Friday, December 18, 2015

Saudade at SFU Woodward's

The more-than-human and the not-quite-human: for the angels in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and the replicants in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, respectively, the non-anthropoid is not all it's cracked up to be. Notwithstanding the frailty and fallibility of human bodies and desires, Bruno Ganz's Damiel and Rutger Hauer's Roy long for a temporality, a dailiness to living, that is at once more quotidian and less absolute than the one they currently inhabit. Such is the starting point for my colleague Rob Kitsos' new interdisciplinary dance piece Saudade, on at SFU Woodward's Studio T through this Saturday. Taking both films as key sources of inspiration, Kitsos and his collaborators have crafted a performance that combines movement, text, sound, light, multimedia projections and, not least, a series of moveable screens in order to explore the mutability and the porousness of borders between different states of being, including what it only seems proper--both within the multi-modal and perceptually immersive context of this piece and the conceptual premises of each film--to call the sensory and the extra-sensory.

In addition to sharing a world-weary detective as protagonist, Wings of Desire and Blade Runner are also notable for the ways in which they showcase the experience of alienated urban living, with the overheard interior conversations of the Berliners in the former and the walls of flashing neon advertising that form the futuristic backdrop to the Los Angelenos in the latter speaking in their different ways to the frequent attenuation of meaningful and felt interpersonal relationships in big cities. It's appropriate, then, that Saudade begins with the projected image of a city skyline that fills the upstage wall dissolving into what looks like a molecular mass that gradually fills the stage floor (the media design is by Remy Siu). Into this space steps Alexa Mardon, our surrogate flȃneuse, who proceeds to walk in a grid-like pattern, the map she is making (or is the one she is following?) illuminated for her and us on the floor (the lighting is by Jaylene Pratt, in consultation with Kyla Gardiner). Mardon is dressed in grey, which in terms of the more or less monochromatic colour scheme of Lorraine Kitsos' costume design, positions her as between what I took to be Cody Cox and Erika Mitsuhashi's angels (they wear white) and Michael Kong and Felicia Lau's replicants (in shades of black). And, indeed, to the extent that Mardon's character is both a part of and separate from the other dancers at various points throughout the piece, it is possible to read her as a combination of Rachel from Blade Runner and Marion from Wings of Desire, both of whom in their different ways hover between worlds (including as love objects).

Not that Kitsos' goal is to slavishly reproduce scenes or narrative tropes from each film. To be sure, the screens are effectively used throughout to convey the different insides and outsides of the various worlds being conjured (from the geometric to the kinaesthetic to the sonic), as well as the permeability of those worlds--as when, for example, Mitsuhashi leans her ear towards one of them to hear what we can see is happening just behind it. There is also an intensely physical scene in which Kong thrashes about on the floor downstage in a manner that recalls the painfully violent death of Pris, an interesting bit of cross-gender transference. However, for me the choreography was most captivating in those moments of almost- or shadow-partnering, when one of the dancers is mimicking from behind and with a slight but perceptible delay the movements of another. Here is where we see--and feel--that aching desire for connection with a human other--a space in which one's proffered hail (and the gesture of the raised hand is key for Kitsos throughout) is not just recognized, but also returned.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Book of Love at the Roundhouse

For their 30th anniversary season Kokoro Dance’s Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi have created Book of Love, a quartet they have been building over the past two years with company members Molly McDermott and Billy Marchenski, and excerpts of which they have previously unveiled at the Vancouver International Dance Festival and the Powell Street Festival. Set to a dynamic original score by Jeffrey Ryan that is performed live by the StandingWave Ensemble, and that builds dramatically in tempo and tone, the sixty-one minute piece takes its cheeky inspiration from a song by The Magnetic Fields: “The book of love is long and boring.” However, what Bourget and Hirabayashi and their collaborators have put together is anything but ennui-inducing; instead, the piece manages to be tender and funny and surreal and lusty all at once--which is my ideal description not just of a butoh performance, but also of any lasting relationship.

Part of the surreality of Book of Love comes courtesy of London-based Jonathan Baldock’s otherworldly costumes, which clad both the dancers and musicians in priest-like cassocks of vibrant hues, albeit with longer drapey arm sleeves for the dancers, which they fling about and pitch into the air with controlled abandon in the first section of the piece. That this control comes from a finely tuned spatial and kinaesthetic awareness becomes clear when one takes note of the other distinctive element of Baldock’s costume design for the dancers: headpieces made out of overturned woven baskets, with only the tiniest of openings for eyes and mouth, making direct visual connection with one’s fellow dancers (let alone the rest of one’s own body) nearly impossible. All the more remarkable, then, that this section features the evening’s most extensive use of unison choreography, including a series of spins and turns that in this context gives new meaning to bobble-headed.

Following the removal of the headpieces and the placement of them centrestage in a sculptural configuration, like miniature, torsoless versions of the Maoi humanoid statues on Easter Island, for me the piece more or less divides into two complementary parts. In the first, the dancers pair off along gendered lines. Jay and Billy, having reconfigured their cassocks as sarongs tied at the waist, and reattaching the headpieces as humps that they now wear at their backs, slowly pivot back and forth in a central spotlight, like replica selves whose bodies and not-quite matching movements have been distorted by an invisible funhouse mirror. Meanwhile, Barbara and Molly are positioned upstage of the male dancers, each bent at the waist and taking tiny, delicate steps in tandem, two gypsy Esmereldas in search of their Quasimodos.

