Saturday, July 11, 2015

Edge 6 at Dancing on the Edge

Last night, as part of the Edge 6 program at this year's Dancing on the Edge Festival, I got a chance to revisit--and enjoy all over again--two works I had previously seen in earlier incarnations. A version of Tara Cheyenne Performance's how to be, which TCP AD and choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg has been developing with collaborators Justine Chambers, Susan Elliott, Kate Franklin, Josh Martin, Bevin Poole, Kim Stevenson, and Marcus Youssef since last fall, was showcased as part of Boca del Lupo's Micro-Performance Series earlier this spring. I wrote about that performance, a trio featuring Friedenberg, Franklin and Stevenson, and very much tailored to the tight confines of the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island where it was performed, here. For this iteration, which I was privileged to witness being partially built as part of a studio visit last month, Friedenberg has taken herself out of the dancing equation for the first time in her company's history. Instead, she has constructed from the abundant raw materials of movement and spoken text that are her stock in trade a series of vignettes for Stevenson, Franklin, Martin, Poole and Youssef that focus on what I will call the "doing of being," asking what it means when we materialize our aspirational or compensatory or competitive thoughts about who or what we wish to be as physical enactments of struggle or mimicry or synchronicity or incongruity.

For Youssef, a theatre artist, this means dealing with his anxiety about performing as a dancer in this piece, something Friedenberg showcases right at the top of the show. Just as Firehall AD and DOTE producer Donna Spencer is finishing her curtain speech, Youssef, nattily attired in suit jacket and tie, descends to the stage from where he had been sitting in the audience. He places a notebook before him on the floor, consults it briefly, and then begins to assume various ballet positions with his feet, eventually ending up in third--and demonstrating a fantastic turn-out in the process! More consultation of the book follows, and then an attempt at an arabesque. Next we get a bit of tap and step-dancing. And, finally, the big finish: a double pirouette with planted jazz hands. Consult, repeat: just as Youssef starts to win us over with his efforts, the other dancers--also surreptitiously embedded in the audience, and similarly attired in jackets and ties--descend one by one to the stage, with Stevenson (who happened to be sitting beside me) bringing up the rear. Forming a quartet upstage right, they cycle fluidly and in unison through the steps Youssef has been trying to master, and which he now seeks to match with ever increasing desperation to their rhythms. This sequence culminates with Youssef taking to the chair that has been positioned downstage centre, the other dancers clustered around him as he begins to talk to an off-stage analyst about his relationship with his father and an older sibling he never knew he had. The psychology of the group is still in play, however, as the other performers variously mimic and mock Youssef behind his back; whenever he turns around, they pretend to be engaged in some other activity: we hear the tail-end of a joke being told by Martin; or else Poole has launched herself into an energetic round of charades. In both cases, Youssef is clearly positioned as being on the outside of the group and amidst this at once proximate and separate relation of bodies before us we see how the principle of inclusion and exclusion is central to identity formation in our culture.

Each of the other performers experiences her or his own moment of separateness within the group, and to the extent that I read this piece as an attempt on Friedenberg's part to explore the question of dance ontology within a larger spectrum of ways of being in the world, it was fascinating to watch these amazingly talented but also very different movers explore the dialectic of coming together as an ensemble while also holding on to their individual expressiveness. This is a tension for any freelance dance artist performing in someone else's work, but throw in the fact that in this case the choreographer is known for her highly charismatic solo dance-theatre performances, and one can perhaps see why Friedenberg chose to absent herself from the stage in this case. Instead, the role of comic cut-up is here taken over by Stevenson, who in a virtuosic spoken word sequence demonstrates her mastery of faux-sincerity in praising the talents of her fellow performers in relation to herself, all the while simultaneously masquerading and revealing in her gestures the violence such comparisons are doing to her own psyche. Franklin is utterly compelling in a section in which she is literally straining to make herself seen and heard while being forcibly constrained by three of the other dancers. Poole makes Michael Bolton's power ballad "How Can We Be Lovers" utterly her own, despite the opprobrium of the others. And Martin has a hilarious Magic Mike moment in which we witness the uber B-boy give way to his inner Beyonce, swinging his hips, shaking his ass, and vogueing like there's no tomorrow. There's also a terrific duet between Stevenson and Franklin that turns (again, quite literally) on the often fine line between affection and aggression, as the two attempt to trade ever more physical kisses and caresses while also tossing out compliments that start to sound like personal indictments.

Before Stevenson and Franklin come to actual blows, Martin and Poole intervene, and the piece concludes with two couples waltzing to Prince's "Purple Rain." Youssef watches from the sidelines, the non-dancer yet again excluded from the group. Until, following a brief blackout, we see him centre stage, busting a set of grooves that, to refer back to his opening attempts to follow a choreographic score, suggests that sometimes to be part of a structure you just have to improvise.

