Saturday, October 21, 2017

Animal Triste at The Dance Centre

Animal Triste is Montreal-based choreographer Mélanie Demers' take on the evolution of that most melancholic of species, the human. Co-presented by Demers' company, Mayday, and Vancouver's plastic orchid factory, the piece continues at The Dance Centre through this evening and opens with a striking image. Demers' four dancers--Brianna Lombardo, Marc Boivin, plastic orchid's James Gnam, and Riley Sims--are positioned as naked odalisques among the snake-like yellow cords attached to the floor lights that rim the stage. Slowly and methodically as audience members file into the auditorium and take their seats, the dancers wrap long strands of pearls around their necks, pulling them tight so that the resulting chocker looks something like a cross between an Elizabethan ruff and African or Asian neck-stretching jewelry. After this task is complete the dancers begin putting on their clothes, reversing the usual trajectory of the revelation of flesh in contemporary dance, but also telescoping through this simple montage of collective dressing the historical domestication of the human animal.

Once dressed, the quartet of dancers gathers in a horizontal line upstage right, stretching and jumping in place, a series of preparatory calisthenics preceding the subsequent physical striving that seems to constitute each member's attempt to define his or her relationship to the others, and to the group as a whole. This mostly take the form of individual bodies twisting in place, with the dancers' bent torsos, splayed knees and crooked arms adding up to a strange family tableau. Albeit one in which the human invention of binary genders is for the most part played with and resisted. In this respect, while one is tempted to read Boivin and Lombardo as the parental figures in this quirky brood, Boivin, despite his imposing size, remains a rather passive paterfamilias (at least to begin with). By contrast, the compact and muscular Lombardo's physicality seems far more intense and explosive, with her body shooting forward from the line at various moments, the restiveness of her limbs seeking to be freed from the torpidity of her male confrères' movement. Gnam is deliberately channeling an androgynous presence, both in the long tunic he wears and in his sinewy and languorous locomotion across the stage. And Sims seems to be pure id, the child whose impulses derive from pure instinct and polymorphous desires.

Certainly in the program notes (accessible through plastic orchid's website) Demers makes no secret that her dancers function as allegorical figures, and many of the sequences in the piece have a distinctly ritualistic feel, especially when one pair's tribal-like movements are purposely framed by the bodies of a second pair, often arranged in a still Sphinx-like pose. But there comes a moment when the mythical and the untamed aspects of all of this energy seems to be brought under the thumb (or, more precisely, hand) of patriarchy. This happens when Sims sheds his t-shirt and Boivin, hitherto shirtless, dons his own. All of sudden Boivin starts to corral the various members of his wayward family, bringing them in close to his now powerful and centrally positioned body. To be sure, they chafe against this, with Sims in particular twisting and fighting to be let free. However, Demers seems to be suggesting with this final image that what makes the human animal most sad is not its poverty of means for real communication despite its acquisition of language (as demonstrated in an earlier sequence in which the dancers spout tired maxims and various pop memes gleaned from song lyrics and other empty cliches), but the (hetero)normative organization of its kinship relations.

P

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Guys and Dolls at the Stratford Festival

I'm in Burlington visiting my family for a few days and yesterday we all piled into the car to take in a matinee at the Stratford Festival, which is just winding up its 2017/18 season. The timing of my visit--combined with what seems like the steady yearly attrition of the festival's Shakespearean mandate--meant that it was Guys and Dolls which was in repertory that day at the main Festival theatre stage. Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, who has established herself in recent years as Stratford's musical theatre hitmaker, the production had also received glowing reviews. So I was anticipating a pretty good time. Apart from the dancing of the male chorus, however, I was mostly bored.

With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (based on stories by Damon Runyon), Guys and Dolls has famously been dubbed "the perfect musical" and despite its antiquated gender politics is regularly revived. The movie adaptation starred an incongruously cast Marlon Brando as the high rolling gambler Sky Masterson, and Frank Sinatra turned the song "Luck Be a Lady" into a signature tune. The plot focuses on two apparently mismatched couples: Nathan Detroit (Sean Arbuckle) is a dice man who runs a weekly craps game in and around Times Square, and who has been engaged to his long-suffering fiancee, the nightclub performer Miss Adelaide (a winningly cartoonish Blythe Wilson), for fourteen years; Masterson (Evan Buliung) has never met a bet he wouldn't take, including as concerns our plot the challenge of convincing the straightlaced Salvation Army officer Sarah Brown (Alexis Gordon), who is not having much luck of her own saving souls among the denizens of Broadway, of flying with him to Havana to have dinner.

In between the two sets of lovers inevitably coming together--as, of course, they must--we get to hear a lot of great tunes, including "A Bushel and a Peck," "Adelaide's Lament," "If I Were a Bell," the aforementioned "Luck Be a Lady," and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," a gospel-tinged roof raiser which is delivered by the secondary character Nicely-Nicely Johnson (a scene-stealing Steve Ross) at a climactic Salvation Army prayer meeting attended by the grab-bag of gamblers from Nathan's craps game as a favour to Sky--who has promised to deliver to Sarah a roomful of sinners in order to impress her superior. These last two numbers feature spectacular choreography by Feore for the male ensemble, who far outshine their female counterparts in the hoofing department. By contrast, in terms of the acting and singing of the leads, it is the women who trump the men. In its depiction of the relationship between the sexes, one might say that Guys and Dolls is the Taming of the Shrew of Broadway musicals. And so much hinges on the penultimate number, "Marry the Man Today," in which Sarah and Adelaide decide together to take a risk on their hapless men, under the assumption that they'll be able to bend them to their respective wills after a ring is placed on each of their fingers. Happily, Feore has Gordon and Wilson telegraph proto-feminist resolve rather than wifely submission.

Elsewhere, however, some of the director's decisions are head-scratching. Why, for example, during the Hot Box number "Take Back Your Mink" would you send out Adelaide and her accompanying chorus girls wearing rhinestone necklaces rather than pearls (as indicated in the lyrics)? Much of the blocking between songs in this book-heavy production also seemed counter-intuitive. More generally the pacing felt sluggish, with the energy from the choreography accompanying the bigger numbers failing to be sustained in the dialogue between the actors.

Not that any of this seemed to bother yesterday's audience, which was instantly on its feet at the end. That included the class of high school students sitting behind us, Guys and Dolls being a staple of high school musical theatre repertoires. My drama teaching sister-in-law Arelene has seen many such versions of the musical, and also directed one of her own. She, like me, was not impressed with this one.

P

Thursday, October 5, 2017

1 Hour Photo at The Cultch

Tetsuro Shigematsu's 1 Hour Photo, which opened last night at The Cultch's Historic Theatre, is his follow-up to the wildly successful Empire of the Son. Like Empire, 1 Hour Photo is once again being produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT), and Richard Wolfe returns as director. The two shows also follow a similar format, with Shigematsu, as writer-performer, recounting his story directly to the audience and using miniature digital cameras and live video feeds to animate various on-stage objects to startling effect, including in this newest work a miniature dioramic model of the North Vancouver house where Shigematsu lives with his family.

The replica house is a significant symbol, and in many ways represents the bridge between these two works. Thus, near the top of 1 Hour Photo, we learn that Shigematsu moved into it with his wife, children and parents at the insistence of its owner, VACT's Artistic Producer, Donna Yamamoto. It was here that Shigematsu cared for his dying father (who was the subject of Empire), and also where he discovered, in the form of an old Japan Camera coffee mug, the first clue to the life story of Yamamoto's father, who is the focus of this piece.

