Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Dog Days Are Over at The Dance Centre

Belgian choreographer Jan Martens' The Dog Days Are Over, on at The Dance Centre through this evening, is as deceptively simple in its conceit as it is gruellingly complicated in its execution. The piece features eight dancers--six women and two men--whose only task is to jump continuously for 70 minutes. Sounds pretty basic, right? Not to mention deadly boring to watch. In fact, while the work is very much designed as a parallel test of the audience's spectating stamina, part of what keeps us rapt in our attention is not just the complicated rhythms and counts and spatial formations that Martens' builds into the piece, but also both the personalities of the dancers that emerge over the course of the movement's execution and what we per force read into the unrelenting sameness of that execution.

On the former front, Martens has commented that he took inspiration for Dog Days from 1950s American photographer Philippe Halsman's aesthetic of "jumpology": that in photographing someone in the act of jumping Halsman could capture their true face. Throughout the piece, Martens' eight dancers are for the most part uniformly blank and inscrutable in their facial expressions, focused absolutely on the task to hand (or, in this case, to foot). However, that doesn't mean that differences aren't noticeable, starting with the way they are dressed. Some of them wear lyotards, some boxing shorts, one a tennis skirt. The men are shirtless and several of the women have exposed midriffs, the better to see and admire their impressive abdominal muscles (which, notwithstanding received kinetic logic around knee joints, actually receive the biggest workout in this piece). There is a penchant for leopard skin prints. And then there are the running shoes. They are lined up--different sizes and styles and hues--in a horizontal row centre stage as the audience files into the auditorium, with the dancers stretching and warming up against the upstage wall. Following the curtain speech, and with the house lights still up, the dancers march toward their shoes and begin to put them on, starting one sock at a time. In retrospect this moment becomes so meaningful, its extended duration so pregnant with possibility, because in one dancer's brisk efficiency and another's lazy languor in putting on their footwear, in one's bending from the torso and balancing on one leg to slip on a sock and another's crouch on the floor to tie laces, it is arguably the last time we will see the dancers inhabiting their own physicality with any degree of self-agency.

For, once runners are all firmly in place and the dancers stand up, forming a strangely athletic looking chorus line, Martens' movement score takes over, commanding a total submission of muscles and tendons and joints. It starts with a slow pulse in the quads and bend at the knee, and then slowly builds to a rhythmic jumping on both legs, the action steady but also banally pedestrian. This isn't the look-at-me jumping we associate with ballet, with height and suspension the hallmarks of singular virtuosity; these jumpers, bobbing up and down in a row, their feet barely coming off the ground, announce in their sameness and efficiency that their dancing is about aerobic endurance rather than flashy acrobatics, about making it to the end rather than standing out in the middle. Which is to say that in Dog Days we are meant to focus on the act of jumping rather than the person doing the jumping. And with only the steady slap and squeak of sneakers hitting Marley providing our soundtrack (at least for most of the piece), the deliberately drone-like action is wont to lull us into a kind of sensory stupor.

And yet the exact opposite happens. Over the course of the piece, our senses are sharpened and heightened rather than dulled. And for two reasons. First, into the repetitive sameness of the jumping action, Martens inserts subtle variation, just enough and over sufficiently long stretches of time to keep us expectant and off guard. So, for example, we begin to notice that that opening horizontal chorus line starts to get tighter and tighter, which is a prelude to first one of the dancers and then another stepping out of line and reinserting him- or herself in another spot--all without breaking rhythm. A bit later the line will begin to turn on an axis and still later the dancers will break ranks altogether, adding to their four-four vertical jumping counts a set of double-time lunges. As the piece continues, the variations get steadily more complicated, some shouted out with counts by the dancers, others simply manifesting as if by magic. Then, too, there is how all of this is registered by each of the dancers. By that I mean that while the actual physical execution of the movement may be the same, by virtue of their different bodies and physiologies and dress, we see (and hear) the effects of this movement upon the dancers in different ways. Some dancers sweat more, and in different places. Some breathe more heavily than others and some of their voices, in calling out counts, sound more strained. Some of the women's hair, whether tied in a ponytail or left loose, is bouncier than others'. In those rare moments where Martens programs a pause in the jumping, some dancers collapse at the waist and breathe into their knees; others look barely winded. As the piece wore on, I found myself attending more and more to these differences in a way that, for instance, I might not were I watching a traditional corps de ballet execute the same pretty steps--where, of course, the tyranny of sameness in movement is even more acute, and precisely because it is largely decorative rather than meaningfully kinetic.

