Sunday, February 23, 2014

BODYTRAFFIC at Chutzpah!

Here's what I learned from last night's performance of the LA-based dance company BODYTRAFFIC at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre, as part of this year's Chutzpah! Festival:

1. I'm definitely not a fan of the choreography and dramaturgy of Barak Marshall (see my take on his Harry, as danced last year by BJM). His brand of dance-theatre--which for some reason seems to have legions of devotees--is too insistently vertical and repetitively gestural in its movement style and too normatively patriarchal in its narrative ideology for my tastes. Both elements were fully on display in And at midnight, the green bride floated through the village square..., which was given pride of place on last night's program; five or six very similar-looking unison sequences are punctuated by a few pantomimed or spoken word scenes between the men and women, all of which culminates in a wedding and a most abrupt ending.

2. The work of Hofesh Shechter, however, I could watch all day. His Dust, atmospherically lit and beautifully choreographed, sends six dancers (three men and three women) skittering across the stage like insects, or else masses their shaking, twitching bodies together like groupies at a rock concert. The piece's sensual suggestiveness is the opposite of Marshall's literalism, as much about the spaces between the movement as the movement itself. Having just written elsewhere about the non-representational uses of text in dance, I also appreciate the way that Shechter combines projected and voice-over text with his own original musical score and of course his distinctive choreography to create a total immersive  environment, in which feelings of kinesthesia are complemented and even enhanced by the acoustic and the visual and even the haptic. At one point, early on in the piece, the stage remains dark for at least a full two minutes, with only driving music playing. And yet I sensed that more was going on in that time than during all of the fully illuminated scenes in Marshall's work. (Shechter was actually at the theatre last night to acknowledge the audience's applause--quite a coup for Chutzpah! AD Marie-Louise Albert.)

3. The dancers of BODYTRAFFIC are superb. Not only are they able to deal with the wildly disparate styles of Marshall and Shechter, but they can also pull off the exuberant, deliberately showy, and borderline kitschy jazz homage crafted by Richard Siegal in his o2Joy. An unabashed crowd pleaser, the work highlights what was abundantly evident throughout the evening: this is a technically accomplished company with lots of personality to boot.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ballet BC's Grace Symmetry

The current mixed program by Ballet BC, on through this evening at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, is the second collaboration between the company and the Turning Point Ensemble, following their "double anniversary" celebrations in April 2011.

Back from that original program is Wen Wei Wang's In Motion, his danced meditation on Turning Point conductor and Co-Artistic Director Owen Underhill's original composition, "The Geometry of Harmony." The conceit of the piece is that the musicians are on stage with the dancers, performing upstage, behind a scrim. The scrim is raised twice to allow for more focused explorations of the relationships between sound and movement. The first time flautist Brenda Fedoruk steps forward to accompany Emily Chessa in a graceful solo. The second time violinist Mary Sokol Brown is in the spotlight, guiding Gilbert Small and Peter Smida in an affecting duet that is notable for its horizontal floor work and almost contact-improv-like structures of support. The piece has definitely grown on me since its premiere, and it's a treat to see musicians and dancers responding to each other so immediately and intimately.

Next up was Prelude, a world premiere by Medhi Walerski, whose Petite Cérémonie has become a staple of Ballet BC's repertoire. This new work is set to music by Lera Auerbach, whose austere and conceptually elegant preludes for piano and violin lead to a meditation in movement on time as measure: of dance steps, as well as the imagination more generally. It begins with Darren Devaney poised on a rung of stairs below the stage at audience left; he holds one hand aloft. As a few lonely piano bars are played offstage (by the amazing Jane Hayes), the curtain rises on the rest of the Ballet BC ensemble, who are already moving. And they continue to do so even after the piano accompaniment fades out, with Walerski beautifully exploiting the spatial dimensions of silence in the same way that Auerbach had played with resonance between each of her notes. However, at a certain point Peter Kyrsa's violin comes crashing in, and this is the cue for the otherwise disparately moving dancers to form into a unified corps around Devaney and Rachel Meyer. A series of flowing yet intensely athletic duets for these two dancers (featuring lots of complex and body-hugging lifts) are accompanied by the more gestural language given to the rest of the dancers, who often frame the couple on either wing or, as at the end, along the upstage curtain, repeating a series of synchronized arm movements. The piece closes with that upstage line of bodies collapsing like an accordion to the floor as Devaney, now alone centre-stage, begins a convulsive, twitching solo, the curtain slowly descending as we see Meyer emerge as if from thin air to observe her abandoned partner from his former place on the downstage stairs.

