Sunday, February 28, 2016

Betroffenheit at the Playhouse

Betroffenheit, the much-anticipated dance-theatre collaboration between Kidd Pivot and the Electric Company Theatre, finally arrived in Vancouver this past weekend following its acclaimed debut during the PanAm Games in Toronto last summer. Given how widely the personal backstory to the piece's development is known in the local performance community, and given as well the professional pedigrees of its two primary collaborators, Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite, the stakes around what the work would deliver were extremely high. Happily, Betroffenheit, which was presented by DanceHouse, more than measures up, both in constellating with such intelligence and artistic rigour ideas and concepts and emotions that are more than the sum of Young's personal tragedy, and in signalling an exciting new turn in Pite's career not just as a choreographer, but as a stage director.

As Young noted in conversation with Pite at a public forum earlier in the day, the seeds of Betroffenheit came from the compulsive writing he was doing in an attempt to gain some control over the traumatic loss of his daughter. He showed these pages to Pite, hoping that she might agree to stage them. The title comes from Ann Bogart's And Then, We Act, and refers to a state of bewildered shock in the wake of an event, a space that exposes the limits of language to make sense of experience, a space of "fertile and palpable silence" where, in Bogart's words, "everything is up for grabs." A space, in other words, of theatrical imagination--one where social reality can be explored in an other, more heightened register. And, indeed, it was only after the two artists had begun collaborating that they discovered that the story they were telling was about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and related issues of addiction.

In the world of Betroffenheit these issues are translated, initially, into the hollowed out world of an empty sound stage that but for the electrical cables retreating like garden snakes before our eyes soon after the curtains part could double for an antiseptic psych ward (the amazing set is by Jay Gower Taylor). Our protagonist, Young, cowers in a corner; soon we hear him--or rather sometimes him and sometimes him in voiceover--having a conversation with himself about what he is not to do: that he shouldn't respond; a system is in place; the user only gets used. Young's interlocutors multiply, his voice distributed across any number of objects on stage--including, most compellingly, a HAL-like amplifier whose mechanical responses to Young's questions seem oddly comforting. Eventually, the narrative voice of Young's text gets distributed across other bodies as well, with Jermaine Spivey first showing up in a blue leisure suit and face paint to take over the amplifier's side of the conversation through the embodied technique of lipsynching, a choreographing of the voice that in Pite's hands is as precise and accomplished as the gestural phrasing and orchestration of dancers' limbs that accompanies it.

Spivey plays Young's alter ego; his, we might say, is the voice of Young's subconscious, or perhaps more properly, altered consciousness. For it is Spivey's role to lure Young back to the razz-ma-tazz world of "showtime," the imagined variety show that is Young's drug of choice and out of which Pite conjures spectacular tap and salsa sequences that wonderfully showcase the additional dance talents of Out Innerspace's David Raymond and Kidd Pivot regulars Bryan Arias and Cindy Salgado, respectively. Young and Spivey also engage in a charming vaudeville-style double act, the patter of their lipsynched conversation as diverting and seemingly harmless as their accompanying soft-shoe routine. However, in conversation earlier in the afternoon Pite also commented that it was important for her to make this world of showtime not just a pleasurable and joyful release--for us as much as for Young's character--but also dangerous. To this end, we get Tiffany Tregarthen, who plays a devilish and (quite literally) explosive imp, and whose fantastically physical and entangled duet with Young (who is revealed over the course of the entire piece to be a virtuosic mover) leads to what, in this "disordered system" of the stage, is the equivalent of an overdose. It takes all of the combined efforts of the other five performers to revive Young for his climactic solo number, a moving song of longing and regret that is of course not a solo at all--because his voice is lifted by a chorus of bodies, a corps, who in forming a chain of support illustrates through dance the network of sustaining relations in life that lets us know, no matter the claims we make upon them, that they have our back, that they will make sure we make it safely back down to the ground. And on this front it's been a while since I've responded so enthusiastically to Pite's penchant for tethering her group movement at the wrist. Whereas in the past the accordion-like unfurling and contraction of bodily bellows in her work has sometimes seemed like an exercise in momentum without direction, here the chains of movement seem to hint both at sequentiality (events unfolding over time) and obligation (how we are fettered together by those events)--as when, for example, the group slumps in succession against the stage right set wall, a submission to fate and to gravity that, combined with Young's song, made my heart catch in my throat.

