Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mountain View Solstice Dancers: Rehearsal 3

I was pretty tired at the start of last night's rehearsal--a long day followed by a rushed dinner and a mostly uphill bike ride against the wind. When Mark announced that there was a plan afoot to have us sing in addition to dance during part of the June 21 performance I was suddenly re-energized--with horror! Fortunately it has since been clarified that the singing won't be compulsory. And it sounds like, as with the overall concept of the piece, this part of it has been thought through with care. I look forward to seeing how it evolves--just without me contributing any off-key bass notes.

After a brief warm-up Jessica showed us, through the small band of windows on the north side of Celebration Hall, where we would be beginning our dance--from just beyond the lip of the bike bath that cuts across the cemetery at 37th. We will process up to the Hall in time with the first piece of music, Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel." As part of that procession, however, there will be various bits of choreography, the first few motifs of which we learned last night. These included a simple bounce up and down on the spot to the first piano note; a reaching of our hands skyward and then a twisty floating of them down to our sides, followed by a final, gentle bump of the arms in time to another of the piano notes (a really gorgeous move); and, finally, a little grapevine and hop on the spot with a partner. The latter took Susie and I a bit of time to master, but eventually we got there--and we had a lot of fun doing so.

Then came the really complicated part: massing in a triangle formation and learning an 11-count sequence from start to finish. The sequence begins with a coordinated leg and arm circle, followed by a step backward with upraised arms, a step forward with hands on knees, a quarter turn to the left, a torso swivel, and various bits of arms stretches and rolls that conclude with our hands above our heads and balancing on our toes, ready to fall on eleven. That I can remember most of this sequence in my head is a good sign. Now it's just finding time to practice it between now and next Monday.

That's right: no holiday for us. Not when there's only eleven more weeks to performance.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Manuel Roque at the Vancouver International Dance Festival

Manuel Roque's Ne meurs pas tout de suite, on nous regarde (Don't die right now, we're being watched), the closing show at this year's Vancouver International Dance Festival, is as excessive as its title is long. From the balloons that litter the stage, and to which co-performer Lucie Vigneault keeps adding from her plastic deck chair at the top of the show (which Roque, seated beside her, registers with only the faintest of interest); to Roque moaning and grunting while he slithers about the stage and eventually up into the audience to lie in the laps of various patrons; to a one-sided and thoroughly banal telephone conversation by Vigneault; to Roque jumping about the stage with increasing freneticism while repeating over and over, "Lucie, look at me": durationally and conceptually, everything about this piece is designed to test the limits of our spectating patience.

And yet it is never for a second boring. The performers, even when they are doing nothing, are utterly compelling to watch. One gets the sense, not least from the work's title, that theirs is an environment not completely of their own choosing--including the fact that they have to share it with each other. In this space of enforced play--to which we are tipped not just by the balloons, but also by the party hats that the performers wear--Vigeneault and Roque must constantly seek out new ways to amuse themselves. In so doing, they interact with the space and its objects in ways that feel authentic and spontaneous despite their routine repetitiveness: Roque jumping up and down over and over, or wrestling with an inflatable giraffe (or was it a deer?); Vigneault trying to crush the balloons with the legs of her deck chair or, at the microphone, insisting ad infinitum that what she has to say is IM-POR-TANT. And for a piece that has very little "choreography" in the traditional sense, the movement was nevertheless consistently surprising and--precisely because of its iterativeness--necessarily virtuosic.

Indeed, there is a way in which one can read Ne meurs pas as an extended rehearsal for partnering. Having spent the whole piece either trying to upstage or just plain get the other's attention, at the end Roque and Vigneault come together in a brief push-pull pas de deux that sees Roque persevere in extending his hands to initiate the duet as Vigneault appears to rebuff him by poking him in the chest. Or maybe in this unreal world of post-apocalyptic play she is just checking to make sure he exists. Either way, they are already dancing with each other--as, of course, they have been all along.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ballet BC at the Queen E

Ballet BC's Trace program is on at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre this weekend. The coup of the evening is artistic director Emily Molnar landing William Forsythe's "workwithinwork" for the company. One other Forsythe piece, the witty "Herman Schmerman," is already part of the Ballet BC repertoire, but "workwithinwork" is Forsythe at his most rigorously deconstructive and technically complex. First premiering in 1998, and here receiving its Canadian debut, the piece is set to a violin duet by Luciano Berio and clocks in at a demanding 35 minutes or more. Part of what makes watching Forsythe--and this work, in particular--at once so challenging and rewarding is that he gives his audiences neither a narrative nor a movement through-line; instead, he creates a series of synchronous tableaux in which he shows us with precise accumulation the extraordinary physicality and athletic training that goes into the execution of a signature pose or a seemingly effortless bit of partnering. Forsythe is less interested in completion and dancers in this piece will frequently break off (or out of) a movement pattern before it is "finished" to walk nonchalantly offstage. In this way, Forsythe takes apart ballet's set structures and exposes the work that goes into making the work.

If "workwithinwork" is dance stripped down to its bare essentials--bodies moving in space--then the second piece on the program, the world premiere of Walter Matteini's Lascia ch'io pianga, shows what can happen when a concept becomes overdressed in theatrical embellishment. From the weighty choice of music (from Verdi and Vivaldi to Bach and Handel), to the evocative lighting by James Proudfoot, and the mixed register costume design by Ina Broeckx (the men in tux tails, the women divided between masculine slacks and shapeless shifts), everything about the piece screams "pay attention, this is meaningful." Except that I found the choreography anything but, and apart from a final mournful procession of company members to an upstage recess, all that I have retained is Emily Chessa's opening and closing gesture of wiping off her arms and the gimmick of suspending two of the women dancers on swings.

