Yesterday evening I hiked it out to UBC's Chan Centre in order to take in a unique evening of words and dance. Words in Motion is a co-presentation with The Dance Centre that pairs three Vancouver writers with three local choreographers. Over the past year the artists have been working together, as well as with different dancers, designers, and musicians, to explore what happens when language and narrative are translated in and through the body. I have been peripherally involved in the last phase of the series' development as I had initially been asked to lead a book club in which interested audience members would read the specific works of literatures being adapted prior to the staged performances. That didn't work out as planned; however, I still got to sit in on a couple of rehearsals, as well as attend the filming of the artist conversations that precede each piece, which provided some unique insights into each of the creative processes.
The first pairing on the program was between poet and novelist Aislinn Hunter and dancer and choreographer Anusha Fernando. The text being interpreted was Hunter's dense and complex novel The World Before Us, which explores the connections between Jane, an archivist working in present-day London, and two sets of events that happened in Yorkshire in the recent and far past--both of which haunt Jane in different ways. Fernando is trained in Bharata Natyam, a form of Indian classical dance that is based on a storytelling tradition anchored in a specific repertoire of gestures and poses. Fernando combines this repertoire with the somatic practices of Tai Chi and Yoga to explore dynamics of spatial distance and proximity and the temporal flow of energy between herself and her two fellow dancers (Louise Ettling and Kelly Maclean). Additionally, the recorded voice of Veda Hille reading the prologue from the novel acts as a verbal score that the dancers, through their movement combinations and poses, sometimes enact more mimetically and sometimes more abstractly.
In the second pairing playwright and memoirist Carmen Aguirre reads her short story "Open Fire" live on stage while choreographer and dancer Olivia C. Davies, joined by fellow performers Alejandra Miranda and Sindy Angel, physicalize its action and themes in a parallel kinetic register. Aguirre, an acclaimed actor, has amazing stage presence and a powerful voice, and it was fascinating watching and listening to her as she responded to the dancers in real-time--and vice-versa. However, a side-effect of this staging choice was that the movement mostly came across as quite literal and illustrative, rather than exploiting the productive gaps or intervals when the same story is translated from one medium to another.
Finally, choreographer Paras Terezakis chose to work with Nancy Lee's short story collection Dead Girls. Drawing from different images and phrases in the book (as well as the book itself as object), Terezakis conjures a physical environment that consciously explores the interplay between and mutability of representational and non-representational forms. To this end, the hundreds of styrofoam cups scattered across the stage floor at the start of the piece (and upon which dancer Michelle Lui lies prone) evoke the chalk outline of a dead body on the street; but they will also eventually be stacked into various towers that suggest a scale architectural model of an urban landscape. Similarly, the dancers (Lui, joined by Thoenn Glover and Arash Khakpour) partner in ways that speak to different entanglements based on obligation or indebtedness or violence or love. However, Terezakis' juxtapositions between bold externally-directed physicality and small and tender moments of stilled self-care (captured for us via video) are equally evocative of how the embodied language of dance can capture the tone and emotional textures of a literary work in non-expository way.