Mas Yamamoto, 91 years old and still going strong, owned a string of Japan Camera outlets, which were among the first photo development franchises that began offering one-hour return service in the early 1980s--hence the title of the show. But before he became a successful businessman, Mas lived several other lives, which coincided with some of the signal events in twentieth-century British Columbian and Canadian history. Distilling 36 hours of interviews with Mas into an 18-minute first-person narrative that he then pressed into a vinyl recording, Shigematsu, aided by composer and onstage musical sidekick, Steve Charles, proceeds to spin his tale, giving us an excerpt of Mas's voice, and then elaborating on the larger social and political context. We learn, for example, that Mas was interned with his family during World War II at Lemon Creek, and that it was there that he met his first love, Midge. With only a Grade 9 education at the end of the war, Mas went to work to support his family, losing touch with Midge, and eventually working on the Distant Early Warning Line in the Canadian Arctic during the height of the Cold War. It was during this period that he met Joan, whom he would marry. Their growing family, and the need to supplement his meagre blue collar wages, prompted Mas to return to school, completing his high school equivalency, and a BSc, MSc and PhD in Pharmacology at UBC in less than a decade. And then, chucking his comfortable job as a government scientist, at the age of 50 Mas decided to become a photo shop entrepreneur. The story comes full circle when, later in life, Mas reencounters Midge, who will join Mas and his family in the gallery at the BC Legislature to witness Mas's daughter and Liberal Minister of Advanced Education, Naomi Yamomoto, deliver a speech endorsing a motion of apology to Japanese Canadians on the 70th anniversary of their interment.

All of this is supplemented by amazing archival photographs and film footage (the video design is by Jamie Nesbitt), and Shigematsu creates some wonderful effects with his live camera feed, as when a single miniature bunkbed placed within a mirrored box becomes multiplied into row upon row when projected on the backstage screen. Paradoxically, however, the visual design of the show points to the underdevelopment of the photographic metaphor in Shigematsu's script. Apart from one arresting description of multiple exposure as a way to think of the collapsing of time into a single stilled moment, I was struck by how Shigematsu's narrative portrait mostly eschewed such analogies. Indeed, it is the recording of Mas's voice that instead tends to dominate, and that via the repeated ritual of Shigematsu or Charles dropping the turntable needle into a given groove on the spinning record accords that voice a necessarily auratic quality (Shigematsu's likening of this audio document to the recordings that were sent into space on the Voyager satellites only deepens this feeling). As a result, Shigematsu's own voice at times registered to me as more adjunct than central to the story, mostly serving to amplify or illustrate the gist of what Mas had to say. Most telling, in this regard, is that the references to Shigematsu's own father felt extraneous to this piece, almost as if they had been imported to tie Empire of the Son and I Hour Photo more tightly together.

I don't think such dramaturgical stitching is needed. The two works already complement each other in myriad other ways.

P

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Nederlands Dans Theater's Side A in Amsterdam

On our final day on the second leg of our journey to Amsterdam, I got to check something off my dance spectatorship bucket list when Richard and I attended a performance of the Nederlands Dans Theater's Company 1 at the ornate Stadsschouwburg in the Leidseplein neighbourhood. (Although the interior of the building has clearly had a major re-do recently, as the stunningly intimate presentation hall where we were looks brand new, and has a wonderfully deep stage and steep audience rake, which makes for near perfect viewing.) Overseen by the legendary Jiri Kylian for the past 25 years or so, but now it seems with longtime NDT house choreographer Paul Lightfoot installed as the current AD, NDT is renowned for the strength and virtuosity of its dancers, as well as for its commissioning of new work from top flight international choreographers (Vancouver's own Crystal Pite is an associate choreographer).

Indeed, the program we saw, Side A: Split into One, was comprised of three world premieres, all of them having a distinctive scenographic design element, and with the first two likewise structured around the musical oeuvre of contemporary pop composers. First up was Proof, by former NDT dancer Edward Clug. Kylian has a remarkable track record of seeding new choreographers from within NDT's own dance ranks, often by first providing opportunities to create work on NDT's Company 2. So it was with Clug, whose 2015 debut for NDT 2, mutual comfort, was very well received. In Proof, set to the music of Radiohead, we encounter seven dancers who move in and out of different duos and trios, sometimes with stunningly solicitous intimacy, and sometimes with bold aggression. Distinctive in each modality is the dancers' arm work, sometimes loose and looping, reminding me a bit of vogueing, and sometimes fast and choppy, as in karate. Clug is also not afraid of stillness, keeping several of his dancers frozen on stage as others move around them. The piece ends with a captivating bit of scenography, when a zeppelin-like installation descends from the ceiling, into which one of the dancers steps, and behind which another quartet, divided into pairs and attached at the waist, make ghostly silhouettes--all while another dancer impresses his head into one end of the plastic balloon. It was a wondrously powerful end to a terrific new piece.

The second piece on the program was a new work, SOON, by Mehdi Walerski, also a graduate from the NDT dance corps. Walerski  should be familiar to Ballet BC audiences who have seen his Petite Ceremonie, and who are no doubt eager for his take on Romeo and Juliet when it premieres at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next spring. For now, however, there is this beguiling new quartet, inspired by the music of Benjamin Clementine, a young British singer-songwriter who has been hailed as reinventing the art song, and whose albums I am going to be sure to download when I get back to Vancouver. As the curtain comes up, we see a male and female couple, clad in matching blue suits, standing in a circle of bright white light. The light is emitted by a lowered klieg light that is attached to a rotating contraption, at the other end of which is a large reflective disc. This device rotates continuously throughout the performance, at times blocking the dancers, but at other times becoming part of the choreography, as when the reflecting disc passes through the stilled and facing bodies of two of the dancers. The first couple is eventually joined by another, and in the tightly geometrical movement that Walerski composes for the quartet in the very centre of the white floor spot he seems to be drawing upon and reinventing aspects of the quadrille. At other moments, the dancers break off into pairs and also solo sequences, with one of the male dancers successively ghosting each of his fellow group members in a final bit of unison at the end of the piece, the space between the bodies, as with the switch to negative lighting that recurs throughout the piece, here suggesting the aspect of longing over time that is necessarily a part of any kind of belonging.

The evening concluded with Sisters, by NDT house choreographers Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon (they are also a couple). A work for six dancers, three men and three women, it aspires to be a surreal fantasy, complete with a splayed out roll of black plastic that dominates the set. Perhaps it's meant to evoke the inky depths of the unconscious, or the dark world of fairy tails. Whatever the case, I found most of the choices in this piece to be choreographic caprices, not least the decision to send out one of the women dancers with her right arm pinned to her chest inside her lyotard. Clearly there were no disability rights advocates in the house, as the audience gave the piece a standing ovation. Mostly I found the piece to be egregiously pretentious, and rife with imagistic cliches, as with the closing tableau, in which the three women, now clad in matching black cloaks, swaying their bodies in front of the men, bewitching them with their sorceresses' powers.

P

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Mosquitoes at the National

One of the plays that was on my radar to see during this trip to London was Mosquitoes, which is on at the National's intimate Dorfman Theatre (formerly the Cottesloe) until the end of this month. The playwright, Lucy Kirkwood, is one of the buzziest in the UK, having attracted a great deal of attention (and a lot of awards) for Chimerica a few years ago. Then there was the fact that it would be starring the two Olivias: Williams and Colman, that is, with the latter having long been a favourite from TV programs like Broadchurch and The Night Manager. But of course when I tried to book tickets from Vancouver all performances were sold out. However, when I randomly checked the National's website on Monday, miraculously there were tickets available to the Tuesday matinee.