The evening closed with the audience favourite Petite Cérémonie, by Medhi Walerski. First set on the company in 2011, the piece is based on Walerski's interviews with company members about the concept of "life in a box," and appropriately features a series of white cubes--which get a vigorous workout, especially during a riotous closing sequence set to the allegro movement of Vivaldi's "Winter" section of The Four Seasons. Despite the undeniably pleasurable and infectious energy derived from the ending, and also the humour of an earlier bit in which Peter Smida (taking over from much lamented former company member Dario Dinuzzi) addresses the audience about the differences between men's and women's brains while juggling, for my money nothing can beat the simple elegance of the opening. With the wings and back walls of the stage exposed, the dancers, beginning with Gilbert Small, enter noiselessly one by one (including from the audience), joining each other in a simple metronomic two-step in which they shift their weight from foot to foot. Here is corps de ballet as chorus line that despite the lack of Broadway-style razzmatazz still conveys a palpably singular sensation of what it feels like to watch a group of individuals move as one.

Speaking of Walerski, Ballet BC has announced its line-up for its 2015-16 season, which will also be its 30th anniversary. It features a new evening-length work by Walerski, who will be joining the company for a three-year stint as choreographer-in-residence. Also on tap are Canadian premieres by Crystal Pite and Sharon Eyal, new work by Cayetano Soto and Jorma Elo, and the return of Molnar's own 16 + a room.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Monsieur Auburtin at The Dance Centre

Last year Serge Bennathan, artistic director of Les Productions Figlio, had a cancer scare. The episode prompted him to reflect back upon his life and, in particular, his long career in dance. That reflection initially took the form of text and in Bennathan's latest creation, Monsieur Auburtin, that form remains dominant. The work, which runs at The Dance Centre through this Saturday in a co-presentation with the Chutzpah! Festival, sees Bennathan seated at a laptop computer reading his first-person script; he is accompanied by Bertrand Chénier on electric guitar and piano. Two female dancers, Erin Drumheller (who also plays violin) and the ubiquitous Kim Stevenson, are also part of the piece--though to what precise ends remains somewhat unclear to me.

After thanking us for coming and apologizing unnecessarily for his French accent, Bennathan launches us into his narrative, taking us back to 1963; it's the height of the Cold War and little Serge's father, a military man in France, wants his son to take up the flute--or, more precisely, as Bennathan notes with disdain, what in English we would call the recorder. The choice of instrument is less important than that the activity of studying and practising it will occupy time, keeping Serge--who has a penchant for getting into trouble (including, a little later, stealing motorcycles and selling their parts)--off the streets. But Serge rebels, announcing one day that he no longer wants to study the recorder. To his surprise, his father acquiesces to this desire. However, Serge is not off the hook, for eventually the day comes when his father asks him what he will do instead. Thinking quickly, Serge remembers that he has a friend a few floors up in his building who studies ballet; he has no idea what "ballet" is, but nevertheless blurts out that he wants to study it.

And so begins Bennathan's apprenticeship in dance, as he enrols in an introductory ballet class taught by the M. Auburtin of the title. The arc of that apprenticeship during Bennathan's years in France, before he emigrated to Canada, gives the piece its narrative structure, which is mostly built around a series of signal encounters with ballet legends, all set against the backdrop of Bennathan's youthful arrogance and apparently willful squandering of the opportunities he is being given and the skills he is being taught. Thus, for example, M. Auburtin introduces him, via a series of photographs, to the commanding presence of Nijinsky, upon whose flexed ankle, poised to launch the dancer into flight in a still from L'après-midi d'une faune, Bennathan becomes obsessed. Later, having moved to Paris as a teenager to study, Bennathan becomes a devotee of another sexually charismatic male ballet star, in this case Rudolf Nureyev, who was then in charge of the Paris Opéra Ballet. Bennathan recounts an hilarious anecdote about stealing a pair of Nureyev's tights, which he then promptly shows us. But such youthful escapades came at the expense of the discipline demanded by his disappointed Cuban ballet master, who slaps Bennathan at one point for arriving at the theatre fifteen minutes before curtain.

Finally, the last section of Bennathan's narrative is devoted to his time dancing for Roland Petit, who in the early 1970s was starting up a new ballet company in Marseille and looking for dancers. At an audition in Paris packed with more than 200 male dancers, Bennathan makes it to the last 10 (based in part on his strengths in jumping), only to have his hopes dashed when he is not one of the final four chosen. However, remaining at the barre dazed and confused, his disappointed immobility is eventually rewarded when Petit suddenly looks up from his conversation with the chosen and motions him over to join them. Bennathan's is launched on his career, one that will eventually take him from the apartment block in Marseille he shares with a posse of motherly prostitutes to points all around the world, including a tour of Canada, where he gets his first taste of Vancouver. Oh yes, and during his time with Petit, Bennathan will also spend a week taking more or less private class with one Mischa Baryshnikov. However transformative this event is, witnessing Pina Bausch's Cafe Müller for the first time is even more mind-blowing for Bennathan, an experience that will force him to question his years of classical training and that will eventually launch him on the path of contemporary dance.

One cannot help but be charmed by the recounting of such moments. Bennathan is a gifted and compelling storyteller, applying his choreographic skills with rhythm and pacing to shape an autobiographical fable that, like the best story ballets (including Bennathan's favourite Giselle), seems at once magical and inevitable. Chénier's musical accompaniment aids immeasurably to this end, providing tempo but also crucially creating atmosphere, including dramatic suspense. The dancing, however, I found more difficult to integrate into the overall concept of the piece. At times Drumheller and Stevenson, who are both very talented movers, appeared to be illustrating what Bennathan was describing, and at other times deliberately burlesquing it. Whatever the case, mostly I just wished there was more movement--full stop. For long stretches the dancers remain stationary on the stage, and only rarely--in the few moments he gets up from his chair to move up- or downstage to read from a sheaf of printed pages, do they interact with Bennathan directly. This is in contrast to an earlier excerpt from the work-in-progress that I saw at EDAM last fall. Then Bennathan was standing throughout, and the female dancers (Karissa Barry and Hilary Maxwell) interacted with him--and each other--much more physically, at various points encircling him like the Wilis from Giselle.