Structured improvisation is the basis for Mutable Subject/Deanna Peters' NEW RAW. I first saw the piece as part of EDAM's fall choreographic series in 2013, and wrote briefly about that premiere here. Following a second outing in Edmonton in 2014, we are now getting, at DOTE 2015, version 3.0.

The piece begins with dancer Molly McDermott slouched in a chair downstage right, her head thrown back. She is illuminated from above by a soft spot. Peters stands beside her, in the half-light; her back is turned towards us, a sliver of which we can see courtesy of the suit jacket she is wearing back-to-front. As McDermott begins to twist and contort the lower half of her body in the chair, her toes somehow always in demi-pointe, Peters rests her right hand just above McDermott's right shoulder, as if seeking to calm or still or comfort her--or maybe just to prevent her movements from getting too out of control (a point to which I will return). At a certain point the chair begins to move, pulled backwards by an unseen Alexa Mardon, who is crouched behind it. By the time the chair comes to a stop upstage, McDermott's movements have become a riot of frenetic tics and crooked shapes and the chair starts to take on more ominous associations--as something to which McDermott's body has been tied or strapped, for example, and from which she is seeking to free herself (in which case that hovering hand of Peters is perhaps not so benevolent after all, and maybe that open slit from the backwards suit jacket starts to look like one we'd see on a standard issue hospital gown). Then, too, as an object that encodes and scripts an entire history of sedentary gendered behaviour, the chair carries associations of decorous bodily comportment (women don't usually get to manspread) against which McDermott might be rightly rebelling.

McDermott does eventually escape the chair's confines, and after she and Mardon exit the stage, Peters, still with her back too us, turns turntablist, putting on an old 45 and cranking up the volume. There follows a most compelling floor solo, in which Peters moves her body across the stage in a series of sexily languorous poses, exposing the gorgeous curves and silhouette of her back to us as the suit jacket falls about her head, but always keeping her face from us. Indeed, one of the things that is most interesting about the opening of NEW RAW is how consciously Peters has herself and her fellow female dancers avoid the (presumptively male) gaze of the audience: Peters dances with her back to us; McDermott, while in the chair, has her head cast upward to the ceiling; and Mardon in the opening sequence is completely invisible behind the chair. A little later on, following an amazingly physical duet between Mardon and McDermott in which the former aggressively "manhandles" (the word seems appropriate in this context) the latter, these three will perform an improvised trio of walking with album covers held in front of their faces. And when the fourth dancer in the group, Elissa Hanson, finally appears she does so by shimmying on stage on all fours, her ass in the air--and defiantly in our noses.

Hanson's delayed appearance is the prelude to the thumping climax of NEW RAW, in which the four dancers move from avoiding the potentially objectifying gaze of the audience to actively soliciting and even owning that gaze--of being quite explicitly in our faces. This begins when Hanson eventually stands upright and turns around, her acknowledgement of us and what we want prompting her to tease us with a catalogue of provocative poses culled from the catwalk and beauty pageants and striptease; a highlight during this sequence is when the flirty little moue Hanson begins to make with her mouth grows bigger and bigger, turning into a gaping open maw that functions simultaneously as a silent scream at the indignity of our presence before her. Thereafter, as the music gets louder and louder, the women improvise a series of forward and backward movement lines, their accelerations towards and retreats from us operating like a taunt. Yes, here we are dancing in front of you. But that doesn't mean we are dancing for you. It's a cheeky dance slap in the face. And it feels amazing.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Edge 4 at Dancing on the Edge

Now in the homestretch of this year's Dancing on the Edge Festival, yesterday evening at the Firehall saw the debut of the Edge 4 program. Halifax-based Mocean Dance led off with Body Abandoned, a trio choreographed by Sara Coffin and danced by Coffin, Jacinte Armstrong, and Rhonda Baker. The piece continues Coffin's explorations in live digital motion capture. Cameras record the dancers' movements, with the ghosted, quasi-holographic images then projected--sometimes simultaneously, sometimes with a significant delay--on two scrims positioned, one in front of the other, upstage left. The effect can be quite haunting, as when, following an opening solo prelude by Coffin, the dancers emerge together from the stage left wings, moving horizontally between the two scrims in a tight formation, a statue of the three graces come to life, as the white negative outline of their bodies appears behind them. A similar outline would have appeared before them as well, but for the fact that someone had forgotten to remove the lens cap from the camera stationed at the lip of the stage, and so the downstage scrim initially functioned simply as a sheer canvas screen.