In the second part of the piece, the dancers discard their cassocks altogether, arranging them under their respective headpieces, with sleeves stuffed into eyes and mouths, or curled around the small side handles that stand in for ears. Now completely naked except for butoh’s traditional white body paint and fundoshi thongs, the dancers form opposite-sex partners, beginning with Jay, in a gorgeously solicitous move, repeatedly lifting Barbara, wrapping her body around his face, doing a slow quarter turn, before setting her back down and then starting the process all over again. Behind the older couple Molly and Billy are crouched in low squats, their arms raised to the sky in a hieratic pose, as if in some ritual celebration of faith and fecundity. For both, this piece suggests, are facing pages in the book of love. As Jay and Barbara come together in a series of tight pelvic clinches and spins and fumbling waltz steps, each trusting the other to find the right timing and direction and rhythm of the steps, Molly and Billy encircle each other on all fours like animals in heat, occasionally pausing to preen in an armstand and twice crossing to meet--one with tongue extended, one with mouth open to receive said tongue--in their own version of an embrace. It is on just such a strange and compelling imagistic juxtaposition of mah and maw that the piece ends--that is, we are presented with both the comforting stillness of the space between and the terrifying unknowingness of being swallowed up that defines two-becoming-one in love as in dance.

Book of Love continues at the Roundhouse through this Saturday, with a special benefit performance beginning at 5 pm December 5th. Tickets can be purchased here.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Points de vue at SFU Woodward's

As bipeds in an ableist society, most of us take ambulation for granted. We rarely think of the thousands of movements we daily improvise to make our way in and through this world: from the reach of an arm to clasp a coffee cup or the swivel of a head to see who is calling our name, to the spontaneous leap over the puddle on the street or the full-throttle run to catch the bus. We think even less about what, in our bodies, allows us to execute such movements in the first place--until, that is, we hurt ourselves. Yesterday evening, for example, as part of Yves Candau's MFA performance Points de vue, I learned that the simple rotation inward of one's lower arm is enabled by two pivot points--one at the elbow, the other at the wrist--that are connected along a radial axis. As Candau shows us with his physical repetition of and verbal commentary on this twisting of the arms, what dance gives us is the means--technically and linguistically--for isolating, breaking down, and understanding this movement. In classical ballet, after all, the proper "carriage of the arms"--otherwise known as the port de bras--is meant to serve as a graceful and harmonious accent to the movement of a dancer's legs.

Candau's performance takes the form of a staged field study, one where the dance studio intersects with a magical research forest both real and imagined through a combination of movement, text (Candau's voice alternating with that of Barbara Adler's), and sound (both live, courtesy of Nur Intan Murtadza, and recorded, Candau having used his own computer software program to create an eight channel electroacoustic composition based on his outdoor recordings). Kyla Gardiner's lighting design completes the immersive effect, one in which we become increasingly mindful of our own kinaesthetic responses to what we are experiencing as much because of as in spite of our sedentariness. Indeed, as Candau moved and spoke about how and why he was moving, it was hard not to take notice of how one was floating one's own head, or tilting it to the side, or what shifts in weight and energy were occurring when one crossed or uncrossed one's leg. Dance scholars have become fond of talking about the concept of "kinaesthetic empathy"--the experience of moving along with or in response to dancers on stage. But those same scholars rarely discuss the ideal set of conditions to best enable such an experience. Candau seems to have found the right mix, one in which moving and talking and listening and feeling combine to produce a true embodied mindfulness (and vice-versa).

Points de vue has one more performance this evening at 6:30 pm in the Hastings Street dance studio (room 4750) on the fourth floor of SFU Woodward's.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Nostos at SFU Woodward's

As it's that time of year (end of semester), and I need to budget my time accordingly, this is less a formal review post per se, than an enthusiastic endorsement of the School for the Contemporary Arts' Fall Mainstage Dance show, Nostos, on at the Fei and Milton Wong Theatre at SFU Woodward's through this Saturday. Overseen by my colleague Rob Kitsos, and showcasing the choreography of Peter Bingham, Lesley Telford, Shauna Elton, and Kitsos, the evening is structured around the theme of nostalgia, and also features live musical and spoken word accompaniment by SFU MFA Candidate Barbara Adler and the Pugs and Crows (Meredith Bates, Cole Schmidt, Russell Sholberg, and Ben Brown).

A repertory company of 30+ dancers (including three of my students from FPA 228W, Dance Aesthetics), divided into two overlapping groups, seamlessly segues between each choreographer's individual contributions, which are so well integrated in terms of transitions (no blackouts!) and so complementary in terms of movement vocabulary that it is hard to determine where one section leaves off and another begins. With such a large ensemble, and building on the theme of nostalgia, it's no surprise that canon and retrograde movement features prominently; but what's so pleasurable about the incorporation of these techniques in this program is how they coalesce around simple patterns that accrue depth and emotional intensity by virtue of their repetition within and across each choreographer's work: the sidelong glance backwards, fall to the knees, and swaying lean of Bingham; the inner calf clasp and directional planting of a foot of Telford (a move that slayed me with its beauty); the supported arching of torsos and hands over the crawling backs of partners of Elton; and the rat-a-tat chopping and segmenting and boxing of visual space by so many industrious hands of Kitsos.