I realize that the piece has become something much different in its present incarnation. But as Bennathan--who after last night's performance was presented by Howard Jang with the Canada Council's Jacqueline Lemieux Prize for dance--has distinguished himself in this country as such an adept choreographer for women, I was hoping to see more of this artistry in action. Perhaps that will become the second half of the story of Bennathan's life in dance--which, happily for us, is still unfolding.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mountain View Solstice Dancers: Rehearsal 2

Last night at Celebration Hall, Jessica began by introducing us to new rehearsal assistant Hayley (I think I've got that right), who took us through a few opening somatic breathing and knee bending exercises in order to get us to think about ways to mitigate the effects of dancing on a concrete floor. Then, after a brief warm-up, Jessica reversed the process of last week, having us start with our concluding shaped improv exercise.

Soon, however, the improv morphed into the contact variety as we paired off and played with transferring weight and following the direction of different touching limbs, starting with out foreheads. Having long marvelled at the spontaneous flow and reciprocal response of professional contact dancers, it was fun to actually move in this way, working first with Ellen and then Christine and finally Ling. Needless to say, Ling and I eventually ended up on the floor in a fit of giggles.

The main portion of the rehearsal was devoted to taking our waltz steps and arm combinations from last week and putting them together in our first choreographic pattern, a group procession in which we floated (or "wafted," to use Jessica's term) down the length of the hall, doing a turn with our same waltz step (but a new set of arms), and then floated back. It sounds simple, but figuring out the number of steps to our turns and when to begin vis-a-vis each preceding set of partners took some time. Eventually we got there and now we have our first phrase to practice at home.

Among the announcements at the end of the rehearsal, Diane--who is a professional couturier--let us know her concept for our costumes. We're all to wear white. That means finding some appropriate pants, I guess. I think I'll forgo Value Village this time.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dairakudakan at the Vancouver International Dance Festival

The showcase event of this year's Vancouver International Dance Festival, Dairakudakan's Mushi no Hoshi (Space Insect) concluded its two night run at the Vancouver Playhouse last evening. Founded and led by Akaji Maro, who studied with the legendary Tatsumi Hijikata (together with Kazuo Ohno, one of the pioneers of butoh as a form), Dairakudakan is one of the oldest and most respected butoh companies in Japan. The company brought its latest evening-length creation to VIDF, an epic blending of the ancient and the futuristic that, like all great works of butoh, is about animating metamorphosis--both in terms of image and in terms of movement. In the case of Mushi no Hoshi there was an added thematic resonance to butoh's traditional post-atomic, in extremis somatic concerns, as movies from Them to Starship Troopers have repeatedly reminded us that if any creatures are going to survive--and even thrive--after a nuclear apocalypse, it's insects.

Thus, on a set dominated by one large central and four smaller surrounding platforms encircled by long vertical poles (suggesting at once wind chimes and prison bars), the piece begins with a scene entitled "End of Days." The full company, which numbers more than 20, moves automaton-like in a circle around the main platform; each dancer is clad in street clothes, though their exposed limbs and faces are covered in butoh's signature white chalk. Sliding one leg forward, and then the next, while bending in the opposite direction at the waist, the shell-shocked group slowly progresses in a circuit. At a certain point, one of the women turns to face the audience, opening her eyes and mouth in horror, before falling back in line with the onward march of the group. Each of the other dancers will greet us in a similar manner, their individual expressions of distress or stupefaction variations on a collective trauma. Eventually pairs of dancers will break out of the group and join each other inside the enclosed main platform, adopting poses or executing repetitive movements suggestive of extreme agitation.

Following a brief blackout we are immediately transported to the world of our insect visitors, with five men in the company emerging from the wings on all fours; they wear overturned teapots on their heads and rope girdles wrapped around their waists. The effect is comic, but in a suitably disturbing way; the point is that they look alien, and whether dancing upright with jazz hands on crawling about the stage on the tips of their fingers, the sense images these dancers convey can't help insinuating themselves with a shudder into one's own body. Especially when five women from the company seem to be imprisoned within the platforms, at once guarded and baited by the men in teapots, as well as by four apparent overlords--distinguished by the fact that we can see their faces and they wear rope epaulets (my favourite detail among all the brilliant costuming effects). Soon, however, the women are freed by a sage-like figure who is very visibly coded as from another era, and who will return at various crucial points throughout the piece.

At first, based largely on this opening establishment of Mushi no Hoshi's "insect zone," I was wont to see Maro as reinscribing various traditional gender hierarchies--binaries which, in the insect world, don't always pertain in the ways they still unfortunately do among most human societies. But the women will get their revenge on the men, as when, in a stunning sequence involving a series of swooping butterfly nets, the mesh from the nets descends upon the heads of the men. As for Maro himself, he plays an enigmatic and deliberately gender-ambiguous central figure who emerges from a downstage pupa-like sandbox every now and then to show us the successive stages of his transformation--which are only partly, I would argue, about the fluid spaces between male and female. Maro's character will eventually end up inside the central platform dancing a duet with a fearsome and powerfully resistive woman who somehow transcends her apparent sacrificial status, the viscera of her body turned outward on her all-white dress--a scabrous badge of honour, and an indictment, rather than a victimizing wound.

