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.


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