Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Wreck Beach Butoh Boot Camp: Day 6

The start of week two was not as hard as I expected. In part this is because I followed Barbara's advice and didn't just sit on my ass and nurse my wounds over the weekend break. I worked out each morning, adding a lot more stretching than normal. I also went for a run on Sunday, albeit a painful one given all of the lactic acid that had built up in my quads. And of course I practiced my ecstasy jumps. The epsom salt baths also helped. As a result, yesterday was the most limber I've felt so far in the process. Even the muscle I seem to have pulled in my right pec is feeling better.

Not that we weren't working hard, starting with Jay and his push-ups. The man seems to have an infinite variety of ways to inflict this particular torture upon us. But working the shoulders and lats is necessary given the slow opening walk into the water that we will perform this weekend: it's done with us holding our arms behind our backs, clasping our hands together and stretching them upwards off our asses as we lean our chests forwards. We have to do this for almost four minutes, at the end of which, once in the water, we release our hands so that they float up of their own accord. Then we're off and swimming.

While we actually began yesterday's rehearsal by refining our final group duet, most of our time following the break was spent setting the structure of the piece from the beginning. This meant perfecting our statue poses according to Barbara's wishes (not the way we had first learned them from Jay!), and then cycling through them in canon according to the four groups of five into which we had been divided: once slowly, and once double-time. We also learned that we will be performing the main Icarus section of the piece (which Barbara has taken to calling "Crumbling") in two staggered groups, each positioned at a distance from the other. It was hard to do this in the cramped EDAM studio, but on the beach we'll have the opposite problem: too much space.

Indeed, during our ritual Q & A circle session at the end of yesterday there was much discussion of the conditions to expect on Wreck this weekend. It's supposed to be very hot: 28 on Saturday, 30 on Sunday. So we need to bring lots of water. And Barbara also noted that she would choreograph things so that we went into the waters of the ocean at least three times.

I'm starting to get excited.


Saturday, June 27, 2015

Wreck Beach Butoh Boot Camp: Day 5

So it's the end of the first week and I'm still standing. What's more, I've apparently learned an hour's worth of choreography.

At the end of yesterday's session Barbara divided us into ten couples and, together with Jay, taught us the duet that will conclude the piece. I was paired with Molly McDermott, a beautiful professional dancer who has appeared in previous Kokoro pieces (most recently an excerpt from The Book of Love at VIDF), and who will also be performing again in the latest version of Deanna Peters'/Mutable Subject's "New Raw" as part of the upcoming Dancing on the Edge Festival. Dancing with Molly made me a bit nervous at first, as I was supremely conscious of the mistakes I was making. However, she was terrifically accommodating and made things even easier by letting me trust her dancer's body and intellect to solve various problems involving weight and support. I have to climb on top of her second position plie at a certain point, and then later I have to carry her upon my back. In the latter case I had to learn to bend lower to the ground without tilting over, while also drawing her right arm over my shoulder as far as her armpit. This meant that she could essentially just slip onto my back and all I needed to do was stand up and then walk upstage, into what was the imaginary sea.

Barbara has talked about the need for us, over the course of this process, to become an ensemble. Obviously there's still work to do, but after the first 25 hours I feel like we're getting there. Notwithstanding the weekend of epsom salt baths ahead of me, I truly am looking forward to more.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Wreck Beach Butoh Boot Camp: Day 4

Yesterday Jay introduced the concept of ma from Japanese aesthetics, which translates loosely as the gap, space or pause between objects or events. He was talking about this in terms of the time we needed to take between our movements in the bear walk that he had just taught us--not just in terms of slowing those movements down, but more crucially in thinking about the structural relationship between those movements. Thus a bear might lift and lick its paw in a slow, languorous arc, but it will also just as likely flick that arm back down to the ground and swivel its body and head to the left in one quick movement (especially if it senses a threat or smells prey).

I was also intrigued by how the class ended yesterday. Every day Barbara has slowly been adding to and building upon the new choreography for the main Icarus section of the piece. I think we have just over 20 minutes of material now. But in addition we have been learning other discrete bits that I gather will be attached to or frame this section, together comprising an hour-long performance. Some of these bits are from past shows: the Chef; Pirates; etc. Some are new: such as the cat-cow gallumping that leads into the aforementioned bear walk; or the series of fourteen poses that Jay taught us just before we broke for the evening.

