Sunday, November 30, 2014

Threshold at EDAM

EDAM's 2014 fall choreographic series featured new work from Artistic Director Peter Bingham alongside premieres from Serge Bennathan, of Les Productions Figlio, and dumb instrument Dance's Ziyian Kwan. If there was a theme connecting the works, we might say it had something to do with the choreographer-as-observer, at once inside and outside of the work, looking in.

Bennathan's just words opens with the choreographer in a spotlight, flanked by dancers Karissa Barry and Hilary Maxwell. He begins a humourous address to the audience, at one point even singing--badly. In the meantime, Barry and Maxwell have begun to move, flailing their arms and slowly encircling Bennathan, who eventually recedes stage right as the piece gives way to a highly physical and increasingly aggressive duet. Martial arts moves combine with early La La La-esque running falls that make canny use of the cavernous depths of the EDAM space (another common theme among the works). At the same time, there are several affecting moments of quiet tenderness in the piece, as when the two dancers, slowly walking downstage with their backs to the audience, reach out their arms, find, and then clasp their hands together. The juxtaposition of velocity and stillness in the movement finds its corollary in the two other texts that Bennathan reads to the audience, in which we are reminded about both the ephemeral beauty and the labourious pain of dancing. At one point in one of Bennathan's recitations, a port de bras is mentioned, and the image triggered in my head encapsulated the dialectic of the piece: among the simplest of movement phrases from an audience perspective, it is nevertheless one over which the dancer labours and strains--precisely in order to make it seem effortless.

Kwan's bite down gently & howL--which, full disclosure, I was privileged to have glimpsed in advance as it was being built in the studio--is the choreographer's quixotic take on the story of "Goldilocks and The Three Bears." It begins with the lights (expertly overseen, as always, by designer and technical director James Proudfoot) slowly coming up on the four dancers in the piece, each hibernating on (or over or beside) a chair placed strategically about the stage. Going counter-clockwise, Barbara Bourget, as Mama Bear, is tucked into a ball upstage left; Vanessa Goodman, as Baby Bear, is bent at the waist upstage right and facing the backstage wall; James Gnam, as Papa Bear, is sprawled sexily over his overturned chair stage right; and, centre stage, perched on a stool and with her bare back turned to us, is Kwan, hair of course dyed blonde, and from the waist down clad in a brown bear costume. (The brown fun-fur onesie, complete with detachable paws, was designed by Diane Park, who along with her musician husband, Mark Haney, is dancing in Le Grand Continental with me.) As the music begins, Kwan slides her hands down the length of her back, first flipping out the stubby bear tale upon which she has been sitting (a witty gesture somewhat obscured by the still dim lighting at this stage), and then throwing the arms of the costume over her shoulders before slipping into each, tying up at the front, and turning to face us. This sequence importantly establishes the dreamlike state governing the piece as a whole, a liminal space (to adapt the title of Bingham's piece) between sleep and wakefulness in which we are watching Kwan-as-Goldilocks-becoming-bear. It's a sleight-of-body that gets telegraphed immediately in the deliberately awkward, lumbering gait that Kwan adopts as she trudges toward and eventually slams into the backstage wall. Needless to say, such a move is likely to rouse fellow slumbering bears, and the piece eventually unfolds as series of signature solos for Bourget, Gnam, and Goodman, each set to--wait for it--an iconic Nancy Sinatra song. Thus, Bourget, in a fur-collared black dress and pill-box hat with veil momentarily casts off a lifetime (or maybe it's only a winter's worth) of regret and rediscovers her bossa nova moves to "As Tears Go By." Gnam, sporting a toque and aviator sunglasses, is all thrusting pelvis and sexy swagger, during "Indian Summer." And Goodman, in her herky-jerky twitching and casual abuse of her Teddy Bear to "Bang Bang," hints at some possible childhood trauma. Indeed, all is not cosy and tender in this family ménage, and when the three dancers do eventually come together in a clinch at the climax of the work, their previously functional solo movement morphs into fractious verbal dysfunction. Throughout, Kwan is watching expectantly, and occasionally intervening, the dreamer at once fascinated by and seeking to make sense of her own dream.