Repetition was a theme that came up in Adler's spoken word accompaniment to Telford's section, a riff on the spaces and sensory traces of memory (the taste of chocolate that lingers despite the absence of candy wrappers in purses and pockets) that came back in the evening's finale, which became both a constellation of and elaboration on the movement patterns we had been primed to respond to in each of the preceding sections. But this section also added new patterns and formations, including a group circle that like a collective sigh or exhalation of breath (or, indeed, the bellows of Adler's accordion) expanded and contracted to embrace both the parts and the whole of this remarkable group collaboration.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Dance in Vancouver: Marta Marta Productions' Speaking in Ligeti

The tenth edition of Dance in Vancouver ended yesterday with a late afternoon presentation of Marta Marta ProductionsSpeaking in Ligeti, a collaboration between MMP choreographer and AD Martha Carter and the Microcosmos Quartet, and set to the 1956 String Quartet #1 by post-classical Hungarian composer György Ligeti. As Carter noted in the talkback following the performance (which I was privileged to lead), she had wanted to find a way to collaborate with Microcosmos' musicians (Marc Destrubé and Andrea Siradze on violin, Becky Wenham on cello, and Tawnya Popoff on viola) in a way that reproduced the intimacy of the salon-style concerts for which they are famous, but that also made both the dancers (which include Delphine Leroux, Nicholas Lydiate, Thoenn Glover, and Tyler Olson) and the musicians equal kinetic participants in the performance.

Her solution is to take some of the improvisational energy of the rehearsal studio and frontload that onto the finished piece. With the house lights still up and only a stack of eight chairs and a ticking metronome on the otherwise bare stage, the dancers and the musicians enter together from the rear and begin warming up, casually conversing with each other as the dancers stretch and the musicians tune their instruments, all while a pre-recorded score of talking and music plays in the background. Eventually members of the two quartets start responding more directly to one another, with Lydiate moving to Wenham's cello, for example, in a version of popping and locking, and Destrubé leading (or is it being chased by?) both his fellow musicians and the occasional dancer around the stage at a steadily increasing pace, all the while playing his violin like some crazed pied piper.

At a certain point, the musicians sit down and Destrubé explains to the audience the basics of Ligeti's music, noting in particular that for all the Bartok-inspired disdain his first string quartet caused the communist authorities in Hungary, its use of the chromatic scale and its approach to harmony and tempo are actually deceptively simple. Still, in her own artistic response to that music, Carter keeps deferring the actual playing of the quartet; instead, as she again noted in the talkback, the musicians play snippets of Ligeti's post-1956 oeuvre while the dancers respond--at times collaboratively, at times more combatively, and with both chairs and metronomes (a second one having appeared earlier) becoming integral to the twinned musical and movement scores.

All of this allows Carter to prime her audience in reverse for both the sound and movement themes we eventually witness once the full string quartet is played. This happens with the musicians seated centre stage, the dancers then colouring in the conjured acoustic space with their bodies over the course of the piece's seventeen contrasting sections, which range in tone and tempo from the jovially energetic to the slowly mournful. Indeed, the final lento section sees the four dancers moving towards a thin band of light at the downstage lip of the stage, each removing one sock as their movements become ever smaller and more contained; the musicians eventually join them, inserting their own bodies--and the bodies of their instruments--between the dancers in a closing tableau that aptly sums up the compositional aesthetic of call and response that is at the heart of this unique collaboration.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dance in Vancouver: Justine A. Chambers, Vanessa Goodman, and Delia Brett

It's been such a busy week that I only got to my first Dance in Vancouver events yesterday. The biennial showcase and presenting platform for local dance artists is guest curated this year by Pirjetta Mulari, of Dance Info Finland. I've always wondered about the reasoning behind DIV's outside curatorial invitations. Presumably programming choices depend a lot on knowing who has presentation-ready work, which necessarily means liaising with local folks. And, to be sure, staff at The Dance Centre are heavily involved in the entire organization of the event, including various studio showings and presenter meetings and parallel performances.

Thus it was that I got to tag along yesterday afternoon on the second of two "Choreographic Walks" programmed by Dance Centre Artist-in-Residence Justine A. Chambers. Modelled on the soundwalks of Vancouver pioneered by R. Murray Schafer and Hildegard Westerkamp, Chambers' curated two-hour stroll through the city's downtown core invites audiences to silently observe several works of site-specific dance created by local artists, including: a lesson in directional (and accessible) navigation by Naomi Brand at the southwest plaza of the VPL's Central Branch; a spatially dispersed but acoustically proximate clapping fugue by Alexa Mardon at Victory Square; and a game of pick-up basketball underneath the Cambie Street bridge by Deanna Peters (in which there wasn't much scoring, but a lot of running and passing with elan). But the walk also invites us to place these works into larger choreographic frameworks and patterns that are part of the social infrastructure of the city, be it pedestrians crossing an intersection, kids playing in a park, or the often anonymous workers who maintain the various invisible grids and networks that buttress our daily navigation of the city in the first place. Then, too, there are the ways in which we, as a group (numbering 20+), effect and change different movement flows, from holding up traffic at an intersection to absorbing and spitting out groups of people we just happen to collect accidentally along our route. This kind of shadow choreography in which we daily and reflexively participate as urban dwellers, but which we tend to relegate to background "movement noise" (the dance with and around others we do on the bus or in line at the supermarket), is here uncamouflaged and brought to the foreground by the "openings" in our walk that Chambers and her partner Josh Hite programmed with the help of students in the Modus Operandi Training Program: that is, at moments along our route, and ably cued by our pace-setting guide Kate Franklin, all we had to do was cast a sideline glance across an alley to catch a glimpse of tandem selves matching our steps, moving us forward.