The poses are all based on photographic images of classical antiquities and Renaissance sculptures, and our challenge was less to mimic each pose exactly (though Jay and two of the workshop participants close to him did spend perhaps more time than was necessary figuring out the positioning of various limbs from the mirrored images) than to find a way to move--or, more properly, dance--between them. Easier said than done when the poses have one lying on, arising from, and then descending back down to the ground--and not necessarily in that order.

Apparently Jay has used this method before to develop what I guess I would call the butoh equivalent of tableaux vivant (and given the white body paint we'll be wearing in performance, the analogy makes some sense). Butoh is largely an image-based dance form, in which phrases like "growing wings" and "walking like a bear" are used less to reproduce the form than the spirit of these images in one's body. So I was struck by the idea of actually seeking out specific bodily images as the basis for group movement. Whatever the theory behind the method, it was quite stunning to watch us all move through the poses together. And Jay's method for teaching the poses to us in the limited time we had was also quite canny: he actually taught them to us backwards, beginning with the last pose and ending with the first, and having us cycle through them multiple times as we accumulated new ones.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Wreck Beach Butoh Boot Camp: Day 3

Maxims by Barbara:

1. You are only limited by your imagination.

2. Do it right the first time.

3. You can't learn by watching.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wreck Beach Butoh Boot Camp: Day 2

Definitely feeling things more today, especially in the shoulders and triceps. No doubt this is due to the long, slow walk across the studio floor that Jay had us do with our arms held above our heads. And then again with them clasped behind us. Oh yeah, and all the chopping at the end of the day in the Chef bit.

But at the end of the extended arm walk Jay also taught us a pretty amazing thing. We partnered up and one of us put our right arm over the shoulder of the other, with our hand balled into a fist. While our partner applied weight and pressed her hands down at our elbow joint, we were to resist for as long as we could. We then repeated the same exercise with palm of our hand on our partner's shoulder open, and the fingers reaching into space. It was far easier to resist the second way, the lesson being that lighter and more lifted our arms are in the air, the easier it will be to resist the pain and pull of gravity and time upon them.

More lessons on discovery how butoh time differs from ordinary time, not least in the treatment of unison movement. As we continue to come together as an ensemble, with Barbara adding to the core Icarus sequence each day, we need to be conscious of each other's pace without being perfectly in sync. Which doesn't mean always being ahead of or behind the group, but rather open and aware of each other in space so that we might alternate and adapt our rhythms accordingly.

This will be even more crucial on the beach when there is far more distance between each of us.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Wreck Beach Butoh Boot Camp: Day 1

Five hours a day, five days a week, for two weeks: what was I thinking!!!

I'm certainly stiff this morning, the day after my first workshop and rehearsal for this year's 20th anniversary production of Kokoro Dance's Wreck Beach Butoh, which will be held this year in the early afternoon on July 4 and 5. Check out Kokoro's website for full details.

But I'm not half as stiff as I thought I'd be. And my awkwardness in initially executing much of it notwithstanding, I am very excited by the choreography that we've learned from Barbara so far. I actually went over the first section in my head several times last night while trying to sleep and found that I had all of the bits more or less inside me already--which is something I haven't been able to say about either LGC or Mountain View Solstice at such an early stage.

The piece Barbara is creating this year is based on the Icarus myth, but as retold in a poem by Mishima. Kokoro always recycles a few favourite bits from previous WBBs. In giving us (there are twenty folks participating this year, most veterans of the process, but a few newbies like me) the lay of the land (quite literally) re practicalities around performing on the beach, Barbara and Jay said that we'd be doing some of the Pirate sequence again, as well as the bit called Chef--a splash dance in the water.

Because this workshop is so intensely concentrated and exhausting, I don't think I will blog as fulsomely about it as I have the other community dance projects I've been involved in this year (though I do think I will write about it more extensively in another form). Instead, I'll just share a few isolated impressions and/or lessons from each day's rehearsal.

Two things I learned from yesterday: the importance of visualization and above all slowness in butoh.

One thing Barbara threatened that I'm dreading: doing the ecstasy jumps on the beach. Especially if she wants 40 of them...


