Saturday, January 30, 2016

XXXX Topography at SFU Woodward's

The Party (Kyla Gardiner and Layla Marcelle Mrozowski) are throwing their latest fête, XXXX Topography, at SFU Woodward's Studio T this weekend. The bagheaded women from Fake Gems are back, but this time they're grooving inside a black box instead of a white cube, and to an improvised electronic score by Paul Paroczai. Their cryptic discourse with each other is more clearly audible to us in this iteration of The Party's process, but that doesn't mean we're included in the circuit of communication. These (gendered) subject-objects supposed to move for us reverse the standard pattern of transference between analyst and analysand, or spectator and performer; we can hear but don't necessarily understand what they are saying to each other, and furthermore I for one was unsure if the amplified voices were emerging directly from the bodies wearing the bags (via head mics, as in Fake Gems), or from audio channels filtered through the four freestanding speakers behind them--a stereophonic version of the stereoscopic method that is The Party's modus operandi.

Just as I was settling in against the wall for a long spell of vicarious movement pleasure, our hostess for the evening, Beta Pink, arrived to take a call, and then to lead us all on to the Space Bar, where, it seemed, The Party's real party was taking place. This imaginary elsewhere, this theatre of possibility turned out to be a parallax version of where we'd just been, the curtain behind the bagheaded women having been removed to reveal neither an ersatz wizard nor a fantastical Oz, but rather a landscape that was simultaneously strange and familiar, red and blue, material and metaphorical. And like so many sisters of Dorothy, we were left to explore this world and its artifacts for the next hour or so (or until last call), queer spelunkers in search of transformative alien encounters between ourselves, other selves, and things.

And what things! Rocks and adding machines dancing a tango with each other. Phallic bits of creosote edging across the floor. Smoke machines. Wooden beds to lounge on next to spongy bits of fabric in the shape of octopi. An aerie loft with a softer bed for group spooning. And a series of landline phones that sing songs of syllabic transposition to us, providing us with a metonymic vocabulary of association as we grasp for words to describe our progress through this sexy terrain.

As we exit, another surprise: party favours, including a pair of 3D-glasses, The Party's official manual, and a translucent printed insert outlining the conditions of possibility for an imaginary theatre of the sort we have just experienced.


Friday, January 29, 2016

PuSh 2016: Monumental

When I first saw The Holy Body Tattoo's Monumental, back in 2005, I was just beginning to immerse myself in the Vancouver dance scene. It blew my mind. Here was a piece that combined a pounding rock score, projections showcasing the inimitable social observations of text-based artist Jenny Holzer, and 75 minutes of relentless, physically punishing choreography--much of it in unison or complicated canon--performed by nine dancers on top of raised plinths. A post-9/11 meditation on the fear, anxiety, alienation and atomizing sameness of life in the global city, the piece had an electric response on the audience. Exhausted and ennervated, but also jangly with an excess of sensory energy, it was impossible not to feel more alive exiting the theatre. And not to want more of this kind of dance performance in the city.

Unfortunately, Monumental would be the last work produced by The Holy Body Tattoo's co-founders, Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon. After twelve years creating some of the most original, genre-defying, and athletic works in the city, they went there separate ways. Dana moved to Montreal to found Animals of Distinction and Noam stayed put to run Vision Impure. But, to paraphrase Buddy Holly, the love has not faded away. After a ten-year hiatus, the two choreographers are back together, reforming The Holy Body Tattoo for a remount of Monumental, this time with live music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The first performance of a planned world tour was last night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, presented as part of the PuSh Festival. The experience of seeing the work once again in a space just next door from where I originally saw it (the Playhouse) was uncanny. It wasn't so much that I kept anticipating or misremembering what was coming next, or that I spent the evening mapping this production's dancers onto the bodies of the original cast (all but Shay Kuebler appear to be from Montreal this time around). Rather, I think it was that my sedimented memories of 2005 were awakened just enough by the spatial proximity of this 2016 performance to make it seem, for a brief palimpsestic moment, as if no time had passed at all.