All of which brings me to the issue of what we read into Martens' movement. If, as Martens is quoted as saying in an interview in the Vancouver Sun with Deborah Meyers, that Dog Days is "a portrait of the dancer as an executing species," this suggests that the piece's built-in reflexology is a self-reflexive comment on the larger choreographic project of dance: i.e., when I say jump, you jump. At the same time, we can extrapolate this imperative to apply to any number of additional labouring contexts (from a factory assembly line to a sports team) in which completion of an assigned task depends on the focused physical and mental concentration of an entire group. So what might it mean, then, when one member of the group just decides to stop doing what she's told to do--in this case, to jump? Near the end of last night's performance of Dog Days one of the women dancers did just that, moving downstage left and sitting down to rest and watch her fellow dancers. I'm not sure if this is a programmed out for any of the dancers who are feeling that they can't continue to the end of the piece, or if the dancers take turns occupying this role simply in order to fuel audience speculation and/or allow us an on-stage surrogate with whom to identify in our own exhaustion (and, indeed, it should be pointed out that the resting dancer did continue to call out counts). Either way, it made this fascinating work about dance-as-work (both physical and intellectual) even more compelling.


Friday, October 30, 2015

Klasika at SFU Woodward's

Klasika, on at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's through this evening, is unlike any musical you've ever seen. First off, there is the subject matter: it concerns the strange Czech pastime of "tramping," in which citizens of the Czech Republic dress up as cowboys--or rather, their romanticized version of American cowboys--and hang out in the forest drinking Pilsner and swapping stories around the campfire. Barbara Adler, who is of Czech heritage, stumbled upon the phenomenon while doing research for her MFA in SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, of which Klasika serves as her graduating project. But that's only the beginning of the story. While doing fieldwork for her project in the Czech Republic in 2014, Adler met the Czech film director Jan Foukal, who was shooting a documentary for HBO on the tramping subculture; Adler soon found herself playing a fictionalized version of herself alongside Foukal in his film, the two of them toting around their musical instruments (he on guitar, she on accordion) as they improvised awkward conversations with themselves and the tramps they met.

In Klasika, Adler ramps the representational layers up an additional meta-level, introducing us to Bara (a winningly open and sincere Megan Stewart), a sound artist from Vancouver who wants to head to the Czech Republic to record the sounds of folks just before they put their arms around each other's shoulders. Once there, however, she falls in with Honza (Paul Paroczai), a stealth ethnographer who finds traditional interviews boring and so fashions a recording device out of his guitar so that he can capture what the tramps--and Bara herself--say in unguarded moments. We hear these recordings played back to us as part of the work's complex sound design, which also includes a framing device of Adler and her fellow MFA student Robert Leveroos (excellent as the musical's Narrator) looping their own complicit unreliability as storytellers in a radio broadcast booth.

But mostly this work is about the songs, with Adler rocking things out with her band, Ten Thousand Wolves, and drawing on her spoken word artistry to craft lyrics that are unconventionally "musical theatre-y" in the way that they elevate the conversational to the poetic--as when Bara sings to Honza about how she's just a little bit afraid of the dark. Not that we aren't also privy to some big numbers for even bigger voices--chief among them Ashley Aron's as Barb the Bootfitter. Not only does Barb give Bara some important advice about the need to grow into her cowboy boots, but she and her fellow Rodeo Queens (Dominique Wakeland and Julie Hammond) also teach Bara a lesson about the feminist fierceness of high hair, bedazzled jeans, and bluegrass--in whose lonesome sounds, just like Bara's field recordings of birdsong and sheep bleating, there is nevertheless community.

