Friday, February 24, 2017

The Mars Hotel and Kwan Yin at The Firehall

This week marks the return of Ziyian Kwan and dumb instrument Dance to The Firehall Arts Centre, this time in a presentation of Kwan's first full evening of dance. Included as part of the program is the return of The Mars Hotel, a piece based on a work of flash fiction by writer P.W. Bridgman that premiered on the same stage at the 2015 Dancing on the Edge Festival. An exuberant, whimsical, muscular and ultimately joyous ode to and deconstruction of that biggest of cliches, love, the work's many strange and delightfully askew set-pieces (including the deflating and blowing up of a giant white love ball) are structured around a duet Kwan performs with Vision Impure's Noam Gagnon.

In Gagnon Kwan has found her impish and physically fearless dance soulmate and I think this work remains such a hit with audiences in part because of the obvious improvisatory chemistry between both performers. Then, too, there is the crackerjack three piece musical ensemble, Handmade Blade, that accompanies the dancers on stage, including Aram Bajakian on electric guitar, JP Carter on trumpet, and the incomparable Peggy Lee on cello. You wouldn't normally think that a trio made up of these instruments would work, but their jamming last night (following a bit of a technical issue at intermission) was fantastic, the hypnotic admixture of sound contributing to the overall dreamlike quality of the piece. Indeed, if anything I think this work has gotten even tighter and more sharply focused since its premiere (about which I wrote at more length here); some bits have gone by the wayside and some bits have been added, but the unique combination of movement, music, text, and visual and costume design which remains Kwan's signature continues to offer so many different and rewarding ways into the piece. Not that all went according to original plan on the latter front last night, about which I will have more to say in a moment.

But before that let me mention the first and newest work on last night's program. Kwan Yin is a twenty-minute duet that Kwan has created with her 77-year old father, Lihuen Kwan. Wanting to explore the idea of patience via the heart sutra of the Chinese Buddhist Bodhisattva who gives the piece its title, Kwan decided to work with the person with whom she is most often impatient. What has resulted is a tender father-daughter exploration of the "colour of emptiness," again accompanied by the live on-stage cello stylings of Lee. The piece begins with the three performers in separate moons of half-light; Lihuen Kwan, sitting on a chair, is the furthest downstage. His daughter, whom he will come to identify as his shadow, slowly advances towards him, taking first one and then the other arm before letting each drop, the weightless thud of Lihuen Kwan's hands on his thighs at this point signalling how far apart these two yet remain. But the pair will eventually come together, including in some very moving bits of unison and partnering late in the piece. It is a testament to the reserves of patience Kwan ended up finding and drawing upon in the making of this piece that, in these sequences, she let's her father (who is certainly a spry mover) take the lead.

Last night's audience was filled with local high school students, who were very engaged and attentive throughout these two challenging works of contemporary dance. And while none of them stayed for the talkback that I was invited to lead after the performance, a concession that Kwan was asked to make in relation to their presence became the focus of some conversation. To be specific: there is a moment in The Mars Hotel when Kwan, clad only in black panties and pumps, inserts an industrial strength inflater into the love ball and lets loose. It's an image that calls up and simultaneously subverts any number of gendered stereotypes around sexuality and power. However, last night Kwan was asked by Firehall Artistic Producer Donna Spencer to cover her breasts in deference to the attending high school students. After much consideration, Kwan decided to comply, but also posted about the decision on Facebook. The response, she said during the talkback, generated a lot of debate, some of which carried over into our conversation last night--and which, to Kwan's credit, she refused to characterize as a simple matter of an artist being censored or having to compromise her feminist principles. As she has since put it to me in an email message about the matter, there were other, equally important, issues at play. And so I will end by quoting Ziyian herself, because she states things so eloquently: "This is what I want to share, after performing to a sold out house of 60% high school students. My dilemma about censorship was secondary. The schools were Magee and Templeton – representing the Vancouver East Side and Shaughnessy, two conversely different neighbourhoods in terms of perceived demographics. It was a small sacrifice to alter my costume so that I could share my work with this audience. What a gift to have these people witnessing Noam and Ken kiss, watching my dad dance, listening to the wild and poetic sounds of Handmade Blade. The students held my work in their gaze and felt to me, ageless. Fully present as much as they wanted to be, they infused the performance with energy and the night was magical. What more could I ask? They didn’t stay for the talk back but they stayed to receive the work. They stayed to share the beautiful transparency of their eyes and to see what they saw. This resonates with me and eclipses my questions that were founded in the politics of gender and power. At the end of the day, the reciprocal nature of art is boundless. It is love."


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