While my schedule this morning doesn't permit me to go into depth about the show (I'll leave that cumulative assignment to my students, who have been instructed to post capsule reviews of the piece here), I do want to comment on three things. First, if you'll forgive the bad pun (though not as bad as Norman's in introducing the show last night!), the live music definitely elevates Monumental to new heights. The bass beat of the drums alone is enough to quicken one's pulse, so much so that I'm sure in some of the more propulsive sections my heart was keeping as strict a count as the dancers on their plinths. Second, I had forgotten how much tenderness Dana and Noam had woven into the piece alongside all of the ruthless and at times downright cruel physicality. In Monumental the dancers are merciless in their abuse of their own and each others' bodies, first driving their legs into and then throwing their entire bodies at the plinths, obsessively combing or pulling at their hair like it's filled with lice, and routinely chasing and swatting and encircling and goading each other like so many schoolyard bullies. At the same time, as in the ending to the piece, there are quiet moments of compassion and connection when one dancer will reach out to another, or offer a limb as ballast, or lift a broken body up off the floor. And many of the poses and gestures that the dancers cycle through on their plinths can be read as much as acts of supplication as of angry accusation. Finally, it bears mentioning that I don't think I've ever seen the Queen E so full and animated with buzzy energy pre- and post-show; granted, several audience members clearly thought they were at a rock concert rather than a dance show (maybe mistaking The Holy Body Tattoo as Godspeed You's opening band). There were a lot of people who kept getting up and down from their seats and much general wandering around during the performance; it was mildly distracting, but nothing this total--and totally captivating--work of art couldn't exorcise with one crashing guitar chord, or nine crashing bodies.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

PuSh 2016: Le Temps scellé

Nacera Belaza's Le Temps scellé, on at the Dance Centre through this Friday in a co-presentation with the PuSh Festival, is a subtle and hypnotic work that expands one's felt experience of time and space. Over the course of its 45 minutes, I was transported into a state of blissful and contemplative suspension, a floating of the mind and body above the dailiness and frenetic pace of clock and calendar time and into that strangely timeless present of performance.

The piece begins in semi-darkness. From this gloaming we catch glimpses of a figure slowly moving in space, the holographic outline of limbs and hips as much a denial as a confirmation of some embodied presence. As the intoxicating sound score (which layers gospel and rhythm and blues and chanting) starts to increase in volume, so does the light brighten and expand to fill more of the stage. Likewise Belaza's movements begin to take on more volume and energy, eddying out from her core in rhythmically undulating waves to fill the space around her. Grounding her practice in traditional Sufi movement philosophy, Belaza slows down and even deconstructs the turns of dervish dancing; but she doesn't abandon the centred axis of the body upon which those turns are based, nor the emptied out state of inner meditative awareness to which they are in service. However, just as we begin to give ourselves over to Belaza's lucubratory extension of this bodily embrace, she dials things down again, softening both the sound and lights.

It's at this point, when one might logically think the performance is over, that something magical happens. Belaza's sister Dalila slowly enters from upstage left, a lazily advancing spectral presence who, we soon discover, will take over Nacera's solo. Again, we are wont to doubt what we have just seen, but in the piece's third and final movement these two apparitions dance a duet together, their bodies now fully perceptually graspable--and as much because of how, up until this point, we have been made to register kinetically their absence as much as their presence.


Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 3

So yesterday afternoon Justine and Alexa and I conducted our first interview. It was with my SFU colleague Rob Kitsos, who graciously agreed to sit down with us following his gig guest-teaching at Modus Operandi. Using our basic template of five W-questions, we were able to elicit some amazing memories and anecdotes and insights from Rob.

As Rob’s move to the city in 2004 precedes our historical purview by only two years, his perspective on the evolution of the city’s dance scene over the last ten years in some senses reflects his own progressive immersion into local aesthetic practices and collaborations and modes of making work. Also, because Rob trained in the US and teaches and creates within an academic setting, he brings with him and is likewise producing different genealogies of influence. As Justine said following the conversation, our rhizomatic map just got that much bigger and intersectional.

