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.