In a show filled with amazing visual tableaux, Maro saves the best for last: the full company, now caked in shiny silver body paint, and with their faces covered by mesh cloths, emerging as a chorus-line, their twisted arachnid-like homogeneity offset by the distinguishing facial self-image that each of them wears around their necks. It's an ending entirely appropriate to the story Maro is telling, but also to butoh as a form: for underneath the white body paint each dancer is encouraged to find and express his or her own distinct movement vocabulary.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Out Innerspace and 605 Collective at the Vancouver International Dance Festival

Last night's mainstage show at VIDF featured a double bill by two stellar local companies: Out Innerspace and 605 Collective. Both companies were presenting excerpts from works-in-progress.

Up first was Out Innerspace's as yet untitled piece. It begins with a lone woman at a microphone, her face half in shadow, extolling the goodness of us in the audience, what good work we're doing, how she and her peers exist only because of us, and that this is most certainly a very good thing. After a brief blackout, the woman is joined by five other dancers (members of OIS's Modus Operandi youth training initiative, I'm assuming). They stare out at us in terror, recoiling three times in a series of collective gasps; maybe we're not so benignly enabling after all. Thus, turning inward to each other, the dancers link arms and form a single bodily chain, propelling each other in eddying waves of massed movement, as if to let go of each other would be to risk abandonment to some outside force (would that be us in the audience again?).

As much as I enjoyed watching these young dancers move so fluidly together, and the ways in which James Proudfoot's warm and glowingly off-centre lighting would catch and momentarily highlight various outstretched limbs, I thought that this opening sequence went on a bit too long, to the point where the various bodily pivots in the chain (shades of mentor Crystal Pite's influence at work here, for sure) became muddied and indistinguishable. Indeed, when, eventually, members of the group broke apart and began responding to each other with distinct phrases, it was rewarding to see just what excellent movers each of them is. And when they were joined by OIS artistic directors and choreographers David Raymond and Tiffany Tregarthen for a robust and high-energy bit of unison movement, I was in a definite spectatorial sweet spot.

Soon, however, we're back to that massed clump, only this time it assumes a form that seems to have a face--and that now chases offstage one among the group it had previously spit out. This dancer (Arash Khakpour) will eventually return, breathing and scatting into the now hand-held microphone from the top of the show as the other dancers slowly advance upon him, heaving and pulsing along with his rhythms. But whether they are feeding off of, or on, his energy remains unclear.

Following an intermission, we were treated to a "short draft" of the research that has so far gone into 605 Collective's Vital Few, which according to the program will premiere at VIDF next year. Also exploring the relationship of the individual to the group, but in ways that specifically seek to comment on how members of the 605 ensemble create movement together, the piece begins with six dancers (including co-artistic directors Lisa Gelley and Josh Martin) emerging in a parallel line stage left, improvising a series of lunges and squats and backwards and forwards arm extensions in response to one another. Arriving centre stage, the group forms a circle, into the middle of which one of the women now steps, swiping one arm through the air. Returning to the edge of the circle, the woman repeats the same movement once again. And again. And again. This is the signal for the other dancers to begin adapting their own improvised and previously autonomous movements into a larger choreographic structure.

Over the course of the next twenty minutes each of the dancers will take a turn "in the lead," initiating a phrase which the others will either repeat or adapt. This is the way 605 has always worked, but here they are exposing that process for us, making it the basis for the work itself. And we are able to see and appreciate the way they are working together in part because the group has deliberately slowed down their usual high-speed tempo. This culminates in an amazing round-robin of pick-up movement to an aria by Enrico Caruso, a marrying of contemporary and classical forms that allows us, in turn, to pick up (and out) what makes each of these dancers--and the group as a whole--so distinctive.


Ferenc Fehér at the Vancouver International Dance Festival

One of the great things about the Vancouver International Dance Festival are the free 7 pm shows that artistic producers Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi have always programmed in the Roundhouse Exhibition Hall ahead of the 8 pm ticketed auditorium shows. Far from mere curtain raisers, these are fully realized shows featuring local, Canadian, and international artists. Last night Hungary's Ferenc Fehér was the featured attraction.

Tao Te  is a duet for Fehér and fellow dancer Balázs Szitás, a physical meditation on being by way of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and Lao Tsu (who are both quoted in the program notes). It begins with Fehér and Szitás seated cross-legged on the stage, looking out at the audience contemplatively. A loaf of crusty bread lies on a towel between them. One of the men picks up a bit of bread and begins to chew; the other man follows suit. Soon they both do a quarter turn inward on their sits bones so they are facing each other across the bread. They continue to eat and chew, until there is only one large piece of bread remaining. One of the men makes a sudden grab for the bread and this is the cue for the kinetic brinksmanship to move from mere mastication to dance as full-on (and full-bodied) contact sport. For over the next thirty minutes the dancers will: throw their bodies repeatedly--and with apparent abandon of both gravity and pain--at each other, and onto the stage floor; accelerate into barrel roles that stop just short of the two massive wooden poles around which the Exhibition Hall stage has been constructed; race each other on all fours to the edge of the stage; and circle warily before facing off against each other like boxers in a ring.

That the dancers weren't holding anything back became clear to me when, during a sequence in which the men remove their suit jackets and shirts, I saw from my vantage point in the front row a bloody cut on one of their elbows. And yet there are also moments in the piece that are downright tender, as when, having slipped back into their jackets, the dancers mirror each other in a simple two-step, traversing the stage in a manner that, though they never touch, approximates a waltz.

Indeed, to the extent that each man represents to the other both an acknowledgement of and a threat to his being, a support and an encumbrance, a force of forward momentum and an impediment to movement full stop, I couldn't help thinking of Fehér and Szitás as the Didi and Gogo of dance-theatre. Albeit with a lot more energy.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mountain View Solstice Dancers: Rehearsal 1

We liked it so much the first time, we came back for more! That's right, gentle readers, get ready for another blow by blow account of a new community dance project. Last night 40-odd alumni from Le Grand Continental, joined by some eager new participants, gathered at Celebration Hall in Mountain View Cemetery to begin rehearsals for an outdoor dance performance that will take place the evening of the summer solstice, June 21.