In the evening, it was back to The Dance Centre for Saturday night's mainstage presentation of Vanessa Goodman/action at a distance's Wells Hill and Delia Brett/MACHiNENOiSY's plaything. I've blogged about the original presentation of Wells Hill, as part of the 2015 Chutzpah! Festival, here. The movement is as gorgeous as ever, at once languid and sinewy and robustly energetic in a way that is equally responsive to Gould playing Bach and to Gabriel Saloman's original immersive sound score. It was also interesting to see the piece in the more intimate setting of The Dance Centre (which I gather partly inspired the new costumes designed by Ziyian Kwan), and to witness the individual embodied contributions of new cast members Karissa Barry, Dario Dinuzzi, and Alexa Mardon. I look forward to the premiere of the full piece in 2017 at SFU Woodward's.

MACHiNENOiSY's plaything is what I'll call a "collaborative solo" for co-artistic director Brett. First presented in 2011, the work is a surreal dream/nightmare based on the childhood drawings of Brett's son, Beckett. Part shadow play, part puppet show, and part experiment in live projection action painting, the work's immersive visuals are at times jaw-droppingly gorgeous and at other times queasiness-inducing. But all of this is anchored by the moving performance of Brett, who whether growing an extra set of limbs from behind a scrim or unzipping a body suit to reveal another layer of synthetic skin underneath reveals--like Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, or Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror--that motherhood is as much about the abject as the object of one's love.



Sunday, November 15, 2015

Hofesh Shechter Company's barbarians at The Playhouse

Hofesh Shechter is my kind of choreographer: an extremely talented dance-maker who doesn't take himself too seriously. The Israeli-born, Batsheva-trained and UK-based artist, whose eponymous company first came to Vancouver in 2009 with Uprising and In Your Rooms (and about which I blogged here), was back at the Playhouse this weekend, once again at the invitation of DanceHouse. This time Shechter has brought his newest work, barbarians, a trilogy that might be said to be about the imaginative challenge--and also the necessary futility--of imposing order onto chaos.

That principle extends to the connections between the three sections, which were created separately and which, according to Shechter, unspool in reverse, with the still quiet core of the piece, a duet, only coming at the end. However, what we get at the start, in "the barbarians in love," is a riot of flood lights and follow spots, that sweep across the stage and out into the audience, momentarily blinding us before picking out and arresting in their white hot glow of surveillance six dancers. The dancers are also clad head to toe in white, like they have just escaped from a sanatorium, or a cult. And, indeed, over the course of this first section's thirty minutes, the four men and two women do seem to be moving in response to the computer-generated female voice-over, which intones god-like platitudes ("I am you, and you are me") before entering into a dialogue with the choreographer himself--who is, after all, another kind of unseen overlord in terms of dictating how his dancers should be moving. In this respect, the first section's concluding tableau, which sees the dancers, now completely naked, lined up downstage and slowly turning before us like specimens at an auction, certainly evokes ideas of a coldly clinical outside eye. Except in this case Shechter is at a loss as to how to explain his concept, beyond the fact that he is a 40 year-old man who had this idea to make something...

Which may be why, in the evening's second section, "tHE bAD," Shechter puts his dancers (now reduced by one man) in gold lame body suits. If the dancers in the first part looked like pod people just escaped from a sci-fi film, here they appear to have stepped out of an Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway musical--not so far-fetched given that Shechter is currently in New York choreographing the revival of Fiddler on the Roof. What is consistent over both sections, however, is Shechter's distinctive mix of unison choreography with classical and vernacular dance vocabularies. At any given moment we have the dancers giving us different baroque formations and noble steps, or else breaking into Israeli folk dancing circles, and even throwing in the odd bit of krumping. What is consistent throughout is the amazing footwork of the dancers, who when shuffling across the stage in a riot of club grooves or descending into and rising from a plie in demi-point are nothing short of mesmerizing.

Finally, in the last section, "two completely different angles of the same fucking thing," we see a couple--the woman dressed in simple slacks and a blouse, the man, somewhat incongruously, in lederhosen--engaged in a simple two step. Eventually they come together in an awkward attempt at partnering that begins gently and playfully, but that gradually becomes more physical and even violent. If, extrapolating from Shechter's comments about the centrality of this section to the work as a whole, we take the duet to be one of the base-line structures of Western concert dance, then such juxtapositions are appropriate. For, as Walter Benjamin has written, "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."


Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Amish Project at Pacific Theatre

Jessica Dickey’s play The Amish Project is based on the 2006 Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania shooting, in which gunman Charles Roberts entered an Amish school, killing five young girls and injuring five others before turning the gun on himself.  The events garnered additional national attention as a result of the Amish community extending forgiveness to the gunman and his family.

Although her title contains within it an echo of Moisés Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, the award-winning work assembled from interviews with townsfolk from the Wyoming community where Matthew Shepard was murdered, Dickey’s play does not purport to be documentary theatre. Indeed, she states explicitly in her Playwright’s Note to the published text (which I happen to be teaching in my Introduction to Drama class at SFU) that she deliberately chose not to interview any of the survivors or members of the wider Nickel Mines community. Instead, she has fashioned a completely imaginative work of empathetic drama, in which she draws on the basic outlines of the shooting and its aftermath to trace the connections between seven different characters. These include Velda and her sister Anna, two victims of the shooting; Carol Stuckey, the widow of the gunman; Bill North, a religious studies professor with special expertise in the Amish; Sherry Local, a cranky woman from the town who confronts Carol in the supermarket; Eddie Stuckey, the gunman; and America, a pregnant Hispanic teenager who works at the supermarket.