The performances lived up to, and in places surpassed, my expectations. The play, however, is a bit too ambitious for its own good, suffering from an excess of plot lines and ideas. The main drama concerns the tense relationship between sisters Alice (Olivia Williams), who is a top flight particle physicist working on the Higgs boson as part of the Large Hadron Collider lab at the CERN facility in Geneva, and Jenny (Olivia Colman), a telephone insurance salesperson living in Luton who spends a lot of her time on the Internet. Following the sudden death of Jenny's young daughter (which is partly connected to her incessant Googling), she and the sisters' aging mother, Karen (Amanda Boxer), herself a retired scientist, descend on Alice in Geneva just as she and her team at CERN are about to launch the next phase of their research, and also while she's dealing with her temperamental teenage son, Luke (Joseph Quinn), who holds his mother responsible for the flight several years earlier of his father. Jenny's grief-laden self-destruction, combined with the family's long history of dysfunction and mutual recrimination (which mostly centres around the gap between Alice's intelligence and Jenny's apparent stupidity), sets off a chain reaction of cause and effect relations that culminate in Luke's disappearance.

The problem is that all of this is hung only very loosely--and wholly metaphorically--on the idea of particle physics and the chaotic make up of universal matter, whose lessons are rather high-handedly delivered to us by a lab coated character called the Boson (Paul Hilton), and which must additionally serve as a representational allegory for the perils of social media, the plight of women in patriarchal society, and the weight of family inheritance. Then, too, I found that the emotional core of the play was not entirely credible: that Alice and her mother could be so consistently cruel to Jenny in putting down her intelligence when, clearly, she is the only character who can intuit what is wrong with Luke starts to grate after a while. Obviously we are meant to understand that Alice is blindly obtuse in matters of the heart. But why this at once mutually sustaining and parasitic relationship between the two sisters needs all of the added carapace that Kirkwood has built around it, is beyond me.

And it is in part these structural weaknesses in the play, I think, that explains its overproduced staging, with all kinds of fancy multimedia effects and physical tricks used by director Rufus Norris to embellish the science that we are also told very bluntly at one point we are too stupid to understand. Maybe that's true. However, one thing I do know is that but for the brilliance of her cast, Kirkwood's play would likely not connect with audiences at all.

P

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Loot at the Park Theatre

When Joe Orton's second major play, Loot, premiered 50 years ago, it ran afoul of the Lord Chamberlain's office on two fronts. First, London's theatrical censor insisted that Orton's more overt references to the sexual relationship between best mates and hapless thieves Hal and Dennis be removed, or else coded in layers of subtext. Second, the playwright's stipulation in the script that the corpse at the centre of the plot's farcical antics be played by a real actor was vetoed. A dummy had to be substituted.

Both of these cuts have been restored in a 50th anniversary production of the play that is currently running at the Park Theatre in the Finsbury Park neighbourhood of North London. Assuredly directed by Michael Fentiman, this staging is the first to be based on Orton's original, uncensored script, recently rediscovered, and given the go-ahead by Orton's sister and his estate. Orton's scabrous wit and savage satirizing of social mores remain as fresh and breathtakingly funny as ever--notwithstanding the odd racist and misogynistic joke that might offend the politically correct. Luckily for us, Orton is so far from being a PC playwright as to make comedic offense into a blunt force weapon. Not for him the smooth sliding in of the skewering dagger alongside indulgently mocking Wildean aphorisms; Orton serves up his comic barbs the way the Greeks did--lewd and in yer face. I realize I'm mixing a lot of different theatrical references in that last sentence, but as Fentiman writes in his program note, Orton's dramatic knowledge and reading were prodigious, as is his own influence on a subsequent generation of taboo-smashing British playwrights.

For Orton, whose entire writerly project might be summed up as an epic battle to demolish the binary between the sacred and the profane (this was someone who went to prison, remember, for defacing library books), taboos are made to be smashed. And in Loot we see them come down in spades. Defiling a corpse: check. Hiding stolen money in a coffin: check. Lampooning Catholic piety and blind faith in the absolving power of confession: check. Openly celebrating buggery and getting away with murder: check and check.

But what elevates Orton beyond being a playwright who merely wishes to shock (in addition, that is, to his truly astonishing command of language) is that his satire is expressly political. Indeed, the biggest taboo to be smashed in Loot has to do with our liberal democratic belief in--and willful adherence to--the benignly just execution of the law. Thus, the most menacing character in the play is not the murdering Black Widow of a nurse, Fay (an excellent Sinead Matthews), nor the larcenous lovers Hal and Dennis (Sam Frenchum and Calvin Demba, both also terrific), but the incognito detective, Truscott (Christopher Fulford, in a toweringly funny performance). Entering the McLeavy residence under the guise of a city water inspector in order to avoid the inconvenience of needing a search warrant, by the end of the play he ends up colluding with the criminals, taking a cut of their "loot," and sending an innocent man, the grieving Mr. McLeavy (Ian Redford, moving from befuddlement to outrage and back again with great aplomb), to jail. That this also enables the closing tableau of this production of the play, in which Hal and Dennis kiss passionately, while simultaneously each rubbing a breast of the imperiously self-satisfied surrogate mummy figure Fay, still clutching her rosary, is a fittingly queer victory for a playwright whose own untimely death coincided with the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain.

This production, then, is a double anniversary, and on both the level of hilarious physical comedy (major kudos on that front to Anah Ruddin as the put-upon corpse) and savage political commentary, it lives up to the weight of expectations. Added bonus at the performance we attended: the legendary Tom Stoppard was in the audience. He was laughing uproariously. If that's not an imprimatur, I don't know what is.

P

Friday, September 22, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 38

If you're at the Dance Centre in the coming weeks, you'll be able to catch sight of the installation that Natalie Purschwitz has conceived for our Dance Histories project taking shape. On Wednesday, with the help of DC technician Daniel O'Shea, we rigged the main supporting platform into place. This was no easy task, as the installation is essentially a very complicated Calderesque mobile that will hang from the ceiling above the stairwell leading down to the main Faris Studio. And because Natalie will need to be able to raise and lower the platform while she is working on the installation, this involved figuring out a very complicated system of rope pulleys. And finding a three-quarter inch drill bit--which proved the most difficult task of all.

Nevertheless, success was eventually achieved, and now the main task is threading the hundreds and hundreds of names that Natalie has attached to different playing cards through the holes that I punctured through the platform. Having spent seven hours yesterday and Wednesday doing so, I can attest to how finicky and time-consuming this work is. Add to this the very real risk of the different bits of dangling threads getting hopelessly tangled as the platform is raised and lowered and just generally moved around, and you can understand how stressful all of this can quickly become. And it doesn't help that we're doing all of this in a tiny corner of the Faris lobby near the bar, and having to work around matinee and evening performances.

Natalie has worked out a very complicated system for how all the different playing cards fit together, which perfectly captures our goal of illustrating how all of these histories overlap and intersect--and which will be represented in the finished installation by the bits of orange coloured thread that horizontally connect the dangling vertical cards. But in an Excel spreadsheet, as a list of names and a numbered count of times mentioned, such a system is one thing. Three-dimensionally it's quite another, and Natalie said that if it sounded like she was talking to us like children in explaining things we shouldn't take offence; she was simply figuring things out herself in the process of articulating them.

I feel bad abandoning Natalie and the rest of the crew just as the work is getting started (Richard and I are off to London and Amsterdam for 10 days); but I'm sure there will still be stuff to do when I get back. And, in truth, it's probably good to have me and my clumsy fingers out of the way during the main and hardest phase of work.

As Justine said yesterday, that work will take as long as is needed to complete. And when it's done, the piece is going to look amazing.

