What must it be like for a solo artist with a significant and quite distinctive body of work that straddles multiple disciplines to discover she has a performance twin? Would one sit slack-jawed thinking someone had stolen your act? Or would you immediately start scheming about how you could work with this person? Happily for Vancouver audiences, in the case of local dance-theatre maven Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg it was the latter. When she first saw Italian artist Silvia Gribaudi on stage at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago in between laughing herself silly she began plotting about how they might collaborate. The result, a duet called empty.swimming.pool, is on at The Dance Centre through this Saturday in a co-presentation with the 2017 Chutzpah! Festival.
While it would be wrong to describe Friedenberg and Gribaudi as exact clones, both create works that combine movement and text, and that use comedy grounded in the body to ask questions about the social construction of gender. Essentially they are feminist buffons interested in tickling our funny bones while also getting us to think about why, exactly, we're laughing. Now, on the one hand, it might be risky putting two such similar dancing, talking comedic egos in a rehearsal studio together, like inviting Amy Schumer and Kathy Griffin to duke it out in a boxing ring, and with a go big or go home aesthetic presumably prevailing. In fact, Friedenberg and Gribaudi both play with and undermine these expectations, troping in empty.swimming.pool on questions of female rivalry through a subtly hilarious burlesquing of theatrical razzmatazz conventions (I don't think I've ever seen such an over-the-top lighting design by James Proudfoot), while simultaneously eschewing the commodifying politics of spectacle that frequently attends those conventions, especially for women. (One detects something of the dramaturgical hand of outside eye Justine A. Chambers in the framing of this dialectic.)
Indeed, the piece begins quite soberly, with Gribaudi and Friedenberg, both dressed in black, emerging in turn from the wings to survey the audience, coyly soliciting our gaze and occasionally playing with a hemline or a hand in a pocket, but otherwise refusing to "perform" for us. Eventually the duo moves downstage, but even then it takes them forever to do what we're waiting for: talk. Instead they first engage in a pantomime of raised eyebrows, moued lips, and open hand gestures. When, finally, they begin talking their conversation immediately descends into glossolalia as they cycle through the languages they both do and don't really speak. This sequence culminates in a wickedly funny parody of common French words non-native speakers are wont to pepper their speech with, a string of syncopated "voilàs" and "wows," accompanied by suitably Gallic raised arms, all of which sent last night's audience into stitches.
Thereafter Gribaudi and Friendenberg take turns poking fun at the concept of virtuosity, with the latter partnering the former in a series of arabesques as Barbra Streisand sings "Don't Rain on My Parade," and Friedenberg demonstrating her impressive flexibility in cycling through a range of yoga poses. Gribaudi also launches into an operatic soprano during a bit in which she wades into the audience with her eyes closed. That particular moment seemed to come out of nowhere and was an especially visceral reminder that the two performers were not necessarily there to ingratiate themselves to spectators' mainstream entertainment sensibilities. Likewise, the simple step-touch sequence that serves as the culminating routine of the piece was the exact opposite of Vegas-style, automaton-like sexiness. Having stripped to panties and bras--Fridenberg's red and sparkly, Gribaudi's covered in appliqué flowers--the two performers not only remain nonplussed by the display of their non-showgirl bodies, but also keep up a barely in unison snapping of fingers and sashaying of legs as Friendenberg tells a story about being looked through as a mother with her son at the pool. Gribaudi sympathizes, only to complicate this moment of female bonding by subsequently telling us that she herself doesn't have kids and then indicating that the only thing she really likes to do with the lower half of her body is ... to sit down.
There is, however, something of a splashier finish to empty.swimming.pool. It begins with our duo warbling Somewhere Over the Rainbow together in a spotlight stage right. But Gribauldi, evidently disturbed by her partner's lack of pitch, abandons Friedenberg and walks offstage. She returns seconds later with a bottle of water, which she hands to Friedenberg, who promptly takes a grateful swig and then continues to gurgle through another verse of the song. Disgusted, Gribauldi empties the rest of the water on the stage and again walks towards to the wings. Just as Friedenberg gets to the end of her number, reaching into her bosom to spray confetti over herself, Gribauldi runs on stage, sliding through the water like a grand odalisque, and arriving at the feet of Friedenberg with arms upstretched in triumph. Not to be outdone, Friedenberg, having stormed off, makes her own sliding finale, this time on her stomach.
It was the perfect capstone to a slyly subversive performance that was all about these amazingly skilled artists negotiating, within the traditional frames of theatrical reproduction, the terms by which they will be looked at.