Most exciting for me, however, was the sensory experience of both watching and listening to Rob remember (and sometimes mis-remember) not just the genesis of some of the first pieces he created after arriving in the city, but also the context of his collaborations with local dance artists: Did he dance for Serge Bennathan before Peter Bingham or after? When did he first meet Susan Elliott? And so on. The gestures he produced in recounting this narrative will also be amazing fodder for our embodied performance archive.

Can’t wait for the next interview: Vanessa Goodman.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

PuSh 2016: An Evening with A Roomful of Teeth

Roomful of Teeth is a US a cappella band founded in 2009 by the composer and conductor Brad Wells. Last night they were at the Fox Cabaret beginning a two-night run in Vancouver as part of a special co-presentation by Music on Main and the PuSh Festival. The eight-member ensemble, though clearly classically trained, employ vocal techniques that span the globe, from barber shop to yodelling to throat singing. Their range--stylistically and melodically--is astonishing, and hearing their harmonizations last night over the course of what amounted to an extended motet that was as polyglot as it was polyphonic was to submit to the sheer transportive pleasure of the human voice raised in song.

The group includes among its members Music on Main composer-in-residence Caroline Shaw, and her Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices was the first piece on the program. The 25-minute piece is divided into four sections that combine wordless melodies with spoken text (including traditional square dance calls) and various vocal effects, including rhythmic inhalations and exhalations of breath, whispers, and sighs. It is a work that makes one want to move, so infectious and novel is its orchestration of sounds. The performance by the group was absolutely thrilling.

After a short intermission, the group returned for a second program half that included works by a range of composers. All were stunning, but especially captivating to me were the last three pieces. On Judd Greenstein's Run Away alto Virginia Warnken sang the lead refrain in a way that sent chills down my body. Rinde Eckert's Cesca's View allowed soprano Estelí Gomez to cut loose with some powerhouse yodelling. And Wells's own Otherwise ends with a pure crystalline note held by the bass-baritone Dashon Burton for what seems like eternity. After rapturous applause, the group returned for an encore composed by the group's lone tenor, Eric Dudley. It was a quietly moving finale.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

PuSh 2016: Harold Budd at Club PuSh

This year the PuSh Festival has relocated Club PuSh, its cabaret venue and social hub, from Performance Works on Granville Island to the recently renovated Fox Cabaret on Main Street. Among other things, this means that Richard and I can now walk to the venue, whence we repaired last night to see Harold Budd. I confess that I did not know the work of this avant-garde American composer and poet until Richard introduced me to his work upon seeing his name listed in this year's festival line-up. That said, anyone who is a fan of contemporary electronic music will have heard Budd's "ambient influence." Suffice to say that there would be no Moby without Harold Budd.

Having grown up in the Mojave desert, Budd's sound is at once spare and lush, coloured with layered melodies that on Budd's synthesizer wash over one like a time-lapse of shifting cloudscapes in the sky. Knowing we didn't need to see the stage to experience last night's standing room-only performance, Richard and I chose to grab a table in the Fox's intimate balcony lounge. There, at the back and uppermost reaches of the house, the notes of Budd and fellow keyboardist Bradford Ellis merged and dissolved in a sensory experience of sound diffusion that might have been indistinguishable from an acousmatic music presentation but for the fact that Club PuSh co-curator and local singer/songwriter/spoken word artist Veda Hille was also intoning excerpts from Budd's most recent collection of poetry, Aurora Tears. Hille's timing and delivery (holding on to a sibilant "s" here to extend a feeling of regret, punctuating a line there as a guard against such sentiment) reminded one that this performance was resolutely embodied, from the trademark "softness" of Budd's foot on his keyboard pedal, to Hille's exhalation of breath as she spoke her lines, to the hushed stillness of the entire audience as we soaked in from every open pore all that we were hearing.