P

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Embryotrophic Cavatina (Part 2) at the Roundhouse

So I guess if you're choreographing a dance to a piece of requiem music that introduces a saxophone in its second half, then that licenses you to shift the movement score pretty radically as well. Back in August I blogged about Kokoro Dance's free showing of the first part of Embryotrophic Cavatina, which was originally created in 1989 and 1990 and set to the opening half of Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem for My Friend. Last night at the Roundhouse the company unveiled the new second half to the piece, and it definitely wasn't what I was expecting--which is a good thing.

A shift in tone is first of all effected by the fact that following an exit of the performers (Kokoro co-founders Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, accompanied by regular dancers Molly McDermott and Billy Marchenski) from the stage and a brief pause, they return wearing long and vibrantly hued shifts designed by Tsuneko Kokubo. The designer's large format paintings of edible and medicinal plants were also projected throughout this final section. While the program note indicates that Kokubo considers these images to be metaphors for "the migration of peoples," when combined with the impetus for the music (Preisner's mourning of the death of his friend, Krzysztof Kieslowski), we might also see them as gesturing toward the migration of souls, each of whose journeys in the afterlife is made singularly and alone.

This in turn perhaps explains the shift in movement. Whereas the first half of the piece was pretty tightly structured around a central quadrant of mostly unison sequences, in the second half the performers appear to be improvising their own individual scores. Eventually, however, we detect that a through-line of shared gestures and movement patterns (many of which I recognized from Barbara's recent morning dance classes at KW Studios) has been distributed throughout the bodies on stage, like an extended or staggered canon, each of the dancers completing the same combinations of spins and thrown arms and collapsed walks, just in radically different sequencings. Well, all of the dancers except Jay, who during this second half mostly stays upstage, repeating echoes of the movement from part one. Near the end, however, he joins the group as the apparent chaos of mass solo improvisation gels into a slow and simple cycling through of a gesture base associated with the senses, the sticking out of the tongue, the cupping of an ear, and the tracing of a hand up an arm continuing to attest to the vital materiality of the body even as the dancers slowly exit the stage.

P

Monday, September 18, 2017

Fringe 2017: Fifty Shades of Dave

My second Fringe show yesterday was Fifty Shades of Dave. Full disclosure: this one I went to because I know the writers and performers. Co-writer and performer Nico Dicecco was my former PhD student, and co-writer Kyle Carpenter is currently finishing his PhD in the English Department at SFU. With this work they both reveal additional hidden talents I didn't know either had.

Fifty Shades of Dave, punning on the E.L. James novel, is an erotic parody of Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe stories, with husband and wife protagonists Dave and Morley accidentally discovering a penchant for BDSM. Dicecco, doing what I gather is a spot-on impression of McLean's voice, spins three such tales in a hilariously homespun manner, the very dailiness of the details (Dave heading off to the hardware store to buy rope to tie up Morley) parcelled out in the set-up to each increasingly hot and heavy story climax making the narrative payoff that much more satisfying. While I confess to never having listened to The Vinyl Cafe, I do understand good writing, and this show has it in spades. To wit: after seeing this show, your understanding of the meaning of eating ice cream will forever be changed.

Nico, as McLean, is also a natural performer. And while I'd very much like for some academic institution to give him a job, I was delighted to discover that another possible career also awaits him. I look forward to hearing more from this duo.

P.

Fringe 2017: Lovely Lady Lump

Once again my plans to see a whack of Vancouver International Fringe Festival shows were thwarted this year, my whole experience reduced to two shows on yesterday's final day. First up was Lovely Lady Lump, by Australia's Lana Schwarcz. The show fits the standard Fringe template of one-hour solo comedy, which if I'm honest is partly why I see fewer and fewer Fringe shows each year. The line between theatre and stand-up comedy is increasingly thin, and while the subject matter may change from show to show, I find the homogeneity of form to verge on stupefying my spectating sensibilities. Of course, I'm generalizing--lots of dramas and multi-character and longer form works do exist at the Fringe. And there are all sorts of reasons why the one-hour one-hander tends to proliferate--cheapness being one of them. But I do think fringe festivals are facing something of a crisis of identity when it comes to fostering meaningful new theatre voices.

Schwarcz makes her living as a stand-up comic, so there's no getting around this set up for Lovely Lady Lump. Except in this case the subject matter is novel: Schwarcz's breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and survival. That Schwarcz's breasts (she still has both of them) are the stars of the show is an understatement. She reveals them to us at the top of the show, as part of an explanatory vignette involving a visit for radiation treatment, and we see them again and again during subsequent visits. There is nothing titillating here; indeed, one of Schwarcz's concerns is to demonstrate that the very routine of cancer treatment is one of its most brutalizing effects. But mostly the mood is light and Schwarcz is, it has to be said, very very funny. She's also an amazing puppeteer, and she combines both skills memorably during a sequence involving a nightmare reference to The Shining, and also in a bit about her hormone blocking therapy in which a shadow puppet valley girl incarnation of estrogen becomes a pile of shit.

P

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 37

All this week and next Justine and Alexa and I have bracketed off morning studio time to start pulling together the various threads of our Dance Histories project in advance of their unveiling at Dance in Vancouver this November. Actually, the first of those quite literal threads will be visible to Dance Centre patrons later this month--maybe even as early as the end of next week. That would be Natalie Purschwitz's rhizomatic installation based on the interconnected web of names and places we have collected via our interviews with local dance artists. She has a fantastic design concept for how to represent all of the overlapping layers of influence and attachment and bodily and spatial sedimentation--which I won't spoil here. Let's just hope it can be sustained by the actual material supports of the Dance Centre building...

The last piece of data collection necessary for Natalie's work was completed this morning when Justine and I finally interviewed Alexa about her own dance history. Afterwards Alexa said that she now understood why so many of our interview subjects likened the experience to a kind of therapy. Perhaps because this particular interview came at the end of our process, but more likely because Alexa is such a smart and reflective person, for me Alexa's narrative was at once singularly her own and also so consciously and respectfully connected to so many of our previous conversations: not least concerning the idea of developing an ethic care--with respect to our bodies, our collaborators, and our community.

Among other things, I learned that Alexa dates her Vancouver dance history from 2010. That's when she returned to the city from London, where she'd been trying--and in her words failing--to be a commercial dancer. While shooting a television commercial for the SyFy channel choreographed by Kelly Konno, and that featured Josh Beamish, Alexa learned about Modus Operandi. She promptly went to an Out Innerspace show, saw Elissa Hanson do something amazing, and said she wanted in. She did two and a half years of the program, before gravitating toward a cohort of dance artists affiliated with SFU, including Daisy Thompson, Katie DeVries, Emmalena Fredriksson, Erica Mitsuhashi and, eventually, my colleague Rob Kitsos.

In addition to dancing for and with Deanna Peters, Amber Funk Barton, and Vanessa Goodman (whose upcoming Wells Hill will premiere at the end of November, overlapping with Dance in Vancouver, and thus keeping Alexa extremely busy between now and then), Alexa is also an amazing dance writer and critic. Collaborations with Lee Su-Feh on the Migrant Bodies Project and Brynn McNab on An Exact Vertigo at UNIT/PITT Projects are just two instances in which Alexa has demonstrated her amazing choreographic facility with words. At one point in her interview, Alexa talked about an inspirational moment in a workshop in Toronto with Ame Henderson, in which she reported saying "I'm a writer and a dancer and I'm trying to figure out if both of those things are part of my practice." Mercifully for all of us--and especially for Justine and I on this project--Ame's definitive response was "Of course they are!"

In fact just today Alexa was instrumental in contributing to the short blurb that she and Justine and I crafted for what it is we think we're doing at Dance in Vancouver. We've given the various distributed component parts a three-part title: Our Present Dance Histories, or, Dance Histories Project, or, Vancouver Dance: an incomplete history of the present - Part 1. Because, of course, we didn't get to interview everyone we'd ambitiously planned to (on the way out of the Dance Centre today, I bumped into Joe Laughlin, who is somewhat egregiously missing from the hours and hours of our compiled video footage); because history is never finished and always moving; and because, after two years, we're only just getting started.

