Saturday, January 31, 2015

PuSh 2015: 7 Important Things and FUSE

There is a moment in 7 Important Things, on at SFU Woodward's Studio T in a PuSh Festival co-presentation with Neworld Theatre, when performer and co-creator Nadia Ross turns to George Acheson, whose life story the two are telling, and points out a deeply ironic truth. Having been kicked out of his home by his father at age 16 in the 1960s for refusing to cut his hair, George, the quintessential hippie-turned-anarchist-Punk, now makes his living as a barber.

In this exchange two parallel threads explored in this work of documentary theatre from STO Union come together. On the one hand, the play is a moving yet unsentimental account of posthumous forgiveness between father and son, whose different versions of martial versus libertine masculinities set the course for George's restless wanderings. At the same time, Ross, as Acheson's interlocutor and surrogate amanuensis, is interested in casting an equally sober eye on not just how George, but western society as a whole, got from there to here. Given the promise of the 60s counterculture, with its anti-consumerist ethos of peace and love, what went so horribly wrong?

In answering this question, Ross and Acheson, who have been performing this show for eight years now and who have refined its spare and suitably low-tech dramaturgy into a fine conversational art, take care not to romanticize George's decision to drop out--especially where his treatment of women is concerned. At the same time, there is a certain smugness of tone to this piece, not least in the improvisatory bits when, for example, Ross riffs on the price of real estate in Vancouver and the "efficiency" of our post-Olympic city, only to rush to assure us that she hopes she's not offending anyone. Offend away, but don't apologize for it; such a move presumes that the audience is so immersed in and duped by the capitalist "society of the spectacle" that we can't understand let alone appreciate a critique of it.

In the talkback following the show, Ross, in explaining her cynicism about the world in which we live today, said that hope is a drug, offering an illusive promise that things will get better in the future while distracting us from fixing the present. Point taken. However, I would just add, in the context of the overwhelming sense of stasis that pervades this show, that nostalgia is an equally powerful--and paralytic--drug.

Following 7 Important Things, I made my way over to the Vancouver Art Gallery for the PuSh edition of FUSE. Usually FUSE is so packed and I arrive so late that I'm unable to see anything. Last night, however, I did get to bust a few moves on the rooftop deck to Sonic Elder, who played a sold-out show at Club PuSh on Thursday. And, on the fourth floor of the gallery, amid its prized collection of Emily Carr paintings, I was thrilled to be able to watch--and dance with--Emily Johnson. Emily, an Indigenous choreographer and dance artist from Minneapolis, is PuSh's current artist-in-residence. I get to have a conversation with her and Marie Clements (whose The Road Forward opens at the York Theatre next week) at the PuSh offices tomorrow, excerpts of which folks will hopefully get to see next Friday morning should they wish to drop by the York.


Friday, January 30, 2015

PuSh 2015: Le Cargo

This year's PuSh Festival represents a long overdue milestone: our first presentation of work from the continent of Africa. Faustin Linyekula is a dancer and storyteller who heads Studios Kabako, based in Kisangani, in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is in town with the solo Le Cargo, a co-presentation with The Dance Centre that runs through this Saturday.

The piece begins with Linyekula entering from the backstage wings carrying a small wooden stool and two books. He walks downstage and pauses before a microphone; a laptop computer is on the floor before his feet. Then comes an invocation, spoken almost as much to reassure the performer as to inform the audience: "I am Kabako. It is me, Kabako. Again Kabako. Always Kabako." Sitting down on the stool, Linyekula tells us that he is an internationally acclaimed storyteller, but that tonight he has come "simply to dance." However, that task proves anything but simple, as how and what to dance involves the recovery of a kinaesthetic repertoire long buried in his body and his imagination.

At first, as Linyekula tells us, he had thought that he could relearn to dance by seeking the answer in books. But he does not find his answer there. That is because he wants to dance the dances he remembers from his childhood, the ones performed at night that, having been sent to bed, he was not supposed to have watched. And so begins the journey back to Obilo, the town where Linyekula's father worked as a primary schoolteacher, served as the local choirmaster, and tended goal for the soccer team. It is thus fitting that Linyekula, unable to afford the time needed to make the trip by rail, is driven to Obila on the back of his father's motorcycle.

It is only at this point that Linyekula begins to dance--in a diagonal shaft of light coming from a shin positioned stage left. His body, too, seems tilted on an axis, bent at the hips, the head and torso angling forward, legs and feet driving to the floor. Later, Linyekula will dance in a circle of illuminated shins stage right, swinging his pelvis backwards and forwards in the fast-paced manner many of us may be familiar with via various images of dance ethnography from Africa, but that for Linyekula is very specifically associated with the Congolese dance form of Ndombolo. Even here, however, audience members might, given certain preconceived expectations, be surprised at the overall spareness and contained exuberance of Linyekula's dancing.

I would hazard to say that this is for two reasons. First, Linyekula's recovery of these dances necessarily becomes an elegy for a lost tradition. Back in Obilo, with a Christian evangelicalism having swept through the town, ritual dancing and drumming of the sort Linyekula is interested in reviving has been ruled satanic; as a result, the choreographer has to call upon drummers from an adjacent village. Then, too, the hybrid form of Le Cargo subtly upends our disciplinary expectations. In the piece, despite telling us otherwise, Linyekula spends as much, if not more, time telling stories as he does dancing--to the point where a recorded loop of his live narration at the beginning of the show becomes the score to his movement at the end. However, in this merging--which is also accompanied by a slideshow of images that loops on the laptop computer--what we are being let in on is something we should have been aware of from the very beginning: dance is storytelling and storytelling is dance.

And, in hindsight, there is as much to marvel at in Linyekula's delicate movement of his hands and fingers when he is talking to us from his stool at the top of the show as there is in his swinging hips at the end.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

PuSh 2015: Dark Matter

Kate McIntosh is my kind of performer: deeply curious about the world and endlessly inventive on stage. Indeed, it is the very question of how the theatre might help answer some of the deeper mysteries of the universe that forms the core of her show Dark Matter, which opened at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre last night as part of this year's PuSh Festival. A fusion of theoretical physics and practical dramaturgy, the show proves that science has more in common with performance than we might at first think. The big bang, like a small black box production, is an event situated in time and space that requires a quantum leap of the imagination.