The evening concluded with a co-commission by Ballet BC and Turning Point. In Here on End, Kevin O'Day has choreographed a full company work to new music by longtime collaborator John King. The score issues forth from the orchestra pit (where the TPE musicians are now ensconced) in blasts of strings and brass and percussion. Similarly, the dancers race on and off the stage to perform increasingly physical movement patterns in various bodily combinations: duos and trios and quartets. Both musically and in terms of the at-times Jerome Robbins-like choreography, I was put in mind of the Sharks and Jets sequences from West Side Story. In this respect, the piece is also notable for the intensely atmospheric lighting by James Proudfoot (the lighting designer for all three pieces). Overhead specials keep lowering closer and closer to the stage as the piece wears on, enclosing the dancers into ever tighter massings, until at the end of the piece we see the entire ensemble encircling, somewhat menacingly, an unsuspecting Small--who nevertheless dances on until we get a perfectly timed blackout.

Three more world premieres conclude the 2013/14 Ballet BC season in April. And already the line-up for next year has been announced. It features lots more new and boundary-pushing contemporary work, but also some classics: a re-imagined and collaboratively interdisciplinary Rite of Spring, with choreography by Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar and Gustavo Ramirez Sansano; and an evening of Balanchine works courtesy of the Miami City Ballet.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Cold War at SFU Woodward's

Toronto playwright Michael Hollingsworth's The History of the Village of Small Huts is a 21-play cycle on Canadian history from contact to Brian Mulroney. Each play has a cast of 25-30 and is composed of a series of short, tableau-like scenes that sometimes number in the hundreds, cumulatively animating a stretch of time that might span just a few years or several decades. In the process, we are introduced to the key political elites during the period, as well as various social others, Hollingsworth's exposing of the machinations within Canadian corridors of power always juxtaposed against a counter-history from below.

In the case of The Cold War, on through March 1st at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Theatre in a Contemporary Arts mainstage theatre production directed by DD Kugler, this dialectic of history from above and history from below can be found in the alternating through-lines of the rise and fall of Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (a wonderful Kiki Al Rahmani, who captures the Chief's trademark voice perfectly) and the journey from domestic bliss to nightmare of housewife Mary Muffet (an affecting June Fukumura). Sold on the postwar dream of the suburban nuclear family, Mary's happiness begins to slide in inverse proportion to the number of household consumer items her neanderthal husband (just back from the war and now working on the Avro Arrow) buys her. Eventually she is committed to the psychiatric care of Dr. Ewan Cameron (a gleefully over-the-top Carmine Santavenere, with a spot-on Scottish accent), who infamously led CIA-funded experiments with LSD and sleep deprivation on scores of unsuspecting patients at McGill.

Add to all of this a rogue's gallery of spies (including Igor Gouzenko and Gerta Munsinger), RCMP surveillance operatives, beatniks, and four self-aggrandizing, power mad, or just plain mad Prime Ministers (Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent, Diefenbaker, and Lester B. Pearson), and you have the makings of a story that is all the more operatic because it's true. Not that Hollingsworth doesn't have his own ideological take on the proceedings--his portraits of Diefenbaker (the arch defender of Canadian sovereignty) and Pearson (portrayed as a politically grasping dupe of American interests) might strike many as surprisingly revisionist. But that's partly the point--to paint with broad political strokes in order to incite interest in and debate on a history most Canadians ignore.