The evening concluded with Bingham's Liminal Spaces, a trio danced by Walter Kubanek, Olivia Shaffer, and Chengxin Wei. The piece begins as a vertical corridor of movement along the stage left wall, each of the dancers experimenting with different levels as they move in response to and close proximity with each other (and the adjacent wall). But apart from the occasional hand on back for support, or to telegraph spatial distance, the dancers do not touch. It is only when they move out into the rest of the space and they give themselves over to the contact improvisation that forms the core of Bingham's aesthetic that we begin to see and apprehend the previously invisible kinesthetic awareness and structures of bodily support undergirding the movement. The score to this work is comprised of a cello solo by Peggy Lee, over which Bingham speaks text, soft and not quite intelligible during the stage left corridor section, but gradually becoming more clearly enunciated as the contact phrasing gets more vigorous and complex. At one point in the text, Bingham asks whether or not a tree knows it's doing a good job as a tree (or something to that effect). As the dancers arrange and rearrange themselves into a bodily stack upstage at the conclusion of the piece, the question becomes explicitly self-reflexive. But hardly rhetorical. In this gorgeous and sublimely danced work, the tree/trio performs magnificently, each of its rings in perfect sync.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 9

Emily Neumann, our inestimable stage manager, made several revelatory announcements at the top of last night's rehearsal, including: 1) that they were now recruiting for several children between 8 and 13, who apparently will have key walk-on roles during the performance, and; 2) that Sylvain has been known to veto participants' more outrageous costume choices. I didn't even know we had to think about costumes. Worrying about staying dry is all I have been preoccupied with so far. But even here Lara disabused me: apparently there hasn't been a performance yet of Le Grand Continental when it hasn't rained. And that was all before Vancouver in January!

Far more comforting to me was my conversation with Jane Westheuser during our pre-rehearsal practice session and warm-up. Jane is co-president of the Board of the Vancouver Fringe Festival and a loyal PuSh patron (not to mention a fantastic dancer). She has been surfing the Internet for clips of past performances of the show and said that during the New York production there were all kinds of people messing up at different points and forgetting their steps--but still having lots of fun. It reduces the pressure somewhat to know that even in the Big Apple community dancers are fallible.

That said, last night went pretty well. Practicing at home from the video for "Gogoprado," the section we learned on Monday, I was initially in despair. On my own I had a hard time remembering the sequence of steps during the repeats. But with some help during warm-up at the Ukrainian Hall, things eventually got into my body--even the crocodile arms (more or less).

After having put "Gogoprado" together with "Stockfunk," the section that comes after it, we spent most of our time locking down the cross of Groups A and B during "India." It's the trickiest bit so far, not least because one of the groups is smaller than the other, and so working out how big each group's steps need to be in order to arrive on our final marks requires lots of precision. Then, too, we don't want to give the impression to the audience during this bit that we're only worrying about following our marks. Thank heavens I'm not in either of the lines initiating the cross; instead, all I have to do is follow Hayley to my left (who is an expert guide) and keep my eyes peripherally attuned to Eva behind me and the lovely woman with the head band whose name I should know by now in front of me in order to ensure that our vertical alignment remains more or less in tact. Simple right?

Unfortunately, I have to miss most of next Monday's section due to an important Senate meeting at SFU where I have to represent on behalf of the new Institute for Performance Studies. I let Emily and Lara know; Lara in turn let me know that we would indeed be learning a new section and that it was the hardest one yet.

Just my luck.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 8

I have only one thing to say about the new section introduced at last night's rehearsal: curse those crocodile arms!


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 7

Last night we made it through all of the "Stock Funk" section, which ended up being a lot of fun. The second half of it is very high energy, and while there are definitely some tricky moves, once you put it all together and give yourself over to the music (rather than counting obsessively in your head), you really start to groove.

Our places on the dance chess board are also slowly solidifying. Mercifully, I've remained on the inside, and--even better--am next to some very strong movers. Following Hayley during the cross of the two groups in "India" made my job a whole lot easier.

A short post this very early morning, as I'm off to the airport in a few hours for a conference--where, coincidentally, I'll be talking about Vancouver dance.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 6

Last night was our first rehearsal at the Ukrainian Hall with both groups together, and also the first rehearsal without Sylvain present. But Lara, together with Caroline and Anna, did a great job in his absence as we made our way through most of "Stock Funk," the very beginnings of which we had learned on Wednesday of last week.

"Stock Funk" also includes choreography we had learned for our auditions back in September. My, how quickly the body forgets. Plus that leprechaun move is a killer to nail. Ah well, we'll be reviewing it all again tomorrow, so there's time yet to perfect this section.