That said, here's a roughly chronological list of the 51 Vancouver dance artists we've interviewed (sometimes all together, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes individually) as part of this first phase of research:

Rob Kitsos
Vanessa Goodman
Ali Denham
Delia Brett
Daelik
Lee Su-Feh
James Gnam
Deanna Peters
Ziyian Kwan
Judith Marcuse
Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg
Arash Khakpour
Aryo Khakpour
David McIntosh
Chick Snipper
Jennifer Mascall
Natalie LeFebvre Gnam
Alana Gerecke
Molly McDermott
Elissa Hanson
Sophia Wilde
Barbara Bourget
Jay Hirabayashi
Bevin Poole
Amber Funk Barton
Justine A. Chambers
Diego Romero
Paras Terezakis
Karissa Barry
Caroline Liffman
Lesley Telford
Natalie Tin Yin Gan
Noam Gagnon
Ralph Escamillan
Emmalena Fredriksson
Karen Jamieson
Josh Martin
Jane Osborne
Olivia Davies
Judith Garay
Alvin Tolentino
David Raymond
Margaret Grenier
Laura Avery
Anne Cooper
Lara Barclay
Kim Stevenson
Lexi Vajda
Wen Wei Wang
Peter Bingham
Alexa Mardon

Stay tuned for words and gestures from many of these individuals coming to souvenir t-shirted bodies near you this November.

P

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Winter's Tale at Bard on the Beach

Yesterday morning the only things I knew about Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale was that it was the play that contained the ambiguous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear," and that its ending--SPOILER ALERT!--featured a statue coming to life. So in advance of our visit to Bard on the Beach to take in a matinee performance of the play, I duly read Andrew Dickson's Rough Guide summary of the plot and notable major productions (as is to be expected, it is not revived as often as Shakespeare's more popular plays); I also quickly skimmed the acts in the pages of my Norton anthology. Note to last-minute Bard crammers: Dickson's more populist contextualizing of Shakespeare's plays is frankly far more astute (and readable) than the chain-yanking academese of the Norton's header notes.

As with the fellow late romance Pericles, which was produced at Bard last season, The Winter's Tale is a tonally and spatially fractured play involving a tyrannically jealous king, a dead queen, an abandoned child, a storm at sea, roguish cutpurses, and a happy ending magically reuniting a father and his daughter. However, unlike Lois Anderson's production of the former--which radically cut and rearranged the text, and which everyone but me seemed to adore--Dean Paul Gibson, in his take on the latter, wisely hues to Shakespeare's original design. Not that I'm a purist when it comes to such matters; I just think that in this case, unlike with Pericles last year, Gibson's directorial vision actually helps to bring out more clearly the sexual politics of The Winter's Tale, exposing the deep-seated misogyny at the heart of King Leontes' jealousy and, courtesy of lady-in-waiting Paulina's mysterious machinations, turning the play in a feminist allegory on the pitfalls of patriarchal power.

When the play opens we are in Sicily, at the court of Leontes (Kevin MacDonald). Having had no luck persuading his bosom friend from childhood, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Ian Butcher), to stay another week visiting the family, Leontes entreats his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione (a regal Sereana Malani), to try her luck. But her success actually piques Leontes' jealousy and after espying them enjoying what he thinks is too much intimacy during a court dance, the king convinces himself that his wife and best friend are having an affair and that his unborn child is not his own. Sounds like Othello 2.0, right? But whereas Shakespeare's earlier play about the "green-eyed monster" had the villainous Iago to poison the marital chalice, everyone else in The Winter's Tale has no idea what Leontes is on about. So when he instructs his faithful servant Camillo (Laara Sadiq) to kill Polixenes, she instead absconds with him back to Bohemia. Similarly, Rogero (Ashley O'Connell) and Antigonus (Andrew Wheeler) try to reason with Leontes, at least persuading him to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi in advance of Hermione's trial for adultery and treason. But when Antigonus's wife Paulina (Jennifer Lines, taking over the role from Lois Anderson as of the middle of this month) brings Leontes his newborn daughter, thinking her sight and the consequent registering of his likeness will soften his heart, the king explodes in fury at Paulina's impudence, instructing Antigonus to take the child far away and leave her to fend for herself in the wilds. Even when the words of Apollo are read out from the oracle, pronouncing Hermione blameless and warning that if Leontes persists in his mad belief of her infidelity he will be left without an heir, the king refuses to swallow his wounded male pride; instead he rips up the oracle and orders Hermione executed. Whereupon, thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening, the king's son and sole remaining heir, Mamillius (Parmiss Sehat), is struck dead. And then his mother, the queen. This latter news is delivered by Paulina to a finally chastened Leontes in full righteous fury, berating him for not listening to her or believing his wife. In this scene, and in the earlier one in which she entreats the king to acknowledge his daughter as his own, Paulina emerges as the moral conscience of the play, daring to stand up to Leontes' and call out his wilfully blind narcissism where all others only cower and meekly do his bidding. In these scenes Lines is in full-throated physical command of not just the men on stage, but of the entire audience. You cannot take your eyes off of her as she swirls around a prostrate and weeping MacDonald, her gowns flowing around her like a sorceress. Except that, as she had earlier told Leontes, and what she will remind everyone of at the end of the play, what she sees (and eventually does) must not be called witchcraft or, in the current Trumpian lexicon, fake news; instead, we along with Leontes must call it what it is--speaking truth to power.

It's after this climactic scene in Sicily that the play abruptly shifts tone and location. We next encounter Antigonus abandoning the babe Perdita in the woods of Bohemia, but not before fending off the aforementioned bear, which is here wonderfully realized by puppet designers Heidi Wilkinson and Frances Henry as a limber-limbed War Horse-like mechanical being operated underneath by a partially visible human player (later some adorable braying sheep will also make an appearance). Threat duly taken care of, cue the shift to a more appropriately pastoral setting as the requisite shepherd and his son (a perfectly in sync David M. Adams and Chris Cochrane) discover the "wee bairn" and decide to raise her as part of their family. Sixteen years then pass, a fact which is duly announced to us in the play by the allegorical figure of Time, and in Gibson's hands here cleverly collapsed into the figure of the all-seeing and all-knowing Paulina. The remainder of the play concerns the working out of the improbable romance between the now grown shepherd's daughter Perdita (Kaitlin Williams) and Polixenes' son, Florizel (Austin Eckert). Polixenes is of course against his son marrying beneath him, but owing to Camillo once again failing to do her master's bidding, the young couple hightails it to Sicily. Shakespeare leavens the rather creaky mechanics of the play's resolution (and distracts us, it has to be said, from the insipidness of the young lovers) by introducing the cutpurse Autolycus (a superb Ben Elliott), who has fun duping the shepherd and his son, often while singing a jaunty song and simultaneously relieving them of their money. Eventually all of the players make it back to Sicily, where it is revealed that Perdita is the long-lost daughter of Leontes and that both kings, having reignited their interrupted bromance, consent to have their children marry.

But the biggest reveal of all is left to Paulina, who announces that a sculpture in Hermione's likeness that has long been in the works is now ready to be shown to the court. When the curtain is drawn to reveal the actress, Malani, who plays the queen, everyone marvels at the verisimilitude of the sculpture, including the fact that the artist seems to have coincidentally made Hermione age sixteen years like the rest of them. Then, counselling Leontes and the others that they mustn't succumb to superstition in explaining what they're about to see, Paulina announces that she will make the sculpture move. And with that, she brings Hermione back to life, to be reunited with her grown daughter and, for better or worse, her feckless husband.

