Sunday, July 13, 2014

Edge 2 at DOTE

Richard and I ended our 2014 Dancing on the Edge Festival by taking in the final Edge 2 mixed program. Not only were we looking forward to each of the pieces, we were grateful to escape the heat.

First up was Natalie, a solo (of sorts) for plastic orchid factory's Natalie Lefebvre Gnam that serves as a companion piece to the company's earlier James, about husband James Gnam's relationship with The Nutcracker (and about which I have previously blogged here). As Lefevbre Gnam explains via a series of oversized title cards at the top of the piece, in a conceit reminiscent of the famous black and white video of Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues, both works were born out of the detritus of what was to have been a duet choreographed for the couple by Lee Su-Feh. However, when Natalie sustained a knee injury just two weeks prior to the premiere, the work went ahead as the aforementioned solo for James. The plan was then to create a companion piece for Natalie, also choreographed by Lee; however, after a series of delays, Lee eventually dropped out, and the work on the program is now the result of a creative collaboration between husband and wife and brothers Jacques and Gilles Poulin-Denis.

Like James, Natalie adopts a discourse of theatrical representation reminiscent of what we find in the work of Jérôme Bel (especially his [auto]biographical dancer portraits) in order to expose the institutional frames of dance and the dancing life. Also as in James (not to mention Bel's Véronique Doisneau), one of those frames is classical ballet, with the music from Adolphe Adam's Giselle swelling at various moments throughout the piece as, for example, Lefebvre Gnam rounds her arms into first position and demonstrates with her hands and fingers an expert arrondi. Mostly, however, the piece is concerned with the funding institutions that govern--and put limits on--the creativity of contemporary dance artists. A digitally manipulated voiceover loop of emails to Lefebvre Gnam from various government agencies detailing their application, disbursement, and reporting requirements plays throughout the piece, accounting (in more ways than one) for both its form and content. To this end, a series of hula hoops are employed in increasingly clever and comic ways throughout the piece, with Lefebvre Gnam not just jumping through them, but also playing games of hopscotch and pick-up with them, encircling her body with ring after ring in a telling visual metaphor for everything else she is balancing in her life in addition to her creative practice (husband James and son Finn figure at key moments). By the end of the piece, however, Lefebvre Gnam is able to turn this plastic bureaucratic enclosure into something aesthetically beautiful and potentially liberating, the hoops eventually arranged along her arms and back in such a manner as to suggest the fairy wings of Giselle or, even more powerfully, the entire celestial sphere that the Titan Atlas holds up with his shoulders. On such a tiny frame as Lefebre Gnam's, the latter image speaks volumes about how much artists can achieve with so little.

The second piece on the program was Starr Muranko's Spine of the Mother, a solo excerpt from a larger work-in-progress by Starrwind Dance Projects involving Indigenous dance artists in Canada and Peru. The gorgeous and charismatic dancer Tasha Faye Evans begins downstage left, her back to us, and with her right arm stretched out to the wings. No music plays, but we hear a clicking sound, and eventually it is revealed that she holds some talismanic stones in her hand. A source of energy, the stones unleash in Evans a torrent of movement, including an opening series of spiraling turns that I could have watched go on forever. Eventually two of the stones get placed at different points on the stage; a third is offered, at the close of the piece, to an audience member, a gift that via Evans' powerful kinesthetic connection with her audience we are all able to share.

Finally, the evening closed with Ziyian Kwan and dumb instrument Dance's a slow awkward, a duet created in collaboration with James Gnam (who has certainly been busy this DOTE Festival). The piece begins with Gnam entering upstage left, dressed in overalls and carrying an old blue suitcase. He walks towards the centre of the stage on tip toe. There he is met by Kwan, who has emerged from the wings upstage right, also in overalls, but on her knees pushing a bright orange suitcase and, crucially, wearing red high heels. For, among other things, the work is an exploration of gender, one that in the context of danced movement recalls the famous maxim about Ginger Rogers--that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

Not that a slow awkward is so binaristic. When their respective suitcases eventually touch, the contact unleashes in Gnam and Kwan a tsunami of highly physical movement, with each picking up the other on their backs, or rolling about the floor in a style reminiscent of contact improv, or miming the fight and martial arts choreography of action films (there's even a High Noon-like whistle in the sound score and at various moments Kwan and Gnam cock their handss on their hips like guns). Eventually the overalls come off, revealing Kwan in a men's dress shirt and underwear and Gnam in a full-length skirt, a visual conceit that nicely highlights questions of cross-gender embodiment and the mix of masculinity and femininity within us all. Nowhere is this more compellingly staged in the piece than in the moment near the end when Kwan and Gnam step into the same set of overalls, threading their arms through the sleeves and dancing a slow waltz.

There is a final brief coda after this, which repeats an earlier sequence involving the positioning of the suitcases into a chair back, and leading to a tentative embrace (except Kwan is missing from the picture this time). As moving and conceptually integrated as this bit was, I think I would have preferred the work to have ended with that zipped up waltz. Regardless, a slow awkward was one of the highlights of the Festival for me and it's so exciting to see Kwan, such a compelling interpreter of others' work, move into this new phase of her career as a choreographer.


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