Friday, May 15, 2015

The Sensationalists at The Cultch

The 605 Collective, even when they're standing still, are always so interesting to watch. Their latest full-length creation, The Sensationalists, plays the Vancouver East Cultural Centre's Historic Stage through this Saturday. A collaboration with Theatre Replacement's Maiko Bae Yamamoto, who directed the piece and contributed to its movement design over the course of an amazing two-year development and rehearsal process, the piece is an experiment in immersion--both kinaesthetically and acoustically.

The experience begins in the lobby, with the 605 ensemble--co-directors Lisa Gelley and Josh Martin, along with fellow performers Laura Avery, Walter Kubanek, Lexi Vajda, Jane Osborne, and some additional  repertory members--mingling among the audience members around the box office and bar area. Some whisper secrets in patrons' ears; others, leaning back from a bar chair, reach out and clasp your hand for balance, or else, wearing headphones, lean up against you and sway ever so slightly. Occasionally they also form bodily massings amongst themselves, piling on top of one another, both belly to belly and side to side, along a wall, and also freely and fully supporting each other's weight in the middle of the floor by crouching into a ball and offering their backs as platforms to climb and kneel upon. I was offered the latter opportunity by a woman who was about half my size and though I was worried I would crush her I also couldn't resist this invitation of proximate interaction and shared bodily contact.

This is, to a large degree, the entire premise of the piece, for after the pre-show lobby experience we are led by the ensemble toward the theatre, where we have to make a choice: do we join the dancers on the floor, fully immersing ourselves in the choreography while standing and moving about at orchestra-level for the first 50 minutes of the piece; or do we head for the balcony and partake of the bird's eye view of what's going on below, sacrificing the extra sensory involvement for a double dose of surveillance, watching our fellow audience members watching? Truth be told, you have to make this decision in advance, at the time of ticket purchase (as differential costs are involved). Richard and I had opted for the balcony--Richard because he didn't want to stand for that long, and me because, while initially drawn to the idea of moving among and with the dancers, the critic in me craved the additional visual perspective on the aesthetics of the piece that I would get through physical distance. Talking with Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg in the lobby about this decision, she dubbed us Statler and Waldorf, the two crusty critics from The Muppet Show, and imagined us carrying on a running commentary on the piece, or at the very least her own and everyone else's wardrobe choices. And while several others we spoke to said we'd made the wrong choice, Maiko herself reassured us that the balcony option had its own--albeit different--benefits. (That I saw local dancer-choreographers Peter Bingham and Wen Wei Wang also heading upstairs also did much to set my wavering mind at ease.)

Once inside the theatre, the piece begins (as it were) with Gelley teaching Kubanek a simple arm movement phrase to accompany a spoken utterance about the Milky Way. Kubanek repeats this several times, in the process teaching it to the audience members milling about him. Before I noticed his bare feet, I was at first uncertain whether Kubanek was a dancer or an audience member (I hadn't noted his movement presence in the lobby), and of course such sense confusion is a natural offshoot of the total sensory experience of the piece. How precisely does the apparently "reactive" movement of the audience on the floor, in walking about the stage to get a better view or to make space for a bit of spontaneous partnering or to avoid being conscripted into said partnering, differ from the "active" movement (whether choreographed or improvised) of the dancers? Indeed, one of the most fascinating things for me, in the balcony, was watching the different choreographic structures individual audience members developed and quite often repeated over the course of the first 50 minutes. My friend and colleague DD Kugler kept restlessly circling the perimeter of the natural circle the audience mostly formed. Whereas Sophie and Lara largely stayed put--at least in the beginning--in the upstage left corner. Two folks I didn't know--a man in a red shirt and a woman in a purple blouse--for the most part managed to position themselves in the centre of the action. As such, more than once they found themselves responding directly to the dancers' mimed instructions--most compellingly when, along with others, they formed a chorus line of weighted ballast and support as Martin "walked" upside down across their backs.

As interesting as this was to watch, there was also, after a while, a visual sameness to the quality of the immersion. It was like I was watching a rave in slow motion and, sure enough, at one point the taller members of the audience are brought together to form a mosh pit, arms extended vertically to transport the smallest of the female dancers from the upstage wall to downstage floor. In fact, the most visually stunning image for me was when the dancers instructed all of the audience members to mass upstage in a tableaux while they segued into some preliminary unison work. This was the prelude to the orchestra audience then being invited to take a seat and don, with those of us in the balcony, a set of headphones. With Gabriel Saloman's ambient electronic score echoing inside our ears, Martin speaks into a microphone a list of items that I took to be the sort that gave him goose bumps--as, presumably, the intimate amplification of the sound of his voice via our individual headsets was meant to replicate.

In this concluding section of the piece, the ensemble reverts to the more traditional conventions of concert dance, but I have to say that I didn't mind at all. In fact by this point I was craving exactly this kind of movement, with 605's trademark forward accelerations and suspensions in mid-air thrilling to take in, especially when done collectively as a group. There is also a stunning duet between Gelley and Martin that struck me as a seamless blending of their hip hop training with some obvious influence from contact improv. By the end of the piece, as the group masses at the upstage wall once again, supporting each other as they climb and reach for the rafters, the link between the two sections of the piece became more clear, with the first half modelling the embodied skill-set--support, weight transfer, reactive instincts, intimacy, trust--we all have within us, but that these dancers have refined into an art.


No comments: