Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Outliner at DOTE

One of two indoor Dancing on the Edge shows not taking place at the Firehall this year is MascallDance's The Outliner, a compilation of pieces that choreographer Jennifer Mascall has made over the years in dialogue with different material objects, and that the company is presenting at its home base, The Labyrinth studios in St. Paul's Anglican Church on Jervis Street in the West End. An expertly curated and imaginatively staged evening of five short dances that brilliantly showcases the talents of a diverse array of dancers and designers, and featuring music by Stefan Smulovitz and lighting by John McFarlane (both colleagues in Contemporary Arts at SFU), The Outliner quite literally takes audiences on a ride they won't soon forget.

For one of the conceits of the show is that audience members sit on wooden pews that have been placed atop moveable platforms. As one piece transitions into the next we are wheeled about The Labyrinth's white Marleyed floor by an army of stagehands standing at the ready behind us; they move us into different geometrical and spatial configurations as the dictates of each work's choreography--and the shape and dimension of each set of objects--demand. But in so doing Mascall and her creative team have also cannily choreographed a sixth piece, the audience's quixotically sedentary movement with the pews constituting yet another dance between humans and objects.

At the top of the show the pews are facing each other in two diagonal rows. Between them the great Robin Poitras, her arms and waist and legs entwined in a series of circular wooden rings designed by Nathan Wiens, moves with delicacy and grace, advancing the length of the diagonal in the first part of We Are an Unfinished World, the only piece on the program receiving its premiere. Poitras and her rings will return three more times over the course of the evening: first as a magically moving conical triangle that completely obscures Poitras's body hiding underneath; then as an inverted bowl, with the top of Poitras's head just visible; and finally back to the deconstructed rings encircling different limbs.

Profilo Eterno, from 2011, features Elissa Hanson as a grounded skydiver, or a space traveler from another planet trying to make it back home. Racing onto the stage wearing a black vest from which I was half expecting a parachute to emerge, Hanson dons a helmet adorned with three plumes of bendy white plastic. Over the course of the piece, which features text by Susan McKenzie, Hanson will afix additional strips of plastic to her body via the vest she wears, metamorphosing into a multi-antennaed insect or satellite dish depending on one's perspective (the design is by Elliot Neck, after a concept by Catherine Hahn). Either way, there is no denying the force of the signals Hanson is both receiving and sending out.

Kaspar is the earliest work on the program. It dates from 1984 and in this iteration features Ballet BC's wonderful Gilbert Small wielding two sets of branches like truncheons against an invisible enemy. It begins with Small on demi point, one leg behind the other, his back arched, but with the weight of his upper body shifted forward and his arms in front of him clutching the stems of the branches, the tops of which graze the floor. Slowly he begins to undulate his torso, rounding and arching his back as he begins a slow forward walk, his head every now and then shifting suddenly from side to side, alert to potential threats. It was quite thrilling to see Small up close like this, especially when he steps up the tempo and begins flying through the air like he's Solor in La Bayadère, the branches slicing through the air like so many blades cutting into enemy flesh (though I am aware, as is often the case with the roles in which Small is cast, how this image reinforces tropes of the exotic other).

Next up was The Politics of Meaning (2010), a witty duet featuring the young dancers Ewoynn Penny-Hugeot and Amy Donnelly about the mechanics of writing (Alan Storey is the design engineer on this one) that also doubles as an allegory about dance notation and physical versus linguistic scores. Finally, the evening concludes with Graft, a 1991 solo featuring an arachnid-like fan of plastic poles designed by Ines Ortner (from a concept by Susan Berganzi), and here expertly manipulated by the gorgeous dancer Renee Sigouin.

All of this unfolded in just under an hour, and I could have easily sat through a half dozen more such vignettes. The Outliner is truly exceptional in its conceptual rigour and technical execution, a multi-disciplinary study in the myriad ways we dance with things.


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