Indeed, I was reminded just how much listening is a whole body experience when Richard and I both jolted forward in our seats in a simultaneous moment of recognition at Hille's reciting of a specific geographical locale embedded in Budd's poetry: Castellain Road, Maida Vale, London. Our good friend Cathy lives on that street, one we've traversed often, and one of whose intersecting byways (Pindock Mews) we've likewise had the uncanny experience of hearing pronounced live in performance (in a production of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul at the Young Vic in 2002, with Cathy in attendance). It's not often that the live event that so transports one imaginatively and affectively can also do so geographically, but for Richard and I we've now experienced just this kind of travel in and through performance twice.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

PuSh 2016: Jack Charles v. The Crown

Burglar, heroin addict, serial convict, potter, actor: these are just some of the identities Jack Charles has tried on during his lifetime, many of them simultaneously. In Jack Charles v. The Crown, brought to the PuSh Festival by Australia's Ilbijerri Theatre Company, and playing at SFU Woodward's Wong Theatre through this evening, we hear directly from the man himself as he dispassionately--and with an abundance of humour and grace--states rather than pleads his case before us and an implied, but no less omnipotently disciplining, state apparatus.

Accompanied by a three-man backing band, Uncle Jack, who has appeared in films ranging from Fred Schepsi's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith to the recent Hugh Jackman blockbuster Pan, and who founded Australia's first Aboriginal theatre company in 1972, tells us what it was like to grow up as a member of Australia's Stolen Generation. Like thousands of other Aboriginal children born in the 1940s and 50s, Jack was forcibly removed from his family and reserve and raised a ward of the state in a religious-run institution (the equivalent of Canada's residential schools, which Jack cited as a direct parallel in one of his many local asides during the evening). Surviving physical and sexual abuse, and growing up with virtually no knowledge of his immediate family and ancestors, Jack forged a successful career as a singer and actor. Parallel to this, he was robbing homes in wealthy enclaves of Melbourne in order to finance a growing heroin addiction.

The story Jack tells is loosely structured around the revolving door of his incarcerations, one that replaced his name with a number: 3944. At first being "in the nick" isn't so bad; it gets Jack off the street and it is there that he takes up pottery, moulding clay with his hands in a way that reconnects him with his ancestral territories, and also allowing him to pass on his skills to his fellow inmates. A potting wheel is actually a key part of this work's otherwise simple set; it sits upstage left, and at various moments over the course of the show's 75 minutes Jack sits at it and shapes a lumpy bit of clay into a bowl or vase. The moment in the play when, sitting at his wheel, Jack talks about the intimacy of sharing this act with one of his fellow convicts, their hands touching as together they work the clay, their hair and breath intermingling as they stand over the wheel, is intensely moving. Jack is a born storyteller, and he has both the life and the voice to match this vocation.

Another dramaturgical feature of the piece is the use of projections and video clips, most of them drawn from a 2009 film, Bastardy, documenting Jack's improbable life shooting smack (which we actually see), burgling homes, and treading the boards. When in that film (which screened as part of PuSh's film series this past Wednesday), Jack is confronted with the prospect of another long visit to the nick, one that will almost surely break him, he decides to go clean. With the success of the film, Jack becomes a celebrity and among the fan mail he begins to receive are notes and photographs that start to fill in the missing pieces of his stolen childhood. This gift of getting his life back in his late 60s is what in turn inspires Jack's climactic post hoc appeal to the invisible magistrates of Australia's highest court; if the temporal fallacy of colonialism can construct the land upon which Aboriginal peoples have been living for millennia as terra nullius, and can likewise read Jack's stolen black body as a blank canvas, a tabula rasa, upon which to rewrite his history, then why can't the judicial system begat by colonialism expunge the equally specious causality of his criminal record?

While for me the play had, overall, a bit too much talk, Jack's concluding speech before the courts is a moment of undeniable rhetorical power. Referencing both his great-grandfather's act of political protest and the Fanonian colonial psychosis that has marked white settler Australians as much as Aborigines, Jack names what has made him both the sum of and infinitely more than a criminal justice system's anonymizing numbers.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