For more behind-the-scenes insight into the Rodeo Queens, as well as the composition and documentation of the musical as a whole, check out the digital archive Adler and director Kyla Gardiner have been building on the local online arts and culture magazine Vandocument.


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Empire of the Son at The Cultch

Yesterday afternoon I took a break from the grant application I was writing to catch a matinee performance of Tetsuro Shigematsu’s Empire of the Son, presented by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre in association with the Cultch, where the solo show is being presented in the Vancity Culture Lab. The show instantly sold out its first two weeks of performances and so when a third was added I grabbed a ticket.

Shigematsu’s play is an autobiographical story of his stormy relationship with his father, a man who as child survived the incendiary bombing of his hometown in Japan and the fallout of Hiroshima, but who rarely talked about these events as an adult. Shigematsu Sr. immigrated first to London, where he worked for BBC Radio, and then to Canada, where he hosted one of the highest-rated foreign-language radio broadcasts for the CBC before his job was axed under Mulroney and he was demoted to mailroom clerk, retreating behind his yellow safety earphones so he wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of his fellow employees addressing him by his first name, Akira. Early on in the show we learn about the difficulty of Tetsuro’s father via an anecdote concerning his leather briefcase, which his son displays for us from the stage, embossed with the CBC’s familiar logo. Tetsuro had thought it might be a way for him to get closer to his Dad if he asked to borrow the bag; but his father refuses, saying only employees of the crown corporation could carry such a satchel. It’s just one of the many ironies of the tale being told that son, like father, also ends up working for CBC Radio, Tetsuro having inherited The Roundup from Bill Richardson in 2004.

And, indeed, this is a show very much about voice: finding it; sharing it; preserving it. Tetsuro talks in his father’s accented voice (and is rebuked, from beyond the grave, for doing so); he plays recordings of his father’s radio broadcasts and of taped conversations he made with him during his father’s slow decline while in hospital (the sound waves displayed to us indicating just how much silence Shigematsu Sr. left between each question); he amplifies his voice via various microphones and talks about how his CBC bosses worked with him to find a more masculine timbre at the beginning of his on-air career. And then there are the other voices brought into the story: those of Tetsuro’s mother and his sisters, who tease him about his Fu Manchu moustache and form an instant—and instantly natural—chorus of cooing love song around his father in hospital that puts the dryness in his own mouth to shame. We see and hear Tetsuro’s own children on video, challenging him as to why he never cries. And that is in fact the challenge that Tetsuro takes up over the course of the 75 minutes of this play—to cry for his father in death as partial recompense for what he could not say to him in life. It is a testament to the honest and unsentimental way director Richard Wolfe (of Pi Theatre) has approached this obviously very personal story that the fulfilling of this challenge by play’s end is not signposted for us by anything so crass as acoustically amplified heaving sobs; rather, we witness the tears that organically materialize on Tetsuro’s cheeks as he reaches the end of his story.

I would be remiss if I did not talk about the design concept for this piece. The two main elements of Pam Johnson’s set consist of a backdrop of warm wood, suggestive of shoji screens, and what looks a long laboratory counter. On top of this are several stations, some crowded with miniature objects, others filled with various substances (such as white sand or water). Using a moveable camera attached to a live video feed, at various points in the telling of his story, Tetsuro illustrates what he is saying by manipulating one or more elements at each station, which is then broadcast to us on a screen behind him. For example, the atomic mushroom cloud accompanying the Hiroshima bombing is achieved when Tetsuro injects a viscous liquid into a tank of water; and the crowded Tokyo commuter train carrying hundreds of thousands of salary men—including, at one point, both Shigematsu père and fils—we see whizzing by via a canny focalization of the camera’s lens on a toy train car being advanced by Tetsuro. But by far my favourite of these effects were those moments of what I’ll call double digitality—that is, when Tetsuro inserted his own fingers into the camera’s frame to literally stand in for different pairs of legs, as when he and his father, during his “anarchist” teenage phase, have an argument about his skateboarding, or when, in an illustration of a story by his daughter, Tetsuro uses his fingers to mimic the swoosh of skating atop a snowy Grouse Mountain.

