Friday, October 31, 2014

Sea Sick at the Theatre Centre

I'm in Toronto for a workshop on Performance, Placemaking and Cultural Policy hosted by York University's Theatre and Performance Studies Program (and organized by my fabulous colleagues Laura Levin and Marlis Schweitzer. The event is taking place at the new Theatre Centre space on Queen Street West (which I first visited in early May, very soon after it had opened). In addition to a great series of panel presentations from a range of artists, curators, arts administrators and cultural policy makers from across Canada, many of us also attended a performance of Allana Mitchell's Sea Sick, on at TC's main space through this weekend.

As Mitchell tells us at the top of the show, she is a science journalist, not an actor or playwright. But she is a born storyteller, and the tale she has to tell is so compelling and urgent that when TC's Artistic Director Franco Boni first heard it in 2012, he knew it deserved not just a wider stage but to be on an actual theatre stage. Based on Mitchell's award-winning book of the same title and, in turn, on Mitchell's years of investigative research that took her all over the world and, finally, to the very bottom of the ocean floor, Sea Sick explains what we have wrought upon the world's oceans in just 264 years and why this is the most troubling consequence of climate change.

It's not just that the oceans are rising and that they are getting warmer. It's also that they're getting more "sour," a process of acidification that is a result of changing pH levels due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Mitchell explains all of this in an open and accessible manner that neither dumbs down the science nor hectors the audience. Indeed, one of the surprising things about the piece is just how much hope Mitchell is able to extract from so much despair. As she notes, in the 5 billion year history of the planet, the evolution of our species is of a comparatively short duration (a few hundred thousand years). And the history of industrialization that has led us to this point is even shorter--less than three centuries. As Laura noted in the talkback, this deeper thinking about time is necessary for a more complex understanding of the depths of the ocean's connection to our survival--both physically and metaphysically.

Sea Sick will be playing this year's PuSh Festival. Given Vancouver's Pacific Rim siting, the play deserves a very wide audience. I'm glad I could see it in advance (along with PuSh Associate Curator Joyce Rosario, who presented today at the workshop) so that I can spread the word.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Modulating Movement and Music

For the latest edition (number 31) of Dances for a Small Stage, Artistic Producer Julie-anne Saroyan has teamed up with Music on Main's David Pay to curate an evening of music and dance that coincides with the launch of MoM's Modulus Festival. The result is one of the best and most tightly conceived DSS offerings in a long time.

The evening is divided into two halves. In the first, Toronto's Cecilia String Quartet (Min-Jeong Koh and Sarah Nematallah on violin, Caitlin Boyle on viola, and Rachel Desoer on cello) perform Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Opus 11. Each of the four movements is accompanied by a different dance sequence. In the first, the evening's mute maestro, Billy Marchenski, appears perplexed by the Moderato that he has failed to initiate, but that has gotten away from him nonetheless. This is followed by former Ballet BC star Makaila Wallace dancing to Karissa Barry's delightful interpretation of the Andante section; b-boy Stewart Iguidez popping and locking and dropping and posing to the Scherzo; and, finally, Vanessa Goodman, in a sheer white hoop skirt designed by Deborah Beaulieu, channeling her inner Isadora Duncan to the rousing Finale.

Following an intermission, the second half of the program proceeds as a series of short choreographic riffs on the music of John Oswald, the electro-acoustic composer from Ontario best known for his philosophy and practice of "plunderphonics"--transcribing, adapting, rearranging, collaging and just generally mashing up previously existing recordings. Most of the choreography is provided by Oswald's partner, Holly Small, who was one of Saroyan's dance instructors at York University. This includes an excerpt from Small's award-winning Radiant (2009) that was danced to stunning effect by Sean Ling and Goodman. They are joined by or alternate with Jessica Runge and Small herself for most of the other pieces, although Iguidez returns in the penultimate excerpt to display some of his own stylin' moves to an Oswald rearrangement of a Curtis Lee song. The Cecilia String Quartet also reappears briefly to perform a beautiful piece by Oswald, preLieu (1991), based on Beethoven's B-flat Major quartet.

Interspersed throughout the evening are also some vintage videos, including of Glenn Gould, whose famous humming and vocal accompaniment to his own piano playing becomes another important motif linking the expressivity of sound with that of bodily movement.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Wagging the Dog

Denise Clarke, co-founder of Calgary's legendary One Yellow Rabbit and virtuoso solo performer, recently had a really bad year. Out of that personal funk comes wag, currently playing at the Firehall through this evening.

The show, which features Clarke's signature blend of spoken word and movement, is essentially a meditation on the creative process. This is encapsulated in part via the text projections looping on an upstage screen as audience members file to their seats, including the following maxim from Radiohead's "Pyramid Song": "There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt." As the houselights dim and a bright snowy vista appears on the screen, Clarke enters upstage left, swaddled in a bulky parka. She tells us via the head mic hidden underneath her hood that she is crossing the park that separates her home from the studio where she is going to build a new piece. She is cold and depressed and not at all looking forward to the blank space of creative nothingness she is sure awaits her at her destination. Along the way, however, she is distracted by the honk of a goose, which then prompts her to take proper notice of the beautiful blanket of pure white snow that covers most of the park. Too pure to leave untrammeled--and so Clarke deposits her knapsack on the pathway and leaps into the deep abyss of both her immediate physical environment and her mental grief, counting on her muscle memory to help her find a way to move through each.