In learning last night's new choreography Lara told us not to worry too much about our places, or keeping our lines. However, she also let us know that we'd gradually be moving to setting our more or less final spots for the performances proper. This will mean putting the stronger dancers on the outside edges, closest to the audience. Apparently, Lara and Caroline and Anna have been making notes to this effect and last night concluded with each of us making compulsory eyeball contact with Lara and our stage manager Emily Neumann so that they could put names to faces--and so that Lara could make a preliminary placement notation next to each of our names...


Sunday, November 16, 2014

L-E-V is in the (Dance)House

Local dance artist Vanessa Goodman lead the pre-show talk with sound designer Ori Lichtik before last night's performance of House, by the new Israeli company L-E-V. She mentioned that company co-founder (along with Gai Behar) and choreographer, Sharon Eyal, would be performing in the piece, improvising a series of three solos. This was an exciting surprise, as Eyal's name was not listed along with the other six dancers in the program; I was eager to catch a glimpse in the flesh of the choreographer, long renowned for her work with Ohad Naharin's Batsheva Dance Company, who was behind the stand-out performance of Corps de Walk by the Norwegian company Carte Blanche as part of last year's DanceHouse season.

House, the work presented by L-E-V, opens with Eyal, in a skin-tight black bodysuit, shimmying across the stage to Lichtik's music. We recognize grooves derived from Tel Aviv's legendary club scene, but also traces of Naharin's famous gaga method; however, Eyal combines these into a language all her own via her interest in holding a pose just a second or two past the music's beat, and in finding new patterns within deconstructed movement.

As Eyal exits upstage, the rest of the company emerges, all clad in flesh-coloured bodysuits reminiscent of the ones worn by the Carte Blanche dancers in Corps de Walk. As in that work, about which I blogged here, this first main section of House begins with the six L-E-V dancers in a circle, each bending into a deep plié and swaying side to side with mechanical precision. Eventually, however, one of the dancers breaks free from the circle, moving horizontally across the stage in a style reminiscent of voguing--which, along with the obvious musical associations, is to a certain extent signaled by the work's title. But unlike the house walkers in Harlem made famous by Jenny Livingston's Paris is Burning (and whose moves were then hijacked by Madonna), Eyal's dancers, in "leaving things on the floor," paradoxically remain resolutely vertical.

Following a second solo interlude by Eyal, she is joined by the rest of the dancers. Three of the four men are now dressed in black, like Eyal, and additionally the tallest of these men sports high heels (as does one of the other female dancers). I frankly couldn't take my eyes off of this dancer (which is saying something, given that his confrère stage right was impressively shirtless); with his beard and ball cap, imposing lithe frame, and hoof-like heels, he looked like a giant satyr. And, indeed, this section, in its mixing of images of sexual fetishism and animality, comes across very much as a dark and dreamlike exploration of various kinds of taboo.

Finally, after a third solo by Eyal, House concludes with an electrifying display of unison movement, in which Eyal takes the phrases explored by her dancers in the previous sections and builds them into a "singular sensation" of chorus line effects, complete with high kicks and jumps. It's a rousing, spectacular finish that's hard to resist, the rhythmic entrainment of the music and the movement designed to make audiences leap to their feet--which most did last night. I confess, however, that I was more compelled by the less easily assimilable (thematically and choreographically) bits from the previous sections.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 5

Today was the big merge: Groups A and B, who'd previously been rehearsing separately, met for the first time as we put the "Ima" and "India" sections together. First we marked through the latter separately, and as I'm sure was the case when Group B watched us, it was strange and slightly disorienting to witness our confrères mirroring our movement: beginning with the opposite leg; turning in a different direction; etc.

It was a bit chaotic at first putting the two groups together, especially where we cross on the Charleston-like steps in "India." But eventually we mostly got the hang of where and for how long we were meant to travel, and after several run-throughs we had improved exponentially.

It was also a little confusing being in a new rehearsal space (the Vancouver Opera production space on McLean Drive), at least until I had a definitive sense of where was front. We had spike-marks on the floor for the first time, giving us a sense of how closely we'd be dancing next to each other, at least for the remainder of our interior rehearsals. We will have a bit more room on the Queen E plaza (which will also be marked, thank heavens), but Sylvain's note to us as we move forward with the full complement of dancers indoors was to still make our moves feel big despite the confined space.

This was also our last rehearsal with Sylvain until the new year. He heads back to Montreal, and for the rest of December we're in the capable hands of Lara, Caroline, and Anna (who'd been working with Group B up until this point). We were told that we'd be moving ahead a bit more quickly in the coming weeks, meaning that the onus is on us is to practice at home, or else take advantage of the Saturday clinics or pre-rehearsal open hours should we want to review anything.

