stunts" the various components we take to be "real" in action films and re-aestheticize them through the dancers' hypnotic virtuosity.

Which is also to say that embedded in Kuebler's title there is both critique and homage. I look forward to witnessing the final working through of this dialectic when the piece premieres at the Chutzpah! Festival next February.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lossless at SFU Woodward's

So I didn't get to my Fringe show yesterday afternoon owing to the usual time suck that always overtakes one at the start of a new term. However, I did make it to the opening of the MFA Graduating Exhibition at SFU Woodward's. Called Lossless, it features works by Luciana D'Anunciação, Deborah Edmeades, Jeffrey Langille, Avery Nabata, and Nathaniel Wong; together they have produced one of the strongest graduating shows in recent memory.

D'Anunciação's piece, When will my hands become roots?, actually takes place in Studio T, on the second floor. A performative installation that combines video projections, music and sound, hung cloth, and natural objects, the work explores questions of place and displacement, home and exile within a total sensory environment that, starting this evening at 8 pm and continuing through Saturday, will be animated by D'Anunciação's own body.

The rest of the works have been installed in the Audain Gallery, and three of them are video-based. Edmeades' complex and hilarious On the Validity of Illusion asks, among other things, how subjects can become objects and objects subjects "through the invisible co-ordinating 'now' of the camera lens."
Jeffrey Langille's How is it that there is always something new? adapts the conventions of landscape painting and photography to the durational space of the screen in order to explore the eventness (geological, meteorological, auditory) within stillness. And Nathaniel Wong's Thus Spoke Death and Transfiguration is a multi-channel installation that sets up a dialectic between the "aestheticization of the banal" and the "trivialization of the everyday," in part by re-performing a lecture on "Being Happy" by the French philosopher Alain Badiou (a clip of which you can find on YouTube here).

The show is rounded out by Nabata's Growth, Endlessness, Blocks. A series of deceptively simple wood sculptures, Nabata's focus on how distinct units fit into each other in order to make a foundation and build a bigger structure evokes questions of architectural scale that one cannot help but read against the crane-dotted skyline of Vancouver.

The show runs until September 27, and it is definitely worth checking out.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Fringe 2014: Slumming and The Masks of Oscar Wilde

A beautiful first weekend for the 30th anniversary of the Vancouver International Fringe Festival. On Sunday I saw two shows vastly different in structure, subject matter and tone, but that nevertheless shared at least one formal storytelling conceit.

First up was Batterjacks' production of Barbara Ellison's Slumming at Studio 16. Set on the steps of an abandoned church in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the play is a two-hander that stages a territorial struggle between First Nations sex worker Britney (Sharon Crandall) and a white shopping cart lady named Grace (Terri Anne Taylor) who seems far too refined to be living on the street. When Britney, feeling happy and flush after a recent date, wakes Grace up with her singing, battle lines are quickly drawn. Arguing that she has every right to rest in the space, Britney says that she only needs three more good dates and then she'll be out of Grace's hair--off to Kelowna to collect her daughter Lillian, who's in foster care.

Soon an uneasy truce is established between the two women, who agree to share the space. However, when Britney returns from a bad date having been raped and robbed, the limits of Grace's empathy are put to the test. This is where the play, which up until this point has been trading rather broadly in some stock dramatic--and socio-cultural--clichés, veers into more surreal territory. When Britney requests of her new friend a story to calm her down, Grace (who by this point has traded her sweats and rain jacket for a blue cocktail dress and a string of pearls) quotes a few lines from Lady Macbeth and then launches into a fairy tale about a king and a queen. Not only does the shocking denouement of Grace's story come to explain why she's living on the street, but it also--as in most fairy tales--leads to a surprise parting gift for Britney.

Oscar Wilde wrote his share of fairy tales that also doubled as social and/or political allegories. The most famous of these is "The Happy Prince," which is the text that provides the thematic through-line to Shaul Ezer's The Masks of Oscar Wilde, written with the assistance of frank theatre's Chris Gatchalian. A hybrid performance piece that mixes the lecture format with shadow theatre, among other dramatic effects, the play is another two-hander, see-sawing dialectically back and forth between actors A and B (Sean Harris Oliver and Tamara McCarthy, respectively) in a manner reminiscent of one of Wilde's critical dialogues (e.g. "The Critic as Artist," or "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," which is actually referenced).

