Monday, July 7, 2014

Edge 1 at DOTE

Shit happens. We all know this, but perhaps no one knows it better than a performing arts festival producer. So it was that yesterday afternoon’s audience for the Edge 1 mixed program at this year’s Dancing on the Edge Festival learned from Donna Spencer during her curtain speech that Brazil’s Paulo Lima was unable to make it to Vancouver (for the second time, I believe). However, we also learned that Sarah Chase and Andrea Nann, already on the program with their collaboration a crazy kind of hope, had together gone into the studio just a couple of days before and created a new duet, which they would share with us in place of Lima’s work.

A crazy kind of hope, which I first saw at last November’s Dance in Vancouver Biennial (and which I wrote about here), is built around Chase’s trademark overlaying of mathematically precise gestural patterns with lyrical storytelling. In this case Nann’s narrative builds from a funny anecdote about her Uncle Wayne transporting a carp purchased in Chinatown back to Hornby Island (and building a pond for it when he discovered it was still alive) to a moving account of the death of her first child, and how she is able to bring together her dead daughter with the brother she never knew. This is accomplished by Nann interweaving two looping arm phrases—seven gestures performed with her left arm representing her son, and eleven gestures performed with her right arm representing her daughter.

Chase has done an amazing amount of research on the brain and the relationship between kinesthesia and cognition (some of which she shared as part of a plenary panel with Tara Cheyenne Friendenberg that I had the pleasure of moderating this past Wednesday as part of the Canadian Society for Dance Studies’ bi-annual conference at SFU Woodward’s, “Embodied Artful Practices”); her interest in combining complexly countable movement loops with talk stems from the theory that motion affects memory, especially emotional memory, and that people become more eloquent—in their speech and in their bodies—if they tell a story while repeating linked movement patterns. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated for me yesterday than when Nann—already such a gorgeous and graceful dancer—repeats the arm loop combination described above 99 times while singing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I could see this piece performed 1,001 times and I’d still be utterly captivated by its magic.

Coincidentally, 1,001 is the number at the heart of the duet Epilogue Study—Tribune Bay that Chase and Nann put together as a coda to the Edge 1 program. It begins with Chase explaining that as part of her daily practice on the beach at her home on Hornby Island, she repeats a series of movement patterns. She often starts with seven leg movements (which she demonstrates for us); she’ll then follow with eleven arm movements; and finally she puts both together, repeating each combination thirteen times while moving horizontally across the beach for a total of 1,001 gestures. As she says, this can take upwards of an hour and, depending on whether she’s practicing at low or high tide, the traces she made in the sand with her legs at the beginning might be washed away when she finishes. Fortunately for us, that inside story into Chase’s creative process is not the finish of this piece. Instead, Chase is joined on stage by Nann, with both dancers repeating separate phrases while moving towards a meeting point centre stage. Once there, they sync up their arm movements in a way that suggests those bodily trompe l’oeils of multi-armed Indian deities. Except there is nothing camp or kitsch about the resulting image. Instead, there is a definite logic and pattern to the repetition of the movement. And part of the joy in watching the work—as with the underlying beauty of mathematics—is discerning the pattern.

Also on the Edge 1 program—in fact, leading it off—was Michelle Olson and Raven Spirit Dance’s Northern Journey. I have long been a fan of Olson’s choreography; however, hitherto I have only seen it performed in a work of theatre (most recently as part of the Yvette Nolan’s 2009 restaging of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe). In this piece, set upon the very talented dancers Jeanette Kotowich and Brian Solomon, and with music (including live drumming) by Wayne Lavallee, Olson draws on a traditional First Nations caribou story in order to explore not so much the idea of the buried “animal-within” as the becoming “animal-without.” What makes the work so compelling is that Olson eschews depicting any of this in overly mimetic movement; Kotowich and Solomon aren’t “playing” caribou. Instead, Olson explores time-based structures of shape and support and rhythm and breath that suggest ways of being in the world other than—or supplementary to—the purely human.

That one of those ways is a form of ambulation that eschews mono-verticality in favour of a more grounded and distributed method of counter-balance is captured in two striking movement images from the piece. In the first, Kotowich and Solomon, each bent at the hips and dragging themselves along the floor with their arms, shuffle towards each other, offering their legs as ballast and their backs as surfaces from which to move successively to an upright position. Once there, however, they need their arms to support each other, demonstrated most strikingly for me in the tableau of the two dancers leaning their heads on each other’s shoulders, locking their upraised arms, and then propelling each other horizontally across the stage. Any route across the land, Olson seems to be saying, depends on remaining rooted in the land--something we would all do well to remember.


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