The play's ending, a coup de theatre that is here all the more effective for the lack of spectacle that accompanies it, is utterly fantastical but precisely because of that underscores the themes of faith and belief--or the lack thereof--that course through it. And here we must come back to the central figure of Paulina and how in this production the focusing of our gaze through hers (both acts open with Paulina/Paulina-as-Time functioning as a chorus and leading the company in a group dance) makes the sexual politics of the play feel utterly contemporary without being heavy-handed. That is, Paulina's condemnation of Leontes for not believing in the faithfulness of his wife and her indignation at the spectacle of Hermione's trial should remind us of how in the prosecution of sex crimes, the burden of proof continues to remain with the female victim.

Then, too, the metatheatricality of the final scene--showing us how a work of art is made to come to life--reminds us that the make-believe world of the stage is also about making belief--and not merely by agreeing to suspend disbelief. In the case of this production we are aided immeasurably in our acceptance of the "magic of the theatre" by the simple and unfussy set design by Pam Johnson, by the similarly sleek costumes of Carmen Alatorre (including a fantastic use of masks), and by the movement score of Tracey Power. Gibson also coaxes mostly excellent performances from his cast, an unusual number of which (for a Shakespearean romance, at any rate) have moments where they are required to pitch their characters' speeches outward to the audience. None more so than Paulina. And I can think of no actress in Vancouver more skilled at inviting an audience to empathize and identify with the action unfolding before them on stage than Lines. When she opens her arms towards us, smiles and tilts her head in a gesture that says "come with me," it's awfully hard to resist.

P

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Chorus Line at Waterfront Theatre

Before Hamilton there was A Chorus Line. I was thinking about the relationship between Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2015 hit musical (which Richard and I will finally get a chance to see in LA this October) and the Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban/James Kirkwood/Nicholas Dante classic from 1976 as I watched a matinee performance of Fighting Chance Productions' staging of the latter yesterday at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island.

Though the subject matter of both musicals couldn't be more different, the connections between them are striking. Both originated as off-Broadway productions at the Public Theatre that then went on to become massive Broadway hits, each earning a slew of Tony Awards as well as the Pulitzer Prize (two of only nine musicals in history to do so). They both also spawned successful touring productions, and as with A Chorus Line I'm sure Hamilton will soon be adapted to film. But what most came to mind yesterday as I looked at the cast Fighting Chance director and choreographer Rachael Carlson had assembled on stage was how A Chorus Line had begun to tackle the issue of diversity on Broadway some 40 years before Hamilton. Asian, Latinx, and Black actors are all featured prominently alongside white singers and dancers, and the ensemble of the musical, famously developed out of conversational workshops Bennett conducted with members of the cast, additionally features characters who self-identify as gay and Jewish.

Of course the deliberate irony of A Chorus Line's conceit is that this celebration of individual difference, so wonderfully brought out through the stories the sixteen "gypsies" narrate and sing over the course of being whittled down to a final selection of eight for director Zach's casting cut, will per force be subsumed into the absolute sameness and unison precision of a singular dancing machine--memorably encapsulated in the musical's high kicking, top hat popping, gold lamed concluding number, "One." As Zach (played here by Chris King) tells the dancers early on, and as he subsequently quarrels with Cassie, an ex-flame whose planned Hollywood career didn't pan out, in the line no one can stand out or pull focus from the star whom they are meant to support. That Cassie (a winning Lucia Forward) is in fact given a show-stopping solo number, "The Music and the Mirror," as illustration of her desire to return to being an anonymous member of the ensemble is just one of the many inside jokes this piece revels in.

In this semi-professional staging by Fighting Chance (King is the only Equity member in the ensemble), it must be said that the women stand out better than the men. Vanessa Quarinto as Diana Morales, who sings the memorable numbers "Nothing" (about a disastrous high school improv class) and the penultimate "What I Did for Love," is a definite triple threat, with a pure, soaring voice, clear technical dance training, and natural stage presence. Lindsay Marshall brings the house down as the sassy Val, who gets the cheeky (in more senses than one) song "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three." Alishia Suitor nicely reveals the vulnerability behind Sheila's hard-edged exterior in "At the Ballet" (where she is joined by Haley Allen's Bebe and Amanda Lourenco's Maggie). And Kailley Roesler has great comic timing as the tone-deaf Kristine. Kaden Chad, as Kristine's husband Al, does a good job playing off of Roseler in the tricky duet "Sing!," but elsewhere his voice was all over the place. Greg Liow as Mike is a phenomenal dancer, but his singing of "I Can Do That" at the top of the show was likewise only so-so. Jesse Alvarez, as Paul, is very moving in the monologue he delivers about his relationship with his parents; however, it was interesting to me in watching him and other of the men dance that the diversity in body size among the male cast members didn't really extend to the women.

Some things, I guess, never change.

P

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Embryotrophic Cavatina, Part 1 at SFU Woodward's and Vines Art Festival at Trout Lake

I couldn't attend yesterday's counter-demonstration protesting the gathering organized by the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam at City Hall because I had committed to previous plans. However, it seemed appropriate, given the WCAI organizers' base dissembling that their quarrels with Islam were cultural and not racist, that my plans involved an engagement with different forms of free cultural expression that were in direct dialogue with their environments.

My first stop was the atrium at SFU Woodward's. There, starting at 2 pm (and then again at 3 pm), Kokoro Dance presented a free showing of the first half of their reworked Embryotrophic Cavatina, which will have its full-length premiere at the Roundhouse September 20-29. The genesis of the piece dates back to 1998, when Kokoro founders Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi created the first iteration of the work for themselves and dancers Ziyian Kwan and Michael Whitfield. They then reworked it a year later into a shorter 30-minute piece that was performed at Dancing on the Edge with the same company; this version featured as a musical score the first half of Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem for My Friend, written as a tribute to the filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, with whom Preisner had collaborated on the Three Colours trilogy. Last year, Barbara and Jay remounted this second version of EC on twenty dancers from Danza Teatro Retazos in Havana. It was at that time that they got the idea to revisit the piece a fourth time, choreographing a new second half that would accompany the remainder of Preisner's album.

We'll have to wait until September to see what that looks like. But yesterday interested audience members were offered a glimpse of the original 1999 version of EC, with dancers Molly McDermott and Billy Marchenski joining Bourget and Hirabayashi to round out the quartet. Performed in the circle of the basketball court between London Drugs and Nester's Market, and with Preisner's music issuing clearly and pristinely from two speakers, the piece seemed expressly designed for this space. Likewise the match between choreography and music. In its elegiac tempo, simple harmonies and showcasing of the soprano voice, Preisner's Requiem put me in mind of fellow Polish composer Henryk Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Except whereas Górecki's work is a slow and steady build to a haunting emotional lament, Preisner's work features more tonal peaks and valleys. Bourget and Hirabayashi play with this in terms of the way they contrast bodies crumpling in on themselves (splayed knees and twisted lower legs; bent backs; hands thrust backwards between thighs) with movement that extends horizontally and vertically into space (a simple reach outward from the torso of one arm and the tracing of the other up the length of this proffered limb; or the joyous leap into and catching of air that comes with Kokoro's trademark ecstasy jumps). The intervals between the Requiem's movements, and especially the soprano parts (e.g. from the Kyrie Eleison to the Dies Irae), also give the dancers ample opportunity to explore that quintessential butoh element of ma, the gap or pause or negative space between different structural parts. Kokoro is expert at expanding our sense of time: by sustaining our interest in a held pose (the opening butoh-at-rest position: bent knees, shoulders soft, eyes staring off into the distance); by forcing a perceptual recalibration through a barely registered shift in our attention (when, in the course of said pose, four heads slowly start to turn to the left); by isolating our focus on the seemingly smallest part of a dancer's body (for me it was a wagging index finger near the end of this showing). All of these actions that look like inaction, these doings that simultaneously undo our expectations about what should happen next, or what even constitutes movement, encourages even greater contemplation in the audience. To the point that despite all the to-ing and fro-ing happening all around me in the Woodward's atrium, my attention was never less than riveted on the dancers in front of me.

