Saturday, September 10, 2016

Simile at The Dance Centre

Today is The Dance's Centre's annual fall open house, which officially marks the launch of its 2016-17 season. Last night Richard and I, along with other donors and invited guests, got a sneak peek of tonight's mainstage show, Simile. A collaboration between Ziyian Kwan, of dumb instrument Dance, and Vanessa Goodman, of Action at a Distance, the evening is made up of two solos and a duet.

Kwan leads things off with a reprise of "Still Rhyming," which she premiered at VIDF this past spring, and which pairs her with local musician Jo Hirabayashi, who plays electric guitar and sings. An homage to Patti Smith, and especially her writing in M Train, the piece asks, among other things, what it means to embody creative influence. How, for example, do you dance a book's possession of your soul? In Kwan's case, this leads to a provocative opening duet with the book as choreographic object. Lying prone on the floor with a hard-cover book covering her face as Hirabayashi picks out a riff on his guitar in the upstage right corner, Kwan slowly arises from her slumber, her eyes peeking out over the edge of the book. The book begins to slide down Kwan's torso, but she is careful not to let it fall to the ground. Indeed, in the movement that follows Kwan is at pains to keep the book in as close proximity to her body as possible: she passes it through her legs like a basketball; she clutches it under her chin; and, most extraordinarily, she grips the spine between her teeth, jumping up and down so that the white pages fan open and close, open and close, like a huge gaping mouth waiting to suck us into its world of mystery and pleasure. This first part of the piece was most captivating. I was less sure about what to make of Kwan's subsequent dialogue with a chair, which via its draping with a black leather jacket and bits of Kwan's conversation we are meant to surmise stands in for the absent presence of Smith. It's always tricky addressing an invisible interlocutor on stage, much less dancing with them--though embedded in Kwan's goofy mistake about how to spell her own name there does seem to be an interesting comment about whose signature ultimately belongs on the work, one that is also extended to the audience.

Goodman followed with a solo called "Floating Upstream," a work that once again showcased how beautifully and intuitively she moves to the original electronic soundscapes created by frequent collaborator Locsil. The piece begins with Goodman in a crouch centre stage, her back towards the audience. Clutching each of the long billowy white pant legs of the costume she is wearing up around her thighs, she slowly bounce-shuffles up stage, like she is wading through a heavy current or a soupy swamp. Following Goodman's program note, we can read the white pants as a nimbus of clouds through which she has thrust her body, keen to explore a different view and set of spatial orientations. At the same time, I couldn't also help seeing the hitched up pants as Victorian-era bloomers, symbol of gendered bodily constraint that in Goodman's efforts, having reached the upstage wall and turned to face the audience, not to let her cuffs fall means she literally has to keep her knees together. Either way, the initial isolation of Goodman's upper body means that we are able to marvel at the simultaneous flow and precision of her movement, her arms undulating in waves through the layered wash of Locsil's score only to jab suddenly at the air in response to successive musical pulses. Later, having freed up her legs and let loose her pantaloons, Goodman is also able to transition seamlessly from a rubbery Gagaesque style of inside-out lines and limbs into a version of a robot dance that, when placed in the context of past solo work (I'm thinking especially of Container), suggests a recurring theme of moving within, as well as busting out, of prescribed convention. Whether or not this is intentional, it's utterly compelling to watch.

After a short intermission, the evening concluded with a duet between Kwan and Goodman called In Vertebrate Dream. A rumination on the differences--as well as the productive synergies--of each artist's creative process, the work sees the dancemakers tapping into their inner animals by donning polar bear (Kwan) and zebra (Goodman) masks respectively. It is truly uncanny how the donning of a mask changes one's approach to a body on stage. Initially when presented with the tableau of Goodman standing upstage right and Kwan sitting downstage left I couldn't tell who was who (though, in retrospect, Kwan's furry high heels should have perhaps been a clue). Eventually, the dancers' different movement vocabularies register as identifying markers. However, I found myself most interested in the moments of stillness on stage and how traditional theatrical (and anthropocentric) perspectivalism can be upended through a simple act of turning a mask around on one's head. Here embodied inter-species encounter and contact (as when Goodman's zebra cradles Kwan's polar bear head in her hands) is very much about new ways of looking at creative exchange and sustainability--in artmaking and worldmaking. By contrast, when the human speaks through the animal and the latter is used as a metaphorical resource then there is a danger of reinforcing certain entrenched ways of thinking about animacy and our relationship to the material world. Not that I didn't enjoy those moments of silliness when Kwan's polar bear starts to sing an Edith Piaf song, or when Goodman's zebra narrates all the endings to the piece that the duo couldn't agree upon. I just think they need some editing--and perhaps also a bit more careful theorizing.


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