If I have a criticism about the production, it’s that at times it felt a bit too rushed. Tetsuro tells his story at a breathless pace and perhaps his years of talk radio training leave him fearful of too many pauses. But I for one wished for some longer beats at various moments in the play, especially when a temporal or narrative transition was being made. I kept thinking back to those long silences in Tetsuro’s interviews with his fathers. In a play like this one something like dead air seems to take on so much added significance.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Digital Folk 2.0

A year ago Richard and I attended a showing of plastic orchid factory's work-in-progress, Digital Folk, at the Cultch; I wrote about that experience here (as well as, subsequently, in an issue of the journal Canadian Theatre Review). Last night we headed to the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island for latest iteration of the piece, which we might call the "house party" version.

As Digital Folk centres around our kinetic experience--as players and spectators--of immersive dance-based video games, plastic orchid's Artistic Director, James Gnam, always knew that he wanted to find a way to incorporate direct audience participation into the piece. The Anderson Street Space's intimate confines certainly encourage interaction, and both while we were waiting for all the invited guests to arrive, and during the show itself, there was ample opportunity to take one's turn at what is essentially a movement-based version of karaoke. Except with the dance videos it's a competition, and you're scored--which can be an intimidating proposition given that you're learning the choreography on the spot and that you're playing alongside professional dancers. Nevertheless, I was happy to give the game a whirl several times over the course of the evening, shimmying and grooving and funking alongside returning DFers Natalie LeFebvre Gnam, Dario Dinuzzi, Bevin Poole, and Lexi Vajda. I also took a turn playing bass on the Queen/David Bowie song "Under Pressure" as part of the house band that accompanies--often in a radically juxtapositional manner--the video dance sequences.

Afterwards, there was a lot of discussion among the creative team and the invited audience of the relationship between the participatory sequences and the more obviously presentational sections of the piece, which included a storytelling frame riffing on The Legend of Zelda video game; a group cell phone dance (complete with selfies); three different takes on the relationship between language and gesture; and a transfixing bit of mirroring in which Vajda and LeFebvre Gnam attempt to mimic the moves of Poole, who is herself following a virtual avatar on the screen. For some, the obvious role we are cast into in the dance games, and the clear build to an outcome (winning or losing), threw into relief those moments when we retreated to the riser and chairs set up along one wall and watched the events as "traditional" spectators. However, I didn't mind this back and forth in modalities. If in part this work is functioning as a danced ethnography of the folkways of "digital natives," then it makes sense to me to thematize as part of the staging ethnography's classic methodology of participant-observation.

More interesting to me was how the space necessarily changes the scale and the feel of the show. At the Cultch, there were screens on the walls, which broadcast the dancers' interactions with the video games they were playing. At the Anderson Street Space, there was only a single monitor, positioned to face the raised dance platform, but also visible to half of the audience depending on where they were positioned. As Ziyian Kwan noted in the post-show discussion, for those positioned near it, the screen necessarily draws one's attention, in part because digital media operate under the principle of the serial absorption of information (e.g. hours spent surfing the net or playing video games or bingeing on Netflix). But here's the key: the live dancing body's attempt to mimic what the virtual body is doing on screen is an analogue response; it is a relaying of information using signals that are continuously variable in terms of physicality, spatial position, intensity, etc.

And that haptic dissonance between what and how we are seeing and feeling in this piece is what makes it so endlessly fascinating to me. I look forward to the next iteration.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Romeo and Juliet at Studio 58

Studio 58's current staging of Romeo and Juliet, which launches the venerable performance training institution's 50th anniversary season and runs through this Saturday, bills itself as an immersive production set in the swinging 1960s. More specifically, the play's opening scenes unfurl at a party in Andy Warhol's Factory, with many of the guests already lolling about in debauched loucheness as audience members file into the theatre to take their seats. But there's the rub: as spectators, we actually sit through this entire performance. Action takes place in the round, with some of it spilling into or emerging out of different tiers of seating. However, we do not move--and, in the absence of quaaludes or other drugs to make it feel otherwise, that's hardly my definition of immersion.