Act 3 of Betroffenheit, which begins after a brief intermission, follows the pattern Pite has established in previous works like Dark Matter and The Tempest Replica. The ensemble, having traded in their sparkly "showtime" costumes for standard issue rehearsal sweats, deconstructs much of the action of the previous acts through pure movement. It begins with a spectacular off-axis solo for Arias, in which he spins his body around violently, like he is trying to exorcise a demon. Later he and Salgado will partner in a ghostly echo of their "showtime" salsa steps, only this time on their knees and in a desperately vertiginous bid to right themselves and prevent the other from falling over. Young, in the afternoon conversation, likened this section to the experience of withdrawal, and Pite supplemented this idea by saying that she was interested in staging various micro-scenes of rescue (a favourite theme of hers). To this end, I was very affected by the duet between Salgado and Tregarthen, who helped convey a sense of shared pain through a simple bit of gestural unison, moving their hands from knees to hips to elbows to heads through a sequence of facings, but also interrupting the cycle at different moments to place a solicitous hand on the other's body. As compelling was when all five dancers were on their hands and knees, their arms twitching uncontrollably--as if they are being collectively wracked by the DTs, or a horrible night sweat. The movement only stops when they slide a hand across to the person next to them, applying a different kind of physical pressure to still the mental anguish. If one of Pite's greatest concerns was figuring out how to distribute the narrative voice of trauma across the piece's entire ensemble, a consequent result has been how she has likewise shown how the physical symptoms of trauma can spread and be shared across different bodies.

To this end, after a couple of chimeric glimpses of showtime's lingering traces (a curtain reproduction of the set and a mysterious reappearance of a self-ambulating magician's box), the piece concludes with a reprise of Young and Spivey's earlier duet. This time, however, to echo both the voiceover (which has also returned) and the conversation between Young and Pite from earlier in the afternoon, we are made to realize that there will be no epiphany. There can only be the slow and painful practice of learning how to reengage with the world. And that starts, as Spivey demonstrates for us, by standing up on one's own, finding one's legs, putting one of those legs in front of the other, and beginning to move uncertainly into the future--a future that doesn't try to leave behind the past, but that accepts (and not without some measure of comfort) that it will always be present.


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 7

Earlier today Justine and Max and I squeezed into my Woodward's office along with Ali Denham (Alexa was absent because of rehearsal). Ali is the third interview subject to sit down with us and talk about her Vancouver dance history. For Ali that history began when she first came to the city at fifteen to train and worked with, among others, Judith Marcuse and Paras Terezakis (two choreographers, I am learning, who gave many young movers their starts). After time spent back in Toronto with Serge Bennathan at Dancemakers, Ali returned in her twenties and danced for a host of local choreographers, including Judith Garay, Lola McLaughlin, James Gnam, Alvin Tolentino, Josh Beamish, Wen Wei Wang, Tara Cheyenne Friendenberg, Serge (she was one of the amazing cast of willis in his Elles), and the list goes on (including Justine, in Family Dinner).

As Ali spun back and forth in my office chair (a nice kinetic bit we'll have to incorporate somehow) she talked about how her connection to Vancouver dance is "muddy" right now, partly because she's injured (a frozen shoulder since the birth of her daughter) and partly because her desire to remain connected to the scene is ambivalent. That said, she affirmed that this scene is definitely a lot different from what it was eight years ago, with younger dancers having much more of an advanced critical discourse around their work, and dance aesthetics more generally. Dance in Vancouver, she and Justine agreed, is no longer about simply being a "bionic body"--a persona whose physicality on stage is the sole index of one's being.