After the Kokoro performance I hopped on my bike and cycled over to Trout Lake to take in some of the main "earthstage" shows at this year's Vines Art Festival. The festival was started by Artistic Director Heather Lamoureux in 2015 with two aims: to make contemporary performance more accessible by siting it in a public park (and making it free); and to promote environmental awareness by showcasing work that responds to its natural setting and that is engaged with themes of climate activism and sustainability. The 2015 festival, a one-day event in Trout Lake, mounted with a budget raised solely through door-to-door fundraising by Heather, was a huge success. In 2016 the festival not only attracted major corporate and government sponsors, but it also expanded to four days and multiple sites, with events taking place at Hadden Park in Kits Beach, Pandora Park on the East Side, Maclean Park in Strathcona, and its mainstage site of Trout Lake. This year Heather has grown the festival even further, expanding events to ten days and spreading them across seven Vancouver parks.

However, the main event continues to be the culminating day-long series of performances, workshops and installations at Trout Lake Park. Unfortunately, this year my timing was not so great. I arrived too late to take in Robert Leveroos and Isabelle Kirouac's Alien Forms, and only caught the tail end of Meegin Pye's Boxed In (which seemed to be about homelessness and housing affordability). I did catch the Blue Cedar Stage set of the Son Bohemio trio, who were back again this year with their mix of Argentinian folk songs. And I stuck around long enough to see and hear A Complicated Intelligence, a collaborative sound installation-cum-interactive performance by Stefan Smulovitz, Lara Amelie Abadir, Dave Biddle and beekeeper Andrew Scott. Learning about how bees communicate with each other (by vomiting into each other's mouths) and deal with genetic diversity (by cannibalizing eggs deemed insufficiently heterogeneous) was all I needed as a capstone to how art can trump the rhetoric of white supremacy.

P

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 36

Earlier this afternoon I found myself perched on the beautiful back deck of Wen Wei Wang, interviewing him about his dance history. It began at the age of six in Communist China when, having seen a performance of the revolutionary model opera White Haired Girl, Wang decided he wanted to become a dancer. His parents were less than pleased, but when he later auditioned and was accepted to the army art school in his home province, they relented; becoming a company member and then a soloist of a dance company within a military academy was somehow acceptable. During this time, Wang had already started choreographing, even winning a major televised dance competition in 1987 for a duet, Love Song, that he had co-choreographed and performed with a fellow company member.

Having been accepted into a prestigious choreographic program in Beijing in 1989, Wang left before completing the program in order to attend a summer dance intensive at SFU in 1991. His trip was sponsored by Grant Strate, who would end up becoming Wang's life partner. Almost immediately after completing the SFU residency, Wang was hired by Judith Marcuse. From there he went on to become a company member of Ballet BC, where, but for a brief stint with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, he remained until 2000. In 2003, he formed his own company, immediately garnering acclaim for highly theatrical works that mixed Western and Asian dance traditions.

Wang's most recent full-length work for his own company, Dialogue, premiered this past May at the Dance Centre (see my review here). It will be remounted as part of this year's Dance in Vancouver biennial, where it will coincide with the unveiling of our own Vancouver Dance Histories project. I feel like we still have so much work to do--and interviews to collect. But slowly things are coming together, and I can't wait to get back into the studio with Justine and Alexa to brainstorm further some of our ideas for making sense (and nonsense) of the tangled web of connections we've been unraveling over the past two years.

P

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In the Next Room at the Jericho Arts Centre

Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is a strange work of theatre. Paradoxically, had it been even stranger--that is, had the playwright found a way both in content and form to match her provocative subject matter to a more radical and intersectional feminist/queer politics--the play might have been successful. But after first appearing to mock them, Ruhl instead opts to embrace the conventions of the nineteenth-century drawing room comedy, including its bourgeois hetero-patriarchal ending. This results in a play that veers wildly in its tone and that ends up reinscribing the very domestic structures--not least the whole idea of the family itself--it appears to be questioning. Director Keltie Forsyth, overseeing Ensemble Theatre Company's production of the play, which runs in repertory as part of their annual summer theatre festival until August 17, does her best to navigate these swings, but notwithstanding some fine performances and compelling dramatic moments, this staging leaves me flummoxed as to why the play (which ran on Broadway and was nominated for a handful of Tony awards) has garnered so much critical praise.

At the centre of the play, which is set in the late 1800s, just after the dawn of electricity, is Catherine Givings (Lindsay Nelson), an upper-middle-class woman in New York who is frustrated by the inattention of her husband, Dr. Givings (Sebastain Kroon), and also by her inability to breastfeed her newborn daughter. Dr. Givings' speciality is treating female hysteria and as a result of Edison's discovery of electrical current, Givings has found a sure-fire way to cure his patients: by applying a vibratory pulse to their pubic areas, which is supposed to relieve the pressure upon their wombs and restore them to a more contemplative mood. Thus does Ruhl introduce the conceit contained in the parenthesis of her play's title by anchoring her plot in actual history. Catherine, listening to her husband treat Mrs. Daldry (an excellent Christine Reinfort) "in the next room," becomes intrigued by her cries of pleasure and after forming a friendship with the woman over the course of successive visits (and also after sneaking into her husband's operating room and testing the machine on herself), Catherine convinces Mrs. Daldry that they should compare their respective responses to the vibrating machine's stimulus. But by this point we have learned that Mrs. Daldry much prefers the manual stimulation of Dr. Givings' assistant, Annie (Alexis Kellum-Creer), whose physiological and emotional attentions she finds much more satisfying than those of her husband (an incredibly stiff David Wallace).

Added to this mix are two sub-plots. The first concerns a black wet-nurse, Elizabeth (Mariam Barry, playing the character's suffering of numerous racist slights with just the right mix of dignity and quietly contained rage), hired to tend to the Givings' baby. The second involves a worldly painter, Leo Irving (Francis Winter), who has come to Dr. Givings for his own treatment for male hysteria (cue the vibrating anal probe). Catherine and Leo enjoy a brief flirtation that succeeds in arousing the jealousy of Dr. Givings; however, Leo only has eyes for Elizabeth. All of this culminates in a clumsy denouement that leaves no one happy except the white bourgeois heterosexual professional couple, who rediscover their passion for each other (and, it turns out, the sudden obsolescence of Dr. Givings' machine) by making love in the snow. To be sure, in this scene it is Catherine who takes control of the lovemaking, undressing her husband and making his nude body an object of erotic display. But the fact that she ends up on top in the play's concluding tableau does not, to my mind, make up for the fact that earlier in the second act the same-sex possibilities that Ruhl telegraphs in Mrs. Daldry and Annie's one shared kiss are shut down immediately and with absolute finality as soon as the two women break off from their lip-lock: "I don't suppose I shall ever see you again," Mrs. Daldry states to Annie as she moves with purpose towards the door. Similarly, the implicit critique of white liberal feminism that Ruhl seems to be embedding in her script via her suggestion that first wave suffrage in America depended on the labour of black women's bodies gets muddied by having the relationship between Catherine and Elizabeth triangulated through a man, and a rather caricatured cad at that.

