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.