Monday, June 22, 2015

Mountain View Solstice Dancers: Performance Day

Yesterday, the first day of summer, was one of those gorgeous sunny Vancouver days when the city shows itself off in truly spectacular style. And then promptly serves up way too many competing activities to enjoy it by: the Dragon Boat Festival at South False Creek; Car Free Day on Main Street and Commercial Drive; the Jazz Fest; National Aboriginal Day festivities at Trout Lake; the much-mocked group yoga thingy that was moved from the Burrard Street Bridge to the Plaza of Nations; FIFA Women's World Cup action; and a little thing called Father's Day. And then, of course, there was the most important event of all: our Summer Solstice Dance and Music Celebration at Mountain View Cemetery.

I decided to walk up Main Street to 37th in advance of our 4 pm call time. Big mistake. The throngs of people out enjoying the sun and free activities slowed me down. Plus I got distracted by the discounted clothing items at Motherland and Eugene Choo, and by friends I happened upon. By the time I got to Celebration Hall I was already sweating profusely. After a brief warm-up led by Hailey, Jessica definitively set which way we all moved during the in-out crouch step at the end of "New Friends," as we were finally all together. This involved a change of direction for me, which threw me off in the final run-through that followed. Fortunately I remembered to go the right way (which was actually the left way) during the actual performances.

As for those performances, I think they went very well. We had good crowds for each show; Mark and all the musicians were in fine form (and the sound was great); Diane's installation (a beautiful hall of mirrors referencing both Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel" and Jean Cocteau's Orphee) was a hit; Sarah managed to cajole and shame nearly everyone who came out to dance during the end of "Open Up Your Heart"; and the setting did not let us down, even cuing up a gorgeous sunset for the end of our 9 pm set. And then there was the dancing: mistakes were made, to be sure, and our timing was off in places. But we had fun, the audiences responded enthusiastically, and as with LGC we succeeded in animating an under-used public space in Vancouver through a coordinated artistic intervention.

On the latter front, it was great to see so many LGC alumni out to support us. I look forward to seeing them again in three weeks, when the documentary about the making of the Vancouver version of Le Grand Continental screens on the Queen E Plaza on July 14. In the meantime, later today I begin rehearsals for my next community dance project: Wreck Beach Butoh, which happens July 4 and 5. Onward in movement!


Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Way Back to Thursday at the Revue Stage

A hit in Toronto when it opened at Theatre Passe Muraille in early 2014, The Way Back to Thursday is a sweet and sophisticated chamber musical that is currently running at the Arts Club's Revue Stage as part of Vancouver's In Tune Festival--a terrific biennial event devoted to new Canadian musical development curated by Touchstone Theatre's Katrina Dunn and the Arts Club's Rachel Ditor. The Way Back's book, music and lyrics are all by the multi-talented Rob Kempson, who also plays Cameron, a gay filmmaker. The piece opens with Cameron, living in Vancouver and coming to grips with the aftermath of a broken relationship, reflecting back on his relationship with his grandmother (a wonderful Valerie Hawkins), now in a care home in the Toronto area. Thereafter the musical unfolds as an extended flashback, over the course of which we learn that Cameron and Grandma used to be very close, bonding over their mutual love of movies, and in particular the manly charisma of Rock Hudson. When Cameron's parents split up, Grandma--who in a jazzy showstopper of a number for Hawkins tells us that her own late-in-life divorce was the best thing she ever did--becomes an even stronger presence in the boy's life.

But the relationship between the two starts to shift when young Cameron begins to discover his sexuality, a journey partly triggered--as we learn in an hilarious ode-turned-screed to/against his teacher--by a school assignment on Hudson. Cameron eventually comes out to his parents, a process painfully and poignantly described in a moving ballad about how this change in his life is really a change in the kind of life that his parents, separately, wanted and expected for him. However, fearing her potential disappointment the most, he can't bring himself to tell Grandma, and so absconds for film school in Vancouver. What Cameron doesn't know is that Grandma already knows and, what's more, also has her own secret, having told her grandson when he was a young boy a "little white lie"--namely, that she herself had been in the movies.