The project is the brainchild of Mark Haney and Diane Park, LGCers who also make up The Little Chamber Music Society That Could (LCMS). LCMS has an artist residency at Mountain View, and as part of their program of work, Mark will compose a new piece of music, Diane will create an installation involving mirrors, and we dancers (who presently number 52) will perform some original site-based movement. Overseeing the choreography is Jessica Barrett, also from LGC and, we soon discovered, an excellent teacher.

Even though it's been less than two months, it felt as if I were greeting long-lost relatives as I exchanged hugs with my LGC peeps in the foyer of Celebration Hall, a modernist jewel-box of a concrete building in the middle of Mountain View that I've cycled past many times but never been inside. Soon enough, however, we were catching up on gossip like old friends as we filtered into the hall, which has windows to the west and north that let in the natural light, a shiny black marble floor, and incredibly high ceilings from which are suspended light fixtures that look like they are designed by Omer Arbel. A bit different from the Ukrainian Hall, to say the least.

After Mark introduced himself and explained a bit about the project, including the other musical pieces we'll be dancing to (among them Arvo Pärt's haunting "Spiegel im Spiegel"), Jessica took us through a few introductory warm-up exercises and also gave us an overview of the composition and rehearsal process for the movement. The biggest difference for those of us who participated in LGC is that we won't be learning set choreography. Rather, we'll be creating the piece together in collaboration with Jessica, who already has several ideas for different movement structures based on the music and the site, but who will also very much be taking her cue from our improvisations in rehearsal.

To that end, we began by improvising in canon to a basic waltz step, mixing things up by leading with alternating feet, and eventually adding in some fairly simple arm movements. Somehow I found myself at the front of the group and paired, no less, with the un-upstageable Ling. It didn't help that Ian and Darren's cameras were also back, trained on us one last time for a final bit of documentary footage. But despite all the reasons to feel pressure as Jessica counted us in to the first diagonal pass, I didn't. Instead I just let myself go, attuning my body's rhythms to the rhythms of the music as best I could. And everything was fine.

I wouldn't have been able to do that before LGC.

Thirteen more weeks before our performance. Stay tuned for lots more.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Par B.L.eux at Vancouver International Dance Festival

The fifteenth annual Vancouver International Dance Festival began this week, with the featured mainstage show by Montreal's Par.B.L.eux. Snakeskins, conceived, choreographed and performed by the incomparable Benoît Lachambre (last seen in Vancouver two years ago in a duet with Lee Su-Feh), actually begins in the lobby of the Roundhouse. Lachambre, clad in jeans and with a leather harness around his torso, points his feet inward like a pigeon, balancing on the outside edges of the soles of his shoes as he shifts his weight from one leg to another, twists this way and that, and slowly extends his arms and unfurls his fingers with delicate precision. As he moves, Lachambre is circled by another man who wears a face mask of the sort favoured by WWF wrestlers, but also, given Lachambre's harness, evocative of BDSM culture. This man, dancer Daniele Albanese, is tasked with taking bits of cut-up rubber strips from a nearby table and either affixing them to the clips on Lachambre's harness, or to a large transparent screen on wheels stationed behind Lachambre. As the screen slowly fills up, an image begins to take shape, but before we can determine exactly what it is, Lachambre abruptly stops dancing and Albanese begins to wheel the screen away.

This is our cue to take our seats in the Roundhouse auditorium, where we are immediately greeted by the striking spatial architecture of Lachambre's set--in particular a canopy of tensile ropes that attach to a bit of scaffolding upstage and stretch all the way up to the downstage rafters, so that they appear to hang over the first couple of rows of the audience. That's where Richard and I chose to sit and when she joined us Ziyian Kwan noted that the effect was to enclose us inside the world of Lachambre's piece. And, indeed, to the extent that the ropes function as a kind of beautiful exoskeleton one couldn't help but feel protected rather than threatened.

Once the audience is seated and composer and musician Hahn Rowe has begun to play his stunning live score, Lachambre affixes his harness to the lower rung of the upstage scaffold, takes hold of two additional leather straps, and bends his body backwards, like an insect trying to free itself from a spider's web. Eventually this is just what Lachambre does, leaving the harness attached to the scaffold, which he then climbs atop, from whence he dons a leather jacket and similar style mask handed to him by Albanese. Lachambre is above the ropes at this point and at a certain point I knew instinctively what was going to happen next: a leap by Lachambre onto the ropes themselves, which receive his weight with the appropriate softness and give, but which also threaten to spill him onto the floor depending on where and how he moves between them. But move he does, eventually climbing almost all the way to the downstage top, before slipping between the ropes and dropping to the floor.

At this point in the piece, Lachambre momentarily steps out of character, picks up a microphone and informs us that his original idea for this section was to stage a moment of real violence involving Albanese. But he decided he couldn't do that, so after first attempting to substitute an image of empathy and compassion (by lying down beside Albanese on the floor), Lachambre instead says he will mime a scene of dangerous encounter. To this end, he demands money from a relatively nonplussed Albanese, stuffs it into his pocket along with the microphone, and then begins pacing horizontally along the stage as Rowe, having also by this point put on a face mask, performs a symphony on sheet metal from atop the scaffold. Then comes something even stranger, and yet equally beguiling: an episode involving Lachambre, his head now stuffed inside a hollowed-out basketball, explaining via an allegorical story the significance of the now finished double portrait on the screen that Albanese has continued to wheel around the stage. The story involves the connection between basketball and the ancient Mayan ballcourt game of pitz or ulama--in both cases, it would seem, a sacrifice needs to precede the regeneration of life. Like a snake shedding its skin.

