Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dancing in the Dark

Yesterday was International Dance Day and owing to various academic matters (see previous post) I missed both the hip-hop jam session at the VPL concourse and Aeriosa's latest high-flying creation at SFU Woodward's.

I did, however, force myself to get out to the Vancity Theatre for the free program of classic dancing moments on film. Or at least the first half, which took us up to the mid-1950s, and which thus meant no Black Swan or Frances Ha. But we did get lots of Ginger and Fred (the great penultimate waltz from Swing Time), Mickey and Judy, Gene Kelly (Singing in the Rain plus the newspaper dance from Summer Stock), and a bevy of chorines.

What emerged from the selection, expertly curated and introduced by Michael van den Bos, was how thoroughly tap dominated the early history of of movie musicals: from a pint-sized Shirley Temple laying down beats beside the great Bill Robinson (the first interracial couple to dance onscreen); to Eleanor Powell capping the great tap finale of Broadway Melody of 1936 with eighteen whip-fast fouettes (I counted); and the dazzling Nicholas brothers, with their athletic, almost acrobatic version of jazz tap. Tap is not my favourite dance idiom, and as a solo live act I find that it can be exceedingly tedious to watch. However, on film, when choreographed as part of a big, splashy production number, and shot from different angles, it can be quite breathtaking.

Still, I was happy that amidst all the noisy hoofing on offer in most clips there was a charming soft-shoe number from Laurel and Hardy, in which Stan and Ollie prove themselves to be quite light on their feet as they dance along to the Avalon Boys' "At the Ball That's All" in Way Out West (1937).


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ballet BC's UN/A

April really is the cruelest month if you're an academic--a perfect storm of marking, meetings, and manuscripts for essays and conference papers that can't any longer be ignored. Which doesn't leave much time for blogging. And which explains why this post on Ballet BC's final program for the 2013/14 season--a mix of three stunning world-premieres--is briefer than I'd like it to be.

Although very different in scale, tone, and choreography, the three works that make up UN/A (and I must ask Emily where she comes up with her program titles) all feature distinctive musical scores and lighting designs. The latter is perhaps to be expected from Cayetano Soto, whose Twenty Eight Thousand Waves was first up, and which at one point featured the same full-on upstage rock star white-paneled heat that he employed in the piece for Ballets Jazz de Montréal that played here two years ago. However, the work actually starts with three tracks of overhead spots having been lowered to just above the stage. A quartet of female dancers, wearing simple button-down shirts, moves in precise unison among them as an a cappella chorus from The Little Match Girl Passion rises in pitch and intensity. The lighting tracks do eventually rise, clearing room for some of the most complex, technical, and yet absolutely fluid partnering I've seen from the company this or any other season. There was one lift, in particular, that left me breathless and in awe of how--both mechanically and in terms of its split-second timing--it was accomplished. That, during these sections, the dancers were additionally moving in perfect synchronization with a fiercely compelling string quartet by Bryce Dessner (commissioned and played by the Kronos Quartet) only added to the overall effect of the piece. The jury was still out for me on Soto following the BJM performance, but after last night I'm definitely a convert.

The soundtrack to Gustavo Ramirez Sansano's Lost and Seek is all Bach, including such well-known (and dare I say clichéd) classics as the The Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier. This is not to say that the accompanying movement was equally shopworn--merely that after Soto's piece, Sansano's work read as quieter, more contemplative. To that end, the work begins with a solo by Alexander Burton, dressed like a young boy in grey shorts, shirt and socks, his movement contained and largely gestural, almost as if he's seeking a way outside of the square of light to which he's been consigned stage left. Release does come in the second section of the piece, a sextet that explores the geometry of the stage and the geometry of bodily relationships in some startlingly original ways. The work concludes with a duet by Gilbert Small and Rachel Meyer, who ascends to the stage on a staircase jutting out into the audience and then proceeds, en pointe, to stalk Small (who is seated on the floor with his legs extended) upstage. With Meyer doing various pirouettes and arabesques in Small's arms, this section felt like it was trying to approximate some of the traditions of classical ballet; at the same time, some of the lifts looked awkward and perhaps even under-rehearsed, suggesting to me that Sansano hadn't quite figured out the effect he was going for in this final section. He has, however, come up with a beautiful closing image, with Small recreating his seated pose from the opening, only this time on Meyer's lap.

The evening concluded with Toronto-born Gioconda Barbuto's immix, a full-company work set to a selection of electronic remixes of the music of contemporary classical composers Gabriel Prokofiev (no mention in his bio if he's related to that other Prokofiev) and Peter Gregson. The piece begins with a single follow spot seeking out various members of the audience, before settling downstage to await the first dancer's entrance (the lighting design for immix and Lost and Seek was by James Proudfoot). As successive dancers stealthily slip in and out of this sliver of light, the music builds to a crescendo and we're off on a glorious ride of bodily tableaux and choreographic montage. There is so much going on in this work, but what struck me most were the tiny moments in which Barbuto, focusing on different pairs of dancers, is able to arrest and break down the movement, showing us in simple ways how a body travels through space: as when an arm or torso sequences from bent to vertical in syncopated time to the music; or when, at different points over the course of the piece, a dancer would shimmy his or her entire body like a genie being released from a bottle. Gorgeous stuff, which will no doubt become a highlight of the company's traveling repertoire.