On this latter point Ali was also very honest in saying that it was hard to talk about her dance history (or anyone's for that matter) without defaulting to negativity. So much of what goes into being a dancer for hire (the long hours, the paltry pay, the physical pain, the emotional abuse, dealing with vaunted egos) is just plain hard. This then led to an interesting discussion about the surprising lack of a meaningful tradition of an ethic of care (intellectual, physical and affective) in contemporary dance, and how that needs to change.

Maybe it's just that as an outsider to this community I've always been so astonished and humbled by how easily and warmly I've been welcomed into it, or maybe it's the fact that these two dance moms with whom I spent an hour and a half this afternoon conversing are so unlike their reality TV namesakes, but what I've taken away from this project so far is not just our interlocutors' mindfulness of what their bodies can do, but also their equal concern for what, in certain circumstances and given any number of mental and emotional considerations, other bodies cannot.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 6

Yesterday I sign in at the Dance Centre at 3:50 pm. Right underneath Alexa, who hasn't bothered with her last name, or the floor she's on. Me, I'm not so confident people know who I am. Or why I'm there. So I add all my deets. Elevator door opens on four, and there's Alexa, and then Justine right behind her, carrying Max. I hit the right button to hold the door.

On six, in the AIR's windowless aerie, we kvetch about our map. Where to install it and what materials to use. Bristol board and scotch tape just won't do. Josh arrives and whisks Max away. I eat one of Justine's ballet competition cookies and think about Misty Copeland: the pressure to represent.

We take a walk. Down to the lobby to survey the walls of the stairwell leading to the Farris Studio. Where Deanna's posters currently are. Where Alexa's writing soon will be. When did that recessed screen get installed and, more importantly, can we use it? The space, visible from the outside and ripe with possibilities re intervening into the social choreography of spectators' pre-show routines (all those craned necks and twisted spines), is the obvious place for our installation. But can we somehow continue the cat's cradle of connections into the awful basement foyer, lace a spider's web of string across the ceiling to compete with the human ants snaking in their spiral lines as they await admission? (Way too many animal metaphors in that sentence.)

As I'm thinking about this, my head tilted back, the salty Swedish liquorice candy I've also pilfered from Justine's ballet competition stash (appropriate given Robyn's "Indestructible" was playing on my iPhone as I entered the building, and also given my visit to the dentist earlier in the day) gets stuck in my throat. I start to choke. Things get serious fast. Suddenly Alexa is behind me doing an improvised Heimlich maneuver. The candy flies from my mouth, lands with a thwunk right in the middle of the centre panel of the west-facing mirrored wall. It sticks for a second, a miniature chewed-up hockey puck dropped onto an upright fuse-ball table, before it starts a slow slide to the arm ledge, leaving a trail of spittle that looks like slug poo.

Later, on the seventh floor patio sharing a joint Justine has rolled, we are able to laugh about the incident. Agree that it definitely has to become part of the show. We look around, marvelling at how underused this space is. Think about what we could do with a few tables and chairs, some plants. A trampoline and a hot tub.

Back on the sixth floor, we make a list of things to do. Or what we'd like to try to do. In a moment of whimsy following my near-death experience, I ask about photoshopping images of ourselves into some of the web documentation of the works mentioned in our interviews. A series of Zelig-like moments of virtual embodied interpolation.

These are the ways rumours get started...

Exiting, with me having signed the three of us out, Justine asks about where all those daily inked records of people's comings and goings go. We're told they get filed, and that the Dance Centre keeps the last year's worth. Another resource. Another layer to our collective palimpsestic score.


Sunday, February 14, 2016

BigMouth at The Cultch

Just back from a matinee performance of Valentijn Dhaenens and SKaGeN Theatre's BigMouth at The Cultch's York Theatre, for which I was also privileged to lead the post-show talkback. A virtuosic tour through the history of oration, Dhaenens's piece is a mash-up of some of the most famous--and infamous--of public speeches to have been recorded for posterity: from Pericles' funeral oration during the Peloponnesian War to Ann Coulter's post-9/11 screed against Muslims. Moving between five sets of microphones anchored to a long, waist-high trestle table, and bridging the different spoken movements with songs looped through a delay unit, Dhaenens has created a complex vocal score that attests to the power of the human voice to move us physically and affectively.

Dhaenens revealed that in preparation for the piece he set himself the task of reading at least one speech a day, eventually making his way through more than a thousand over the course of the year. Working intuitively rather than instrumentally, he began forming different piles based less on immediate temporal connections than on thematic juxtapositions. Thus, for example, following an opening prologue in which Dhaenens channels the voice of the Grand Inquisitor speaking to those about to be burned at the stake, we get two speeches from men condemned unjustly to die: Niccolo Sacco and Socrates. In the first case, as Dhaenens noted post-show, Sacco did not have access to the rhetorical skills (nor even fluency in the language in which he was being tried) that might have saved his life; in the second case, Socrates most assuredly did, but he harnessed rhetoric in this case to indict the system that accused him rather than plead for mercy from it. Likewise, Dhaenens creates a fascinating duet by counterpointing two late WW II speeches by Hermann Goebbels and George S. Patton, deliberately toning down the verbal vituperation of the former and ramping up the cowboy jingoism of the latter in order to focus on the contrast in their sentence structures: long and seductively paratactical for Goebbels; short, sharp and full of declarative machismo for Patton.

Originally created from and for Dhaenens's own Belgian context, another striking pairing concerns King Boudewijn of Belgium--who we hear explaining why he will not sign a 1990 abortion law--and Patrice Lumumba--who presided over Congolese independence from Belgium in the 1960s, and whose subsequent murder was almost surely known of, if not abetted by, Belgian authorities. It's these kinds of intricate orchestrations that elevate this very smart show beyond mere gimmicky spectacle and into a fascinating symphony in which persuasion and exculpation emerge as two sides of the same coin.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

887 at SFU Woodward's

Robert Lepage is back in residence at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, following earlier visits in 2010 with The Blue Dragon (somewhat misleadingly represented in the program as inaugurating the Wong space--that would have been PuSh's presentation of The Show Must Go On) and in 2012 with Far Side of the Moon. This time he brings his latest solo show, 887, which might be said to be the patrilineal counterpoint to Far Side; like the earlier work, 887 is structured around Lepage's personal memories of growing up in Quebec City, with his father rather than his mother emerging as the main animating force of his nostalgia, and with the politics of the piece both more overt and more local. For 887, we learn near the top of the show, is the number of the apartment building on Murray Avenue in Upper Town that Lepage grew up in, the street having been named after the British general who, after the death of James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, presided over the surrender of the French.

A scale model of the apartment building serves as the central design feature of the piece. We are introduced in turn to each of the eight tenant families, Lepage's discourse on the residents' particularities accompanied by a miniature rear projection video that we glimpse through the corresponding living room window. It's a canny trick, for the act of voyeurism condenses both a general principle of theatrical spectatorship and Lepage's inimitable scenographic mix of the intimate and the industrial. Lepage, who delivers his own curtain speech, may be alone on stage having a conversation with us, but there is an army of unseen hands backstage (and in the tech booth) ensuring that the wonderful bits of stage magic he conjures for us unfold without a hitch--although to his credit, and in what has become something of a signature of the shows in which he performs, Lepage does welcome said technicians out to take a bow at the end of the performance. Then, too, Lepage has always been extremely adept at harnessing technology in ways that eliminate rather than expand the distance between performer and audience. So it is with the smart phone that the actor takes out as part of his curtain speech, a double mnemonic that he brandishes as a reminder for us to turn off our own digital devices but that also stands in for self-agency in the act of remembering that we are wont to cede to someone or something else, be it the software in one's iPhone or the hardware of built monuments to official history. At various moments in the piece Lepage uses his phone to insert himself and his memories back into this history, creating a live selfie feed of himself at his uncle's house during Christmas in the 1950s, or delivering newspapers during the FLQ crisis.

The illuminated model apartment building of Lepage's youth also opens up to reveal the well-appointed kitchen of his current Quebec City condo. Here we glimpse scenes of Lepage conversing with Fred, a former friend from the Conservatoire, whom Lepage has sought out to help him memorize Michèle Lalonde's iconic poem, Speak White, which Lepage has been asked to recite at a special 40th anniversary ceremony. Both the responsibility and the burden of Quebec's national memory as a linguistic minority within English Canada thus becomes the refrain against which Lepage excavates his complicated relationship with his taxi-driving father, a working-class man who fought in World War II and claimed to be a federalist, and who wished his children to go to an English-speaking school. The force of Lepage's indignation for the colonial inferiority he suggests his father was made to internalize is palpable in this work, which especially during the climactic scene during which Lepage forcefully recites Lalonde's poem likewise reads as a response to some of the slights against Lepage's previous work as being too apolitical. At the same time, the collective national memory against which Lepage is juxtaposing his personal family reminiscences--encapsulated in the final scene during which Lepage becomes his father, mourning the death of his own mother in his cab on the night of Pierre Laporte's murder--strikes me as somewhat conveniently frozen in time. As with the weaving of past and present in Lepage's film Le confessionnal (with which 887 has a lot of thematic and imagistic parallels), the retrospective temporality of the piece risks performing its own colonial whitewashing of the narrative of Quebec nationalism, which in the aftermath of Oka, of Parizeau's "argent et le vote ethnique," of recent debates over the niqab is anything but memorially pure.


Friday, February 12, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 5

We had our second artist interview yesterday, with Vanessa Goodman. The conversation yielded another amazing round of stories, and already various lines of intersection are emerging. The moment when Vanessa mentioned Doug Elkins' Fraulein Maria as a pivotal dance spectating moment for her in Vancouver, Justine and Alexa and I all shared a look and smile, as Elkins also came up in Rob's interview.

It was also fascinating to hear about all the folks Vanessa studied with while at SFU and her years touring with Judith Garay's Dancers Dancing. And of course it was at SFU that Vanessa met Jane Osborne and listening to Vanessa describe how she instantly knew she wanted to work with Jane was quite moving.

Unfortunately I don't have time this morning to go into all that Vanessa said in her interview (in part because I want to get to Barbara's class after a three-week hiatus). But there are two other things worth noting. The first concerns just how pivotal Justine is to this recent history we are archiving. Vanessa mentioned seeking out a contemporary dance class to take in the city after her graduation and not finding anything until Justine began teaching at Harbour Dance around 2008. The second thing that came up for me is how memory is operating not just retrospectively in these interviews, but also prospectively. To be sure, one of our questions asks our informants to speculate on where they see their own work and Vancouver dance more generally going in the next ten years. But while we were gossiping with Vanessa after the "official" interview was over (and we discovered Justine had accidentally taken a photo of us rather than a video with her MacBook iCamera), there was also a wonderful moment when she set us up for an anecdote that she assured us we would receive with delight from one of our future subjects.

It was a wonderful proleptic moment, and a reminder that this project is as much oriented toward the future as to the past.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

PuSh 2016: Relative Collider

My last show at this year's PuSh Festival was the conceptual dance piece Relative Collider, a collaboration between the dancer and choreographer Liz Santoro and the theatre artist and software engineer Pierre Godard. A co-presentation with The Dance Centre, the piece combines theoretical principles from physics with different mathematical and linguistic structures. On the one hand rigorously formal, the work is also a thrilling display of technical and bodily capacity from within a strictly defined system.

Part of that system has to do with the look of the space, which given the white Marley, the bright stage lights, and the pedestal stage left supporting a lone MacBook computer, resembles an Apple Store. Into this space march Godard and Santoro and her two fellow dancers (Cynthia Koppe and Stephen Thompson). Godard steps behind the computer and hits a key. A metronome's amplified counts start to sound. The three dancers, standing in a small semi-circle just to the right of Godard remain impassive. Soon, however, their feet and knees begin to pulse in time to the metronome. Just when one thinks one has the pattern--left, right, left, left, right--the dancers appear to switch things up, holding one leg flexed for an extra count, or reversing the order of the leg pulses. And then, all of sudden, they stop. Except that they haven't exactly. One of the dancers slowly splays one hand, another leans forward and twists her torso, and so on. Godard calls out a count of eight over the metronome, and then they're off with the leg pulses again.

And so things continue, with the intricate micro-movements of the dancers' legs eventually giving way to hops and skips and also at various moments being counterpointed with unison sequences of deconstructed vogue-like hand and arm gestures. Trying to figure out where and when these sequences occur, and what relation they have to each other, is part of the joyful kinaesthetic and intellectual surprise of this piece, which moves itself--and us--into a whole other realm when Godard starts to call out different words and phrases, while still rhythmically adhering to the timing of the metronome and a strict eight-count structure. This becomes the cue for the dancers to improvise with what they can do with their bodies from within this structure, the measured and controlled steps giving way to bold leaps and pirouettes, the tight-to-the-torso hand and arm work erupting into sweeping waves and fist pumps.

It's exhilarating to watch, a kind of danced version of entropy as Richard suggested to myself and Ziyian (who was sitting next to us) after the performance was over. Which I interpreted to mean in the case of this work that as we were witnessing the collapse of a choreographic system we were simultaneously discovering its constancy.


PuSh 2016: Eternal

For two hours yesterday afternoon, on Vancouver's first sunny day in quite a while, I huddled with a dozen or so other brave spectators in the darkness of the Western Front's upstairs great hall to watch two actors (the absolutely amazing Christina Rouner and Thomas Jay Ryan) perform the final scene from Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind over and over again. It was not a live event; the actors appeared to us on video, each framed in close-up on separate screens. Still, Daniel Fish's Eternal, which exists somewhere between the realms of theatre, film and installation, and which has been programmed as part of this year's PuSh Festival, retains the feeling of liveness, not least in its unedited durationality. The actors, sitting across from each other in a white rehearsal hall, are responding to each other, and to variations in line readings, in the moment, and they have to keep going no matter what. Additionally, we as spectators can't easily give ourselves over to passive absorption of their screen images. Yes, we might feel bored (and there was a steady attrition of audience members over the course of the two hours), maybe at times even alienated; but at least we're feeling something. And there are enough subtle nuances and new emotional discoveries in the various iterations of the looped scene to keep us surprised and on our toes and invested in how things will turn out this time around.

While on some levels a master class in acting, in terms of what I was experiencing bi-focally on each screen of the performers' face-to-face interactions, I was especially fascinated by the idea of control. In some senses Ryan, who plays the Jim Carrey character (and who, according to, actually appeared in the original movie as "Frank"), would seem always to be dictating the pace and tone of the scene, as he has the first spoken dialogue. On the other hand, Rouner, as Kate Winslet's Clementine, gets the last word, her final "okay" being the signal for Ryan to launch once again into the in medias res excerpt from the voiceover tape of Joel's erased memories with which the scene begins. Depending on how long she decides to take with that "okay" (sometimes it is uttered quickly, at other times its delivery is held back for what feels like forever), and depending in what manner she chooses to enunciate it (softly, bitterly, hopefully, resignedly), she is to a certain extent framing when and in what manner Ryan starts the next version of the loop.

By the fourth or fifth go-through of the roundelay I felt like I had internalized more or less all of the dialogue, and so it became a bit of a game to play with myself to anticipate where a different inflection would be given, a pause added, a reaction given more or less emotional emphasis. In this regard, one could say that Eternal, as a temporally mediated work of performance, actually deepens the experience of a cherished principle of the time-specificity of live performance: that it can never be repeated the same way twice. We accept this as a given in the theatre, but unless we go to a show multiple times over the course of its run, most of us as spectators retain a singular version of a particular staged event. However, with apologies to Walter Benjamin, in the case of Eternal technological reproduction somehow works in service of rather than against the auratic experience of the here and now--and precisely because we get to encounter them again and again.


Saturday, February 6, 2016

PuSh 2016: L'Immédiat

L'Immédiat, on at the Playhouse through this evening as part of the PuSh Festival, is perhaps best described as the new new circus. Which is to say that in addition to there being no animal acts, it is also not meant to look virtuosic, like the confections of Cirque du Soleil. Shambolic is the word my visiting colleague and seat mate Karen Fricker used to describe the antics of the eight performers (five men, including creator and Association Immédiat founder Camille Boitel, and three women) who conspire to produce the lunatic chaos that is this show.

The piece is divided into two main halves, followed by a climactic coda. In the first half a stage already littered with hundreds of props and set pieces gradually becomes home to more and more things, some of them flotsam particular to the theatre, including falling wires and crashing lights, most of them just imported junk, like the plastic water bottles released from a fly, or the cardboard boxes thrown in from the wings. Amid this rubble the performers, wearing an assortment of matted fur coats, dart and lurch, sometimes seeking to avoid all manner of matter thrown their way, but just as often abetting its physical distribution about the stage by kicking over a ladder here or releasing a net filled with shiny paper there. Then, just as suddenly, the back stage wall opens up and the performers start to clean up, using an assortment of long janitor's brooms to sweep the detritus out of sight.

Thereafter an assortment of moveable black curtain panels drops to the stage from the rafters, which together with some tricked out furniture (including a wardrobe subject to multiple entrances and exits) the ensemble uses to launch into a madcap routine of physical comedy and quick change artistry. Combining slapstick, pantomime and contortionism, the performers' movements are at once athletic and graceful, and in their precision and timing the ensemble is working like a finely tuned corps de ballet--most evident, for me, in their combined efforts to pull off the long slanted or askew set piece at the end of this section.

The show ends with one of the women, whose limbs keep floating up the sky, being buried under a growing mound of rubble. It starts with that wardrobe being tipped over onto her, on top of which the other performers gradually pile more and more things, building a ziggurat of precarious form and unusual beauty from the scrap heap of objects recycled at the end of act one. It's a stunning act of recomposition that provides formal closure to the sequence of collapsings with which the piece begins. However, I also couldn't help thinking of the gender of the body who peaks out from this midden just before the final blackout, especially given that elsewhere in the piece the men (who all at some point or another are wearing dresses) consciously play with tropes of femininity. To draw from the research of another colleague of mine, Laura Levin, is this woman being entombed within her environment or choosing to blend in with it? Who or what is being disciplined in this dazzling and mercurial exploration of the organicity and performativity of bodies and things?


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 4

Our meeting yesterday, which I had to duck out of early, was mostly an excited debrief from last week's interview with Rob. It's amazing how this one conversation has already sparked so many ideas for possible performance elements, including what choreographic objects and material ephemera from recent Vancouver dance history we may have with us on stage (e.g. that mysterious other half of Monumental's original cut-up scrim). Also on the table: a live feed and/or recorded video of recreated backstage moments (which has, of course, instantly become another required interview question, along with "Where did you first show work?," and, devilishly from Alexa, "Who made you want to quit dancing?").

Justine also suggested that we begin tracking from this moment forward our own ongoing daily movements with and through the dance community, from the coffee with person X, or the lobby conversation with person Y, or the class with person Z. This will then provide a temporal and experiential anchor in the present for our historical recovery of the city's recent dance past.

We also decided that we might as well begin our rhizomatic map, populating it to start with the names mentioned by Rob and then radiating things out from there with each subsequent interview. This immediately led to some grand ideas about what the final installation version of this project element might look like, with it potentially spanning the entire stairwell of The Dance Centre, and with viewers, like Theseus chasing after Ariadne's dropped thread, literally traipsing from floor to floor to follow different connections.