Thus, McIntosh and her two fellow performers, the alternately deadpan and vaudevillian Thomas Kasebacher and Bruno Roubicek, mostly marshal a few simple props to give material dimension to what otherwise remains immaterial in our daily lives. Ping pong balls bouncing across the stage are atoms and black balloons the invisible energy that surrounds them. An empty paper bag opened out to the audience makes darkness visible and a simple wooden plank becomes a portal to a parallel universe. On a portable lab table time is poured into a glass like water and later crushed with a brick. A lasso of rope sends McIntosh ricocheting across the stage like electrons in a superconductor and moistened fingers on the rims of glasses sends sound singing out into curved space. By the end of the show, the stage is littered with the detritus of the performers' experiments. (As with White Cabin, which played the Festival a few years back, I wouldn't want to strike this set.)

In between these visual set pieces, McIntosh poses a series of questions to the audience (the text was written by McIntosh in collaboration with the great Tim Etchells). Most of these have to do with the time-space continuum and the myriad alternate scenarios that might be going on without us as we sit in the theatre. How to rip a hole in the universe so that we might catch of glimpse of what we're possibly missing? In the work's closing tableau McIntosh suggests a method. First she sets down on stage three metronomes ticking at different speeds, amplifying their sound with microphones; then she lifts the upstage blackout curtain to reveal a sliver of bright orange light, like the halo of the sun during an eclipse. Grabbing a twinkling star from the curtain she then stills in turn each metronome as the backstage illumination that has leaked through is gradually extinguished. If our existence is mostly made up of a sequence of moments that we cannot see, then I am grateful to performers like McIntosh for hazarding a guess as to how we might nevertheless still experience them.


Monday, January 26, 2015

Le Grand Continental: Day 2 Performances

No rain. A bit of sun even. And warm. What a difference a day makes. Sylvain seemed a bit disappointed that the inclement weather hadn't continued; he says it makes the dance really beautiful. However, I have to say I much preferred staying dry yesterday--or at least finishing both dances dripping only with sweat.

I also didn't mind the later call time. Gathering in the green room (which was a lot roomier minus all of our rain gear) at noon, we checked in with each other about our evenings--and our bodies. A bit of stiffness and soreness here and there, but mostly people seemed ready and eager for round two. Before that, however, Sylvain had us gather outside to practice the opening, as he said the day before we were late with our counts on the bit where the two lines rush towards each other in the centre of the square. The few folks who had turned up early to watch must have been a bit confused when the music cut out abruptly at the beginning of "Gogoprado" and we all trudged back inside.

As for the 1 pm performance itself, Sylvain said afterwards it was our best yet, especially in terms of keeping our lines. Funnily enough, I felt I had turned in my own worst performance, with a myriad of small, stupid mistakes--most egregiously in "India" when I forgot to do the second of the two waltz turns when the Group A and B lines merge. It also seemed like the group's overall energy was lower; for one thing, we didn't make as much noise as usual. As for the audience, I tried to whip up a bit of fervour by yelling at them to make some of their own noise at the start of "Cumbia." I got a few half-hearted whoops and claps, but they tapered off pretty quickly. As Jane Heyman said to me after the show, it's not that people weren't enjoying themselves; rather, they were just behaving like the typical Vancouver audience. Still, I now get how this can be definite energy suck for a performer and I've made a note to myself to be more boisterous from now on if I'm watching something that I really like.

A bit despondent with myself over my mistakes, I went for a long walk between shows, which I mostly spent going over the choreography in my head. There was a brief panic attack when I blanked on a whole section of "Champagne," but by the time I checked in for our 3 pm call I had resolved to just enjoy myself and give it my all for this last show. That seemed to be the general consensus with everyone else as, gathering in small groups to watch the crowds assemble and the sun peak through the clouds, we told ourselves to have fun--and, most importantly, to let the audience know it.

Which we did. As soon as the wave sounds started in the intro section I was in a calm place. And by the time we got to "Gogoprado," I knew this was going to be my best run. Even the fact that my pants kept falling down couldn't deter my enthusiasm. Checking in with friends in the audience afterward, they all had massive praise, which was a great high on which to end. PuSh Festival Artistic and Executive Director Norman Armour jokingly asked for my autograph, which I gladly wrote on his hand; then he said that the Festival was so pleased with how the whole Le Grand Continental experience had unfolded that there were very tentative plans afoot to possibly bring an even bigger and better version back next year. If so, I'm there in a heartbeat.

Partly that's because this experience has been about making a connection with a wonderful group of people I otherwise would never have gotten to know. And while, over the past 10 weeks, we've mostly been focused on learning the choreography, at last night's after party (generously organized by Mark and Diane) there was a chance to have some proper conversations with my fellow dancers. Speaking with Marion in my rusty French, I learned that she hailed from Sherbrooke, and so I was able to tell her that I lived there when I was six and seven. Eewa showed me her wounds from her job as a cook for the Glowbal restaurant chain. And Brenda, who is from Mexico City and completing a doctorate in urban planning from Amsterdam, talked to me about her fascinating research on housing in Nanjing, China. I talked with Lara about how hard it still is to make a living as a working dancer in Vancouver, and with Caroline about the merits of doing an MFA.

And, of course, we danced. It's funny, I've always been an incredibly self-conscious social dancer, even in clubs. But something about participating in LGC has loosened me up--and I'm not just talking about my hips. Last night, as Ling spun classic 80s tunes on her iPod, you couldn't hold me back, and I'm so grateful to Sylvain for inspiring us keep dancing together as a group.

Stay tuned.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Le Grand Continental: Day 1 Performances

Yesterday was the big day: our first performances before an audience at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza! When we arrived for our first 9:15 am call time, it was still pouring out, as the first weekend of PuSh has just happened to coincide with the arrival on the West Coast of that meteorological phenomenon known as a Pineapple Express, bringing warm temperatures (yay!) but also lots of moisture (boo!).

