Sunday, March 6, 2016

To Colour Thought at the Shadbolt

To Colour Thought, a mixed program by Vanessa Goodman and her company Action at a Distance, played at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby from Wednesday through Saturday of this past week. Goodman has been in residence at the Shadbolt for the past six weeks developing the second half of her piece Wells Hill, which is scheduled to have its full-length premiere at SFU Woodward's in 2017.

First up, however, was the solo Container, which I first saw at last year's Dancing on the Edge Festival, and which I wrote about here. The work has changed quite a bit. It still begins with Goodman clad in nude dance semis and combat boots; but the music at the beginning is now a Yiddish folk song ("Chiribim Chiribom," to be precise, here played instrumentally). In the horizontal line of upstage light that traverses the stage Goodman raises her hands and starts to shimmy her shoulders, a trace smile playing across her lips as a kinetic memory of collective social dancing takes hold of her body. But she doesn't give herself over to this memory completely, and as the folk song is gradually superseded by Locsil's original sound composition, the shoulder shimmy becomes more of a twitch, a phantom bit of tradition (shades of Fiddler on the Roof, which feels appropriate) that remains written on Goodman's body even as she moulds herself into a modern dancing machine. For the sequences that follow, which include Goodman robotically moving forwards and backwards in crosshatched diagonals of light, seem to explore the tensions embedded within prescribed pathways of embodiment--not least with respect to gender, as the visual juxtaposition of Goodman's semi-naked body and fierce footwear would seem to suggest, and as her self-conscious foregrounding of the semiotics of erotic display indeed confirms.

Then, a surprise: returning upstage, Goodman kicks off her boots, lets loose her hair, kneels on the floor and withdraws from somewhere behind her a folded white cloth. She turns the cloth around ceremonially and then unfolds it with careful precision before holding it up to her torso. Slipping into the simple shift, Goodman is instantly recognizable as girlish and feminine. That this transformation coincides with the return of "Chiribim Chiribom," this time with the lyrics sung by The Barry Sisters, glamorous stars of the Klezmer circuit in 1950s US, reinforces what I read as Goodman's danced exploration of the co-imbricatedness of gender and cultural identity.

Following intermission we were shown the second half of Wells Hill, Goodman's riff on the interface between art and information as theorized by Marshall McLuhan and Glenn Gould (I wrote about the first part, which premiered at last year's Chutzpah! Festival, here). In this part Goodman is working with McLuhan's notion that all media are fundamentally extensions of human faculties (whether psychical or physical), with electronic media, in particular, being an adjunct to our central nervous system (the quote to this effect, from The Medium is the Massage, is referenced at the end of this 30-minute excerpt). All of this is brought out quite viscerally in the piece via the immersive lighting and media designs of James Proudfoot and Ben Didier. Fluorescent and neon tubes flash stage left and right and pixelated projections wash over the white Marley floor. According to McLuhan, information overload is a condition of electronic media and Goodman takes this maxim seriously, keeping all five of her gorgeous dancers (Lara Barclay, Karissa Barry, Dario Dinuzzi, Alexa Mardon and Bevin Poole) on stage throughout the piece, and likewise keeping them in constant motion. Moreover, our attention is purposefully divided between the workings of the group, which includes simple patterns of unison movement, more complex partnering sequences, and whole body chains and collective lifts, and that of different individuals who occasionally break off to improvise on their own in an upstage or downstage corner, often punctuating their movements with signature repeated gestures.

In his Laws of Media McLuhan wrote that "The artist is the person who invents the means to bridge between biological inheritance and the environments created by technological innovation." In Wells Hill Goodman is showing us, through the medium of dance, just what such a bridging might look like.


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