Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Secret Life of Trees at VIDF

In The Secret Life of Trees, which is on at the Roundhouse as part of this year's Vancouver International Dance Festival through this evening, EDAM's Peter Bingham takes his choreographic inspiration from the idea that trees communicate with each other (and presumably their environment) through their "intricate entwining root systems." Likewise, in creating this piece, Bingham and his dancers have worked to develop "different sensory pathways to connect to each other" in the space and time of performance.

Such communication begins when dancers Walter Kubanek, Chengxin Wei, Anne Cooper and Olivia Shaffer enter through one of the three square archways--one stage left, two stage right--positioned in front of the wings, portals one imagines to the forest that lies just beyond. Kubanek and Wei slide to the floor upstage, sitting back-to-back, with Wei facing the audience. Cooper and Shaffer lie supine on the floor in two rectangles of light stage right. Wei begins to move his feet, turning them in and out, left and right; he raises his arms and domes his hands, rotating them at the wrist, first this way, and then that, as if telegraphing some secret gestural message. It's one that Cooper and Shaffer pick up on, their feet responding in kind to Wei's proffered address (which we also hear, briefly, in a bit of voiceover).

Just how in sync these three dancers are becomes clear after Kubanek exits the stage and, following a robust contact sequence, the trio separates for some isolated unison floorwork. The dancers are positioned so closely to one another, and their movements are so complicated and physical that it is a wonder they don't hit each other when blindly extending a leg into space, or when rolling backwards in this or that direction. But then just as trees seem to be able to make room for one another on a crowded forest floor, so are dancers of this caliber able to draw on a highly honed kinaesthetic awareness, a keen sense not just of back and front but also, in this case, of beside.

There then follows two gorgeous duets. The first, featuring Shaffer and Delia Brett, is faster and more vigorous and covers much more stage space in its incorporation of lateral lifts and rolls, and in the dancers' explorations of different surfaces of bodily contact and support. The second, between Brett and James Gnam, is slower and more still. It begins with the two dancers walking downstage and matter-of-factly removing their shirts. As the voiceover tells us that we are about to hear a selection of plant songs, Brett slowly begins to trace her fingers in looping and intertwining patterns along Gnam's back and arms, like a childhood game of spelling out letters and words up and down a friend's spine. Brett's touch is delicate and tender, like a lover's, and Gnam's vertebrae and ribs respond to the intimacy by undulating like tree branches swaying in a gentle breeze. When Gnam reciprocates he also reaches around to touch the small and vulnerable area between Brett's throat and breastbone, which struck me as an especially solicitous moment. After this sequence the dancers move further upstage, and amid a series of black and white and colour video projections by Chris Randle that are accompanied by a voiceover narrative written and spoken by Bingham, Brett and Gnam cycle through several semi-lifted poses, their limbs a tangled system of support and ballast.

The piece concludes with a final trio, this time with Kubanek, who has been something of a silent observer up until now, joining Shaffer and Wei in a bit of balletic parody before moving into a final and highly satisfying contact sequence. If, in their rhizomatic structural threading, tree roots have a mostly horizontal orientation, and if they further work to stabilize not just the tree trunks to which they are attached, but also the soil around them, then they are an apt metaphor for the connection to and from ground that is at the heart of contact.


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