The stylistic strokes are equally broad. As per the name of Hollingsworth and Co-Artistic Director Deanne Taylor's company, VideoCabaret, the plays in the Small Huts series are meant to be presented on a framed black-box stage that resembles a TV set. A succession of tight spots illuminate the characters within any given scene in a montage-like sequence, with the acting largely presentational and  pantomimic. That is, dialogue is spoken out to the audience and the wonderful student actors--in white face paint and sporting a succession of false mustaches and wigs--contort their faces into exaggerated masks and plant or shimmy their bodies in commedia-like poses that immediately telegraph their roles to the audience. It's the perfect form for Hollingsworth's caustic wit and satiric commentary and this production captures it all with exuberant panache.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Grupo Corpo: A Little Bit of Galicia in Vancouver

Exiting the Playhouse theatre last night following Brazilian contemporary dance troupe Grupo Corpo's presentation of Ímã and Sem Mim, I asked DanceHouse co-founder Barb Clausen (who was on her way to lead a post-performance critical response with interested audience members) why the movement in both pieces reminded me so much of Irish and Scottish step-dancing. "Galicia," she said. The autonomous region in northwest Spain, with Portugal directly south, takes its name from the Celtic peoples who first settled north of the Duoro River. Their descendants would eventually migrate north to what we now refer to as Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; east to the Carpathian Mountains, between what is now Poland and modern Ukraine; and finally west to Latin America, including Brazil. In the process they took with them their distinct language, as well as their cultural traditions, which included various hybrids of the rhythmically vertical style of dancing on display last night, as well as the pipe music also featured prominently in both works' scores.

Following Grupo Corpo's last visit to Vancouver in 2010--which concluded with the intensely athletic, almost futuristic, and largely floor-oriented Breu--I wasn't expecting the program this time around to be composed of choreography so rooted in folkloric dance traditions. Not that choreographer Rodrigo Pederneiras is at all interest in "heritage" movement. Rather, he infuses both pieces with all manner of contemporary stylistic twists on classical partnering (as with the visually stunning sitting/crab-walk opening to Ímã), release technique, ballet steps (I couldn't stop watching the company members' complex footwork), and large-scale unison movement.

Tonally, the two pieces are a nice complement to each other. Last night's performance opened with Ímã, which was actually listed second on the program. It's the warmer and sunnier of the two works, not least as a result of the primary colours that make up Artistic Director and Set and Lighting Designer Paulo Pederneiras' LED projections, as well as the T-shirts worn by the female dancers. Sem mim is lusher, set as it is to an original score by Carlos Núñez and José Miguel Wisnik that is based on a seven-song cycle about the sea of Vigo. A mass of silvery mesh netting also hangs over the stage; it is lowered and raised at different points throughout the piece to convey images of clouds, mountains, and the sea. The unitards worn by the dancers are "tattooed" with different designs by Freusa Zechmeister, which serve both to individualize the performers when they are on stage and to create an additional mass swirling bodily scenography during the group sequences.

As for the company, not only is it perhaps the most gorgeous one is likely to ever encounter on a concert stage (those stereotypes about Brazilians are true!), but it is also among the most technically accomplished. I have often found it difficult, in watching dance, to see the actual physical manifestation of the expression "light on their feet." Last night I did, with the men's jumps in particular seeming to come about as much through the mere thought of levitation as through the physical effort to do so.

It was something to behold, as was the sheer size of the company crowding onto the stage for their bows at the end of each piece. It must cost Grupo Corpo a lot of money to travel with so many dancers. But we, in the audience, are certainly the richer for it.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

PuSh 2014: Nanook of the North/Tanya Tagak

Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (19222) is perhaps the most famous, or infamous, documentary ever made. Technically, as one of the film's first intertitles boasts, it set a representational standard against which almost all non-fiction films since have been measured. Working with only a single camera and a skeleton crew in an unforgiving landscape, Flaherty captured some truly stunning shots. At the same time--the making of the igloo, for example--many of those shots were clearly staged. (Flaherty's camera was too big and too hot to get inside a completed igloo, and so the interior shots of Nanook and his sleeping family were taken within a three-sided structure.)