Kempson has written The Way Back as a song cycle, with he and Hawkins alternating in telling the story, and in the process exploring various musical idioms (jazz, torch, blues)--all expertly handled by pianist Chris Tsujiuchi (also the musical director) and cellist Samuel Bisson. But it is in the second half of the piece that Kempson really moves the narrative into new and refreshingly complex territory, avoiding (SPOILER ALERT!) the expected cliched reconciliation between the principals and instead showing how the physical distance between them, and the guilt each carries toward the other, actually deepens Cameron's and Grandma's emotional rift--beautifully handled in a rending duet about "running away" with their hearts and "staying away" from their minds. Kempson also dares to make the hapless, fish-out-of-water Cameron a "bad" West End gay (rewarding the local audience with some nice insider jokes) and, even more audaciously for mainstream musical theatre, to give us a portrait of a woman aging and descending into Alzheimer's on stage. When Cameron finally arrives at Grandma's bedside she no longer recognizes him and Kempson opts for an ending that resists the musical's traditional happy uplift in favour of an affective note far more complex: the spark of connection mined from an abyss of regret.

Tightly and economically directed on a mostly bare stage by Briana Brown, the musical strips things down to the essentials of instrumentation and voice. And on the latter front, Kempson and Hawkins are outstanding, with Kempson as vocally consistent as a precocious eight-year old as he is as an alternately depressed, harried and moonily in love adult. For Hawkins' part, her voice simply gets stronger and stronger as the piece progresses and her presence on stage is such that she is emotionally moving even when she is sitting immobile in a chair and staring vacantly into the distance.

A "gay" musical that eschews overt irony and camp, The Way Back is a rare work that manages to be sincere while avoiding cheap sentiment, that feels truthful instead of trite. It has one more performance this afternoon at 2 pm, and if you have the chance I urge you to see it.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Value of Things at The Dance Centre

What is the ROI (return on investment) of art? If, as we are wont to under global capitalism, we measure such things purely in financial terms, then it is always going to be a zero sum game. As I have argued in a recent article in Canadian Theatre Review, and as plastic orchid factory's presentation of Grand Poney's production of The Value of Things, currently on at the Dance Centre through this evening, makes abundantly clear, dance and theatre artists always spend more than they have--a principle, manifestly evident at the end of any show (including this one), that extends to the performers' extra outlays of physical and emotional energy. There is simply nothing left. Until the next evening when, from this nothing, there is suddenly, magically, something more.

It is this kind of resourcefulness--making something out of nothing, which we used to call creativity--that co-creators Jacques Poulin-Denis and James Gnam, together with fellow performers Gilles Poulin-Denis and Francis d'Octobre, explore and honour on stage in this sixty-minute work of dance-theatre. In a world where money flows inequitably and, above all, immaterially between scarcity and abundance (brilliantly illustrated by Jacques in a rant on the "disappearance" of the penny); where the distance between need and want in the cultural sector is best summed up by the dangling carrot of grant funding that always seems at once within and somehow just beyond reach (which we see enacted in a hilarious and also heartbreaking opening solo by James); where artists are increasingly asked to justify--and literally account for--their use of what in voiceover is referred to as "other people's money" (a sound bite from the Sun News reporter who infamously asked Margie Gillis why taxpayer-funded cultural projects aren't commercially viable, and thereby providing the inspiration for this piece); and where arts producers are forced to become more and more entrepreneurial (witness plastic orchid Artistic Producer Natalie Lefebvre Gnam pushing the raffle tickets and drinks pre-show), what other resources--one's body, one's imagination, a bit of cardboard--are immediately and materially to hand? More importantly, how might we use these resources to develop works of art that are built from, and help to model, different systems of value: ones based, for example, on a shared aesthetic and affective experience, or on a kind of performative instruction in the ethics of living?

Indeed, among the many things I appreciated about this piece--in addition to its abundant humour, the amazing charisma and genuine camaraderie of the performers, and its virtuosic movement sequences (which I will get to shortly)--were the lessons in valuation, not least economic, that it provided. Thus, for example, Jacques quotes to us Adam Smith's famous remarks in The Wealth of Nations on the "paradox of value," how, for example, there is no direct correlation between an item's "use-value" and its "exchange-value": water, which we need to live, comes free of charge from our taps, whereas diamonds, pretty to look at but hardly needed for survival purposes, command huge prices on the market. As Jacques goes on to point out, in the twenty-first century, with drought-ridden California being the prime example, water--long something to be traded in the global south--has now also become a commodity in North America. But this does not obviate the basic point Smith is making with his water-diamond example: exchange-value is tied to labour. As Smith wrote, "The real price of every thing, what every thing costs to the man [sic] who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it." This helps to explain why one person's detritus--the cardboard boxes which merely serve as the disposable containers for one's capital accumulation of things--becomes another person's entire world, providing shelter, warmth, security. It also explains--as demonstrated via another brilliant sequence in which James scrambles for, grabs at, and tumbles over a series of boxes he worries Gilles is eyeing--why the latter person will do anything to hang on the that world.