I should emphasize that I see these problems as intrinsic to the structure of the play, not as symptomatic of specific choices made in this production. Indeed, given my misgivings (forgive the pun) about the play's politics, I think that Forsyth has done a remarkable job in spotlighting multiple connections between the women characters in particular, ones that suggest possible alternative outcomes for them all. On the topic of lighting, however, the dimming and raising of the lights every time Catherine turned off or on her newfangled electric lamp drove me a bit batty. As did the rickety door between the living room and Dr. Givings' operating theatre. However, Julie White's costumes were a marvel of period detail. Indeed, the successive scenes of Mrs. Daldry undressing and dressing with Annie's assistance before and after her treatments distilled for me into a wordless pantomime much that this play was trying to say about female repression and empowerment.

P

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Wreck Beach Butoh 2018

Owing to unexpected summer teaching commitments, I was unable to participate in Kokoro Dance's annual Wreck Beach Butoh process. This was disappointing, as I had hoped to make it three years in a row. That said, I did drop in on a couple of free morning classes down at KW Studios over the past two weeks, and so I got a glimpse of what Barbara and Jay were putting together this year. I also got to say hello to some of WBB's returning crew: Tuan and Keith and Bronwyn and Leslie and Noriko and Yvonne. It was a kick to be dancing in KW's new atrium studio, as we had a built-in audience from everyone who happened to be hanging out or wandering through the basketball courts at SFU Woodward's.

This morning, I made my way to Wreck Beach to see the weekend's final performance. I'd told Barbara that I would volunteer to carry one of Kokoro's red donation buckets, and also to police anyone trying to take photos. I proved to be a surprisingly good enforcer on both counts. Otherwise, I just generally enjoyed being a spectator, which I admit meant indulging in some relief at not having to go into and (even worse) get out of the water this year: though the sun was out and things got progressively warmer as the performance went on, there was a strong wind throughout.

There was some repeat choreography that I recognized: the pirate laughs and the tick tock walk and the ecstasy jumps, for example. But the core of this year's work was a central section that involved the dancers torquing their torsos toward the sun and gently turning in the breeze, and then drawing one arm up the other and across the face in a sequence that initiates a danced exploration of the senses. It was quite moving and tender to watch, especially in the way that the dancers moved into and out of unison. However, there was also some cheekiness--quite literally--as Barbara led the dancers in a group ass grab and wiggle directed at the audience.

The start of each WBB is always memorable, and this year I was struck by the fact that the slow and sensuously gestural unison walk toward the water by the clustered group of white painted dancers was accompanied by a chorus of sounds. Various other whoops and caws recurred throughout the piece, but this opening sequence of movement and sound was especially unique.

One final thing I noted was the way in which I was able to anticipate the directional flow of much of the choreography. To be sure, Barbara and Jay generally begin with a southward trajectory along the beach following the dancers' emergence from the water, before doubling back on themselves. However, I also think my instinctive knowledge of when and where to walk contained within it residual kinetic memories of having danced in previous WBB performances. Whatever the case, it was a nice feeling to have.

P

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 35

Earlier this afternoon Kim Stevenson dropped by my SFU Woodward's office to share with me her Vancouver dance history. Like Molly McDermott and Deanna Peters and others, Kim came to the dance program at SFU via Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, where she was heavily influenced by the teaching and mentorship of Brian Webb and Heidi Bunting. Arriving at SFU in 2005, Kim immediately connected with the aesthetic of my colleague, Rob Kitsos, and post-graduation she has continued to dance regularly for him--most recently in Death and Flying at the Vancouver International Dance Festival (about which I have blogged in greater detail here).

In addition to apprenticing with and dancing for the likes of Susan Elliott and Barbara Bourget and Serge Bennathan, Kim also joined with Molly, Cort Gerlock, Roxoliana Prus, and Ellen Luchkow to form the collective The Story of Force in Motion, commissioning work from Deanna Peters, Heidi Bunting, Shauna Elton, and also creating their own work. Most recently Tara Cheyenne Friendenberg has been a major influence on the direction of Kim's career. After appearing briefly in an excerpt of Highgate at Dance in Vancouver several years ago, Kim apprenticed with Tara as part of the process for Porno Death Cult. And she has been part of all three versions of How to Be: at the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island; at Dancing on the Edge a couple of years ago; and at the premiere of the full version of the work at the Cultch this past April. While I couldn't see the latter version, I have closely watched the evolution of this piece and I told Kim that her facility with text and movement was just amazing to watch, and also that her humour just slayed me. Interestingly, Kim said that she'd never been more terrified performing before, but that the process had also liberated something in her regarding the combination of text and movement and that there is talk of working with Tara in the future on a solo for Kim.

In the meantime, Kim is busy with running her own dance studio, The Happening, on Fraser Street. As Kim put it to me, she has always enjoyed teaching, and at a certain point decided that if she wanted to remain in Vancouver and have any kind of lifestyle to speak of that she needed to find a supplement to her life as a pick-up professional dancer--and ideally one that didn't involving serving at a restaurant. It's been a huge and at times scary undertaking, but four years in the move seems to be paying off. Kim is just about to expand her space with a second, adjacent studio and has hired Natalie LeFebvre Gnam to teach the students ballet. The goal is to get to a place where Kim can hire more additional instructors and leave the day-to-day operations of the studio to others, while she pursues a parallel performance and choreographic career.

I was immensely happy to hear that, because we need performers as talented and charismatic as Kim to continue to appear on our stages. And we also need her mentoring the next generation of dance bunnies.

P

Friday, July 14, 2017

Edge 7 at DOTE

Dancing on the Edge Festival's Edge 7 program is made up of two works-in-progress that, in their full iterations, should be back at the Firehall soon. UNTITLEDdiSTANCE is a collaboration between dance artists Emmalena Fredriksson and Arash Khakpour. Based on their common, but also very different, immigrant experiences, the work opens with the artists addressing the audience in Swedish and Farsi, respectively, before segueing into the mutual instruction and execution of a floor sequence that provides them--and us--with an entree into a shared language of movement. That language is largely contact-based and in between giving and taking each other's weight and limbs in the next section, they each narrate their experiences of being othered--because of the way they look, or how they speak--in their adopted home of Vancouver. Not that the work is all about warm and fuzzy support. Indeed, the rest of the piece plays out as a series of increasingly high stakes games in which, for example, one performer, seated in front of a computer, will ask the other an impossible to answer question ("Do you feel more eastern or western?" "Would you kill a cat for a million dollars?") that s/he must respond to during an improvised solo, the movement choices of which are then interpreted and projected for us by the seated interlocutor through Google translate. In this way, and throughout the piece more generally, Fredriksson and Khakpour cannily combine language and movement to show that no matter how we position ourselves, we must always negotiate that position in relation to others--and also that, as in this case, part of that negotiation is developing a shared sense of trust.

An excerpt from Contes Cruels, by Les Productions Figlio's Serge Bennathan, was the second piece on the program. A full-length version of the work will premiere at the Firehall next May and seems to build on Bennathan's earlier Just Words. As in that work, Contes Cruels combines poetic text by the choreographer with original music by Bertrand Chénier to work through a near-death experience. However, here Bennathan has expanded his roster of dancers, with Josh Martin and Molly McDermott joining Hilary Maxwell and Karissa Barry in a quartet that sometimes moves in regimented response to and ethereally against the choreographer's onstage commands. Bennathan's repeated prompts of "Blackout" and "Lights up" late in the piece serve as an especially apt metaphor not just for a physical resurrection, but also for artistic reinvention. In this respect, Martin, who takes over some of the text early in the piece, is clearly meant to be Bennathan's dance double, or avatar, and the women his trio of muses, with their frequent blind but powerhouse leaps into space, or their held poses and offstage looks into the distance, incarnating for us what it means to embrace the unknown.

P