The frame conceit is that actor A is a contemporary academic giving a lecture on Wilde and his "four masks"--which he identifies as "man of letters," "aesthete," "Victorian moralist," and ... I forget the fourth. Actor B--who appears to be an avatar of Wilde himself--keeps interrupting A's lecture, insisting that he's leaving out at least two additional masks worn by the writer: "the disgraced sinner/persecuted victim" and "the martyr." At first A doesn't seem to see B (though he can hear her); eventually, however, the already thin dividing line between the real and the symbolic, present and past, collapses altogether as A and B perform a series of vignettes from Wilde's life. All of these are drawn from and animated by Wilde's writings, with the performers each taking a turn at playing his various characters (including delightful versions of Jack Worthing and Lady Bracknell, from The Importance of Being Earnest), his loved ones (wife Constance and lover Bosie), antagonists (fellow Irishman Edward Carson, who went toe to toe with Wilde in court), and Wilde himself.

The results are never less than fully compelling, giving further credence to the idea--now taken as virtual dogma--that Wilde's greatest theatrical creation was himself. Ezer notes in the program that the inspiration for the play came from Peter Brook's Love is My Sin, based on Shakespeare's sonnets. But to my mind the clearer antecedent is Moisés Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Project's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, a play from 1997 that is likewise redacted from Wilde's trial transcripts and supplemented by additional writings by the author. No matter the precise inspiration, The Masks of Oscar Wilde is still stirring stuff.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Tempest at Bard on the Beach

On the last weekend before school starts, Richard and I finally got to Bard on the Beach to see Meg Roe's production of The Tempest. First staged to acclaim in 2008, this reworked version is, courtesy of Christine Reimer's costumes, Alessandro Juliani's original music (played live by a quartet upstage right), and Rob Kitsos' choreography, certain a feast for the senses. The one confusing signal, however, came from Pam Johnson's cooly white and vaguely lunar set, which initially put me in the arctic hinterlands rather than the lush island tropics one assumes the play is set.

Tonally, this is certainly a "lighter" version of the play than I am used to, with the darker psychology that underscores Prospero's dark magic only occasionally bubbling to the surface. This might have been a result of the oddly passive and--it seemed to me--fatigued performance of Allan Morgan in the lead role. Interestingly, though like the other actors he was miked, I found it hard to hear Morgan's lines, and I was struck, in retrospect, by how much time Prospero spends offstage and also, when he is onstage, how often he is positioned as an observer. Lili Beaudoin's infectious performance as Miranda is certainly confident and winning, and it is charming to watch the utterly ingenuous flirtation between her and Ferdinand (a suitably besotted Daniel Doheny) unfold--in part because for once the actors match the roles in age. Again, however, it felt that the more complex emotions behind Miranda's temperament were glossed over. After all, we are introduced to her as she is offering paroxysms of shared grief for the victims of the shipwreck her father has just wrought. We seem to move from this fraught state to lively attentiveness (viz. the story Prospero has to tell regarding how they came to find themselves on this island) a bit too quickly and seamlessly.

Then, too, I wasn't all that compelled by the conspiring between Antonio (Ian Butcher) and Sebastian (Andrew McNee). Granted, the plot to kill Alonso (Scott Bellis) is presented in the play as wholly opportunistic and the arch-usurper Antonio does not give Sebastian a lot of time to rationalize--or doubt--his actions; however, I somehow wished I got a sense that the stakes were higher. Ditto my response to the key relationships between Prospero and Ariel (Jennifer Lines) and Prospero and Caliban (Todd Thomson). The former is as gossamer and delicately poised as Lines' constantly arched right foot, ready to take quick flight into the imaginative ether of beneficit master and willing servant rather than pausing to explore from a more grounded perspective the actual matter of what binds these two together. That is, of course, the perspective one associates with the monster Caliban, who has the greater grievance, and for whom the master/slave relationship is no mere dialectical exercise. But, ironically, he who provides the darkest ballast to the play is arguably overtaken (and undercut) by Roe's  most interesting dramaturgical innovation--turning the buffoonish clowns Trinculo and Stephano whom Caliban conscripts as potential assassins of Prospero into the drunken sisters Trincula and Stephana (and played uproariously by Luisa Jojic and Naomi Wright).

This casting innovation elicits all sorts of added gendered insights into the play. But the burlesque that accompanies it also firmly tips the generic hybridity of this, Shakespeare's most complex romance, firmly into the realm of comedy. And it renders Caliban as the voice of postcolonial resistance doubly impotent--by castrating him twice.


Monday, August 25, 2014

In the Studio with Tara Cheyenne

So today I began a very exciting project--working on a short dance-theatre piece with Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. The catch--and very much terra incognita for yours truly--is that Tara is building the work on me and my oh so not at all flexible body.

