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.