Leaving home after a restless sleep (nervous, I, like Peggy, had basically spent the night running through all the choreography in my head), I had dumped most of the contents of my drawers and closet into two big bags: two pairs of shoes; extra socks and underwear; three pairs of pants; three different coloured ball caps; various combinations of outer layers in anticipation of different levels of precipitation; and, of course, a towel. However, when I arrived at the old restaurant on the east side of the Plaza that was functioning as our green room (overseen with genial aplomb by Barb Clausen), I discovered that I was traveling relatively light. Several of my fellow dancers were trailing large suitcases, not surprising given the weather and the elaborateness of some of their costumes (I think Susie takes the prize with her beautifully embroidered traditional Irish dress). With racks and hangers having been set up on which to hang our various outfits, the room soon looked (and, given the general dampness, smelled) like the bargain basement of a department store.

It was still raining pretty hard when we began our dress rehearsal at 10:15 am. As a result we were allowed to forgo lying down on the ground during the "Fatboy Slim" section. Nevertheless, we still got pretty wet and my trusty, supposedly waterproof Treetorn shoes were no match for the various puddles that had welled and formed on the Plaza. As for the run-through itself, it was pretty much the worst I'd ever danced the piece: "Cumbia," especially, was a disaster. But I tried to put it out of my mind, reminding myself of the performance cliche that a terrible dress means a great show. After changing out of our wet clothes, Hilary and I and several others grabbed our lunches and headed over to Library Square to chill and chat in the covered atrium--which, as I mentioned to Peter Cox, wouldn't have made a bad space in which to hold our performances.

Back in the green room for our 12 pm pre-performance call time, excitement (and, to be sure, a little bit of anxiety) steadily mounted as we changed into the first of our costumes, helping each other out with accessories (thanks, Kerstin, for the adjustment of the bow tie), borrowing hair dryers, sharing food, offering stretching tips, and the like. Two of our members (Kuei-Ming and Lynda) even handed out personalized messages and gifts to the entire company, which was incredibly touching. And then, before we knew it, it was time to line up for our entrances. Peaking out beyond the curtains that had been put up in the green room, I was surprised to see how many people had assembled. The rain had tapered off a bit, but it was still coming down pretty steadily. Okay, then, if they had all come out to watch us despite the inclement weather, then we had to give them something to remember. Go team! And leave it to Taz to lead us out with an appropriate cheer.

The performance itself was a bit of a blur. I do remember freaking out a bit that in our south-facing line after our entrance I ended up looking directly at Vancouver dance artist Bevin Poole, saying as much out loud to Caroline, who was standing next to me. But soon the wave sounds from the opening began, and there was no time to worry about who else might be lurking in the crowd. I know I made mistakes, but nothing major, and nothing that I couldn't quickly recover from. The point was that I was having fun and giving it my all, which included the frying bacon bit on the ground. After all, it wouldn't be an authentically Vancouver experience of Le Grand Continental if we didn't get wet. What was most surprising for me was how quickly it was all over. Thirty minutes felt more like fifteen, which was an interesting lesson in the temporality of performance, and how audience and performers might experience the duration of an event very differently.

In the green room afterward, everyone was pretty stoked; at this point, most of us forwent all modesty as we peeled off layers of wet clothing and changed into our outfits for the second performance in front of each other. I snuck away to the Library once more for a few minutes of alone-time. And then it was back for our 3 pm call.

By the 4 pm show, the rain had pretty much stopped and the crowd that had assembled was about double the first, with spill-over from the just-exiting matinee of Séquence 8 no doubt helping to swell our numbers. PuSh Operations Coordinator Christopher Gauthier, who was counting both audiences for grant reporting purposes told me afterwards that he put the morning group at about 300 and the afternoon one at 650! There were several recognizable faces in the crowd (thank you Tiffany [and Spirit] and Alana and Carole, plus all the wonderful PuSh staff and my fellow PuSh Board members who were there). But this time it didn't freak me out; it energized me. I know I still screwed up in a couple of places (including a stupid mistake in "Stockfunk"), but the 4 pm show was an even bigger high than the 1 pm.

At the end of each show we invite audience members to come into the performance square and dance with us. Needless to say, there were far more partakers after the 4 pm show than the 1 pm--although Voetvolk's Lisbeth Gruwez and Maarten Van Cauwenberghe, in town with their wonderful show It's going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend, were jiving up a storm following the earlier show. I regret I couldn't stay for long after the second performance; Richard was picking me up as we had to rush off to another event. But, on the topic of audiences, I will say that I was a bit surprised that folks watching us didn't make more noise. Sylvain had prepared us for the fact that friends and family would be calling out our names (which, to be fair, did happen once or twice), and clapping and shouting and whooping all the way through the show--and that we musn't let that distract us. On the whole, however, I think both groups were relatively sedate--not an uncommon response among visiting artists when they present here. In the case of the 1 pm show, it could have been that most folks were holding umbrellas. But today, I think, the weather should be pretty good.

So there's no excuse, Vancouver. If you're at the Queen E Plaza this afternoon at 1 or 4 pm, you have a simple task: MAKE SOME NOISE!


Saturday, January 24, 2015

PuSh 2015: It's going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend

It's going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend, on at The Dance Centre through this evening as part of the PuSh Festival, was one of my advance must-see picks when Festival Associate Curator Joyce Rosario told me last summer that the show was coming to town. First of all, there's that title, apocalyptically suggestive, but in an amiable don't-sweat-it-just-accept-it sort of way. Then there's the concept of the piece: a solo by Belgian dance artist Lisbeth Gruwez to a sermon by Jimmy Swaggart, from which the title derives.

As Gruwez and her partner in the company Voetvolk, composer and sound designer Maarten Van Cauwenberghe, explained following the show, the origins of the piece began with Gruwez's interest in the gestural vocabulary accompanying speeches made by political leaders from Hitler to Obama. After watching a raft of YouTube videos and assembling a range of movements used to punctuate and emphasize words and phrases, Gruwez went into the dance studio thinking she would build a piece just from the gestures themselves. Very soon, however, she and Van Cauwenberghe realized that they needed words to accompany the movement, and vice-versa. And so, after happening upon a recording of a Swaggart sermon on what the Bible has to say about the perfidy of drugs, Van Cauwenberghe went into the recording studio to create a soundscape. What is so remarkable about the results is that Van Cauwenberghe plays this soundscape live, responding to Gruwez's movements manually from the tech booth by playing a keyboard programmed with a series of sound-words cued to Gruwez's repertoire of gestures and movements. It's a virtuosic display of kinetic and sonic symbiosis in which the text most definitely is not functioning as a score whose lexical meaning Gruwez then illustrates mimetically through corresponding movements; rather, as I rather clumsily tried to suggest in my own contribution to the post-show conversation, Gruwez's movements somatize or enflesh the words, rendering them more sensual and sense-able than sensible--which in the context of religious proselytizing couldn't be more appropriate.