I'm also left to query director Anita Rochon's decision to update the action to the 1960s. It seems to be a bit of a caprice, more the young creative team's idea of what that period symbolized ("Live fast, die young") than offering any deeper insight into the themes of the play. (Then, too, there are some mixed temporal signals sent by both the costuming and the music. Tybalt and Mercutio, played by Kamyar Pazandeh and Conor Stimson O'Gorman respectively, look like they could have stepped out of a scene in West Side Story featuring the Sharks and the Jets.) Warhol, who stands in for the Prince of Verona, is played with a slouch and an ill-fitting wig by Nathan Kay; he trolls the action with his Super-8 camera, immortalizing his superstars. Chief among these is Edie Sedgwick (Chloe Richardson), the only other historical figure from the period who mingles among Shakespeare's fictional personages. Perhaps this is because she really did die young, following a brief marriage and--as crucially--a break with Warhol and his set. Otherwise, it's not clear what dramatic or symbolic function she serves.

Indeed, while in this version they do end up as beautiful silk-screened corpses in one of Warhol's "Death and Disaster" series of paintings, Romeo and Juliet seem to be the exact opposite of Warhol's superstars. Both in Shakespeare's play and in this production, they are the most authentic folks around. Casting Camille Legg as a lesbian Romeo seems to have less to do with putting a sexually subversive spin on this famous romance than showcasing Legg's extraordinary talents and facility with the text. Whether as a moony teenager still in love with Rosaline, a hot-headed kinsperson intent on avenging Mercutio's death, or a mourning lover for whom suicide is not just logical but inevitable, Legg is never less than fully present and believable. When she is on stage you cannot take your eyes off of her. I had more problems with Adelleh Furseth's jittery turn as Juliet, whose impatience to be married to Romeo and distress at the death of her cousin Tybalt seemed to be conveyed with the exact same physical quality, namely rocking back and forth agitatedly on her heels. Nevertheless, it is quite captivating to watch the scene in the Factory when the two lovers first spy each other; their wordless, whirling courtship, in which each's body becomes the new fixed point in the other's world, is made all the more kinetically compelling as a result of the horizontal movement of the other Factory guests (the choreography is by the wonderful Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg).

One final comment on the cuts to the text. To be sure, this is standard practice in most Shakespeare productions. However, one would think that a guiding rationale should be to preserve the integrity of both the text's poetry and its plot. Here, it seems, Rochon was concerned to find a way to give all the actors at least one or two speaking lines. How else to explain, at the end of this production, the mystery of retaining the bit of comic relief with the musicians at the end of Act 4, Scene 5 while cutting out altogether Romeo's slaying of Paris?

Definitely something to talk about with my students...


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Disgraced at the Arts Club

The Arts Club's Bill Millerd is certainly consistent in his programming choices, including when, for his largely subscription-based audience, he goes out on a limb and programs a "risky" play at a mainstage space like the Stanley. Having achieved success three years ago with Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, a caustic comedy about contemporary racial and economic politics in Chicago (and about which I blogged here), his season opener at the Stanley this year is Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced. Like Norris' play, Akhtar's tackles head-on the issue of race in twenty-first century America; also like Clybourne Park, Disgraced comes to town bearing the imprimatur of a Pulitzer Prize and trailing lots of critical acclaim. Finally, this production of Disgraced is directed by the venerable Janet Wright, who also helmed Norris' play for the AC, and both productions share two cast members: Marci T. House and Robert Moloney.

All the winning ingredients for a repeat success. And yet I still left last night's performance extremely disappointed. The fault has less to do with the AC's production per se, which is snappily directed and for the most part well acted. The fault for me lies with Ahktar's script, which sets out to critique binaristic readings of what it means to be a Muslim-American man today, but ends up re-entrenching those binaries--often in extremely disturbing ways.