That problem solved, the rest of the dance unfolded without any technological hitches, and as a study in the kinaesthetic relations between the live and its digital archive, the piece was conceptually fascinating. The motion capture, focusing at times on one dancer or all three, recording their entire bodies or discarnating certain limbs, functions at once as an instant dance score and as a form of performance documentation, the trace digital outline of a given movement phrase as it floats onto and recedes from the scrims answering the paradox of dance's disappearance with an incitement to its repertory repetition. That said, I didn't find the choreography itself all that interesting, nor the individual and collective relationships between the dancers in the trio clearly defined. I understand that some of the movement was obviously composed with its video afterlife in mind; however, as there are long stretches of the piece where nothing is being projected on the scrims, what we are witnessing live on stage needs more dynamic force and tension. Are these women, all clad in white, as much physical avatars of one another as their respective digital images are of each of them individually? The ending of the piece hints at some kind of connection along these lines between the live dancing bodies on stage, but up until that point I was frankly more interested in the lines of connection on screen.

After a brief intermission, the audience settled in for the second piece on the program, The Mars Hotel, a duet choreographed by Ziyian Kwan, of dumb instrument Dance, for herself and Vision Impure's Noam Gagnon. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I have been following Ziyian's progress in the studio as she has been building this piece, and so part of my interest here is in accounting for how she and dramaturg Maiko Bae Yamamoto have tackled certain conceptual and technical issues that arose in the creation process.) A commission by the writer P.W. Bridgman, the piece takes its impetus from a similarly titled work of flash fiction that Bridgman wrote for his wife, and that is helpfully included as an insert with our programs. Reading Bridgman's prose, one discovers that he has condensed a lifetime's journey toward love into a couple's romantic and inevitable rendez-vous in Paris. Kwan--here collaborating with composer Peggy Lee, who performs the cello live on stage alongside trumpet player JP Carter and guitarist Aram Bajakian--has wisely chosen not to interpret Bridgman's words at face value. Instead, she has taken them as creative license to tackle head-on some of the bigger cliches surrounding that grossly overdetermined word we call LOVE.

Among other things, this means that following Carter's entrance from the Firehall's foyer and his pause to survey the audience with mild disdain, like an aloof lounge singer, before the closed stage curtains that lighting designer James Proudfoot has lavishly bathed in a velvety reddish-purple hue, the first thing we see after the curtains part is Gagnon, lying supine on the floor. A giant white, partially inflated air ball with the word LOVE in black letters on it is positioned atop of him. As the band launches into the first of its improvisatory riffs, Kwan emerges from the wings, pauses to quizzically survey Gagnon underneath the love ball (designed by Wendy Williams Watt, and available for purchase on-line), before retrieving an air pump from behind said ball and beginning to play/dance with it in a haphazard, almost mechanical manner. Clearly we are in a surreal, dreamlike space, one from which Gagnon, still underneath the ball, attempts to awaken Kwan. When his verbal entreaties won't work, he gets up and flings the love ball at her. This is the cue for the band to launch into a faster, louder and altogether more aggressive register, and for Kwan and Gagnon to physically launch themselves into a duet that matches the music in its propulsive energy. The dancers march across the stage--Kwan along a vertical axis, Gagnon along a horizontal one--narrowly missing each other before flinging their bodies to the floor, doing a series of side-by-side leapfrog jumps, and coming together in a succession of embraces and collisions that literally knock them both off their feet. LOVE as a delicate waltz of courtship this is not; this is love as competition, as contest--one that, for the moment, sees Gagnon winning, as this section culminates in him performing a frenzied air guitar solo to Bajakian's actual accompaniment while Kwan languishes dazed and confused on the floor against the air ball.

Later on in the piece Kwan and Gagnon will partner each other much more tenderly, the companionate besideness of their bodies--first one, then the other taking the lead or falling back in a charming shuffle-walk pattern, or else both offering their heads and backs as ballast for the transfer of weight--additionally textured by the lush notes of Lee and her bandmates, and in the process offering a portrait of danced intimacy based on another kind of coupling and mutual support. Bracketing these two duets there are also moments when Gagnon and Kwan separately address, and make themselves vulnerable before, the audience: Gagnon first whistles and then sings a bit of Dean Martin's famous "Birds and Bees" song, strategically changing the gender of one of the words in the second verse; and Kwan offers a catalogue of responses from friends and intimates based on her appeal for their personal one-word definitions of LOVE. She ends with her husband's response of "amateur," which as she tells us first flummoxed her, until her husband supplied a dictionary definition that contextualized the word as referring to one who practices an art, and especially a fine art, not for professional or financial reasons, but purely for the love of it.

In these and other vignettes that make up the piece what stood out most for me (and for my partner Richard, who was beside me in the audience last night) was how Kwan set about "queering" the (hetero)normative conventions of romantic love. Sometimes this is overt, as when Kwan wades into the audience to retrieve Gagnon's boyfriend; the two men share a long and steamy kiss while Kwan, having put on high heels and stripped to her black panties, leans over seductively at the waist to pick up the coat and dress she had to that point been wearing. Asymmetries of gender and sexuality are further played up when Kwan, still topless, is handed an industrial-strength blower by Gagnon, which she promptly inserts into the flaccid air ball's opening, pumping it up to maximum inflation in a parody of so many cultural symbols of masculine tumescence.