PuSh 2016: Inked and Murmur

This year's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival got under way this week with performances of English dancer Aakash Odedra's Inked and Murmur, in a co-presentation with The Dance Centre, but staged at the Playhouse rather than the latter's familiar Davie Street space. I understand this was as much for technical reasons as presumably in hopes of attracting larger audiences (not to mention animating a civic space close to PuSh's new home). However, I'm not sure the new venue best served these two solo pieces. Especially during the dimly lit opening of the first work, Inked, it was hard from my vantage point in the twenty-third row to see Odedra's footwork, though as per the percussive rhythms of kathak, one could certainly hear it. Likewise, in Murmur when Odedra addresses the audience or counts out a bol (a succession of mnemonic syllables used to keep time in Indian classical dancing and music) it was sometimes hard to hear him. These two works, in their focus on cultural and personal identity through non-Western dance forms, and in their combining of movement with other theatrical expressions of storytelling, reminded me of Faustin Linyekula's Le Cargo, which played last year's PuSh Festival; the intimacy and proximity with the audience cultivated through the staging of Le Cargo at The Dance Centre was something I craved last night as I watched Odedra. The Playhouse is a terrific venue for large-scale dance works, as DanceHouse's seasons have consistently proved; but for a solo performer it can look a bit lonely up there.

At the same time, there were many wonderful and visually stunning moments during both of the pieces that make up this double bill. Inked, choreographed for Odedra by Damien Jalet, begins with a two dimensional cut-out silhouette of a human figure illuminated upstage right. Out of this trompe-l'oeil Odedra emerges, his feet rat-a-tatting on the floor as he slowly shifts and shimmies upstage centre in an arc of horizontal light. Eventually he falls to his knees centre stage in front of an ink pot, using its contents to tattoo both of his hands in black. Like magnets, the hands find each other and stay connected as Odedra begins a series of gorgeous arm waves, the fluidity of his upper limbs providing a kinetic contrast to the fixity of his lower ones, which are crossed one inside the other in a classic yoga pose. Thus contorted, Odedra proceeds to move across the stage on his knees, his hands never unclasping. The connection between the marked body and the marking of space becomes even more clear when around the now spilled pot of ink Odedra begins to draw a series of ever-widening circles on the white Marley with two pieces of black chalk, his hands extending above his head and then lowering as he rotates his back across the floor, almost like he's making snow angels. The piece concludes with Odedra, his body now covered in ink, fully vertical, launching himself into a series of faster and faster spins that is one of the signatures of kathak. From the fixed centre of the body, worlds expand and spiral.

Murmur, which Odedra has created in collaboration with the choreographer Lewis Major and the video developers Ars Electronica Futurelab, takes as its starting point the dancer's discovery, at age 21, that he is dyslexic. As he tells us at one point, with reference to his passport, how could he have lived so long not knowing that there were two "a's" at the beginning of his first name? The supplement to identity that is signalled by that extra letter is visually materialized for us when Odedra forms two capital A's with sheer white fabric on the stage floor, the ghostly ephemerality of the one's mirror image of the other encapsulated as much by the transparency of the fabric as by the ease with which Odedra later bundles up and wipes the letters away. Earlier these sheets had been suspended from the rafters, sheer scrims behind which Odedra had danced as projections tracked the outline left by his body in the manner of heat-detecting sensors. The piece concludes with Odedra dancing in a whirl of papers that have also descended from the rafters, but that are simultaneously being blown skyward by a series of fans encircling the stage. If, drawing from the first piece, Odedra's body is the inkwell, then these are the blank pages of creative inspiration and self-expression that at once await and already bear his imprint.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 2

Yesterday's meeting with Justine and Alexa at The Dance Centre was as meandering and cross-hatched with digressions as the network of dance-based connections in Vancouver that we are trying to map. We talked as much about Justine's dance history teacher at Ryerson and how she (Justine, that is) once hung upside down for 14 hours for David Bowie in LA as we did about how come Alexa and I never crossed paths in the English Department at SFU (mostly night classes in Victorian lit and creative writing on Alexa's part being the answer). But such conversations, along with those about who in the city has danced on cruise ships and the coincidence of bumping into Jay Hirabayashi's ex-wife on Vancouver Island, are precisely the affective weave we are trying to capture in some way in our otherwise documentary discourse of what happened when, where, and with whom--the registering of ordinary events and sedimented memories (a hug in a lobby, a coffee after class at Harbour Dance) that we measure not so much through their historical importance as their felt intensity. As Justine put it, we are seeking "the residue of what has happened in [Vancouver's dance] spaces, and how it still sits there."