The play focuses on Amir Kapoor (Patrick Sabongui, making an assured AC debut), a successful New York lawyer of Pakistani descent. Amir, who long ago changed his last name from Abdullah, is an assimilated Muslim man who claims to abhor the fundamentalist ideology of the religion in which he was raised. However, his wife Emily (Kyra Zagorsky), a painter, finds inspiration for her art in Islamic tile-work and architecture, and even in the spiritual teachings of the Qur'an. Complicating matters further is the presence in the couple's life of Amir's nephew Abe (a very effective Conor Wylie). Like Amir, Abe has changed his name (from Hussein); but unlike Amir, Abe has not completely turned his back on his family and his community, and he has arrived at his uncle's doorstep seeking his help regarding the apparently illegal incarceration of a local Imam. Amir does not want to get involved and in the course of explaining to his nephew and his wife his problems with the Muslim faith, Amir recounts the story of his fifth-grade love, Rivka. When Amir's mother found out about the flirtation she told him he couldn't be involved with a Jew and spit in his face; later in the school hallway, when Rivka approaches him, he tells her that he can't see her anymore because she is a Jew and likewise spits in her face. It's one of many moments in the script that elicits a gasp from both of Amir's on-stage and off-stage audiences. But it's also an example, as we shall see, of Ahktar's framing of Amir's apparently available choices--acquired culture-blind liberal tolerance vs. the weight of family and religious inheritance--in impossible black and white terms.

Nevertheless, at Emily's prodding, Amir says he will look into the Imam's case and when, later, he is quoted in the New York Times about the brief, he begins a paranoid unravelling in which his neatly compartmentalized professional and personal lives start to overlap in increasingly combustible ways. That this is accompanied by a dinner party with his black colleague Jory (House) and her Jewish art curator husband, Isaac (Moloney), only ups the ante. We met Isaac in a previous scene, when he came to look at Emily's paintings, and now three months later, following a trip together to London to attend the Frieze Art Fair, Emily is hosting this dinner in hopes that Isaac will announce that he's including her in the upcoming Whitney Biennale that he is organizing. This is duly disclosed, but there are more revelations over the course of the evening: that Jory has made partner at the law firm, for example, whereas Amir is on the verge of being fired; and, most clunkily, that Emily and Isaac slept together while in London.

As in Norris' Clybourne Park, Akhtar is interested in using the well-worn conceit of domestic melodrama to rip away the polite veneer of race relations in America. But whereas everyone is made to look bad in Norris' play, the climax of Disgraced presents the audience with the picture of the Muslim man, having struggled in vain all his life to suppress it, discovering and unleashing his backward animal savagery, his inner jihadist--that part of himself that, as he puts it to Isaac after more than a few drinks, felt a "blush of pride" when the Twin Towers fell. My problem has less to do with Akhtar's suggestion that in a post-Patriot Act America the Muslim man is positioned between two impossible poles--assimilation or extremism--than with his overly-obvious and even cliched telegraphing of Amir's disgrace. So, for example, the story about Rivka is there in the first scene to set up the moment at the end of the play when Amir spits in Isaac's face; and the dinner-table argument with Emily about what the Qur'an has to say about wife-beating makes all the more inevitable the blows he lands upon her body when she confesses the truth about her affair with Isaac.

Clybourne Park and Disgraced are both "social problem plays" aimed squarely at a mainstream audience. Which means that complex issues like race and cultural difference to a certain extent get reduced to screaming matches, with everyone given an equal opportunity at outrage and boorish behaviour. But in Norris' play not only was the added context of class brought into the equation, the plot was also wedded to a two-act structure that created even more tension and depth through historical and dramatic parallelism. Akhtar is also aspiring to marry form to content, and the play concludes with a coda in which Abe/Hussein returns, newly radicalized and once again seeking his uncle's legal advice--this time in connection with his own arrest and questioning by the FBI. However, both the circular structure of Akhtar's play and that of fundamentalist ideology arguably conspire here to confirm rather than to challenge cultural stereotypes.