But really what I mean by Kwan's queer take on love in The Mars Hotel is that she is interested in exploring its tropes in a manner that is deliberately askew, one that resists any totalizing grand narrative in favour of a slow accretion of episodes that are consistently off-kilter, that keep us off-balance and throw us off-course. Like that big love ball that she and Gagnon fling across the stage at each other near the end of the piece. Indeed, like LOVE itself. Kwan even extends this principle to her treatment of Bridgman's source text, an excerpt of which she reads out only at the very conclusion of the piece, following a final interaction with that retrieved air pump. Thus displaced, and with the air having literally been let out of the dance, the text becomes one element in the work's overall score--a score that is unapologetically promiscuous, polymorphous and perverse--rather than this sacred thing to which the choreographer's vision must somehow be faithful.

It's a risky move, especially if the writer is sitting in the audience. But when Kwan brought him on stage to take a bow, it was clear that Bridgman loved it.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Edge 3 at Dancing on the Edge

Two legendary Vancouver dance artists. Two one-word titles. Two additional firecracker performers. You couldn't ask for a better line-up as part of the Edge 3 program at this year's Dancing on the Edge Festival.

First up was Oxygen, choreographed by Kokoro Dance's Jay Hirabayashi as a commission for dancer Billy Marchenski, and set to the industrial "no wave" music of the Swans. The twenty-minute piece unfolds on a single vertical plane, beginning with Marchenski in a crouch justly slightly up of centre stage. He slowly unfurls his body to standing, pointing skyward with one index finger, before collapsing to the ground and beginning the phrase again, this time extending the opposite finger. The movement is simple but in its execution anything but pedestrian, with the strain in Marchenski's calves attesting to the effort required to unfold and bend, unfold and bend in such a controlled manner, such that the slight suspension with the pointed index finger at full verticality feels like time itself is being suspended, forced to conform to the rhythms of Marchenski's body, his breath, rather than the other way around. No doubt Barbara was after something similar with the statue poses that started off our Wreck Beach Butoh piece this past weekend, but I can say that after last night I for one still have much work to do when it comes to slowing down time through movement.

Eventually Marchenski begins his slow butoh walk downstage: legs bent, torso forward with heart centre open, an invisible orchid cupped in his throat. Arching his body backwards, Marchenski descends to the floor for a series of weight-transferring poses on elbows and knees, but never on all four at one time. Next, he stands upright with his back towards us. Slowly he begins to shake: first just his buttocks, then his hips and legs, finally his torso and arms and head, until a succession of tremors ripple like waves up and down his entire body. Again, what is so fascinating to watch about this is how the shaking accumulates in intensity over time, with Marchenski not so much becoming possessed by the gradually distributed movement as choosing to possess it from the beginning and redistribute it at will.

So, too, with how the piece ends, which sees Marchenski incorporating a series of arm waves and jumps into a hypnotic score that had me straining to register their trajectories via the trace visual residue of their arcing flights through the air. And such was the power of the choreography that it wasn't a strain at all to believe that the dancer before me really was flying.

The second piece on the program was Trickster, a collaboration between Karen Jamieson and the San Francisco-based bouffon artist Nathaniel Justiniano. The piece began as a Brief Encounters pairing back in 2013. So successful was that early version that Jamieson and Justiniano decided to develop the piece further, this time inviting Stefan Smulovitz to perform the viola live with them on stage.

Essentially the work unfolds as a structured improvisation, with Jamieson exploring a series of movement phrases anchored in different parts of her body and Justiniano (who wears a traditional bouffon costume, complete with double-sided ass and a hump at his back) burlesquing those explorations both physically and in words--often via hilarious direct address to the audience. However, this conceit would quickly wear thin if the movement itself weren't compelling to watch, with Justiniano matching the precision of Jamieson's classical ballet steps from Giselle, for example, with his own deft and extremely light-on-his-feet traversing of the stage.

Indeed, the piece ends with the two performers arriving at a mutually agreeable rapprochement between their two different physical vocabularies, launching into a final duet that--to reference their own concluding conversation--may not be conceptually "deep," but is nonetheless deeply satisfying to watch.


Monday, July 6, 2015

Wreck Beach Butoh: Second Performance

Waking up to yesterday's hazy orange dawn was a bit of a shock. As was discovering, once outside, a thin layer of ash covering the cars on the street. The wild fires burning in the interior and along the coast had blanketed Vancouver in a filmy layer of acrid smoke. While the sun eventually shone through yesterday and it became very hot on the beach, we couldn't help looking with dismay at the north shore mountains, which were becoming increasingly obscured by the sooty air. Our chalk white bodies against that vista must have looked eerie.

