Thursday, February 4, 2016

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.


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