My thinking is to get the choreography in my body as best as possible, but not so well as to be selected as one of the people who has to be on an outside line! Because then there's no hiding come performance time.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 4

Last night the film crew who are making a documentary on our making of the Vancouver version of Le Grand Continental were back at the Ukrainian Hall. It's the same team who made last year's Kiss the Rabbit, the look at Gob Squad's Super Night Shot that also doubled as a 10th anniversary celebration of the PuSh Festival. They are a really easy-going and unobtrusive team, but it was hard not to think that the camera was directly aimed at you the whole time, capturing your every misstep.

There were certainly a few of those, particularly in the new section that Sylvain introduced us to, one that will lead us into the funk bit that we all performed at our auditions. Other than that, we concentrated on perfecting the "Ima" and "India" sections, and the transition between the two. This involved Sylvain demonstrating to us just how closely we would be dancing next to each other once we merge with Group B on Saturday. Discovering how tight our movements would hereafter need to be was instructive, as I have tended to be all over the place spatially so far--traveling too much sometimes, and not enough at others. Now I'll be additionally worried about not kicking anyone, or hitting them in the head when I do my big arms.

This week is our last one with Sylvain until after Christmas. Understandably, he needs to head back to his life in Montreal. Everyone's shoulders visibly sagged last night when Lara informed us of this news--to be expected given that both the process and phenomenon of Le Grand Continental are very much tied to Sylvain and his winning personality. One plows on in spite of one's mistakes because he is so encouraging. And because he doesn't let us off the hook. One wants to be better, to get the movement just right, because he makes us believe in the importance of this.

But he has chosen well in Lara and Caroline as rehearsal instructors. Like Sylvain, they are both encouraging mentors and rigorous taskmasters. Not to mention excellent dancers! We also learned last night that they will be dancing in the piece alongside us in January. That will certainly elevate the overall impression we make. Now all I have to do is figure out a way to be near one of them in performance.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 3

Yesterday was the start of Group A's second week of rehearsals for Le Grand Continental. Arriving early to take advantage of the extra practice time made available to us, I was surprised to discover how many others were already there working with Sylvain and each other on the "India" section we had learned last week. Clearly we are taking this seriously!

What is also fascinating to witness is how spontaneously and organically we fall into small working groups during these practice sessions. Two or three people will be in the middle of a sequence over in the corner and the next new arrival will join them mid-step, quickly picking up the rhythm and inspiring the rest in the group to be just that much more fluid in their movements and kinaesthetically aware in their bodies. Such was the case with me last night, and already I feel like I've formed an important collaborative bond with several of my fellow dancers. I'm not sure I'll get to know, let alone talk to, all 80 of the participants in the piece; but I do sincerely feel like we all already have a sense of being in this thing--whatever it is--together.

I'm also curious about Sylvain's continued investment in this project. He is such a genial man and patient teacher. He's been through this process nearly a dozen times now, but clearly he continues to derive some pleasure and freshness from teaching the same choreography to each new group of community dancers. And, indeed, on some level it must be quite satisfying to watch a mostly untrained and amorphous mass of bodies come together as a well-oiled dance machine over the course of eight weeks of rehearsal. None of is ever going to be a great technician (although there are some amazing movers in the group), but neither is Sylvain letting us just go through the motions. Getting the steps right and hitting our marks is one thing; but Sylvain is just as concerned with the crispness and bigness of our hand gestures and, looking ahead, to the emotional connection we will ideally be making with our audience.

There was new work to be learned last night--specifically the "Ima" section that leads into "India." The linear thinker in me was dismayed to discover we were learning the choreography out of sequence, but when we put both sections together at the end of last night's rehearsal and it wasn't a total disaster I was somewhat relieved. The choreography in "Ima" is slower and more flowing, and there is also a bit of unstructured partnering involved that requires a careful listening to the music. I'll need to watch the video again to refresh my memory before tomorrow, but I am certainly gaining confidence as we go along. Plus it's super fun.

And on Saturday we have the big reveal when Groups A and B, who have until now been rehearsing separately, come together at the Vancouver Opera rehearsal spaces on McLean Drive. I was originally going to miss this rehearsal, but now I've decided to skip my conference in Iowa City.

Which also means I get to see the DanceHouse presentation of L-E-V this weekend, the brand new company of Batsheva alum Sharon Eyal and her partner Gai Behar, who together wowed Vancouver last year with the show Corps de Walk.