As for the performance itself, Barbara kept delaying the start because she wanted more available beach on which to move. In the end, we cut things pretty close, as by the end of the piece the tide had already started to come back in. That said, I was very pleased with how things went. I was more relaxed this time, which meant I wasn't over-thinking the choreography or my place in the group; instead, I could concentrate more on embodying the quality of the movement and giving myself over to the feelings associated with it, and with the site. The audience was maybe a bit sparser than on Saturday, perhaps put off by the smoke; but they seemed no less enthusiastic in their response, and one man, on leaving, said to us that it was the best WBB yet.

It has certainly been an amazing two weeks: I don't think I have worked so hard, nor learned so much in such a short amount of time. As Barbara would say, the experience is not for the faint of heart, and as  dance pedagogues she and Jay certainly have very different styles (holy understatement, Batman!); but those styles, when put together in the studio, are combustive in the best possible sense, sparking a desire among everyone in the room--from the newbie community movers like me to professional dance artists like Molly--to inhabit the choreography to the best of their abilities.

That's the kind of fire I can get behind and, schedule permitting, I'll be back again next year.


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Edge 1 at Dancing on the Edge

At last year's Dancing on the Edge, Justine Chambers created one of the buzz events of the Festival with her commissioned immersive dance-theatre installation/conceptual performance event/experiment in relational aesthetics, Family Dinner. It involved audience members sitting down as invited guests at a real dinner attended and hosted by some of the most amazing contemporary dance artists in the city. There, amid the passing of wine, the sharing of plates of food, and the animated conversation that attended both, one was able to witness in an intimate and thoroughly implicated manner the social choreography and gestural vocabulary that is a part of this ritual of everyday life: the surprising uses to which cutlery may be put; the different ways that people play with and eat their food; how we sit in our chairs; whether we put our elbows on the table; whether we lean in or sit back when we're talking to our neighbour; what's happening with our feet and legs underneath the table; and how we respond to the unexpected, outsized, or boorish bits of behaviour that test the limits of what we accept to be proper table etiquette.

From this first phase of the project, which I am sad to have missed, Chambers has extracted what she calls a "lexicon" of gestures that emerged from performers and audience members over the course of the dinners. In Family Dinner: The Lexicon, part of the Edge 1 program at this year's DOTE Festival, those gestures are now "re-performed" for us by five artist-collaborators, some of whom were part of the original installation. Stage-right to stage-left, the diners include: Aryo Khakpour, Kate Franklin, Josh Martin, Alison Denham, and Lisa Gelley. When the lights come up, they are all sitting at a long table, each with a plate of food before them. One by one they unfold their napkins, pick up their knives and forks, and taste a bit of their food. In its ritual repetition, the sequence exposes the dialectic of sameness and difference embedded in all repertory acts, including social ones like eating: Khakpour cuts his food with precision; Frankin stabs at hers with force; Martin hoovers his into his mouth, which is about an inch from his plate; Denham keeps turning her plate, taking a bit of each of the different food items in turn; and Gelley just pushes her food around before setting down her fork. From there, the movement gradually builds: a sequence involving the drinking from and filling of water and wine glasses (which neatly combines live sound picked up by two table mics with Nancy Tam's recorded score); bits of mimed conversation; the wiping of mouths with napkins; a wonderful below-the-table section, expertly lit by lighting designer James Proudfoot, that featured a lot of manspreading, including from the women. These and other gestures are sometimes performed in unison or in canon, but more often than not they are presented juxtapositionally, though whether as a structured improvisation or as set choreography I am not sure. If it's the latter--which Chambers' program note hints it might be--then what we saw last night is a marvel of bodily memory, the wholly seated movement as precise and virtuosic in its timing and articulation as any classical ballet. Chambers has called this phase of her project a live "archive of a shared movement vocabulary." Given my own interests in the sensory experience of performance archives, I couldn't have asked for a more stimulating experience.

Also on the program last night were pieces by Karissa Barry, Victoria-based Constance Cooke, and Vanessa Goodman. I'd seen an earlier version of Barry's Submission to Entropy at Dances for a Small Stage. It features Lexi Vajda and Jessica Wilkie as two black hoodie- and goggle-wearing creatures who slink about the stage in a simultaneously languid and alertly curious manner, adapting their movements to their sensory exploration of the space and each's occupation of that space (including a humorous rat-a-tat sequence involving those goggles). Cooke's Liminal: The Space Between is an excerpt from a larger work. What we saw is set on dancer Mark Sawh Medrano, who is a gorgeous mover, with an amazingly sinewy back and fluid arms that, when illuminated by the handheld lighting device of onstage "Shadow Player" Brett Owen, weres especially evocative. I can't say I understood or found especially interesting all of the other scenographic elements in the piece, including the faces that emerged at different times from Owen's projections, or the shower/bed-springy structure that Medrano danced behind.