As an "ethnographic film," the work is even more controversial in its portrait of the primitive, yet "happy-go-lucky Eskimo" battling the elements. Nanook wasn't even the real name of the film's protagonist; nor was Nyla his actual wife. Moreover, the "frozen in time" ideology Flaherty conveys with his successive images of Inuit hunting traditions is, to say the least, a misprision. By the time Flaherty made the film, the Inuit were hunting with rifles rather than harpoons. And I daresay that a phonograph had likely made its way to the top of Hudson Bay by then.

So how to salvage--politically and aesthetically--such a controversial artifact of salvage ethnography? That's where the amazing throat singer Tanya Tagak comes in. Accompanied by violinist Jesse Zubot and percussionist Jean Martin, Tagak creates a live soundscore to the film, literally breathing new life into it.

In the second of two PuSh Festival performances last night at the York Theatre on Commercial Drive, Tagak announced that she and her bandmates were in a good mood. That spirit of fun informed my reception of the performance that followed, which I read as neither an outright indictment of Flaherty's colonialist impulses (though Tagak does intone, in rhythmically propulsive blasts, the word "colonizer" in more than one scene) nor as a melancholic requiem for a lost way of life and lost generations of Indigenous peoples. Rather, in the spirit of the Idle No More movement (at whose heart, from the very beginning, have been music and dance), Tagak adopts a cheekily ironic pose that is at once defiant and dialectical. Wholly appropriate, then, that I couldn't stop shifting my gaze back and forth between Tagak and the film, a constant and conscious perceptual adjustment that forced me to re-calibrate, in the moment, my reading of each.

A powerful way to end this year's 10th anniversary festival.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

PuSh 2014: Inheritor Album

605 Collective's Inheritor Album, on at the Dance Centre in a co-presentation with the PuSh Festival through tomorrow, opens with a stunning movement image. As six dancers begin running clockwise in a circle, a light projection on the floor reveals a spinning 78" record (the gorgeous animations used throughout the piece are by Miwa Matreyek). The dancers take turns tagging and pushing off each other, until one of them breaks away and begins running the other way. It's an apt metaphor for the intersection of collective versus individual identity that is at the heart of the concept of inheritance (familial, cultural, artistic) and the musical concept album, which though loosely united around a general idea or theme always has one or two breakout songs.

But, as my SFU Contemporary Arts colleague Rob Kitsos pointed out in the talkback following last night's performance, the opening also speaks to the nature of hip hop as a dance style, structured as it is around the idea of a "crew" who are all grooving in a circle to the same beats, but who also challenge and egg each other on with individual displays of virtuosic B-boy freestyling. There are plenty of those moments in this performance, but what I love about the 605 Collective is they are also not afraid of unison. In Inheritor Album audiences get some of the best contemporary group movement they'll see on any dance stage, not least in its seamless fusing of choreographic styles and training.

The six performers talked about their eclectic and varied dance training during the talkback, and how most of it--with the possible exception of tap--was reflected in some way or another in the piece. Core 605 members Josh Martin and Lisa Gelley also talked about reconstructing the work in less than a month on three new dancers (Hayden Fong, Waldean Nelson, and Renée Sigouin; the sixth dancer is Laura Avery, part of the original production last year along with Shay Kuebler, Justine Chambers, and David Raymond). To start, the main challenge is just teaching and learning the movement in such a short amount of time; however, once that movement was in the new dancers' bodies, Martin was able to work with them to adapt it to their own particular improvisational strengths.

And by such methods one builds a crew.