The play’s added conceit is that all of these characters are played by a single actress, who wears a “traditional, Old Order Amish girl” costume throughout (blue cotton knee-length dress, white apron and bonnet), and who thus must transition between each character—sometimes multiple times in the space of a page of dialogue—simply by shifting the way she holds her body, or through her tone of voice. In the play’s original production, at Rattlestick Theater in New York in 2009, Dickey herself undertook this task, and by all accounts gave a virtuoso performance. In Pacific Theatre’s current production of the play, which runs through next Saturday at their West 12th Avenue space, the performer is Susie Coodin, who with assistance from director Evan Frayne and movement consultant Wendy Gorling, opts for subtle rather than jarringly sharp vocal and gestural distinctions between each character. Velda is restlessly kinetic and speaks with a higher vocal pitch, whereas Anna remains still and speaks more slowly, though always, despite the events that have happened, with a guileless sense of wonder about what she is witnessing. Carol draws her arms tightly around her upper body, as if trying to retreat from the world, or else protect herself from what additional bad news it might deliver. Interestingly, Coodin likewise keeps her arms mostly close to her body when playing Carol’s nemesis, Sherry, the nervous fluttering of the latter’s hands over her stomach indicative perhaps of the nauseous bile she can barely keep down. Bill, at first a largely expositional character, remains professorially erect, whereas Eddie slouches and shoves his hands in his pockets. The sassy America, who calls us out from the start on our wont to read her as a cliché, predictably spends a lot of time examining her fingernails.

Though I would have liked Coodin to take a bit more time with some of the dialogue, and in certain places to stretch out the moments of physical transition between the characters (the show clocks in at a very economical 65 minutes), I did appreciate how these dramaturgical choices emphasized continuity in addition to difference. James Coomber’s evocative sound design and Jonathan Kim’s mixing of warm and cool tones in his lighting also contributed to this prismatic effect. And the metaphor of the prism—a refractive surface, like a stained glass window, that separates light into a spectrum of colours—is an apt one here because when used figuratively the word refers to the clarification or the distortion offered by a particular viewpoint. In a play that is about the difficult work of reciprocal empathy, and that suggests receiving forgiveness is often as challenging and painful as extending it, materializing the idea of a shared feeling body and many voices thus makes absolute sense.


Friday, November 13, 2015

Guest Post on Ballet BC's Program 1 at the Queen E

I was in Portland last weekend for a conference and so did not get to see the opening program to Ballet BC's 30th anniversary season. Needless to say, I was pretty bummed. However, a posse of my SFU Dance Aesthetics students attended and as an adjunct to our blog writing related to that course (see the course website here), I encouraged anyone who might be so inclined to contribute a guest post on what I missed.

Andrea Valentine-Lewis took me up on the offer, and what follows are her observations on the evening's three works:

Overall remarks/notes:
- The dancers are very athletic-looking.
- All acts were performed in socks.
- The company is mixed-raced.
- There are more male dancers than female dancers.
- All dancers are quite classically trained.
- The lighting was very interesting in all three movements.
- ... By interesting I mean very specific to the action. I loved it.
- The ballet was divided into three acts/movements, with two intermissions.
- The three movements were presented in a different order than the program indicated.
- The company was presented as gender-neutral. There weren't specific female/male roles. Both genders were strong and similarly dressed.

1.) The first movement was called Twenty Eight Thousand Waves. It was choreographed by Cayetano Soto (Ballet BC's new resident choreographer). Surprisingly, it was my favourite movement, because the music, lighting, and costuming was very satisfying to me. I prefer fluid, graceful movements that are strong, and that is what I saw. I had expectations that Crystal Pite's work would be my favourite.

2.) The second movement was called New Work, by Stijn Celis. The piece was accompanied by 40 male singers. Both female and male dancers wore the same clothing (button down work shirts and slacks). The women had their hair in buns to hide the appearance of long hair. This piece seemed repetitive and not dynamic enough. The choir was beautiful, but I felt the dancers were washed out by the music. There were obvious themes of religion and the life cycle, which I was thankful of; otherwise I would have gotten bored.

3.) The third movement (a crowd favourite), by Crystal Pite, was called Solo Echo. Pite's piece had a beautiful, simple set of snow falling from the backdrop, with lights that moved to either frame sections of the backdrop, or expose the entirety of it. The dancers were all dressed in black vests and black slacks... again, a gender-neutral choice. The movements were very dynamic and strong compared to the silky cello music of Johannes Brahms (played by Yo Yo Ma). It was a nice juxtaposition. Pite's choreography has changed since I've seen it last, so in that regard my expectations weren't met. But I did appreciate some sections of strong, intelligent choreography.

So there you have it. My thanks to Andrea. And more from me soon.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

air india [REDACTED] at SFU Woodward's

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the worst act of terror in Canadian history, the bombing of Air India Flight 182, which exploded off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 persons on board. The criminal trial, one of the longest in Canadian history, resulted in the acquittal of the accused. A subsequent inquiry revealed, among other things, that the RCMP knew about the planned attack--and yet did nothing to prevent it. A national public trauma whose legacy of grief has yet to be fully processed or exorcised, this "act of historical violence" exists, in the words of poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar, "more on the margins of collective consciousness than at the centre of [Canada's] imagination."