However, the piece actually begins in silence. Gruwez appears at the upstage edge of a piece of carpet illuminated by a shaft of white light. She is dressed androgynously in tailored slacks and a white button-down shirt; her hair is slicked into a Tin-Tin-like quiff. She slowly walks downstage, taking the measure of the audience, holding our gaze for what seems like five or more minutes. Eventually she moves her right arm forward and cuts, or rather caresses, the air before her horizontally with her hand; she repeats this gesture several times, eventually alternating with her left arm, and then adding a lunge with her leg. During this sequence we are gradually aware of guttural sounds that seem to be accompanying the gestures; they get louder and faster as Gruwez accelerates her movements and adds to their repertoire, swinging her arms and bouncing to her knees and turning and bending her torso. What we are witnessing is a double form of rapture, the syllables from Swaggart that Van Cauwenberghe has stretched and manipulated and layered over seeming to prompt these ecstatic eruptions in Gruwez's body--that we then, in turn, become captivated and moved by (as in the best of rhetorical deliveries by both idealists and ideologues).

In the piece's second section, after a most effective costume adjustment, the syllables become full words, each of which has a corresponding movement located in Gruwez's body. But, again, it is Van Cauwenberghe in the tech booth hitting the keys to match Gruwez's movement, rather than the other way around. Thus, while we gradually become aware, via the accretion of and connections between the word-movements, that together they comprise both a grammatically correct sentence and a satisfying movement phrase, language and intelligibility are not really the points. To this end, the movement is deliberately abstracted, and its repetition renders the words a refrain that sways our bodies as much as our minds.

This idea is taken up in the next section, where the speech by Swaggart is distorted by Van Cauwenberghe into muffled noise of the sort that we might hear coming from a stadium off in the distance, sound we cannot fully distinguish but that nevertheless compels and draws us. In other words, the text has fully entered into Gruwez's body, literally shaking her from the inside out--a form of ekstasis (from the ancient Greek, meaning a displacement of the mind) that culminates in a mesmerizing coda in which Gruwez jumps up and down over and over again, and with absolute grace and precision, while a string quartet composed by Van Cauwenberghe plays in the background.

One cannot help but be seduced by this piece, nor by the artists, who were so funny and warm and generous in sharing their process with the audience following the show. A shout-out to local dance artist and Brief Encounters impresario Kristina Lemieux, who led the talkback/danceback. In launching the conversation, Lemieux invited audience members to dance as well as speak their questions should they so desire. While the concept momentarily flummoxed Lisbeth and Maarten, I have rarely been to a post-show discussion in which the conversation flowed so freely and spontaneously.


Friday, January 23, 2015

PuSh 2015: Séquence 8

Montreal is the undisputed world hub for circus arts. In addition to being the home of the National Circus School and the venerable Cirque du Soleil, the city hosts an annual festival of international circus acts every summer and is also the base of two other acclaimed companies: Cirque Éloize and Les sept doigts de la main. The latter is in town this weekend as part of the PuSh Festival, in a co-presentation with Théâtre la seizième and Tom Lightburn.

Founded in 2002 by alumni of Cirque du Soleil and San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus, among others, Les sept doigts eschews the large scale spectacle and Las Vegas showmanship of Guy Laliberté's various Soleil franchises. Instead, they create shows that are more intimate, designed to play venues the size of the Vancouver Playhouse and to appeal in part because they showcase the individual personalities--alongside the incredible physical talents--of their performers. In the case of Séquence 8, a young, polyglot cast of eight comprises the ensemble. Colin acts as our impresario, keeping up a running comic banter throughout the evening, when not doing backflips or flying through a series of stacked hoops, or crooning a moving ballad as Camille leaps and flips through the air, alighting on Tristan's shoulders or upturned hands. Eric juggles blocks of wood with the dexterity and virtuosity of a master sculptor, so that it is impossible for us to determine where wood, air and arms come together and come apart. Dev scales the pole planted upstage right like he is running up the side of a wall, only to wrap one lonely limb around it before sending his whole body sliding downward, somehow stopping and suspending himself before crashing into the ground. Alexandra does impossibly high somersaults and half pikes off of a springy Russian bar perched on the shoulders of two of the men, landing each time with the precision and elegance of a trained gymnast on a balance beam; later she will also twirl and spin through the air in a dizzying display of acrobatics on a circle that descends from the rafters. Finally, even though they only joined the cast two weeks ago, Guillaume and the smallest male member of the troupe (whose name I've forgotten) prove themselves as adept as their cast mates at defying gravity, with Guillaume working a trapeze with fluid grace before later sending his companion vaulting and spiralling through the air by jumping with Colin onto one half of a see-saw.

The circus, premised as it is on the live performance of risk, is a profoundly kinetic form. We marvel at the agility and physical prowess of the artists, but there is also a way in which their daring literally moves us to the edge of our seats. In this physiological or muscularly empathic connection between performers and audience, circus shares something with dance. Thus, it is fitting that amid all of the more traditional acrobatics in Séquence 8 there is also a lot of choreography that would not look out of place at a contemporary dance show (this is, after all, the troupe that choreographed the acclaimed revival of Pippin that just finished its run on Broadway). In this respect, the transitions between individual routines were, for me, a particularly compelling aspect of the show; here we saw, through the execution of more pedestrian--though no less complex or agile--movement sequences, that this ensemble, like fingers on a hand, is very much the sum of its parts.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 22

Tonight at the Roundhouse was our last rehearsal before Saturday and Sunday's performances. Needless to say, we were still fine-tuning a number of things: the timing of the swaying and final crash in the intro; how to get back into our lines before the soldier walk in "Cumbia"; how far to travel during the lasso move in the same section; to remember to play out to all sides of the audience during any improv section; even the quality of our scream at the end of "Gogoprado."