Looking forward to next season.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mies Julie at The Cultch

Yaël Farber's Mies Julie, on at the Cultch's Historic Theatre through next Saturday, is certainly not subtle. An updating of Strindberg's classic 1888 play to post-Apartheid South Africa, Farber's plot is surprisingly faithful to the original, down to the bit about the aborted puppies. But in adding race to Strindberg's mix of class and gender politics, it's as if the playwright felt she also had to ramp up the representational stakes of the protagonists' power games, making explicit and often shockingly visceral what can happen when dispossession comes in contact with desire.

It may be twenty years after the election of South Africa's first non-white government, but in the brutal desert region of the Karoo (also the setting of J.M. Coetzee's similarly themed novel Disgrace) Freedom Day only seems to reaffirm rather than level the old racial hierarchies. John (Bongile Mantsai) and his mother Christine (Zoleka Helesi) toil as servants in the kitchen of the white farm-owning family of Veenen Plaas, she cooking and cleaning a kitchen floor cracked by the roots of her restless ancestors, he polishing the unseen Master's boots. The Master's beautiful and imperious daughter, Julie (Hilda Cronje), recently humiliated by the breaking off of her engagement, is recklessly partying with the black farmhands, taunting John to join them. He reciprocates with insults of his own, and combined with the heat and the alcohol, the mutual provocations eventually turn to to lust, with of course tragic consequences.

All of this is played at a level of intensity that is beyond feverish, with Farber (who also directs) eschewing Strindberg's naturalistic acting style for something much more operatic. To this end, live musical accompaniment is a key feature of the work, an alto sax enveloping the stage in longing bass notes and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa accompanying Helesi's Christine in successive mournful duets. However, even more compelling to me is the physical score that Farber has composed for her lead actors; taking advantage of their gorgeously lithe young bodies, and playing off the bottled up sexual and social energy of two young South Africans who continue to be trapped by their country's history, Farber has them dancing across the stage, and leaping spontaneously onto and off of the furniture, the virtuosity of their just-avoided contact making all the more anticipatory the hungry embrace we know is coming.

And while at times it felt to me that the overall avidity with which the performances were played came on a little too strong, there is no denying the impact. This production hits you like a wallop, and, take it from me, its after-effects will linger to disturb your sleep.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Brothers Rocco: Boxing and/as Dancing

DanceHouse ended its 2013-14 season last night at the Playhouse with the final performance of Rocco, choreographed by Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten of ICKamsterdam. The work is loosely inspired by the Luchino Visconti film Rocco e i suoi Fratelli, in which the recently demobilized title character (Alain Delon) and his boxer brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), having moved to Milan from the south with the rest of their family in search of a better life, come to blows over their mutual love for the beautiful prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot). Not that you need to know any of this to appreciate Rocco as a work of dance-theatre.

That's because Greco and Scholten use the metaphor and the movement vocabulary of boxing to explore not just the themes of comradeship and competition between brothers, but also the physical parallels between the pugilistic and the virtuosic dancing body. In both cases, it would seem, one must always be on one's toes.

This was certainly the case with our four performers last night (Dereck Cayla, Quentin Dehaye, Christian Guerematchi, and Arnaud Macquet). As the audience files into the theatre, two of them are already in their respective corners (red and blue) of the boxing ring that dominates the stage, legs splayed wide on their chairs as they smoke herbal cigarettes and attempt to stare down their opponent. Additional on-stage seating allowed select members of the audience a more intimate view of the proceedings, which begin with a countdown and then the sound of a bell. However, the men in the ring don't immediately move. Instead, two additional dancers, clad all in black and sporting boxing gloves and giant mouse masks descend from the two house aisles, punching the air and skipping their feet and occasionally pausing to spar with a spectator or two. Eventually these two "shadow boxers" climb into the ring, meet in the centre and promptly collapse onto the mat without even throwing a single punch.

Another bell rings and round two begins. This is the cue for the dancers in the red and blue corners to now engage each other. It is in this sequence, which unfolds in a slowly widening circle under a single spotlight that gradually expands its visual reach, that Greco and Scholten anatomize (quite literally) the kinesthetic links between dancing and boxing. What surprised me, however, was not the expected focus on fast footwork and virtuosic timing; rather, it was when the choreography was slowed down and the dancers, often with their backs to each other, carefully and precisely extended a leg and let it pulse on the floor, that I was able to see dancing's and boxing's shared bodily language of preparation, extension, and release.

Our shadow boxers come back in round three, in which the stakes are raised choreographically and conceptually. Gradually shedding their masks, their gloves, and their outer black costumes, the dancers enjoin each other in ever more complex unison movement and ever tighter clinches. I confess that after the surprising lack of direct bodily contact in round two between the dancers in the red and blue corners (remedied somewhat by the witty gender play that accompanies a later lipsynched musical duet), I was waiting for some explicit partnering to take place. We get that in abundance in this final section of the piece, and as the dancers whipped each other around with lightning speed, the sweat flying off their glistening torsos, I was reminded of two things: first, that boxing, among the most "macho" of sports, requires of its participants a bodily intimacy that necessarily approaches the eroticism of dance; and second, that at the end of a boxing match and at the end of a dance piece, all the physical training and mental preparation essentially boil down to one thing: endurance.

This last point applies, as well, to the audience. At the end of Rocco I was both exhausted and elated.