Thank goodness, then, for artists, whose task it is to poke at our amnesiac cocooning. Saklikar's book of poems, Children of Air India: un/authorized exhibits and interjections (2013), serves as the basis for a remarkable new chamber opera commissioned by Vancouver's Turning Point Ensemble, which is currently receiving its world premiere at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. The last performance is tonight, on Remembrance Day, and it is not to be missed. Wedding Saklikar's words to composer Jürgen Simpson's richly layered and haunting score, this Irish-Canadian co-production strips opera down to the essential relationship between music and voice, substituting spareness for spectacle, and editing out all traces of sentimentality.

To this end, director Tom Creed has his three singers--soprano Zorana Sadiq, countertenor Daniel Cabena, and baritone Alexander Dobson--deliver their respective arias while seated at a long table. Channeling, via Saklikar's poetry, the voices of friends and family of the victims, investigating officers and court reporters, the trio does not parse out for us any harmonically resolvable explanation of narrative events. Rather, in dissonant counterpoint and textured tonal engagement, they stretch out for us "one unending song" of grief. Above the singers John Galvin's remarkable video projections unspool as an inky overlay of fathomless ocean waters, blacked-out evidentiary documents, and the scrambled lines of voicebox data recorders, the search for meaning in all of this--about sanctioned state violence, or a life ended prematurely--necessarily redacted.

This principle of obscured or selective remembering is also captured acoustically within the score. Behind the singers air india musical director and TPE artistic director Owen Underhill works with his remarkable group of musicians to find and hold the silences between Simpson's notes (the plucked minor keys of Kinza Tyrell's piano standing out early in the program), and also--at key moments--to interpolate pre-recorded bits of white noise. These moments are jarring, but also completely appropriate, jolting us out of passive spectatorship and into active witnessing. For in trying to represent sonically all that is contained within the story of Air India 182, I can think of no better metaphor than playing at equal intensity every frequency within the spectrum of human hearing.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Cock at Performance Works

Mike Bartlett's play, Cock, on at Performance Works in a Rumble Theatre production through this Sunday, centres on John (Nadeem Phillip, in an affecting though somewhat physically mannered performance). A hugely ambivalent character, John is torn between sticking it out with his long-time boyfriend, M (Shawn Macdonald, with trademark smirk), and taking a risky leap into the unknown with W (Donna Soares, giving as good as she gets), a woman John has started seeing while on a break from M. So far so melodramatic. However, what makes the play so absorbing to watch is its unique structure and rapid-fire dialogue (like Aaron Sorkin without the pontificating), along with director Stephen Drover's tense and kinetic staging of the action in the round. The characters circle and spar with each other, as if at a boxing match, and scene breaks are punctuated with quick semi-blackouts.

Those initial scenes concern John and M, with John first talking himself into leaving M and then explaining why he has returned. When M learns through their verbal jousting that part of the reason John has come back is to sort out how he feels about W, the stakes are raised considerably, and what John has both relied on and resented about M--his possessiveness--turns into an all-out war to keep him. We then shift abruptly to scenes between John and W, witnessing how they met and first come to have sex--in an hilariously choreographed scene of John's fumbling exploration and W's not unpleasant reactions made all the more remarkable for the fact that Phillip and Soares are on opposite sides of the stage floor's bullseye. The final panel in Bartlett's dramatic triptych brings all three characters together for a dinner party at which John is meant to decide between M and W--having previously hedged his bets by telling each of them that he is leaving the other. However, in true deus ex machina fashion, Bartlett introduces a fourth character, M having invited his father, F (Duncan Fraser, somewhat low energy), for moral support.

And, indeed, F does succeed in provoking one of the more impassioned speeches from John, who in response to F's statement that he has to decide "what he is," asks why can't it just be about "who" he wants to be with, regardless of gender? To be sure, Bartlett has in some senses written a true post-identity politics play. My only concern is why, among the reasons John lists to be with W, he cites a future that involves having children and growing old together? That, in the end, John opts for "what he knows" rather than "who he desires" perhaps says something about Bartlett's cynical take on the continuing problem of categorical fit in our society: the boxes are too small, but we continue shoving people--and ourselves--in them anyway.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Dog Days Are Over at The Dance Centre

Belgian choreographer Jan Martens' The Dog Days Are Over, on at The Dance Centre through this evening, is as deceptively simple in its conceit as it is gruellingly complicated in its execution. The piece features eight dancers--six women and two men--whose only task is to jump continuously for 70 minutes. Sounds pretty basic, right? Not to mention deadly boring to watch. In fact, while the work is very much designed as a parallel test of the audience's spectating stamina, part of what keeps us rapt in our attention is not just the complicated rhythms and counts and spatial formations that Martens' builds into the piece, but also both the personalities of the dancers that emerge over the course of the movement's execution and what we per force read into the unrelenting sameness of that execution.

On the former front, Martens has commented that he took inspiration for Dog Days from 1950s American photographer Philippe Halsman's aesthetic of "jumpology": that in photographing someone in the act of jumping Halsman could capture their true face. Throughout the piece, Martens' eight dancers are for the most part uniformly blank and inscrutable in their facial expressions, focused absolutely on the task to hand (or, in this case, to foot). However, that doesn't mean that differences aren't noticeable, starting with the way they are dressed. Some of them wear lyotards, some boxing shorts, one a tennis skirt. The men are shirtless and several of the women have exposed midriffs, the better to see and admire their impressive abdominal muscles (which, notwithstanding received kinetic logic around knee joints, actually receive the biggest workout in this piece). There is a penchant for leopard skin prints. And then there are the running shoes. They are lined up--different sizes and styles and hues--in a horizontal row centre stage as the audience files into the auditorium, with the dancers stretching and warming up against the upstage wall. Following the curtain speech, and with the house lights still up, the dancers march toward their shoes and begin to put them on, starting one sock at a time. In retrospect this moment becomes so meaningful, its extended duration so pregnant with possibility, because in one dancer's brisk efficiency and another's lazy languor in putting on their footwear, in one's bending from the torso and balancing on one leg to slip on a sock and another's crouch on the floor to tie laces, it is arguably the last time we will see the dancers inhabiting their own physicality with any degree of self-agency.