And wily artist that he is, Lachambre saves his most stunning transformation to the last. Having vacated the stage after the ball story, he returns, now clad in shimmery laytex leggings. He stands under the canopy of ropes, which have now gone slack as a result of Albanese having moved the scaffolding forward. Lachambre gathers the ropes in each hand and begins to shake them, the energy emanating from his core, out through his arms, and along each vibrating cord in a series of stunningly calibrated wave motions that, combined with the lighting effects, made it look as if a series of spirit souls are being released into the cosmos. You could feel a collective intake of breath from the audience when this happened, and in a piece filled with amazing moments of virtuosic artistry this was the coup de grace.

And yet Lachambre refused to let us reward him with a conventional ovation. Rather, the piece resists closure as he and Albanese, both now released from their masks, improvise movement alongside each other to Rowe's music. The dancers, eventually joined by various stagehands, begin to deconstruct the set, exposing the back wall of the auditorium, and even the night sky beyond the Roundhouse. Every now and then each performer takes a measured bow, and we duly erupt into applause. But still they keep dancing, forcing us into the position of leave-taking.

Which, in this case, one is so reluctant to do.


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Coastal First Nations Dance Festival at MOA

Two years ago at the Dance Centre, while sitting on a panel with Alex Lazaridis Ferguson and Deborah Meyers at the World Dance Critics-Americas Conference, the subject of locally produced dance festivals came up. Dancing on the Edge, Dance in Vancouver, and the Vancouver International Dance Festival (opening this week) were all duly mentioned. Mique'l Dangeli, co-artistic director with her husband Mike of the First Nations mask-dancing troupe Git Hayetsk, was in the audience and quickly piped up that we were leaving one prominent dance festival out.

The Coastal First Nations Dance Festival, produced by West Vancouver's Dancers of Damelahamid in connection with UBC's Museum of Anthropology, celebrates the vibrancy and sustainability of the stories, songs and dances of the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America. Drawing inspiration from the pioneering efforts of Ken and Margaret Harris, who oversaw the Haw yah hawni nah Festival in Prince Rupert from 1967-1986, CFNDF began in 2008; it brings together dance groups from BC, the Yukon, Alaska and Washington, and also features guest artists from across Canada and other countries, thereby allowing the CFNDF, in the words of Executive Director Margaret Grenier, "to connect with a global community of Indigenous dance." Among this year's invited international artists are Urseloria and Nikollane Kanuho, Dine' sisters from Arizona who, judging from yesterday's brief display of their artistry, are amazingly accomplished Fancy dancers.

In addition to its weekday series of school performances and its ticketed evening mainstage shows, the CFNDF also features two weekend afternoon programs that are accessible to anyone who buys admission to MOA. Yesterday I arrived a bit late, just in time to see the second group on the program, Dakhká Khwáan, begin a song in the main rotunda of the museum before processing down the ramp to the great hall of totems where, against Arthur Erickson's signature wall of windows, a stage had been set up. Dakhká Khwáan is an Inland Tlingit group from the southern part of the Yukon. Their lead singer and spokesperson, who in teaching us a few phrases in Tlingit insisted we weren't speaking correctly unless the spit was flying in front of us, was incredibly adept--and funny--at contextualizing the significance of each traditional dance in contemporary terms. For instance, he noted that the mask dance in which raven tries to woo a woman from the wolf clan is essentially a lesson in how to flirt; raven eventually succeeds in his task by giving the woman a shiny new purse, which prompted our MC to crack that "Tlingit ladies love their blingit."

Next on the stage were the Dancers of Damelahamid, producers of the Festival. Representing the cultural traditions of the Gitxsan peoples, the group shared four masked dances. Grenier, who was one of the group's two main singers and drummers, explained to the audience that Coast Salish singing and dancing is an intergenerational practice, which accounts for why we see very young children alongside elders on stage. In the case of Dancers of Damelahamid, a little boy of four who had only been dancing with the group for two months very nearly stole the show, especially during a song about a dragonfly and a sleeping frog; when the buzz of the dragonfly awakens the frog, this is the cue for the little boy and his older masked partner, both of whom are sitting on their haunches, to begin leaping all over the stage.

Indeed, in terms of technique it behooves Coastal First Nations male dancers to have strong knees, for the lower they are to the ground, the more accomplished the dancing. By contrast, most of the female dancers in all of the groups were more upright and their footwork more intricate. This is just one of the commonalities I noted in the different offerings; to be sure, given their regional proximity and common connection to the land, the different Coast Salish First Nations are bound to have shared stories, similarly patterned regalia, headdresses, and masks, and complementary symbolic traditions (including the use of eagle down as a marker of peace between peoples, and which by the end of the afternoon festooned the floor). However, it would be a mistake to homogenize these groups solely based on an analogous art form comprised of singing, drumming, dancing and storytelling. For one thing, they all speak different languages and have distinct cultural and hereditary protocols--which is something that George Me'las Taylor noted in introducing a traditional Kwakwaka'wakw song danced by his Le-La-La Dancers.

Then, too, there is a history of cultural displacement and recovery that is in operation here. This was brought out by David Boxley, leader of the Tsimshian group Git Hoan. At the end of their set, which included a dramatic eagle song featuring three men who roamed the audience delighting children with the clacking beaks of their masks, Boxley noted that in the 1880s his people had followed a missionary from BC to Alaska. As part of this relocation, they had to give up their singing and dancing. It was only when Margaret and Ken Harris came up from BC nearly a hundred years later to teach the community what had been lost that they began reconnecting with the traditions of their ancestors.