It all started with an email from my SFU colleague Dara Culhane, who invited me to participate in a fall "Imaginings Project" sponsored by the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography (of which we are both affiliates--though Dara's disciplinary bona fides are certainly much stronger than mine). The theme of this particular "Imaginings Project" is "Laughing Matters: Humour, Imagination and Political Possibilities." Twelve of us have been invited "to explore humour as a form of imaginative ethnographic practice" in our respective fields, thinking self-reflexively about how comedy, satire and parody might offer a different lens through which to envision our social theory and practice, research methodology, fieldwork and its transcription/translation, etc. And we were given lots of creative license in terms of the form through which we take up such questions: a creative text; images; audio or video works.

Given that my current research is on dance-theatre, and given that Tara is one of the funniest dance-theatre makers I know, I thought it would be great to collaborate on a short video in which she taught me to dance and talk at the same time. That, in and of itself, would be hilarious, I knew. But there were some larger political issues I was also interested in exploring--not the least of which is that humour in dance (when it is allowed) is, as with virtually all comedy, so intensely gendered. Stick a man in a tutu (like the famous Trocks of Monte Carlo), or have him parody Martha Graham (like Richard Move), and it's gut-splitting (though, to be fair to Move, his mimicking of Graham very much oscillates between deliberate send-up--as when Move-as-Martha attempts to learn from Yvonne Rainer her famous "Trio A"--and very sincere homage--as in his reenactment of the iconic solo "Lamentation"). As is the case in other performance modes, women in dance are given far less room (quite literally) to be funny; one sees this, for example, when classic burlesque morphs into striptease--the eroticized dancing female body cannot also be bawdy (something Joanna Mansbridge writes perceptively about in her work on burlesque, including in a book on Women and Comedy that I've co-edited).

As I talked over these and other issues with Tara earlier this month, I also realized that the project would inevitably become something of an autoethnography, particularly in terms of working through some of the complex feelings (including the very unfunny feeling of shame) that would inevitably accrue around my own body when I explicitly put it on display and made it move to set choreography, no matter how basic the steps might be. If Tara is the expert informant in terms of her facility in moving and telling a story in a virtuosically side-splitting way (the metaphor seems appropriate), what would it mean for me, as a decidedly non-virtuosic mover (who nevertheless loves dance), to use humour as means to absorb into my own body some of her training and kinesthetic knowledge? And how might we think of our ethnographic experiments in the studio contributing to a larger discourse around a comedic pedagogy of the body that could be equally useful in analyses of concert dance and social dance?

Okay, so this post is way more theoretical and egg-headed than I meant it to be. Without going into too much detail about what we played with and at in the studio (because I want the finished video to be a surprise, even if it fails utterly in its intent), suffice it to say that I was stunned at what we accomplished in 2.5 hours. Tara is such an amazing teacher, quickly intuiting from our warm-up and early bits of improv that behind my demure exterior there's a showy diva at heart (the reference to the Rockettes probably tipped my hand). Having thus discovered my intuitive way of moving, and using one of my current favourite tunes, she was then able to come up with some simple choreography that I not only felt capable of mastering, but that also didn't feel alien or unnatural. Ditto her methods for finding the threads of a narrative: a series of questions about what makes me happy and what I like to complain about very quickly morphed into the start of a comic monologue that again felt unforced because it came from daily life.

I suppose this is altogether unsurprising for a professionally trained dance or theatre artist (like Tara Harris, who was also with us in the studio capturing everything on digital video). But as someone who mostly thinks about these things rather than does them, the process was revelatory.

I look forward to the next session. And stay tuned for news about the video's posting.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Deadhead in Heritage Harbour

This afternoon I finally made it onto "Deadhead," the large-scale sculpture-cum-installation mounted onto a WW II-era barge and anchored since June in Heritage Harbour, near the Vancouver Maritime Museum in Kits Point. Created by artist Cedric Bomford, in collaboration with his father Jim (a retired engineer), and his brother Nathan (an artist and builder), "Deadhead" is the third and final work in Other Sights for Artists' Projects' "When the Hosts Come Home" series, an ambitious multi-year initiative overseen and curated by Barbara Cole that took seriously the so-called legacy of model sustainability pitched as part of the post-Olympics development of South False Creek. More specifically, Barbara invited three artist teams "whose practices incorporate the use of recycled and refurbished materials to create temporary site specific sculptural works" that would promote moments of social interaction and public agency.

