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.