Goodman's solo Container, a version of which she presented earlier this June at the Magnetic North Festival, showcases what an amazing mover she is. Clad in nude-coloured dance semis and what looked like mini combat boots, and combining hyper-kinetic android-like movements with various club grooves, Goodman reminded me at various points of a cross between Priss from Blade Runner and Miley Cyrus--but without the look-at-me twerking, and with a much more gorgeous silhouette. At one point, early on in the piece, Goodman launches into a deep lunge, arching her back in way that had me wishing I could mimic that pose on the beach. Then, too, there is Goodman's innate musicality, as when she pulses her upper body and arms in simple yet hypnotic time to the electronic sound score by Loscil (the Vancouver-based artist Scott Morgan). To go back to that sci-fi connection I made via the Blade Runner reference, Container ends with Goodman dancing in a single, slowly fading spot upstage (the lighting is again by Proudfoot), her upper body raised to the ceiling as if she is about to be transported to another world, one that is big enough to contain her outsized talents.


Wreck Beach Butoh: First Performance

Waking up yesterday I discovered I still had white paint from our undress rehearsal on various parts of my body: between my toes; on the inside of my arm; between my shoulder blades. I took that as a good sign.

And, indeed, yesterday's performance was very successful, notwithstanding some last minute changes. Barbara reset the opening so that we descend to the water's edge in our statue group formations, staring out at the sea until she gives the signal to turn to face the cliffs/audience. It does make for a more coherent opening, especially given the fact that the audience had already clustered around us when we were still in our warm-up circle following Jay through various breathing and stretching exercises. I think many just assumed that given we were moving together as an ensemble that the performance must have started; needless to say, it was a bit disconcerting during the knee bends and stretches to note, when one put one's head between one's legs, that among the first glimpses the audience was getting was a full-on shot of one's ass.

A half-hour before the start of the performance, while we were putting on our make-up, it seemed to me that there weren't all that many people on the beach. However, during the warm-up I was surprised at the crowd that suddenly swelled around us: they seemed to come from out of nowhere, in various states of dress and undress. Once the performance began I was conscious of the audience only as an assembled mass; granted I didn't have my glasses on and so couldn't distinguish individual features very well (sorry Tiffany and Bertrand!). Still I think it had less to do with the relative proximity or distance of the spectators (some of whom got very close to us) than with the fact that I had actually found that butoh space-time nexus where body and environment and event became as one--to the point where, at the end of "Crumbling," emerging out of one move in which I couldn't see the rest of my group, I realized I was rather too much in the ma-zone of my own pace.

Not that, amid all of this, there weren't the occasional quotidian jolts of reality that brought me back to the piece's practical mechanics--and the spontaneous adjustment of them: as when, for example, amid Barbara's barking under her breath at us to get tighter as a group in advance of "Seagulls," Jay decided to launch our squawking count with the cry for nothing that is usually given by Barbara. If looks could kill ... but what could we do but all eventually join in? Then, too, the "Pirates" bit that follows this sequence was altogether different when, upon approaching my first audience member, I suddenly had an out-of-body "emperor's new clothes" moment, realizing that this person before whom I'm about to thrust forward my pelvis, throw back my head and laugh, knows that I'm naked, but is just going to ignore that detail for now.

The same went for the various friends in the audience I spoke to after the show, including several LGC and Mountain View Solstice alums. Given our casual banter about the performance, you'd have thought I'd just stepped off a concert stage fully clothed rather than out of the sea naked and painted white. But then that's the magic of Wreck Beach Butoh. There is something about the sublimity of the natural setting, which requires as much work (and, arguably, submission) from the audience as it does from us as performers, that makes physiognomical self-consciousness superfluous. Really, as a species we are all so puny amidst this vastness. What else is there to do, then, but dance?


Saturday, July 4, 2015

Wreck Beach Butoh: Undress Rehearsal

So, as Barbara had warned, the beach really does change everything. Different surface, different geographic relationships and distances, added natural variables. All of which combines for an experience that is as much about endurance and being able to make adjustments on the fly and maintaining acute spatial awareness as it is about performing the piece with presence and to the best of one's ability. Not that the latter still isn't expected of us, as we were reminded after our run-through, which included more than a few hiccups on my part, one semi-disastrous collective mistake at the end, and which according to Barbara lacked energy from start to finish. In her words, it was "too easy."