What this story, and the entire afternoon of which it was a part, has taught me is that in my talk about Vancouver dance in this blog and elsewhere there is a huge gap--one that is comprised largely of these ancient and yet very much alive talking dances. I've got some serious learning to do--thank you, Mique'l, for giving me the kick in the pants I needed on this front.


Friday, March 6, 2015

BODYTRAFFIC at Chutzpah!

The immensely talented LA-based dance troupe BODYTRAFFIC is back at the Chutzpah! Festival this year. Founded in 2007 by Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett, the company has built up an impressive repertoire of original commissions by top contemporary choreographers. Four shorter pieces made up last night's program, each showcasing the incredible technique and musicality of the BODYTRAFFIC dancers.

The first and third pieces, Richard Siegal's The New 45 and Joshua L. Peugh's A Trick of the Light, had a similar retro vibe and bouyant tone, with each also making use of classic jazz and pop standards as part of their scores. Siegal's piece begins with an energetic solo by Finkelman Berkett, who is soon joined on stage by Guzmán Rosado (excellent, like Finkelman Berkett, in all four works) and Andrew Wojtal. All three dancers' fleet footwork, promiscuous partnering, and gyrating pelvises are a reminder that what popular American musical and dance idioms from the first half of the twentieth century mostly gave to the concert stage was sex and speed. Peugh's piece was more theatrical, taking as its organizing conceit couples at a 1950s-era prom, with the women in pouffy dresses and the men all sporting cardigans. In between smelling their own--and occasionally each other's--feet, the couples form, break apart and reform, with one among them always, and necessarily, late to the party.

In between these two works came Kollide, by red hot choreographer Kyle Abraham. Set to haunting, cello-heavy music by two contemporary Icelandic composers, one could sense immediately how the mood had shifted. Riffing on the classic quadrille, with its strict geometric formations and turn-taking couples, what was most fascinating to me about Abraham's choreography was how an overlapping canon structure was employed to disrupt and overtake different groupings of dancers. That said, I didn't find the piece, as a whole, all that emotionally engaging.

The evening concluded with Once again, before you go, by RUBBERBANDance Group's Victor Quijada. Although Abraham and Quijada both come from a hip hop background, it was in Quijada's work that the form's signature style was in most visible evidence. The floorwork by the quartet of men (Brandon Alley, Bynh Ho, Guzmán Rosado, and Andrew Wojtal) was especially strong, with various gravity-defying one-arm freezes held for what seemed like impossible lengths of time, and with the men repeatedly floating up from their knees onto the tips of their toes in perfect fluid unison, as if invisible wires were attached to each of their backs. At the heart of this last piece, however, is a beautiful duet by Alley and Finkelman Berkett, one that I hated to see end and that, when it did, ended a bit too abruptly for my liking.


Monday, March 2, 2015

how to be at the Anderson Street Space

Yesterday afternoon I made my way to Granville Island to take in the first of this year's Micro Performance Series, presented by Boca del Lupo. Staged at the intimate Anderson Street Space, this season's line-up of shows kicked off with Tara Cheyenne Performance's how to be. An excerpt from a larger work-in-progress, the thirty minute piece is conceived and directed by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, who performs alongside Kate Franklin and Kim Stevenson.

After spectators are ushered into the tiny quadrangular performance space and we take our places leaning against the walls, the three women, clad nattily in men's suits, take turns entering and exiting from the lone door, sometimes muttering aloud to themselves, at other times simply taking the measure of the room. Eventually they come together in a whispered chorus of first world modal phrases: "I should juice more"; "I should do more Pilates"; "I should eat less pasta." As always with TCP, text is an equal partner alongside the movement, and in this case the interrogative mode ("Should I wax my pubic hair?") operates in dynamic tension with the declarative ("I'm very good at remembering song lyrics").

The performers, playing to the space, have fun rearranging audience members, positioning us into four groups (whose significance we discover at the end of the show). They also test the limits of our physical boundaries, inserting themselves at various points in between our own bodies, or snuggling up close for a quick nap or animated conversation with one or other of us. This is only appropriate given the intimacy of the space, as well as the larger issues Friedenberg seems to be exploring in this piece. Part of the question of "how to be"--especially in polyglot urban centres like Vancouver--is how to interact and get along and move beside others in proximate material relation: how, in other words, to share space with strangers. (And coming together as an audience has much to teach us in this regard.)

Friedenberg, who over the past decade has made her name as a charismatic solo performer, as fleet of tongue as she is of foot, builds here in how to be on her previous success in Highgate with multi-character work. She provides numerous opportunities for her fellow performers to shine. Thus, in an hilarious sequence involving the three women not only moving but speaking in unison, Stevenson emerges as a virtuoso comic mimic in the mould of her director, channeling her Jesus-loving grandmother as she laments the daily grind of trying to make her way as a single working artist in Vancouver. For her part, Franklin is given a show-stopping solo, in which she performs various ballet moves while offering advice-laden bromides to the audience: "Eat more organic vegetables"; "Call your mother"; "Don't be a dick."

All of this bodes extremely well for the full-length piece Friedenberg is working towards, not least when one considers that her other collaborators on the project include Justine Chambers, Susan Elliott, Josh Martin, Bevin Poole, and Marcus Youssef. At present, what was staged as part of Boca's MPS was a more than satisfying appetizer. Watching Friedenberg and Stevenson wrestle to kiss each other while Franklin does a stationary step dance against one wall or, alternately, Franklin and Friedenberg sing and sway along to the Whitney Houston standard "The Greatest Love of All" while a head-scratching Stevenson engages in random badinage with the audience, is pure comic gold.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Compagnie Marie Chouinard at DanceHouse

When last the iconic Montreal-based choreographer Marie Chouinard came through town with her eponymous dance company--presenting a new work, The Golden Mean, commissioned by DanceHouse under the auspices of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad--I was not a happy camper. I was vexed at having been displaced from our usual seats in the front orchestra section of the Playhouse by the long ramp jutting into the audience that Chouinard had requested as part of her set. And the compensation of being relocated to premium seats onstage with the dancers hardly mitigated my displeasure; from there I could see up close just how underdeveloped was Chouinard's choreography and how overcooked her accompanying theatricality (which, among other things, involved the dancers donning Stephen Harper masks at one point).