It's certainly not what I expected from this play--especially given what I'd heard about it and the playwright in advance. I am hoping that Pi Theatre's production of The Invisible Hand in April offers me a different perspective.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Music for a Thousand Autumns at the Orpheum Annex

Last night the Turning Point Ensemble opened its tenth anniversary season at the Orpheum Annex. It was my first time at this newish theatre, built--along with the Vancouver Symphony School of Music's Pyatt Hall--as one of the cultural amenities attached to the high-rise tower that went up where the old Vancouver Place cinemas used to be. Located on the second floor, with street signage that is negligible, the space can be hard to find. However, at approximately 150 seats, with a perimeter balcony around which you could squeeze about 30 more if needed, it's a nice, intimate size. And its warm, wood-panelled interior is well-suited to the acoustics of a chamber ensemble.

While devoted to the musical repertoire of the early-twentieth century onward, as TPE Artistic Director Owen Underhill noted in his opening remarks, the ensemble has always had a special mandate to commission new work. To that end, last night's all-Canadian program featured two world premieres, as well as a work newly revised especially for TPE. First up, however, was the great Alexina Louie's Music for a Thousand Autumns, one of her first commissions after returning from studies in the US in 1983. An additional special treat of this program is that all of the composers are present in Vancouver and so we got to hear from each of them in advance of the performance of their work. Among other things, Louie told us that the piece was an attempt to reconcile her Western musical training with her Chinese heritage (she grew up in Vancouver). Thus, in the interplay between the percussion, the strings and the wind instruments of this piece--especially in its second movement--we hear a beautiful take on the ancient Chinese instrument known as the chin (a sort of fretless zither). The third movement also builds to a wonderful, crashing piano cadenza, which Jane Hayes played with marvellous energy and sparkling colour.

In his remarks, Anthony Tan told us that his music is an exploration of sound on a purely sensory level. He is not interested in social or cultural influences, or having his music "represent" anything. Rather, as in the case of the piece we heard last night, On the Sensations of Tone #1 (jointly commissioned by TPE and the Ensemble contemporaine de Montréal), he is trying to foreground the physical experience of timbre. This means that Hayes plucks the strings of the piano and clacks the side of it with her nails as much as she plays the keys; that the flautist (Brenda Fedoruk) and clarinetist (Erin Fung) get up every now and then to have impromptu quasi-tuning sessions with Hayes; and that they, together with violinist Mary Sokol-Brown and cellist Ariel Barnes, all work noise-makers underneath their shoes at various points in the piece. It was certainly a most visceral experience of sound, and one that--for all its strange dissonance--was not without its tonal pleasures.

Linda Catlin Smith's Gold Leaf was created for the Glenn Gould School's New Music Ensemble in 2010. In it she was trying to think through the process of composing for a chamber orchestra, in which each of the instruments has a distinct personality, while also needing to come together to create harmonic colour. She likens the process, in her program notes, to a painter's palette, with in her case the percussion adding an outer layer of shimmer, as in the gold leaf of a painting by Klimt.

Percussionist Jonathan Bernard is certainly given a workout in this program, especially in the final two pieces. Vancouver-based Dorothy Chang's Three Windows was created in 2011, inspired by the views over the Strait of Georgia from her UBC condo (where she teaches in the Faculty of Music). The first movement is based on the motion of clouds, the second on the swirling flight of an eagle, and the third on the sights and sounds of human construction on the UBC campus. Hence the swelling scherzo-like cacophony of "metal on wood" that Bernard is charged with leading at the end of this work. Something very much approximating a drum solo for Bernard also concludes the world premiere of Louie's A Curious Passerby at Fu's Funeral, which the composer informed us started from the premise that she knew TPE's members "could play really fast." The piece was certainly played at full throttle by all concerned and was a most energetic way to concluded the evening.