The cardboard boxes, which are piled into a massive architectural installation downstage left (and into which the performers occasionally disappear), also figure in the show's climactic set-piece. It is rap about acquiring more that is led by Jacques and that eventually sees all the men dancing gangsta-style in fur coats, moving back and forth across the stage--sometimes quite vigorously, and often in delightfully coy displays of unison--while their feet are planted in four of the shallower of said boxes. The sequence is hysterically funny, but the beats and rhymes (which one must absolutely listen to) are musically complex and also pack a satirical punch--not least in exposing (down to Gilles' red skivvies) what we might call the deficit equation of compensatory white masculinity (although I'm not even sure I know what I mean by that).

Following this comedic high-point, the piece ends with a surprisingly tender floor duet between Jacques and James. As Francis plays a song at the piano stage right (all the music in the piece, composed by Francis and Jacques, is performed live by Francis, including a long ukelele solo at the beginning as the audience files into the theatre and we're waiting for the house lights to dim), these two independent dance artists who have now become good friends and collaborators come together in a shared state of exhaustion that also serves as a final physical punctuation to the issues being explored in the piece as a whole. If, to go back to Smith, the value of things lies in the labour that goes into them, then these two spent bodies lying together on the floor point very materially to what it is we should be valuing in the work of art that they have laboured to create for us.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Mountain View Solstice Dancers: Rehearsal 14

Just a quick post about our final rehearsal last night. This was an extra one, so not everyone could be there. Plus it was raining, so we had to work without the musicians inside Celebration Hall for most of our time together. That work was mostly devoted to refining movement details and quality, as well as timing, on the second "New Friends" sequence. This was very useful as I discovered there were a number of things I was doing wrong--including moving the wrong way during the final crouch bit. Speaking of moving the wrong way, I have to remember that the first "down-up-down-up" step sequence following from this crouch goes out instead of in. Otherwise I'll be doing my own solo on Sunday.

Before we broke for the evening, we did run the whole piece outside. It was only misting by then, so it wasn't too uncomfortable. And while our timing was off a bit in "Spiegel," and our lines were rather wonky during "Open Up Your Heart," we did get through everything in pretty polished fashion.

Now we just have to maintain our energy and edge for performance day on Sunday.


Tara Cheyenne Performance and Kidd Pivot in Rehearsal

Yesterday was a pretty special day. I got to sit in on rehearsals by two amazing Vancouver dance artists who will be premiering new work in July. And while very different in scale and tone, it was interesting for me to note that both works are consciously being constructed as dance-theatre performances, not least in their combining of text and movement. The pieces also share the distinction of having well-known local actors move (quite literally) outside their traditional comfort zones on stage, partnering with professional dancers to tell a story via kinaesthetic as well as narrative means.

The first rehearsal was of Tara Cheyenne Performance's How to Be, which will play the Firehall as part of the Dancing on the Edge Festival in three weeks. TCP Artistic Director and choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg is working with the amazingly talented Kate Franklin, Josh Martin, Bevin Poole, Kim Stevenson, and Marcus Youssef on what will be her second group show after the highly successful Highgate. However, this current work--a scaled down excerpt of which Friedenberg showed as part of Boca del Lupo's Micro-Performance Series at the Anderson Street Space earlier this spring--eschews Highgate's overt theatricality in favour of a deliberately toned down, non-spectacular and process-oriented exploration of themes of subjectivity, authenticity and relationality. The performers, all playing versions of themselves, are modelling for us in their individual movement styles and ways of being in their very different bodies, as well as in the coming together--sometimes harmoniously, sometimes more fractiously--of those styles and bodies, how all of us as human subjects must move through this world at once singly and as part of a larger collective.