And yet while Sylvain and Lara both had abundant notes at the end of our final run-through of the entire piece, what both mostly emphasized was how far we'd come, and what an excellent job we were doing. Sylvain then also explained why he kept teaching this piece to new groups of community dancers, and why after more than six years he wasn't frustrated or bored. He said it's because with every group he always sets himself new challenges and that the reward comes when each group meets or, as he claimed in our case, exceeds those expectations. And I don't think he was just spouting a bit of pre-performance flattery; while there are obvious differences in ability among individual members of the group, together we have gelled into an ensemble that is now moving as one. And not just in terms of the execution of the steps, but also in terms of the collective energy and spirit that you cannot help but feed off of in a piece such as this.

Speaking of energy and spirit, Sylvain also warned us that we will likely feel a low following Sunday's final performance. It's a regular fact of putting a production such as this together--after working so closely and intensely with each other over 10 weeks, we're bound to feel a bit of a void come next Monday when there's suddenly no regularly scheduled rehearsal to go to. From past experience, I can certainly attest to the feeling Sylvain was describing. Mercifully, Caroline let us know that she and Lara and Anna and the PuSh team would be putting together a list of local community dance resources for us to partake of should we wish to find something specifically kinetic to fill that gap. And already there is a move afoot in the group, spearheaded by Mark Haney and Diane Park, to keep dancing together in the future, with LGC dancer (and SFU Contemporary Arts alum) Jessica Barrett our resident choreographer and the always on point Peter Cox our de facto rehearsal director.

Sign me up folks. And merde to everyone for Saturday!


PuSh 2015: Louise Lecavalier

Even standing on her head, Louise Lecavalier is mesmerizing. With her long platinum blonde dreadlocks, bulging biceps and quads, and trademark mid-air barrel rolls, Lecavalier seared herself into the collective consciousness of both dance and pop culture audiences in the 1980s as the principal dancer for Édouard Lock's La La La Human Steps and the star of music videos by David Bowie. Now in her mid-50s, and following major hip surgery several years ago, Lecavalier and her company Fou Glorieux are in town with So Blue, a co-presentation of the PuSh Festival, DanceHouse and SFU Woodward's 149 Arts Society. Sixty minutes of non-stop, full-out movement set to a pulsating electronic score by Mercan Dede, the piece is a testament to Lecavalier's unique and undiminished gifts: her fearless sense of risk; her disciplined technique; her ferocious energy; and, above all, her commanding rapport with the audience.

So Blue's Vancouver premiere is a treat for another reason, for it marks Lecavalier's debut, as it were, as a solo choreographer. Lecavalier formed Fou Glorieux in 2006 as a means to work, as a mature dancer, with artists whose vision aligned with hers, collaborating with choreographers like Benoît Lachambre, Crystal Pite, Tedd Robinson, the late Nigel Charnock, and even her former partner Lock on a series of solos and duets that have toured North America and Europe (a double bill of Charnock's Children and Lock's A Few Minutes of Lock was presented by DanceHouse here in Vancouver in 2011). While Lecavalier was very much an active partner in the creation of these works, with So Blue the concept and choreography are all her own. And what they reveal is a dance artist fully attuned to just how far beyond our imagined limits she can push her body in time and space.

The work begins with the houselights up. Lecavalier enters discreetly, almost surreptitiously, upstage right and takes a seat on a chair. Her hair, still bright blonde, is shorter now, cut into an asymmetrical bob; she is much tinier than I remember in my imagination. At a certain point, she gets up and moves downstage into a square of light that frames a jagged bit of tape on the floor; she leans into a lunge, the music starts, and then she is off. Her feet shuffle back and forth, left and right, sending her across the stage as if on an invisible conveyor belt. A single leg pulses and shakes for what seems like a full minute before alighting almost weightlessly on the stage floor. Hips twist, arms rotate, knees bend, the head bobs: during this opening sequence Lecavalier's whole body is in constant motion, as if the music has entered her like an electric current and she will not stop moving until she has expended every last ounce of this surplus kinetic energy. It was a force that could be palpably felt in the audience, as for the first ten minutes of the piece, while Lecavalier is moving frenetically, but also with incredibly virtuosity, across the stage, it seemed as if we had all taken a collective inhalation of breath, which we only let out once Lecavalier paused and dropped to the floor.

Which brings me to that headstand. It comes as such an unexpected but gratefully received gift as, from a crouched position on the floor, Lecavalier slowly raises first one and then the other of her legs into full and perfectly ramrod verticality. And there she remains, the headstand less a look-at-me/look-at-what-I-can-do stunt than a moment of rest and syncopated connection between performer and audience.  By that I mean that with the music having cut out at this point, and with Lecavalier's t-shirt having fallen down around her shoulders to reveal her bare torso, we become transfixed by the convex and concave pulsing of her famously chiseled abdomen as she breathes in and out, in and out, revealing to us that dance is as much about the internal rhythms of the body as it is about the external expression of those rhythms. Not that Lecavalier remains stock still throughout this sequence. Towards the end, she begins to slowly move her legs back and forth, while still balancing on her head, a statue brought back to life.

The second half of So Blue comprises a series of "failed" duets with Frédéric Tavernini, an incredibly tall and long-limbed dancer who arrives on stage almost as a provocation to Lecavalier (he even has a similar haircut), the two of them shimmying back and forth in rectangles of light centre stage, coming closer and closer, but never fully connecting--almost like positive and negative charges of energy. It's only after Tavernini's second appearance that we get some actual partnering between the dancers--but even here this is preceded by a deliberately awkward sequence in which Lecavalier and Tavernini mime confusion about who is supposed to embrace and lead, or spin, or be lifted by whom. Featuring some vaguely Lock-like quick turns, I read this bit as witty nod to Lecavalier's early career and the way in which her androgyny and physicality challenged entrenched gendered norms of modern dance.

Whether this was intentional or not, the piece as a whole is a triumph and confirms that Lecavalier's iconicity as a dance artist is complete: this uncompromising and unparalleled mover is now also a choreographer of extraordinary talent. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 21

I'm writing this just after getting home from our penultimate rehearsal at the Roundhouse, as I need tomorrow morning to catch up on class prep. All of this community dancing was bound to catch up with me eventually, and on top of a cold and incrementally increasing pre-performance jitters, PuSh opens tomorrow! So we must steal time where we can, preferably with a big glass of wine to hand (cheers, Hilary!).

I tested out my second costume this evening; the loud orange and red theme seemed to past muster with most of my dance peeps in our corner. That said, I did have a few second thoughts when Sylvain cautioned at the end that the brighter and more flamboyant one's costume, the more eyes focused on one. Hmmm... It's not that I don't know the choreography by now. But I'm still making the occasional mistake. And tonight those mistakes cropped up in the oddest of places, in moves that have previously been rote and that I've had down for weeks now. I blame the cold medicine. And those mounting butterflies in the stomach.

Not that it's ever too late for fine-tuning and clarification. Pre-rehearsal I confirmed with Caroline the counts on the backwards and forwards shoulder shimmies leading into the cape move in "Gogoprado," as I always seem to be early on the latter. And who knew that my lead into the shhhh lunge in "Ima" had been incorrect all this time? It's not a free-wheeling twirl, as I've been doing, hoping I land with the right foot forward. There's actually a step forward with the left leg, followed by a pivot and a transfer of weight to the right leg, and then a very logical, and I must say far easier, lunge forward with the left leg that coincides with the arrival of right index finger to lips. To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, it's these little details we discover together that make all of this worthwhile.

We concluded the rehearsal with a complete run-through, including our entrances and the intro section, and on through to our concluding bows (which are still a bit messy). I had the odd stumble and brain fart here and there, but on the whole Sylvain was very pleased, including with the level of energy that we maintained throughout. The key, he reminded us in delivering his notes at the end, is to maintain that energy across all four performances on Saturday and Sunday, especially during "Cumbia" and "Champagne."

That will definitely be a challenge as on top of our final rehearsal on Wednesday I am out at a show every night between now and then, and also following our first two performances on Saturday. It all sounded doable back when I planned this in November, and when a new semester of classes still seemed remote.

All of which is to say sorry to my students if this week's classes seem a bit slap-dash. Because, truth be told, I'm far more comfortable winging a lecture on The Bacchae than trying to mark my way through 30 minutes of choreography.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 20

What a difference being outdoors makes! Yesterday afternoon we gathered on the damp and puddle-filled Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza for our first run-through on site. And what a huge site it is. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually traversed this space--so rarely is it accessible to the public (unless you want to pay to browse for over-prized Christmas ornaments). This is a shame, because it's a beautiful outdoor square that is crying out to be animated with people. Which, of course, is where we come in. Let's hope that the performances of Le Grand Continental next weekend are the start of a wave of free performance-based activities--dances, concerts, circus acts, plays and puppet shows, films--in this area. Needless to say, PuSh's recent relocation to the nearby CBC building makes it a logical incubator for such projects.

But back to questions of size. While the spacing of our lines hasn't actually changed, we have a lot more room on the outer edges. This means that--horizontally, vertically, and diagonally--we can travel a lot further during the bigger moves in the piece. Needless to say, this is something Sylvain encouraged us to take advantage of. However, it took some getting used to. For me, in particular, there was something about the fact that our "vast o'erhanging canopy" was now the sky instead of the ceiling of the Ukrainian Hall or Roundhouse Theatre that caused some initial disorientation. At first I was actually stumbling in places where I wouldn't normally--in part, I think, because my normal visual landmarks were gone. And also because the actual grade and texture of the ground were different. Dancing on concrete is not the same as dancing on parquet or a sprung studio floor. Concrete is hard and unyielding; it has striations and divots; it slopes in unexpected places. And when it's wet, marks painted in chalk tend to disappear quickly--which caused a great deal of confusion for all of us during one of the run-throughs of "India." (Mercifully, Emily is on this and will re-do the marks with something more permanent later this week, when it's dry.) Surprisingly, I didn't really mind lying down on the concrete during the "Fatboy Slim" section; it was cold, to be sure, but not massively uncomfortable, and the wetness and general dirt and detritus of the ground didn't seem to leave any lasting marks on my costume.

Yesterday's rehearsal actually coincided with a performance at the Queen E, which practically meant two things. First, there were a lot of people shooting us bewildered glances as they crossed the plaza to enter the theatre, and who then, once inside, took up positions along the glass wall to watch us as they waited for their own show to start. Second, once their show started we couldn't play the music at full volume, and so many of us were straining to hear our counts--most especially, for me, during the intro section. Our energy levels were also a bit lower than normal as a result--something that Sylvain reminded us we needed to work on for the actual performances.

Before a full run-through we spent most of our time arranging ourselves into lines of four in order to rehearse our entrance from the green room into the dance space on the plaza. It was a surprisingly complicated endeavour! Ditto the working out of our bows at the end, entailing as they do a front and back shuffle of lines; the singling out of Sylvain, Lara, Caroline and Anna; and the welcoming back on stage of the children. I'm sure by that point in the performances I'll be in a daze and on auto-pilot, so will just follow what my neighbours do.

As for the actual green room, where we dumped our gear and where, next Saturday and Sunday, we'll be able to change and hang out and kibitz before, in between, and following our performances, it's the former restaurant attached to the Queen E, on the east side of the plaza. Another shamefully wasted and underused part of this civic theatre complex, it nevertheless suits our purposes well: roomy enough to accommodate us all, and with washrooms in the basement. There is the issue of curtains or blackout paper needing to be hung between now and next weekend, but once again Emily is on that. Best of all, the room will be overseen by the watchful eye of Barb Clausen, who unfortunately had to drop out of the show midway through the rehearsal process, but who had asked to be a part of it in some way, if possible. I'm glad she could, and it was great to catch up with her yesterday.

Oh, and I haven't even mentioned everyone's costumes! Suffice to say, they ran the gamut: from understated to over-the-top; from fun to formal; from culturally specific to a mish-mash of different styles. Many who were showing a bit more skin to begin with kept adding layers as the afternoon progressed, and the weather will likely affect some last-minute choices come performance days. For the time being, however, my first choice got a thumbs up. And, thanks to Hilary, I now have the bottom half of my second outfit, which I'll debut at rehearsal on Monday.