TPE goes on the road with this program in the coming weeks: to Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. Then it is back to Vancouver for another world premiere: the chamber opera air india [redacted], on at SFU Woodward's from November 6-11, and not to be missed.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Joe Ink's 4OUR at The Dance Centre

The newest evening-length work by Joe Ink Artistic Director Joe Laughlin is a quartet called 4OUR, created in collaboration with dancers Gioconda Barbuto, Heather Dotto, and Kevin Tookey--and featuring the return to the stage of Laughlin himself after many years' absence. It is not only for this reason that the piece's run at the Dance Centre, which concluded last night, sold out. Laughlin is a beloved professional and community dance presence in Vancouver, and his cross-disciplinary movement work (he has choreographed for television, film, and the theatre) always features a mix of complex physicality and engaging wit. Then, too, the other dancers also have their local followings: Dotto and Tookey have both worked with Josh Beamish as members of MOVE: the company; and Barbuto, a Toronto native, created a buzz most recently in Vancouver with her contribution of the explosive immix to Ballet BC's repertoire in 2014 (and about which I wrote here).

As Laughlin notes in his program message, 4OUR emerged out of the coincidence of his improvising with Barbuto in the studio while working simultaneously with Dotto and Tookey on a separate composition. Bringing the group together, Laughlin noticed an instant chemistry, one that telegraphed kinetically precisely as a result of--rather than in spite of--the differences in the dancers' ages and movement styles. Indeed, while 4OUR reads in part as an elegy to the aging dancer's body (the musical score is heavy on Bach), it resists mournfulness in favour of a forward looking emotional clarity: what is being showcased here in the various pairings of older and younger dancers, with their distinct training and performance careers, is a continuity rather than an interruption or surcease of embodied knowledge.

Thus, soon after the four dancers enter from upstage, improvising in a horizontal line a series of contrapuntal movement phrases as they gradually move downstage, they break off into pairs: Barbuto with Dotto; and Laughlin with Tookey. Again, the physical differences in their bodies and ways of moving--Barbuto and Laughlin are shorter and their steps more controlled and precise; Dotto and Tookey are both long-limbed and their frequent directional shifts and weight and height transfers appear looser and more fluid--are anything but distracting. Indeed, one of the fascinating things to watch emerge over the course of the hour-long piece is just how symbiotically the dancers adapt to each others' spatial co-presence on stage. This reaches its peak for me in a moving duet between Barbuto and Tookey that begins with Barbuto, clad in one of the many white tulle dresses/aprons/shifts scattered about the mise-en-scène, undulating her arms and torso atop a wooden box (and underneath another of the white bits of cloth, here functioning as a fancy headdress, or maybe a lampshade); next to her, Tookey begins a game of chicken with what appears to be a ribbed sculpture (it could be a miniature whale skeleton, or the frame of a baby's bassinet, or a hockey mask) hanging from a pair of wires. He sets this object in motion like a pendulum and then ducks in and out of its way as he edges ever closer to Barbuto. Eventually, Tookey will in fact wear this article as a mask, its placement around his head and neck sending him thrashing about the floor until Barbuto calms him with her soothing maternal energy.

By contrast, the duet between Dotto and Laughlin that follows this sequence felt to me to be too gimmicky. Styled as a silent movie spoof entitled "The Chambermaid and the Bellhop"--complete with spot-on projections by Eric Chad--the movement accurately captured that sped-up, physically staccato quality of early cinematic burlesque (at one point Dotto spins Laughlin around like a top); however, the tone felt completely at odds with what we had just seen. And also with what followed: a coda that begins with Tookey launching his body into space via a series of baseball and/or cricket throws. This movement language then gets launched successively into each of the other dancers' bodies, culminating in a solo by Barbuto under a starry and snowy sky (the incredibly effective lighting design is by the always impressive James Proudfoot).

Here we are observing a twilight of movement that signals anything but a decline or the dimming of possible horizons. Like those lobs by Tookey that began this sequence, Barbuto is pitching her body--and by proxy those of her collaborators--forward into an as yet partially obscured and uncertain future, trusting that we will be there to catch her.