Friday, March 18, 2016

Vital Few Rehearsal at VIDF

This is an insane weekend for dance shows: it's the last weekend of VIDF; Ballet BC's Program 2 kicks off tonight at the Queen E; Words in Motion, a collaboration between The Dance Centre and UBC's Chan Centre, takes place Friday and Saturday; and Justine Chambers and James Gnam and Natalie LeFebvre Gnam are collaborating with mixed media artist Evann Siebens for a showing of "The Indexical, Alphabetized, Mediated, Archival Dance-a-thon!" at WAAP on Saturday. Something had to give, and owing to previous commitments it ended up being VIDF. Needless to say, I was sorely disappointed to be missing the premiere of Company 605's latest work, Vital Few. However, thanks to the intervention of Ziyian Kwan, whose latest creation for dumb instrument Dance, Still Rhyming, will be preceding Vital Few on VIDF's free Roundhouse Exhibition Hall stage tonight through Saturday, I was able to get 605 founders Josh Martin and Lisa Gelley to consent to let me watch a run through of the piece yesterday afternoon.

Vital Few is built from some of the work that 605 showed at VIDF last year, but they have expanded the piece quite substantially. There is, quite simply, an amazing amount of dancing jammed into the show's 75+ minutes, most of it featuring the full company complement of six dancers (Martin, joined by Laura Avery, Hayden Fong, Renee Sigouin, Jessica Wilkie, and Sophia Wolfe; co-director Gelley was watching over everything from the tech booth). The piece begins with Avery entering stage left, walking downstage centre and staring out searchingly at the audience; Martin soon joins Avery, embracing her, but in a way that requires a constant shifting of their responses to each other, with Martin actively adjusting Avery's limbs, moving one arm here, shifting her head there. Not that it felt to me that Martin was treating Avery like a wind-up doll; it was more like he was dissatisfied with the external representation of bodily affect each pose was conveying and that he was in search of something more authentic--because, presumably, more natural.

Soon Avery and Martin are joined by the rest of the dancers, who pile on in a group hug, but one that is constantly in motion, with different bodies darting out from under, or else diving back into, the mass of bent torsos, tucked heads and wrap-around limbs. It was like the company was playing a completely upright game of Twister. Eventually Avery's head pops out of this restless bodily mass, her expression as quizzical as when she first entered on stage, her hair none the worse for wear. Two arms belonging to her still enmeshed confreres slice the air, like a conductor, or reach around to scratch the back of the dancer most downstage to the audience (Martin as I recall). Again, I didn't really register this as a visual cliche, 605's version of a many-armed Hindu goddess practicing her mudras. Instead, I saw it as a concrete physical articulation of the company's method, which is all about how the individual moves with and in response to the group, and which involves a mix of improvisation and set choreography.

To this end, when we start to hear the first of the two Enrico Caruso songs used in the piece, the dancers begin breaking apart, spitting out duos and trios that approximate the occasional waltz step or bit of classical partnering, before reforming like an amoeba under a microscope. Eventually, however, the amoeba does unfurl into a chain, and then the chain itself splits apart, with each of the dancers taking turns at some solo freestyling. But it is 605's version of serial, shared, or transferred movement, their very own hybrid of canon and unison formations, that always captivates me. The way they begin a movement phrase in one body and transport it mid-articulation to another without interrupting the flow, but also while frequently changing the direction, is something that I experience in my own body as an uncanny bit of mirrored rippling, almost as though we in the audience should be doing the wave in response--except for the fact that in this case, apart from the assembled crew and videographer, I was an audience of one.

Maybe as a result of the piece's opening tableau, I found myself focusing a lot on the dancers' arms in Vital Few. They do a lot of work here: they hail, they wave, they signal; they are cocked above the eyes when someone looks out, or raised heraldically above the head when someone else wants to pose; they are used to push people out of the way and also offered in support. More than once, as in the jazzy swingtime number where Fong is a standout, they are used to square off space between dancers, or to frame parts of their bodies, a game tinged with shades of threatened violence that leads to a series of increasingly fast and more complex interlocking Lego-like combinations of so many arms akimbo.

Not everything worked for me in the show. I thought it was a bit too long and it felt like there were two endings (a note Martin confirmed to me afterwards that they'd received from others). Following a particularly vigorous and rhythmically hypnotic group sequence danced to a loop of what sounded like a record stuck in a groove (shades of Inheritor Album?), the dancers all eventually arrive upstage, freezing one by one in a rectangle of white light. I heard myself audibly exhaling at that point, which suggests to me this would be an appropriate place for a blackout. Instead, the piece continues for another fifteen minutes or so, culminating in the group ripping up the shiny reflective Mylar floor surface taped over the white Marley, and which casts such amazing effects of light upon the upstage screen wall throughout much of the piece. The sheets are piled upstage where before the dancers' bodies had stood, a shiny aluminum mass that in its lumpen and amorphous shape recalls the fluid and heaving mass of bodies downstage at the top of the show, and that perhaps serves as a metaphor for all of the vital energy the dancers have literally left on the floor.

But to bypass interpretation and to settle into the experience of this moment (that was for you Deanna!), this second ending wasn't as satisfying for me. This is partly because it felt like I had seen it before. I am thinking in particular of DanceHouse's 2012 presentation of Blush by Gallim Dance (who were just back in town last week as part of Chutzpah!). There a similar instance of "tearing up the dance floor" came as a shock, but the effect still somehow registered as being very much inside the world of the dance; but in the case of Vital Few, by contrast, I couldn't help thinking I was watching the striking of a stage set. That's an ending, to be sure, but maybe one that's a bit too "meta" for a piece that is otherwise so focused on what remains so vital about the pure art of dance.


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