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.