It didn't feel easy to me, starting with negotiating on one's bare feet the rocky forebeach closest to the cliffs, where we stored our gear and set up a quasi-green room. The Tower Beach part of Wreck has always been much rockier than the more visited southern part; however, I don't remember it being quite like what we encountered yesterday. It's like some gardener had come in with a truck full of landscaping stones and dumped them all over the beach. When Noah and Molly and I arrived, Jen and Salome were duly clearing as smooth and sandy a pathway as possible through them from our encampment to the water's edge.

Speaking of the water, it was pleasantly warm-ish. But also quite choppy. When we did the Mad Chefs bit, we were being buffeted about and swept off our feet like bowling pins by the waves crashing into us from behind. To say nothing of the energy required to swim against those waves in even getting to that section. Exiting the water was far less difficult, as one just had to let the tide sweep one ashore.

As for moving on the wet sand, I found it had plusses and minuses. Falling onto it rather than onto a parquet studio floor (however well sprung) was certainly more pleasant on the joints. However, there was also the tendency to sink into it during certain moves, which played occasional havoc with my balance. Traversing it butoh style, with one's weight forward and sliding rather than lifting one's feet, was also a bit challenging, depending on how fast or slow we were going. But doing the cat/cow gallop (a weird menagerie of a metaphor, I know) was certainly easier than on a hard floor. And while one wasn't able to get as much rebound from the sand in propelling into the ecstasy jumps, I actually enjoyed the experience of performing them. Embracing the actual sky does help.

Other things I hadn't anticipated: the cold from the wind when one first comes out of the water, and how it takes a great deal of will not to shiver uncontrollably while also trying to do the choreography; having to squint into the sun during the last of the statue poses; the labour of applying and taking off the white body paint; feeling so self-conscious in front of what amounted to an accidental audience.

Oh yeah, and how tired I felt afterwards. So much so that I decided to forgo the Dancing on the Edge show for which I had tickets last night. But I'm feeling refreshed this morning; it's another beautiful day and I'm pumped for the first performance.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Misfit Blues at Dancing on the Edge

The 2015 Dancing on the Edge Festival kicked off last night at the Firehall with the return of Festival favourite Paul-André Fortier, here presenting a new duet, Misfit Blues, that he choreographed for himself and Regina-based dance legend Robin Poitras. The set, designed by Edward Poitras, is comprised of a large white plastic circular tarpaulin that floats like a big glowing moon above the black marley of the stage, and upon which, positioned slightly stage right, there is a bench wrapped in what appeared to be layers of saran wrap or clear packing tape. Around the edges of this space are various props: piles of clothes stage right and left; a large stand-up electric fan upstage right; a closed suitcase on a tabletop with the Latin phrase "pro pelle cutem" written on it (which, after a Google search, I have subsequently learned is the motto of the Hudson's Bay Company, meaning "skin for skin [and/or leather]") upstage left; and, most curiously (and slightly menacingly), another suitcase downstage left, this one open and spilling various fur pelts before the open mouth of a stuffed dog.

Our senses thus primed to anticipate something more theatrical or narrative-based, Fortier and Poitras immediately undercut these expectations, emerging casually from the wings to strike a series of simple conjunctive poses in the middle of the white tarpaulin. There is no music, no fancy lighting: just two bodies silently arcing and torquing their arms and torsos and legs to form a succession of symbiotic tableaux. All we hear is the slight squish of the dancers' shoes (Fortier's black oxfords and Poitras' bright orange trainers) as they shift from position to position. (A bit later Poitras will change her shoes, joining Fortier in making another foot-related sound on the tarpaulin by crawling about on all fours and tapping their toes on the floor.) Eventually the pair moves to the bench, where they resume their sculptural duet, but this time sitting, and mainly shifting the balance and direction and weight of their upper bodies in response to each other. At a certain point Fortier gets up from the bench and moves downstage, bending his legs and extending one arm to the side, beginning a version of a solo that he will repeat throughout the piece, one that builds on his trademark wingspan to trace a series of gestural phrases and semi-indexical hails through the air. Indeed, one of the most compelling things to me about Fortier as a dancer is how he moves his arms: to watch him slide one of these limbs from his side and extend it into space, always punctuating the movement with a clear separation between the fingers, is to share in a sublime moment of kinaesthetic grace.

Not that Poitras is any slouch in the grace department (although it must be said that Fortier has given her a less obviously "dancey" movement vocabulary, and no solo, preferring to carry her around at the beginning like a rag-doll, and later even dancing her body for her). In one of my favourite moments in the piece, Fortier begins "walking" in place, pumping his arms forward and back in a rhythmic motion. Poitras, who has been doing a quick change off to the side, joins him mid-stride, as it were, perfectly coordinating her arms to Fortier's. At a certain point the pair begins a slow turn on the spot, all the while continuing to windmill their arms. Then the pace quickens, to the point where Poitras' arms start to flail off in all directions. But, without missing a beat, she finds the rhythm again, matching Fortier arm for arm, breath for breath. It's such a simple bit of unison choreography, but in its very simplicity reveals something profound about the beauty of two bodies being perfectly in sync.

