Thursday, March 30, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 32

Yesterday morning Emmalena Fredriksson stopped by my Woodward's office to tell me about her dance history. That history began in Emmalena's native Sweden, specifically in a small town to the west of Stockholm called Örebro. Later, when Emmalena began a three-year program at the prestigious and demanding Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance (SEAD) she found herself joined by seven other dancers from Örebro, with other members of their cohort asking them what exactly was in the water there to produce so many talented dancers. Emmalena downplayed the specialness of Örebro, but did state that the recreational dance scene in Sweden is very different than in Canada, with robust community programs in every city that are fully funded by the state, and with her high school additionally having a dance program in which students could major.

That said, Emmalena said that when she graduated from high school there was still only one professional dance academy in Sweden, which was located in the north, and which was mainly geared toward the entertainment industry (e.g. training back-up dancers for musicals and the Eurovision song contest). Emmalena dutifully completed the curriculum--comprised solely of jazz, ballet and Cunningham--at said institution, but craving more rigorous contemporary training she subsequently auditioned for and was accepted by SEAD. There, the training couldn't have been more different, focusing as it did on release-based and somatic techniques alongside lots of floor work. Another thing Emmalena had to get used to was that her instructors changed every six weeks and that she and the other dancers were subjected to regular evaluation, with the threat of being kicked out always hovering above them. Nevertheless, she thrived at SEAD, which fostered her choreographic and composition talents, as well as her love of improvisation. Emmalena also recounted a memory of being in a work choreographed by Susan Rethorst that was performed to an empty auditorium, with the audience gathered in an adjoining studio, the door to which each dancer in the piece would pass through briefly only once. Apparently it caused a minor scandal (it was a ticketed performance open to the public), but Emmalena remembers it as an utterly joyful piece that taught her so much about the concept of presence.

It was in 2013 that Emmalena moved to Vancouver to complete her MFA at Simon Fraser University; she was interested in interdisciplinary practice and also knew a friend of Daisy Thompson, who was then also in the program. Gradually she met and began collaborating with other members of the community, including Alexa Mardon, Lexi Vajda, Renée Sigouin, and Ashley Whitehead. Many of these dancers would perform in Emmalena's MFA graduating project, Dance Work/Work Dance (2015), which was my first introduction to Emmalena's choreographic talents, and which has been performed in various gallery spaces around the city. Composer and fellow SFU alum Alex Mah has also become a frequent collaborator, sharing with Emmalena a love of improvisation and live scoring.

To my question about why she has stayed in Vancouver since completing her MFA Emmalena first sighed, explaining that she was in the throes of applying for permanent residency, a particularly fraught and expensive undertaking. Then she said that since graduating high school in Sweden Vancouver has been the longest place she's every stayed (going on four years now) and that notwithstanding the expense and her concerns about her long-term financial sustainability, she finds the dance scene very exciting and inspiring, with friends invested in each other's practices, and with work that she wants to see and support. As long as those things remain in place, and as long as she can restore her soul by heading to the mountains to hike and ski and snowboard, Emmalena has said she'll continue to call Vancouver home.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Angels in America at the Arts Club's Stanley Theatre

Among the many ideas being explored in Tony Kushner's epic play Angels in America is a dialectics of scale. On the one hand there are, as Louis says to Belize late in the first part of the play, Millennium Approaches, monolithic concepts like freedom and democracy, even the "idea of America" itself, that seem so huge and abstract as to be unimaginable--except when they are organized into specific structures, like government and religion, that bear down upon and circumscribe our daily lives. And then there's the "small problem" of living those lives in the face of such monoliths: the intimate acts of care or betrayal, obligation or disconnection, that one performs with or on those closest to you.