For, once runners are all firmly in place and the dancers stand up, forming a strangely athletic looking chorus line, Martens' movement score takes over, commanding a total submission of muscles and tendons and joints. It starts with a slow pulse in the quads and bend at the knee, and then slowly builds to a rhythmic jumping on both legs, the action steady but also banally pedestrian. This isn't the look-at-me jumping we associate with ballet, with height and suspension the hallmarks of singular virtuosity; these jumpers, bobbing up and down in a row, their feet barely coming off the ground, announce in their sameness and efficiency that their dancing is about aerobic endurance rather than flashy acrobatics, about making it to the end rather than standing out in the middle. Which is to say that in Dog Days we are meant to focus on the act of jumping rather than the person doing the jumping. And with only the steady slap and squeak of sneakers hitting Marley providing our soundtrack (at least for most of the piece), the deliberately drone-like action is wont to lull us into a kind of sensory stupor.

And yet the exact opposite happens. Over the course of the piece, our senses are sharpened and heightened rather than dulled. And for two reasons. First, into the repetitive sameness of the jumping action, Martens inserts subtle variation, just enough and over sufficiently long stretches of time to keep us expectant and off guard. So, for example, we begin to notice that that opening horizontal chorus line starts to get tighter and tighter, which is a prelude to first one of the dancers and then another stepping out of line and reinserting him- or herself in another spot--all without breaking rhythm. A bit later the line will begin to turn on an axis and still later the dancers will break ranks altogether, adding to their four-four vertical jumping counts a set of double-time lunges. As the piece continues, the variations get steadily more complicated, some shouted out with counts by the dancers, others simply manifesting as if by magic. Then, too, there is how all of this is registered by each of the dancers. By that I mean that while the actual physical execution of the movement may be the same, by virtue of their different bodies and physiologies and dress, we see (and hear) the effects of this movement upon the dancers in different ways. Some dancers sweat more, and in different places. Some breathe more heavily than others and some of their voices, in calling out counts, sound more strained. Some of the women's hair, whether tied in a ponytail or left loose, is bouncier than others'. In those rare moments where Martens programs a pause in the jumping, some dancers collapse at the waist and breathe into their knees; others look barely winded. As the piece wore on, I found myself attending more and more to these differences in a way that, for instance, I might not were I watching a traditional corps de ballet execute the same pretty steps--where, of course, the tyranny of sameness in movement is even more acute, and precisely because it is largely decorative rather than meaningfully kinetic.

All of which brings me to the issue of what we read into Martens' movement. If, as Martens is quoted as saying in an interview in the Vancouver Sun with Deborah Meyers, that Dog Days is "a portrait of the dancer as an executing species," this suggests that the piece's built-in reflexology is a self-reflexive comment on the larger choreographic project of dance: i.e., when I say jump, you jump. At the same time, we can extrapolate this imperative to apply to any number of additional labouring contexts (from a factory assembly line to a sports team) in which completion of an assigned task depends on the focused physical and mental concentration of an entire group. So what might it mean, then, when one member of the group just decides to stop doing what she's told to do--in this case, to jump? Near the end of last night's performance of Dog Days one of the women dancers did just that, moving downstage left and sitting down to rest and watch her fellow dancers. I'm not sure if this is a programmed out for any of the dancers who are feeling that they can't continue to the end of the piece, or if the dancers take turns occupying this role simply in order to fuel audience speculation and/or allow us an on-stage surrogate with whom to identify in our own exhaustion (and, indeed, it should be pointed out that the resting dancer did continue to call out counts). Either way, it made this fascinating work about dance-as-work (both physical and intellectual) even more compelling.


Friday, October 30, 2015

Klasika at SFU Woodward's

Klasika, on at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's through this evening, is unlike any musical you've ever seen. First off, there is the subject matter: it concerns the strange Czech pastime of "tramping," in which citizens of the Czech Republic dress up as cowboys--or rather, their romanticized version of American cowboys--and hang out in the forest drinking Pilsner and swapping stories around the campfire. Barbara Adler, who is of Czech heritage, stumbled upon the phenomenon while doing research for her MFA in SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, of which Klasika serves as her graduating project. But that's only the beginning of the story. While doing fieldwork for her project in the Czech Republic in 2014, Adler met the Czech film director Jan Foukal, who was shooting a documentary for HBO on the tramping subculture; Adler soon found herself playing a fictionalized version of herself alongside Foukal in his film, the two of them toting around their musical instruments (he on guitar, she on accordion) as they improvised awkward conversations with themselves and the tramps they met.

In Klasika, Adler ramps the representational layers up an additional meta-level, introducing us to Bara (a winningly open and sincere Megan Stewart), a sound artist from Vancouver who wants to head to the Czech Republic to record the sounds of folks just before they put their arms around each other's shoulders. Once there, however, she falls in with Honza (Paul Paroczai), a stealth ethnographer who finds traditional interviews boring and so fashions a recording device out of his guitar so that he can capture what the tramps--and Bara herself--say in unguarded moments. We hear these recordings played back to us as part of the work's complex sound design, which also includes a framing device of Adler and her fellow MFA student Robert Leveroos (excellent as the musical's Narrator) looping their own complicit unreliability as storytellers in a radio broadcast booth.

But mostly this work is about the songs, with Adler rocking things out with her band, Ten Thousand Wolves, and drawing on her spoken word artistry to craft lyrics that are unconventionally "musical theatre-y" in the way that they elevate the conversational to the poetic--as when Bara sings to Honza about how she's just a little bit afraid of the dark. Not that we aren't also privy to some big numbers for even bigger voices--chief among them Ashley Aron's as Barb the Bootfitter. Not only does Barb give Bara some important advice about the need to grow into her cowboy boots, but she and her fellow Rodeo Queens (Dominique Wakeland and Julie Hammond) also teach Bara a lesson about the feminist fierceness of high hair, bedazzled jeans, and bluegrass--in whose lonesome sounds, just like Bara's field recordings of birdsong and sheep bleating, there is nevertheless community.

For more behind-the-scenes insight into the Rodeo Queens, as well as the composition and documentation of the musical as a whole, check out the digital archive Adler and director Kyla Gardiner have been building on the local online arts and culture magazine Vandocument.


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Empire of the Son at The Cultch

Yesterday afternoon I took a break from the grant application I was writing to catch a matinee performance of Tetsuro Shigematsu’s Empire of the Son, presented by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre in association with the Cultch, where the solo show is being presented in the Vancity Culture Lab. The show instantly sold out its first two weeks of performances and so when a third was added I grabbed a ticket.

Shigematsu’s play is an autobiographical story of his stormy relationship with his father, a man who as child survived the incendiary bombing of his hometown in Japan and the fallout of Hiroshima, but who rarely talked about these events as an adult. Shigematsu Sr. immigrated first to London, where he worked for BBC Radio, and then to Canada, where he hosted one of the highest-rated foreign-language radio broadcasts for the CBC before his job was axed under Mulroney and he was demoted to mailroom clerk, retreating behind his yellow safety earphones so he wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of his fellow employees addressing him by his first name, Akira. Early on in the show we learn about the difficulty of Tetsuro’s father via an anecdote concerning his leather briefcase, which his son displays for us from the stage, embossed with the CBC’s familiar logo. Tetsuro had thought it might be a way for him to get closer to his Dad if he asked to borrow the bag; but his father refuses, saying only employees of the crown corporation could carry such a satchel. It’s just one of the many ironies of the tale being told that son, like father, also ends up working for CBC Radio, Tetsuro having inherited The Roundup from Bill Richardson in 2004.

And, indeed, this is a show very much about voice: finding it; sharing it; preserving it. Tetsuro talks in his father’s accented voice (and is rebuked, from beyond the grave, for doing so); he plays recordings of his father’s radio broadcasts and of taped conversations he made with him during his father’s slow decline while in hospital (the sound waves displayed to us indicating just how much silence Shigematsu Sr. left between each question); he amplifies his voice via various microphones and talks about how his CBC bosses worked with him to find a more masculine timbre at the beginning of his on-air career. And then there are the other voices brought into the story: those of Tetsuro’s mother and his sisters, who tease him about his Fu Manchu moustache and form an instant—and instantly natural—chorus of cooing love song around his father in hospital that puts the dryness in his own mouth to shame. We see and hear Tetsuro’s own children on video, challenging him as to why he never cries. And that is in fact the challenge that Tetsuro takes up over the course of the 75 minutes of this play—to cry for his father in death as partial recompense for what he could not say to him in life. It is a testament to the honest and unsentimental way director Richard Wolfe (of Pi Theatre) has approached this obviously very personal story that the fulfilling of this challenge by play’s end is not signposted for us by anything so crass as acoustically amplified heaving sobs; rather, we witness the tears that organically materialize on Tetsuro’s cheeks as he reaches the end of his story.

I would be remiss if I did not talk about the design concept for this piece. The two main elements of Pam Johnson’s set consist of a backdrop of warm wood, suggestive of shoji screens, and what looks a long laboratory counter. On top of this are several stations, some crowded with miniature objects, others filled with various substances (such as white sand or water). Using a moveable camera attached to a live video feed, at various points in the telling of his story, Tetsuro illustrates what he is saying by manipulating one or more elements at each station, which is then broadcast to us on a screen behind him. For example, the atomic mushroom cloud accompanying the Hiroshima bombing is achieved when Tetsuro injects a viscous liquid into a tank of water; and the crowded Tokyo commuter train carrying hundreds of thousands of salary men—including, at one point, both Shigematsu père and fils—we see whizzing by via a canny focalization of the camera’s lens on a toy train car being advanced by Tetsuro. But by far my favourite of these effects were those moments of what I’ll call double digitality—that is, when Tetsuro inserted his own fingers into the camera’s frame to literally stand in for different pairs of legs, as when he and his father, during his “anarchist” teenage phase, have an argument about his skateboarding, or when, in an illustration of a story by his daughter, Tetsuro uses his fingers to mimic the swoosh of skating atop a snowy Grouse Mountain.

If I have a criticism about the production, it’s that at times it felt a bit too rushed. Tetsuro tells his story at a breathless pace and perhaps his years of talk radio training leave him fearful of too many pauses. But I for one wished for some longer beats at various moments in the play, especially when a temporal or narrative transition was being made. I kept thinking back to those long silences in Tetsuro’s interviews with his fathers. In a play like this one something like dead air seems to take on so much added significance.