All of this makes for some amazing comic set pieces (which I won't spoil before the piece opens), but also moments of truly poignant intimacy and vulnerability--what Friedenberg described as "hilarious heartbreak." It was also such a privilege to watch Friendenberg, who is not dancing in this iteration of the piece, work with her performers, at one point trying out three different spatial configurations of a sequence with Poole before very naturally and organically landing on what felt like the right fit. And all of this while keeping up a steady stream of witty banter and trademark one-liners. I know from experience what a joy it is to work with Friendeberg, and this studio visit (to Stevenson's shiny new space, The Happening, on Fraser at 39th) only confirmed that fact. I look forward to the DOTE show, as well as the full-scale version of the piece at the Cultch that Friendeberg is working towards for April 2017.

The second rehearsal visit took place at Progress Lab 1422 on William Street, where Kidd Pivot's Crystal Pite was working on a sequence from her new work-in-progress Betroffenheit. A co-production with PL 1422 co-tenants Electric Company Theatre, the piece will have its world premiere in Toronto at the end of July as part of the Panamania Festival that runs in conjunction with the PanAm and ParaPanAm Games. Vancouver audiences have to wait until next February to see the finished work; however, the presenters of that staging, DanceHouse, arranged yesterday's sneak peek as a perk for subscribers and donors. What we saw was an excerpt of a complex and highly physical duet between actor, ECT founding member and Betroffenheit co-creator Jonathon Young and dancer Tiffany Tregarthen. Betroffenheit is one of those composite German words that manages to encompass a complexity of meaning that seems inexpressible in anything other than a full sentence in English; in this case, it refers to the state of shock and bewilderment that befalls one in the wake of a disaster. It is, I am assuming, just such a state that Young's character finds himself in when he encounters the creature played by Tregarthen. It's not clear whether this creature is a magical being from another dimension or a product of Young's character's imagination; whatever the case, both Young and Tregarthen appear to be simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by each other, and the part of the duet we witnessed unfolds as at once a solicitous sharing of each other's bodily proximity and weight and as a desire to extricate oneself from the other's potentially threatening grip.

All of this results in some pretty acrobatic partnering, with Tregarthen at one point poised in the air over Young's prone body as she balances her knees on his raised hands and her own arms on his forehead. From this position she must then somersault backwards, while somehow also managing to pull herself and Young up to sitting position, so that they are both facing each other with legs extended and intertwined. It was fascinating to watch Pite work this particular bit over and over again, making minor adjustments (like having Tregarthen grab a bit of Young's shirt or getting Young to help out with momentum by giving Tregarthen a little shove) in order to refine the timing. Equally interesting to me was Young's running commentary as all of this was going on, bringing an actor's characterological "motivation" for his actions (e.g. "I have to get this thing off of me") to the specific physical tasks he needed to perform.

I couldn't stick around afterwards to mingle as I had to dash to the last of my Mountain View Solstice rehearsals. But a perfect day became even more special as I was exiting because I ran into Pite, who was ducking out to get a bit of air. I reminded her of who I was ("that annoying academic who wrote the article about your work"), and she was so gracious, saying how much she appreciated my interpretation of her work, and suggesting that we work together some day (!!!). Even if that never happens, it's enough of an ego-boost just thinking about the possibility. And all of Vancouver is richer for Pite's decision to pursue her career from here.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mountain View Solstice Dancers: Rehearsal 13

Even though we have another impromptu rehearsal scheduled for this Thursday, last night was officially our dress rehearsal. Diane had requested that we all wear our performance clothes, which meant we were awash in a sea of white--including Mark and his fellow musicians. It was really quite stunning visually--and that was from within the dancing cloud. I can only imagine what we look like from a distance, walking up towards Celebration Hall at the beginning of "Spiegel im Spiegel." It's true, some folks' white wardrobes are more impressive than others--Suzie and Hilary, in particular, were wearing gorgeous dresses--but everyone had made an effort with their outfits. Kitted out as we were, it felt like we were a real performance ensemble--that, or members of a religious cult (which, given the locale, wouldn't be such a stretch of the imagination).