Only two more of those rehearsals left... One benefit of the Festival opening on Tuesday is that there will be no time to feel nervous. Onward!


Friday, January 16, 2015

PuSh 2015: Bullet Catch

Although technically the 2015 edition of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival doesn't open until next Tuesday (with the great Louise Lecavalier's So Blue at SFU Woodward's), already one show is up and running. Bullet Catch, co-presented with the Arts Club and on at Granville Island's Revue Stage through February 7, is a one-man show written, performed and co-directed by Scotland's Rob Drummond. Produced in association with Glasgow's legendary performing arts hub The Arches, the show is about magic, or more specifically our will to believe, or not believe, in the magic of the theatre.

Over the course of 75 minutes, Drummond, himself a trained magician, gradually pieces together for us the story of William Henderson, a predecessor in the trade who supposedly died performing a trick even Harry Houdini refused to attempt--catching in one's teeth a bullet fired by a volunteer from the audience at point blank range. Now Drummond, with the help of his own volunteer recruit from among our ranks, proposes to repeat the trick for us as the climax to his show. At last night's opening performance that volunteer was Philip, a student recently arrived in the city from Greece with the goal of studying medicine, and who was chosen from among a lively and rather talkative group of potential candidates via the first of Drummond's feats of mind-reading, a trick involving two white and one black marbles.

Philip is then invited on stage and over the remainder of the show he and Drummond (with, in our case last night, the additional help of fellow audience member Carolyn as surrogate reader) tell the story of Henderson's tragic demise, while also slowly establishing a bond of trust through an accretion of ever more incredible feats of clairvoyance, levitation, and the like. In the case of the former strand of the show, we learn that Henderson's death may not have been a tragic accident, but in fact a willed suicide. This idea of free will versus predestination is then skillfully woven by Drummond into the increasingly suspenseful build-up to his own performance of the death-defying trick, letting Philip know that whatever happens as a consequence of his choosing to fire the gun (which we see being loaded with very real bullets), he is off the hook.

I won't spoil the ending to the show by revealing what happens next, although given that the show runs for three more weeks, future audiences can surmise for themselves. Which is not in any way to suggest that the piece is gimmicky. Quite the contrary, the show is in fact a profound meditation on the nature of belief. To wit: at one point, following the successful performance of a particularly stunning trick, Drummond asks audience members if they want to know the secret behind the illusion. Roughly three-quarters of last night's audience said yes. But Drummond doesn't just go with the majority; he lets those of us who prefer to retain the sense of mystery and awe surrounding the trick close our eyes while he reveals his wires, as it were, to the rest. As Drummond informed us, it would feel like forever, and indeed there were moments when I had to struggle mightily against opening my eyes to take a peek; but I resisted, and I somehow felt better for it. Because, as Drummond demonstrates here--and as I like to tell my students, paraphrasing the great performance studies scholar Richard Schechner--the make-believe of the theatre is also about making belief. And though many of us may have exited the theatre questioning the existence of William Henderson, one thing we were never in doubt of was the strength and sincerity of the bond established between Drummond and Philip.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 19

Back at the Roundhouse, Sylvain first had us refine the "Fatboy Slim" section with the children: once on its own, when I accidentally hit poor Shauna's head during the writhing-on-the-ground bit; and then moving into it from "India," the cross of which I thought we pretty much nailed. (Not so later on, during our full run through, according to Lara.) I'm now following Peggy during this cross, as there was some final futzing with line-positioning last night. Alas, that means I have fewer opportunities to tease Caroline.

After we bid goodnight to the children, we then learned the moves that accompany the intro, our last bit of new choreography. The moves themselves are not very complicated, but there is more silent counting we have to do in order to hit our various musical cues--not least just before the big crash at the end, which leads directly into the start of "Gogoprado." And woe betide the dancer who is late to his or her mark for that.

Following break, we welcomed our first unofficial audience into the rehearsal room: members of the PuSh Patrons Circle, who'd been invited to catch a sneak peek of the work, along with several PuSh Festival staff. It was the latter group's presence that made me most nervous, precisely because I know them so well--not to mention their own personal and professional stakes in the show. At the same time, even this relatively small group immediately raised everyone's energy levels. But before we could release that energy fully, Sylvain had us show him "Champagne," which he hadn't yet seen since his return from Montreal. The one key bit of information we learned from that was that we don't have to land on our marks at the end of the ninth and final count of eight during the improvised jumping that concludes the piece; we just have to land on the beat and all together (which is easier said than done).

As for the full run-through that we then performed for our guests, it was super-fun. And from my perspective in the upstage right corner, it also looked pretty sharp. Sure, we made mistakes here and there (myself included), and our lines are still wobbly from time to time (especially during "Cumbia"). But where for the first time I really felt we were all in sync was being fully in the moment: focused, but having fun; and self-aware enough to recover quickly when we'd made mistakes. Not that Sylvain and Lara didn't have abundant notes for us (see above). But those notes are now less about issuing large-scale corrections than encouraging us to be bigger and bolder, or else refining the quality of a move we already know. The best thing of all was seeing how stoked everyone still was at the end of the run-through. Indeed, Jody was disappointed we didn't have time to do it all again.

Saturday afternoon we'll be outdoors at the Queen E Plaza for the first time. Goodbye sprung floor, hello concrete. And likely rain. It should be an interesting test. And I have all of two days to finalize my costumes.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 18

Having decamped the Ukrainian Centre for the Roundhouse, last night's rehearsal also marked Sylvain's return, and our introduction to the children who will be spotlighted during the "Fatboy Slim" section. Everyone in our corner was very appreciative of the extra space afforded by the Roundhouse theatre, not least Sara, Leslie and Jane, who no longer have to bang against a wall during the stage right travel sections of "Stockfunk" and "India." That said, while the lighting lent an added element of theatricality to the whole proceedings, it also made things even hotter than the already stifling UC. I definitely sweated the most so far.

Then again, that could just be due to Sylvain putting us through our paces. He seemed genuinely impressed by most of what he saw, although our eagerness to please combined with the excitement of being in a new space contributed to a bit of a bungle on our first few attempts of "India": we went too fast to begin with and our first cross was a disaster. But we recovered quickly and we were all on our marks by the end of things.