This is the first of several scored movement sequences that recur throughout the piece. Each is comprised of a relatively simple repertoire of expressive poses and gestures that get repeated at least twice--either to the refrain of Clarke's voice identifying what she is doing or listing off a series of book titles, or to the specific time signature of a well-known piece of music, such as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" or "The Emperor Waltz." The point is neither the complexity of the choreography nor the virtuosity of Clarke's dancing (although she remains at the top of her game); rather, the point is that we are witnessing Clarke find her way back to joy through movement--something the dogs in the park, if not their owners, instantly intuit. The show stages this kinetic process of discovery less as a way of feeling better than of feeling tout court.

Which makes me forgive the piece's somewhat clumsy climax: Clarke, in a salmon pink chiffon ball gown, suddenly joined by five other female dancers who descend to the stage from the audience, don their own dresses (and, in one case, tuxedo pants and shirt), and accompany Clarke in a spin around the room to the aforementioned "Emperor Waltz." But, then again, why should I begrudge this? As Clarke demonstrates in this show, sometimes it's a lot more fun to move through life in 3/4 time.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Quantum at The Dance Centre

There is so much movement in this world that we cannot see: the dance of electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, quarks, and other sub-atomic particles that is only observable via radioactive and scattering processes that take place in huge colliders and superconductors operated out of labs like CERN, on the Swiss-French border near Geneva. Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin's QUANTUM, which just concluded its run at the Dance Centre last night, is based on a 2012 artist residency he had at CERN. It is a translation into embodied movement of what for most of us remain otherwise purely theoretical concepts, including electromagnetic radiation, wave physics, and quantum states.

In this, Jobin is aided immeasurably by a crackling, chromodynamic score composed by Carla Scaletti, and especially by the "lumino-kinetic installation" designed by Julius von Bismarck. The latter is comprised of a set of overhead lamps under which three couples pulse and twitch at the start of the piece, and which will begin to sway and circle in their own electronic choreography over the course of the ensuing 50 minutes. Indeed, the dancers emerging in and out of shadow in various oscillating patterns of attraction and repulsion, or to adopt various wave-like latticed tableaux according to height, was most compelling visually.

I have to say, however, that I was distracted by the dancers' costumes, unitards which I think were meant to be evocative of lightning flashes, but which suggested to me of onesies that might be worn by a troupe of harlequins. All of which is to affirm a fundamental principle of physics: the observation of an event will alter that event.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fiercely Blue

Carmen Aguirre is certainly one fierce woman. As a skinny twenty-year-old underground revolutionary in Pinochet's Chile she smuggled supplies across the Argentinian border in a Cessna plane she'd learned to pilot with her first husband. A decade or more later, as a now twice-divorced actor working in Vancouver, she pursued an amour fou with "Vision Man," an impossibly gorgeous younger Mexican actor from Hollywood who had a weak heart (in more ways than one).

In Blue Box, on at the Arts Club's Revue Stage through November 1, Aguirre tells both stories directly to the audience while alone on stage with the house lights up for 90 uninterrupted minutes. And she does so with an unapologetic frankness that can leave many in the audience squirming. That it is the sexual politics of the piece that make many spectators--especially men--uncomfortable is something Aguirre tackles in her very first line; as she tells us, explaining the show's title, she had wanted to call the play something else, but it would have been unmarketable. As it is, Blue Box will no doubt prove a tough sell for the Arts Club's traditional subscription patrons.

Because the piece is as complex in form as it is uncensored in content. As Aguirre writes in her Playwright's Note included in the program, the only thing the two stories have in common is that they happened to her, that they both live in her body. And, indeed, the narrative structure of their telling on stage is such that they always exist in counterpoint, but never meet. Aguirre, working with Nightswimming's Brian Quirt (who originally commissioned the piece) speaks quickly but precisely, flipping back and forth between each of her stories like a virtuoso jazz musician, a soloist capable of playing--and seamlessly alternating between--two different instruments. There are no technical and dramaturgical cues--no shifts in lighting, no notable shifts in Aguirre's body--to prime us for these switches, which happen with greater and greater rapidity as the evening progresses. Instead, we have to make the effort to listen carefully, to locate ourselves in the telling of each story, and to note the accommodations required (physical, emotional, and ideological) to be open and receptive to each.

It's hard work, because likely for most of us our previous theatrical training has taught us to attempt to resolve the tension between each story. Instead, Aguirre is asking us to live with--and within--their dynamic interplay. In so doing, we are forced not only to be alert and pay attention, but also, I would argue, to question which of the stories is more revolutionary, and which more romantic.