The first work in the series was T&T's "False Creek," a temporary installation that for three weeks during the 2010 Olympics transformed the main concourse of the HSBC's downtown headquarters into a post-apocalyptic green heterotopia. Later that summer Köbberling and Kaltwasser's "The Games are Open" was installed in the undeveloped and fenced-in city-owned lands to the west of Athletes Village.  A larger-than-life bulldozer composed of wheat board reclaimed from the Village development as it was being transformed from temporary sporting dormitories to luxury condominiums for sale, the sculpture has, as Barbara writes on Other Sights' website (and as she talked about at greater length as part of a presentation at the conference on Art in Cities after Mega-Events that I co-organized two weekends ago), "shifted from sculp­ture, to gar­den, to dirt pile, each trans­for­ma­tion dri­ven by the agen­das of assumed own­ers." As many of us saw during Barbara and Lorna Brown and Vanessa Kwan's art amble as part of the Mega-Events conference, the remains of "The Games are Open" are currently being cared for by "rogue gardener" Eklas, who is in a fight with the city for access to water to maintain her truly beautiful plantings.

And, finally, there is "Deadhead," built from a stockpile of salvaged wood and other reclaimed materials into "an imaginative assemblage of sentry posts, guard houses, lookouts and observation platforms" that are "connected by swooping walls and spiraling stairs and ramps." Over various weekends in June, July and August, the Bomfords have hoisted an orange flag on their floating sculpture, indicating that it is open for boarding and exploration by the public, with free ferry service from the dock in Heritage Harbour. Various workshops and concerts and other events have also been hosted on the barge, and one can see how the work's jungle-gym-like construction would be a hit with the kids (several of whom were about today).

However, what was most striking to me were the uncanny perspectival shifts that the work occasioned in my field of vision. Seen from ashore, and in approach via the tiny ferry boat, "Deadhead's" various structural components and different vertical peaks and hybrid surface materials seemed at once of a piece with and totally disruptive of the built skyline of downtown Vancouver and the West End against which it is cast (with the corrugated tin around the spiral lookout tower especially alluding in an ironic way to the glass and steel condo towers for which the city has become known).

At the same time, from on board the ship, looking westward one cannot help but notice the huge tankers and cargo container ships that blot the horizon and bloat the waters of English Bay--a very different kind of visual economy, to be sure. And one that fits, more generally, with my theory of the Vancouver sublime.

On a gorgeous summer's day, staring out at picture-perfect mountains and sea, one's field of vision should be disturbed in such a way. That is what great art does and "Deadhead," like all the works in "When the Hosts Come Home," will haunt my imagination for some time to come.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

At the Culture Lab with Plastic Orchid Factory

Yesterday evening Richard and I, along with 15 or so other invited guests, were given a behind-the-scenes glimpse of plastic orchid factory's new work-in-progress, Digital Folk. The invited showing was the culmination of a three-week creative residency at the Cultch that involved an interdisciplinary collaboration between dance artist James Gnam, visual artist Natalie Purschwitz, sound designer Kevin Legere, and lighting designer James Proudfoot. The work also features the expert simulacral movement and air guitar skills of Natalie Lefebvre Gnam, Vanessa Goodman, Bevin Poole, Dario Dinuzzi, Jane Osborne and ... (I know I'm missing somebody).

As James explained in answer to a question from Dances for a Small Stage's Julie-anne Saroyan, and as Natalie put it in her email invitation to the showing, the work seeks to explore "the role that immersive movement and rhythm based videos games have played in defining a generation’s approach to identity, physicality, social dance and performance." James sees these video games as in many ways defining the folk identity of a generation of millennials who have become virtuosic adepts of mimicked musicality and movement (holy alliteration, Batman!), but in ways that paradoxically alienate them from a kinesthetic awareness of their own bodies in time and space, and that thrust them into an isolated feedback loop with the technology that then becomes an extension of themselves.

In what Saroyan usefully suggested was a "reverse engineering" of the video games themselves, we thus see in the 35-minute piece as it currently stands the dancers responding to different dance routines supplied by various immersive videos, before turning the cameras on themselves as, in a series of slow duets, they start to mirror each other's movements in more intimately responsive ways. We also see the six dancers call upon the arsenal of standard club grooves that gets repeated in many of these videos (fist pumps and hip thrusts and booty shakes) as they respond collectively to the same set of repeated instructions in digitally altered voice-over. A similar repertoire of rehearsed and stored moves is called upon by Dinuzzi in a standout solo to "Pump Up the Jam" that certainly made me see the Ballet BC company member in a brand new light.

There's a whole circuit (as it were) of additionally complex ideas at play in the piece, and it's gratifying to know that the Canada Council, together with the Cultch, is still willing to support this kind of research phase to the building of a piece--in which a lot of smart and talented artists can get in a room together and play. It was a privilege to be able to witness the results thus far, and I look forward to seeing the finished work.