Indeed, we're not interested in telling a definitive history of the last decade of dance in this city (with the authoritativeness of any such account being of the absolute least concern to all of us). Instead, we see ourselves opening up a window on how a community has constituted itself--and as much through social and interpersonal relationships as through dance training and technique. Of course, the whole point is that the former are inseparable from the latter, something that the dance scholar Judith Hamera has wonderfully demonstrated in her book on "dancing communities" in LA. Her ideas on the "relational infrastructure" and "mobile intimacies" engendered through dance training and performance and spectatorship (with touchstone moments for audience members also being a crucial part of our rhizomatic equation) will be a possible model for us.

That said, we did make some progress on an informal structure for our interview subjects. At present, we're thinking that it will in fact follow something of a who, what, when, where, why format: who you've trained with, danced for, danced with, created with; what work you've made/been in that's especially meaningful; when you arrived in the city and/or started dancing/making work here; and, to be sure, WHY VANCOUVER? But, again, the apparent forensic thrust of these questions isn't really the main point. We just want to get people talking and see where the narratives overlap--and diverge. Those interstices--who and what gathers in them--is what we're after.

Justine has sent out the first wave of interview requests, and the response has been quite positive. Stay tuned for further updates.


Saturday, January 9, 2016

My Year in Vancouver Dance (a review) + Vancouver Dance History, 2006-2016 (a preview)

Hard to believe that this time last year I was in the final stages of rehearsal for Le Grand Continental. The free outdoor performance on the plaza of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre--choreographed by Montreal's Sylvain Émard, programmed as part of the PuSh Festival, and featuring 70+ community dancers strutting their stuff--recently made Deborah Meyers' year-end Vancouver Sun list of top 2015 dance shows in the city. That was nice to see.

Who would have thought that the experience would go on to launch something of a parallel community site dance career, what with the Mountain View Summer Solstice and Wreck Beach Butoh experiences following in quick succession this past summer? Certainly if you'd said to me last January that I'd now be taking weekly class with Barbara Bourget, I'd have laughed in your face. Though, if we're pointing fingers, I should probably place much of the blame for all of this at the feet--quite literally--of Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, who has certainly spoiled me for thinking that dancing and laughing naturally go together. (Sorry Barbara!)

There were a lot of laughs yesterday on the sixth floor of The Dance Centre, where I gathered with Artistic Associate Justine A. Chambers and Alexa Mardon to brainstorm a planned project on recent Vancouver dance history that Justine is spearheading as part of her two-year DC residency. Part living archive, part dance ethnography, part an exercise in kinaesthetic mapping and performance kinship, the collaboration is still in its very early stages. But the general idea is that the three of us will, over the next year or so, conduct video interviews with several of the city's leading dance artists in order to document the story of Vancouver dance over the past decade. Or I should say, stories. Because we are particularly keen not just to include as many voices as possible, but also to note where those voices converge and diverge on common anecdotes or topics of discussion, be they related to specific works, creation processes, tours, presenters, etc.

The temporal period we've imposed on the project coincides with Justine's arrival in the city, but also with something of a generational shift--or perhaps, more properly, supplement--in/to Vancouver dance practice, with many younger artists (several of them, like Justine, relocating to Vancouver from elsewhere) beginning to form companies and make new work and get noticed locally, nationally, and internationally. To be sure, we are also expecting that fissures will automatically open up in this timeline, with questions of aesthetic influence, and dance training, and performance collaboration and mentorship necessarily pointing backwards as much as forwards. We envision the process being rhizomatic rather than linear; as Justine put it yesterday, by the end of this we should have a constellated web of Vancouver dance-world connections in which there are zero degrees of separation between anyone.

Oh, and did I mention that all of this will culminate in a performance, and that I have agreed to participate in said performance? That part of it makes me a little sick to my stomach, not least as it will almost surely be at the Dance Centre in front of an audience made up of many of the artists whom we'll have interviewed. That's far in the future, though, and for now I can compartmentalize it in my mind as something comfortably abstract and on the distant horizon. However, I was relieved to hear from Justine and Alexa, both experienced performers, that they still want to throw up before most performances.

Watch this space--and possibly others--for updates on the progress of this project. My first task: to dig through the last decade of my collected programs.