Except in this case the whole point would be to get lost in rather than make one's way out of the labyrinth.


PuSh 2016: Century Song

Volcano Theatre's Century Song, on at The Cultch's Historic Theatre through this Saturday, is the third wordless vocal performance I have attended at this year's PuSh Festival. It was also my least favourite.

The show's premise is not without interest. Taking the form of an historical song cycle, it consists of soprano and co-creator Neema Bickersteth performing vocalise to works by some of the twentieth century's greatest composers, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Olivier Messiaen, and Georges Aperghis. She is accompanied by Gregory Oh on piano and Debashis Sinha on percussion and computer, who also supply a set of structured improvisations as interludes between the main songs. During these interludes Bickersteth is mostly offstage changing costume, as she plays an Orlando-like figure who is able to shapeshift across time.

Our protagonist's journey is marked visually by a series of projections designed by the German company fettFilm, which are less concerned with capturing signal world events than in tracking the evolution of different art movements--from cubism and expressionism to pop art and contemporary digital media art. That a Black woman is placed at the centre of Western art history is perhaps the most striking political statement made by the piece, one that consciously moves her from background (as, for example, in Édouard Manet's Olympia) to foreground, a reorienting of perspective we actually see enacted in fettFilm's central "Hallway of Progress" video.

And yet as engaging as the piece's visual design was, I found its movement score simply a distraction. Kate Alton's choreography begins by drawing on a largely gestural vocabulary: Bickersteth wipes the air in front of her face, or pounds one fist into the other hand. Thereafter things get more physical, but I confess that as Bickersteth's dancing veered from solemnity to abandon I couldn't easily tell if the latter was an expression of trauma or of joy. In the end, it felt like much of the movement was there to fill the space between songs. I registered this most acutely when Bickersteth emerged from her last costume change and crossed downstage right to where Oh and Sinha were playing. Removing an old-style standing microphone from behind a post and positioning herself behind it, she proceeded to sing a commissioned piece by the Toronto composer Reza Jacobs. It was a perfectly composed moment of stillness and grace, and a reminder that the recital form doesn't have to be overly embellished for us to feel its power.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

PuSh 2016: Anthropologies Imaginaires

Gabriel Dharmoo's Anthropologies Imaginaires, on at the Fox Cabaret through this evening, is the second co-presentation by Music on Main at this year's PuSh Festival. Like last week's An Evening with A Roomful of Teeth, it is also an a cappella vocal performance. But Dharmoo, an acclaimed composer and improviser from Montreal, is solo on stage and the piece is as much a work of conceptual performance art as it is a stunning live concert.

For the conceit of this hilarious and wickedly satirical send-up of the academic pretensions of some of the more outmoded versions of ethnomusicology is that Dharmoo is a composite anthropological specimen, channeling various vocal techniques of so many cultures and tribes you've never heard of as a group of scholarly experts convened by the mythical "Memory Museum" explains their social and aesthetic significance to us on screen with mock seriousness. There is, for example, the nomadic desert tribe known for its aquatic singing, a symphony of gurgling and burbling we are told is a sign of their abundant delight in discovering a resource of such scarcity in their lives. Or the mountain folk who sing through clenched teeth while they work so as not to attract attention to themselves.

Dharmoo is a thoroughly charming and seductive performer. It helps that he has a totemic visage, long and angular, almost like a Picasso mask; when he launches into a possessed demonstration of Tribe X's penchant for hypnotic choral signing, enchanting the audience into three overlapping refrains, it is impossible not to follow his commands, even though he comes across as less a terrifying mesmerist than a petulant conductor. Of course it is not lost on me that in describing what is so compelling about this show, and about Dharmoo as performer-creator, I have fallen into the very tropes of exotic excess that have been the stock and trade of so much unreflective Western ethnography. Such is the intelligence of this show that it invites our laughter at such presumption even as it catches us out in succumbing to it.