But before that is PuSh's 2015 Festival Launch Party at the Vogue Theatre tomorrow night at 8 pm, showcasing a performance of The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, a "live documentary" by Sam Green and featuring the music of Yo La Tengo. I'll have to miss it, because I'll be in rehearsal! But YOU can buy your tickets here.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ballet BC's No. 29

As Artistic Director Emily Molnar explained in her curtain speech, the title of Ballet BC's 2014-15 season opener, No. 29, is doubly significant. Not only is this the twenty-ninth year of the company's existence, but the pieces being premiered on the evening's program bring to a total of 29 the number of new works added to the company's repertoire since Molnar took over in 2009.

It is the latter number that it is most significant and it is a testament to how fresh and forward-looking Molnar has kept things since she took over that the one repeat presentation last night, Jacopo Godani's opening A.U.R.A., felt like I was seeing it for the first time. Or maybe it was the fact that fully half of Ballet BC's dancers this season are new. While I am sad to see some favourites go (Thibault and Alex, I'll miss you!), clearly Molnar has a rich pool of talent to draw from, much of it local (thank you Arts Umbrella). The fifteen dancers handled Godani's off-centre choreography and lightning quick transitions with deft aplomb, forming and deforming a series of increasingly complex grid patterns that, as I wrote upon the work's premiere two years ago, evoke comparisons to video animation.

Fernando Hernando Magadan's White Act is a world premiere that harkens back to the classic era of Romantic ballet, and in particular La Sylphide. In the first part, the men hurtle across the stage en masse while the women float past them on point, individual columns of chimerical beauty that can be reached for but never fully grasped. That this was performed to Schubert's decidedly post-Romantic Death and the Maiden made for an odd juxtaposition. Much more successful, to my mind, was the duet anchoring the second half, which was preceded by a neat video trick by collaborating artist Harmen Straatman.

The evening concluded with Vancouver-born, and until recently Madrid-based Lesley Telford's An Instant. Set to the driving, swirling strings of Michael Gordon's Weather One, and with Wislawa Szyborska's poem "Could Have" spoken in voice-over, the piece is an exhilarating, intensely physical exploration of chance as it intersects with time. What does it mean to arrive too early, or too late? To spin off axis, or lean just a bit too far to the side and risk falling? To throw oneself backwards and trust someone is there to catch you? Telford explores these questions in partnerings built on a logic of abandon and generative risk, on the split-secondness of moving one way instead of another--and the equally accidental anticipating of and/or catching up to such a move. Just when we think Emily Chessa, in leaping to the left or right, is going to plunge to the floor, Christoph von Riedemann is there to forestall gravity, and it is one of the highlights of the piece to see these two graduates of Arts Umbrella (where Telford first built an earlier version of the work two years ago) move together in such "uncontrolled" sync. Then, too, I enjoyed how Telford probed ideas of unpredictability and kinetic impulse at the muscular level, with Rachel Meyer, in particular, playing with a complex repertoire of gestural patterns throughout.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 2

So things definitely went better last night for me in the second of Group A's rehearsals for Le Grand Continental. Watching the videos and getting a bit of practice in the basement in beforehand definitely helped.

Of course, as I surmised from the videos, Sylvain was not done with us in terms of adding elements to this India section, and I've now got some added homework to do--especially in terms of nailing that one catch-step that falls on the "and" between counts in the second of the grape-viney phrases. (That's not the right term for this particular movement, but I can't remember what Sylvain--who has a wonderfully accessible and entertainingly descriptive way of labeling steps and transitions--called it.)

Sylvain also let us in on where Groups A and B cross and combine in this section, which explains why we rehearse separately in these first sessions, before coming together as one large group a week from Saturday. I frankly don't know how we're all going to fit in the Ukrainian Hall on East 10th, which is already quite full just with Group A.

Last night was much more fun than Monday: I was feeling slightly less depressed; felt more comfortable and confident in my body; and enjoyed getting to know more of my fellow dancers.

Till next week.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 1

So last night was the first rehearsal for Le Grand Continental's Group A participants. Sylvain was there, along with Lara and Carolyn, to lead us through the "India" section. Sylvain is a great and patient teacher, and we accomplished a great deal in our two hours together.

That said, I don't think I ever nailed a single run-through of the entire section, and I'll certainly need to look at the homework video and practice in the basement before Wednesday's session.

In the meantime, the PuSh team is still looking for additional participants, particularly men. Tonight's rehearsal for Group B is, like last night, doubling as a last-minute recruitment session. And I believe folks can come along on Wednesday and Thursday as well, if they're interested.

Full details on the poster below.