Let's just say with DanceHouse's latest presentation of her work, Chouinard has redeemed herself, reaffirming her place in the pantheon of major dance artists in this country and internationally. The evening was made up of two of Chouinard's more recent pieces, each experimenting in its own way with the idea of the dance score. The first, Gymnopédies, is set to the famously atmospheric piano compositions of the same name by Erik Satie. Written in 3/4 time, each with a similar structure and theme, the three works subtly juxtapose dissonant melodies against the harmony, producing an achingly melancholic effect that has influenced ambient music up to the present day (including electronic composers like Moby, who samples Gymnopédies on his blockbuster album Play). Given that the title of Gymnopédies connotes images of nude dancing (which, to be sure, Chouinard plays upon), Satie's music would seem to be a natural source of inspiration for any choreographer. But Chouinard is not just any choreographer and part of the conceit of her own score to Gymnopédies is that she didn't just have her dancers learn a new set of movement phrases; each of them also had to learn to play Satie's music, which they take turns performing live at the grand piano positioned stage left.

That the touch and caress of piano keys is an act of kinesis as virtuosic as the most complex or gymnastic of dance moves is made clear at the start of Chouinard's piece. The lights come up on a clump of draped forms stage right. A lone woman clad in black enters from the wings and crosses to centre stage. She then sinks to the floor in a split, rocking back and forth with her pelvis as she alternately domes and flexes her extended feet. Rising from the floor, she then takes a seat at the piano (also draped in cloth) and without a concomitant stretching of her fingers she begins to play the first of Satie's compositions. As she bends her body over the keyboard, communing rhythmically with the piano in a way that gives new meaning to the idea of a dancer's musicality, we notice the draped forms stage right begin to move, fingers and hands and arms slowly emerging from openings at their tops. One by one the rest of Chouinard's company of dancers reveals themselves, each nude, like a newborn butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. In pairs, the dancers then slowly walk upstage, slipping between a crack in the curtain.

Following this opening our original pianist is relieved by another member of the company, who provides accompaniment to an energetic duet between one of the male dancers and the tallest of the female dancers, whose towering leg extensions and impossibly deep and wide pliés (a Chouinard trademark) are magnified all the more by her point shoes. However, Chouinard is not only (or even primarily) interested in a serious technical exploration of the links between musical and dance virtuosity. This becomes clear when a trio of female dancers comes out sporting clown noses and, via their comically unsyncopated poses and arm movements, the pathos of Satie's music turns to bathos. Indeed, buffoonery and burlesque are key elements of the piece, with couples forming and splitting and reforming, both along and across gender lines; the action spilling into the audience; not one but several false endings; and the live playing of the Satie score being usurped at certain points by recorded versions emanating from portable CD players.

I took the latter bit to be Chouinard's acknowledgement that Satie's music, as beautiful and haunting as it remains, has become something of a cultural cliche, in part via its endless recycling and re-citation (including, as mentioned above, by DJs like Moby). On the other hand, that the archive of any artistic form eventually becomes part of the repertoire of contemporary performance was also made clear by Chouinard's own multiple references to dance history; repeated scenes of solo and mutual masturbation (including, most memorably, on an electronic keyboard) can't help but evoke recollections of another great pairing of musical and dance scores, in this case Vaslav Nijinsky's scandalous short ballet L'après-midi d'un faune, choreographed to the symphonic poem of the same name by Claude Debussy.

Debussy's own work was based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, so it is fitting that in the second work on last night's program, Henri Michaux: Mouvements, Chouinard adapts a work by another French poet. In particular, she takes inspiration from a book by Michaux in which a long poem that's all about motility (the "Mouvements" of both Michaux's and Chouinard's titles) is accompanied by 64 pages of India-ink drawings. Looking at these drawings, which take various biomorphic forms, Chouinard had a revelation: she had in her hands a complete dance score. Her task, then, was to create a catalogue of both stilled poses and travelling movements to accompany each of the drawings.

As the drawings are projected successively on an upstage screen, Chouinard's dancers take turns "figuring" with their bodies what we see on the page, their black clad silhouettes sometimes matching with uncanny precision and at other times only suggestively approximating the series of blots. As the images speed up and become more complex, the dancers form architectural duos or trios, various extended and moving limbs or stretched out bits of leotard evoking the multiplicity of Michaux's brushstrokes. Indeed, my favourite part of the piece is when the entire company performs one of the drawings in unison, the more animated and "dancey" the movement the more cinematic and montage-like the images. Indeed, the whole piece has the feel of a flip book of Rorschach drawings brought to stunning three-dimensional life.

Chouinard even takes into consideration the blank white space of Michaux's pages, with one of the dancers crawling at a certain point under the white Marley flooring to read out the central poem of the book, and with the whole piece culminating in a sped up and simultaneous reverse negative, if you will, of the slower and more methodical serial presentation of each of the drawings. I refer to the fact that at the end the harsh white light illuminating the stage cuts to black as, under a single focused strobe, the dancers, now stripped to their underwear, improvise movements based on what we've just seen.

Henri Michaux: Mouvements is a triumph of inter-artistic dialogue, and in a way that makes neither form subservient to the other, nor that seeks to produce an exact match between them. Indeed, Chouinard shows us the utter impossibility of such a task, as with the additional elements of time, space and audience co-presence, what we think we see and what we know we feel will always be pleasurably incommensurable.