There was no futzing with individual pieces or specific sections. It was straight into a full run-through of the entire piece, which we did three times to live musical accompaniment. Our timing was off in a few places and I for one made a series of small mistakes at various points (including stepping on poor Suzie's toes twice); however, overall things went fairly well. It was especially helpful to finally connect the three different sections of choreography, and to have the musicians there to give us specific cues to help with the transitions. One thing I have to remember is to be near the top of the triangle for the start of the mixing bowl bit of "Spiegel," as otherwise Suzie and I will be out of place for the waltz section.

There were lots of other small notes that Jessica and Hailey gave us, but mostly they reassured us that we looked great and that they could tell we were having fun. We had compliments, as well, from several curious passers by who paused to watch our antics or were drawn in by Sarah's booming voice.

Now we just have to hope that this gorgeous weather holds through to Sunday!


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Mountain View Solstice Dancers: Rehearsal 12

After missing my second rehearsal last week due to a conference in Ottawa, I dutifully arrived early for extra practice last night, having also done my best to review the final "Open Your Heart" choreography via the video created by Jessica and Hailey. However, we actually spent the entire three hours working on "Spiegel im Spiegel."

Not that this wasn't welcome. It's the first and longest section--and the hardest to count. Jessica spent a lot of time drilling the counts around the waltz and duet sections into our brains and bodies. This was especially helpful for Suzie and I, as it's been ages since we've had a chance to work on this together. Once we actually figured out on which side of each other we were meant to stand things became a lot easier! There was a little futzing with the positioning of the waltz quartets and which duos are meant to move outward from the column leading up to the duet; we practiced that last bit several times as we were taking too much time following our cue from Tracey at the front.

We were lucky to have the musicians there with us, as without the piano from Part's recorded composition one must listen more closely for the downbeats in order to maintain the counts. And I find I really need to keep counting throughout this opening section as I can't always or intuitively hear the musical cues that mark specific movements when Jessica points them out to us. It was a bit nerve-wracking when we got massively out of sync with the music (and there were a few such moments), but Jessica and Hailey and the musicians were very patient with us, and by the final run-through we pretty much nailed it.

I'm still worried about the last piece though, as I've yet to practice it with the group. I hope we get a chance at one of the impromptu extra rehearsals organized by Jane and Judy for this evening and tomorrow. Because after that there's only one more rehearsal next Monday, and then it's performance day the Sunday following. If the evening on the 21st is anything like it was last night, it's going to be gorgeous.

I just hope our dancing will be equal to the weather and setting.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Mr. Burns in Toronto

I had wanted to see Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play since I read the initial ecstatic reviews surrounding its New York premiere two years ago. So I was delighted to learn that while here in Toronto on a short visit to see family I could take in Outside the March's production (in partnership with Starvox Entertainment and Crow's Theatre) of the play at the former Aztec movie theatre on Gerrard Street East.

Washburn's play takes its title from the character of Homer Simpson's boss on that ubiquitous pop culture televisual referent, The Simpsons. In the first act of the play survivors of a nuclear disaster on the east coast of the United States distract themselves from their new post-apocalyptic reality by enacting old episodes of Matt Groening's cartoon, and in particular the iconic 1993 episode that spoofed the Martin Scorsese remake of the original 1962 version of the thriller Cape Fear, starring Robert Mitchum as the violent ex-con seeking revenge on the family of the lawyer (played by Gregory Peck) whom he blames for putting him behind bars. Already one sees the layers of citationality that Washburn suggests are embedded in our touchstone stories--be they Homeric invocations of the muses or, as with our traumatized posse in Washburn's play, repeated utterances of the Simpson paterfamilias' signature "D'oh!" And if, according to many theorists, electronic and digital media at once remediate and hypermediate older oral traditions in our post-print, post-literate era (think of the tweet as a version of the town crier or, even better, the retweet as a game of telephone), then it makes sense that when the power grid collapses we will revert, almost reflexively, to more embodied and repertory acts of myth-making and storytelling--such as spinning favourite tales around a campfire.