After that we spent a lot of time on "Cumbia," with Sylvain reminding us that the devil is in the details. This meant, among other things, correcting our focus during the walk-like-an-Egyptian bit; encouraging us to look scarier (and to scream) during the downstage and upstage monster crunches; and inviting us to travel more on the walk leading into the soldier steps.

But all of this was preceded by our first full run-through of the "Fatboy Slim" section, which meant we were finally let in on the secret of the children's participation, and their role in drawing attention to and then initiating our rising up from our slumped positions on the floor. I'll leave that secret as something to be discovered by audiences who attend the performances. For now, I'll just say that I was relieved to discover that beyond a few arm snaps and some general shaking and writhing there wasn't a lot of new choreography to learn.

On my way to rehearsal I'd stopped by Value Village on East Hastings to ferret out some costume possibilities. I was mostly disappointed by what I found, but I did come away with one shirt that was chosen because it matched the colour of one of the pairs of trainers I'll likely be wearing during two of the four performances. Most of the folks I showed it to gave it a thumbs up. But I still need something to go under it to keep me warm and to wick away the moisture. So far I've been thwarted by Mountain Equipment Co-Op and most sports stores. Hilary and Sara and Diane variously suggested Mark's Work Warehouse, American Apparel and Winners--all of which I've been told are cheaper than Value Village! And you can return things! None of this solves the problem of what to do about a second costume, but at least we're making some progress.

On Wednesday Sylvain will start by definitively setting our entrances. Then it's more time with the kids and back to refining each section. During the second hour we'll be joined by some of PuSh's Patrons Circle members, who have been invited to sit in on one of our rehearsals as a perk for their donations to the organization. Hilary and I joked that they may ask for their money back. But Individual Giving Coordinator Katie Koncan, who dropped by last night to see how things were going, said she was gobsmacked by how much progress we'd made and that she was sure everyone would be most impressed.

In truth, the visitors' presence will likely be a good thing. Sylvain has been reminding us since the beginning that we're going to have people all around us during the actual performances and that they'll be very much in our faces, going wild and screaming and yelling out our names. But, still, the idea of an audience is something I've so far bracketed off as an abstraction, a bit unreal and way in the future.

Look's like that future is now here, and that it comes with people expecting to be entertained. Nothing to do but dance for them, baby.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 17

Last night we said goodbye to the Ukrainian Centre; following Saturday's final movement clinic at the Dance Centre, our remaining indoor rehearsals will now take place at the Roundhouse. There's only four more of them--plus two run-throughs on the Queen Elizabeth Plaza itself. Yikes! This is starting to feel real.

One consequence of moving to the Roundhouse will be an increase in space. Where our lines get most out of whack at the moment, and the two sections Lara drilled us on the hardest last night--the bit in "India" leading from the big arms into the ballet step and the waltz, and the part in "Cumbia" where we do the three cool walks, followed by the soldier steps--are largely a consequence of there not being enough space on either side of the UC. Hopefully that issue will be resolved next week.

One issue Jane and I resolved on our own in the free practice time before rehearsal began was which way to turn into the leprechaun steps from the skipping forward in "Stockfunk." I continue to be amazed at how well we have all been working together as resources for one another on this project, and our commitment to getting things right, now matter how long it takes. Of course, sometimes we trick ourselves into the wrong answer, as Jane and I discovered again in trying to sort out the puzzle of how many crocodile arms each side during "Gogoprado."

We also rehearsed for the first time the introduction to Le Grand Continental, including our entrances. It involved a lot of math to begin with, but eventually we were able to see how the desired effect all came together--and, I have to say, it was pretty cool.

An added bonus last night was that I was dancing beside Caroline for most of the evening, as she was temporarily filling in a blank spot on the grid. We were able to tap her for many of our more immediate questions following each run-through and her overall energy and virtuoso movement were a spur for me to step up my game. Plus it was fun to give her a hard time when something went awry--rare in her case, but also a nice reminder that we're all in this together, regardless of our levels of dance training.

I will say that I am starting to feel the pressure of putting together my costumes. Several people have been trying out different outfits, including Jane and Hilary last night. Me, I'm so far drawing a blank. I think I'm partly stumped by trying to second guess the weather. That and the fact that everything in my closet that looks good is also decidedly unconducive to vigorous movement. I may have to visit the thrift shops this weekend.

Next Monday Sylvain returns--gulp! And the children join us. It just gets better and better.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Le Grand Continental: Rehearsal 16

Last night we were back at it at the Ukrainian Hall following our two-week holiday break. I had gotten there fairly early and was surprised to see how many people were already on the floor practicing the "Champagne" section with Caroline. Following several catch-up conversations (including one between Ling and myself on the importance of comfortable undergarments, and another with Diane et al on the belly dancing revival), we were called to order by the acerbically irrepressible Emily--who immediately freaked us all out by reminding us that we opened just over two weeks. And that, apparently, we still had two sections to learn.

Wait, had I missed something? I'm assuming that these new sections refer to the intro (how we arrive on stage) and the "Fatboy Slim" section, which, since we're mostly just lying on the ground, shouldn't prove too taxing.

Getting back into the groove of what we'd already learned, however, was very challenging indeed. In truth, we were all a little rusty and despite the fact that I'd practiced in my little home office garrett nearly every day during the break, when Lara led us through each of the sections, there were still some obvious hiccups. For most of us, the actual steps came back quickly; it's refining the execution and character and energy of those steps we have to work on. As Lara noted, we can't just mark the choreography; we have to commit to it each time. Otherwise, there's bound to be a pile-up of bodies somewhere down the road.

The other thing we still need to perfect is the clarity and precision of our lines. They get a little wonky in various sections, as some of us take bigger steps than others, or travel a bit when we should be remaining more or less on the spot, or move more quickly during the cross in "India" (a bit which we had down before the break, but that last night was somewhat scattershot). We have to keep remembering to check in with the others in our lines and adjust accordingly--preferably, as Lara reminded us, in one or even half a count as opposed to three or four.

Easier said than done, but I'm sure we'll get there. Sylvain returns next week, at which point things will really get serious!