That said, Misfit Blues, is not merely an abstract exploration of the possibilities of pedestrian movement.  Those props are there for a reason, and Fortier and Poitras, in addition to revealing to us their dancing selves, also take on what I'm going to call clown roles, speaking to each other in pidgin Russian as they enact various scenes of physical buffoonery, starting with an energetic upside down sequence on the bench. These bits are hilarious, but are also filled with magical and truly surprising instances of movement, as when--most wondrously for me--the pair use that aforementioned fan to compete to see whose white tissue can be blown the furthest into space. Here, and elsewhere in the piece, we are shown that dance is not just a sequence of choreographed steps; it is the movement of all things in time and space.

Sometimes that movement is more and sometimes less theatrical; the juxtaposition of the pedestrian and the performative in this piece invites interpretation, to be sure, but it also resists easy synthesis. Just ask that stuffed dog, who, while not speaking, it turns out has been keeping a very close eye on the proceedings.


Wreck Beach Butoh Boot Camp: Day 9

Barbara worked us pretty hard during our last morning class: lots of running and hopping and shimmying and jumping across the studio; and a plank I swear she made us hold for a full two minutes. Then we practised various transitions between sections, including multiple iterations of my least favourite: the squat walk from the beasts section to our second entrance into the water before seagulls.

After lunch break it was one final run-through of the piece in the studio, this time without music. Apparently we remained pretty close to our normal time. Not that that meant that Barbara was pleased. The opening canon was a bit off, we needed to be drilled on our trajectory during the birds section at the end of "Crumbling," and she couldn't feel our ecstasy during the ecstasy jumps.

So, there's still work to do--which we have today at the beach to get through. I'm counting on actually seeing the sky when I reach up to embrace it during those final jumps being the added element I need to channel my inner butoh bliss.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Wreck Beach Butoh Boot Camp: Day 8

No day off because of the holiday yesterday. Instead, we ran through the piece twice in its entirety, once with Jay watching and taking notes and once with Barbara doing the same. Apparently we were a few minutes longer the second time around, maybe because it was the end of the day and we were tired, but more likely because we didn't have Barbara inside the piece as our timekeeper.

Now that we have the structure of the piece locked down, it's a matter of refining the quality of movement in individual sections. For Jay, that starts with our walking, which still feels pedestrian to him, and which requires more resistance and energy in our bodies--especially as it leads into the ecstasy jumps at the end. Barbara's notes were many and incredibly detailed, but I liked the fact that she didn't just give us physical tasks to accomplish more precision, but also what we should be thinking to enable us to inhabit the movement with greater presence and dynamism.

Unfortunately, we learned that we've lost one ensemble member. Patricia Morris, who danced with me in Le Grand Continental and the Mountain View Solstice piece, has had to withdraw due to injury. This is disappointing, but Barbara didn't let us get sentimental and among other things very quickly re-choreographed the final duet sequence so that one group is now a trio.

One more day in the studio and then it's onto the beach on Friday for a test drive of the piece.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Wreck Beach Butoh Boot Camp: Day 7

So we now all have a sense of the complete structure of the piece, beginning with the statues and progressing all the way through to our concluding duets. We haven't yet performed the piece from start to finish, instead splitting things up into two halves yesterday. Maybe it's my new butoh sense of time, but I actually have no idea how long the piece is--close to 50 minutes or so I think. But when Barbara joins us as our metronome (as she did briefly yesterday), that may well stretch even further. "No one gets ahead of Barbara," to quote another of her maxims.

We practised our gallumphing cat/cow beasts quite a bit in the afternoon, as it is the point in the second half when group 2 (which is actually group 1--don't get me started) has to catch up to group 1 (formerly group 2). On the beach we'll be travelling in just one direction (west, I think--there was also a lot of "Who's on first" bickering back and forth between Jay and Barbara about direction yesterday); but in the studio we have to go back and forth across the room on all fours, gradually accelerating until we find our partners. It's a killer on the joints and quads, and because we didn't do it right the first (or second or third) time, Barbara had us run through it until we were all quivering pools of sweat.

But in our circle at the end of the day Barbara also offered praise, thanking us for how hard we had worked and assuring us that the piece would be beautiful. It's not exactly my pedagogical style, but I do admire the way Barbara works--or, perhaps more to the point, the way she makes us want to work. She has a vision of what she wants her dances to be and she is uncompromising in achieving that vision, including in her motivation of community dancers like me to raise our standards to hers and those of the other professional dancers in the room, rather than the other way around.

Two more days of rehearsal (including today, Canada Day), and then it's our "undress rehearsal" on the beach on Friday.