It is in just such a state that we find Matt (Colin Doyle) at the start of Mr. Burns' first act, manically recounting scenes from the aforementioned "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons for the benefit of Maria (Katherine Cullen), Jenny (Tracy Michailidis), and Sam (Sebastien Heins), each of whom displays varying degrees of nostalgia for the episode and the show as a whole, but who are nevertheless actively invested in the shared ritual of reenacting and remembering a cultural artifact from a past that no longer exists. When Gibson (an excellent Damien Atkins) accidentally stumbles upon their encampment we discover that this is all that binds these individuals together--that and the fact that they have survived the catastrophic disaster that has preceded the action of the play (and remember, in this regard, that in The Simpsons Mr. Burns is the owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and himself briefly flirted with a career in bioterrorism). For once the group has determined that Gibson is not a threat to their safety they immediately go through another ritual, albeit one that emphasizes the otherwise random and chance nature of their connection to each other: each member of the camp takes out a book and asks Gibson if he recognizes or may have previously encountered any of ten names read out (presumably of missing family members or friends). He does not. And then it is his turn to read out his list, which he prefaces by saying that he thought the protocol for this bizarre hybrid of stranger-greeting and genealogical remembering was now to read out only eight names. It's in these tiny details that Washburn is able to telegraph with extreme economy and subtlety how little time, in this new world, there is for normal acts of grieving, and also how new social practices and representational acts, built on the ashes of old ones, become institutionalized and circulate: through repetition. How else to explain the symbolic capital of a show like The Simpsons, even to someone like me, who rarely watched it? Or, likewise to Gibson, who is able to supply Matt the line from the "Cape Feare" episode he couldn't remember because, even though Gibson never watched the show, his missing girlfriend was a huge fan, and would routinely recite favourite lines around the house.

Act 2 of Washburn's play opens seven years later. Our rag-tag team of survivors has banded together (quite literally) to form a start-up television station, performing old episodes from The Simpsons (or what they remember of them), as well as the commercials that used to interrupt them. In this post-Netflix, post-PVRing, post-binge watching society, entertainment is still a commodity, but in ways that combine the early days of live television broadcast and an even older barter economy. Harried producer Colleen (Amy Keating) is rushing to lock down a commercial featuring Quincy (Rielle Braid, another standout in a stellar cast) and Gibson as a couple trying to unwind after work. But the group also needs to finish rehearsing two other full episodes of The Simpsons before their competitors do so. The added twist here is that cultural memory has now become the new currency, as the product our group is selling is dependent on scripts cobbled together from remembered lines from old Simpsons episodes that Jenny buys from other survivors on the open market of nostalgia. Trouble is that Jenny is pretty sure some of what she's buying isn't authentic, that desperate folks are now just making things up in order to make whatever trade they need to in order to get by. But, as Gibson's character reveals in a wrenching meltdown when he can't remember having been at the meeting where the group agreed to produce a much-disputed episode, when one's memory is not just subject to the normal ravages of time, but also potentially accelerated deterioration due to radioactive contamination, the stakes of what is ersatz and what is authentic suddenly become all the more fraught.

Finally, in Act 3, Washburn lets loose her amazingly fertile and intelligent imagination in a bravura musical sequence set 75 years in the future. In this new society, the fictional world of The Simpsons has fully fused with the lived reality of the descendents of the survivors from the first two acts. In this hybrid mythology Bart (Braid again), Lisa (Keating), Homer (Doyle) and Marge (Cullen) become the intrepid heroes who triumph against the evil Mr. Burns (Ishai Buchbinder) and his henchmen Itchy (Atkins) and Scratchy (Heins), giving rise to an origin story that is enacted in song and dance and that, appropriately for a playwright who is additionally concerned with exploring in highly metatheatrical ways the place of live performance in our thoroughly mediatized world, takes us back to the origins of western theatre (cue the masks and prosthetic extensions and Greek chorus).

Outside the March's co-directors, Simon Bloom and Mitchell Cushman, have assembled an incredibly talented (if overwhelmingly white) cast and crew. And while the production is staged largely proscenium style, they do tap into the company's previous site-specific and immersive aesthetic in making creative use of the Aztec Theatre's dilapidated charms. Most impressive, the entire two hour and forty-five minute performance is powered without traditional electricity. Flashlights and glowstick devices of various sorts are used in many scenes, but there are also a lot of illuminated lightbulbs throughout. The energy for these, it is revealed at the very end of the show, comes from a generator attached to a bicycle that cast member Buchbinder, who fittingly plays Mr. Burns, has presumably been pedalling throughout the production. Just one magic trick among many that makes this show worth the trip to Riverdale.