I was put in mind of this framework by the Arts Club's current production of Millennium, which I saw in preview last night at the Stanley Theatre on Granville Street. Directed by the Electric Company's Kim Collier, the production is dominated by Ken MacKenzie's monolithic set design, a giant faux-marble pedimented structure with steps ascending upstage that puts one in mind of the facade of a courthouse (where Louis and Joe both work), or the Lincoln Memorial, or any of those other giant mausoleum-like structures that Harper suggests dominates the architecture of Washington, DC. The set is so overwhelming that no matter how inventively Collier distributes her actors about it, or through what myriad portals within it they (and their furniture) appear and disappear, the performers inevitably look puny on stage (even from where I was sitting in the sixth row of the centre orchestra section). Perhaps this is the point, with the neo-classicism of American colonial architecture here standing in (quite literally) for the symbolic nation-state that does not so much absorb one within its warm embrace (the US being "a melting pit where nothing has melted," as Rabbi Chemelwitz tells us at the top of the show) as threaten to obliterate one with its surveilling shadow.

I would have no problem with this if Collier remembered, dialectically, what the theatre--and this play especially (Kushner being a good Brechtian)--proposes as an antidote to such spectacularized separations: the proximate and material connection between bodies on stage. Instead, she embraces the scaling up of spectacle, in part by inserting a rotating chorus of figures in scenes normally featuring just one or two characters. I didn't mind this in the opening prologue by the Rabbi (Gabrielle Rose), when other members of the ensemble join Louis (Ryan Beil) and Prior (Damien Atkins) as members of Louis's extended family mourning the death of his grandmother. However, I thought the effect an unnecessary and distracting caprice in two other places: in the already split scene when Prior is being examined by the nurse Emily (Lois Anderson) and Louis is talking with Belize (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff), the rest of the company parades on stage in hospital gowns and trailing IV drips, the presumed nod to the scale and complexity of the AIDS pandemic here only managing to pull focus from Prior; and in the scene when Hannah (Rose again) is asking her friend Ella (also played by Anderson) to sell her house in Salt Lake City following her phone call with Joe (Craig Erickson), Collier mysteriously sends out a chorus of Mormon parishioners to moon for a few seconds before retreating.

Even more questionable for me was the use of live camera feeds and video projection. The conceit first appears with Mr. Lies's entrance, the physically nimble and charismatic Jackman-Torkoff entering the stage trailing a camera, which he then proceeds to train on Harper (Celine Stubel) as she chases him around the stage and declares her desire to visit Antartica to see the hole in the ozone layer. Thereafter cameras recur in all of the subsequent dream or fantasy scenes: when Prior and Harper share the "threshold of revelation"; when Prior is visited by the ghosts of his two similarly named ancestors (played by Craig Erickson and Brian Markinson); and when Ethel Rosenberg (Rose) haunts the brownstone of Roy Cohn (Markinson). I get that Collier is using technology to suggest that these scenes are taking place in another realm or medium; however, especially with the scene between Prior and Harper, each on separate beds with a mini-digital camera pointed at them, and with their respective images projected side by side on cloth panels that have descended between the pillars of the set, it felt like I was watching a Skype conversation. The whole point of these two shattered characters sharing the threshold of revelation is that we see and accept that in the theatre different temporal and spatial realms can touch and that bodies can cross over into those realms to speak certain truths to each other--and to us. I don't see the point of added technological embellishment, especially when the performances--as, in this case, by Atkins and Stubel--are already so strong. In its final use, in the scene between Roy and Ethel, I actually think the camera gets in the way of the acting, with Markinson--whose performance I was only really starting to warm to--and Rose--who doesn't really get a chance to establish a definitive take on her character--often struggling to make sure they stay in the frame. (Interestingly, Beil, who doesn't have to operate or appear before a camera, ends up giving the finest performance, and Erickson's Joe is also very compelling.)

Indeed, in terms of its embrace of scale and technological spectacle, this production bears an interesting contrast to the excellent and very low-tech staging of Millennium at Studio 58 last fall (which I reviewed here). I realize that the Stanley as venue in some senses calls for a scaled up and more spectacular production, complete with the full-on Spielbergian descent of the Angel at the end. That said, bigger isn't always better.


light breaking broken at KW Studios

Yesterday, as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival's presentation series at the new KW Studios at Woodward's, I attended an early evening performance of light breaking broken, a new duet by Karen Jamieson and Margaret Grenier, Artistic Director of Dancers of Damelahamid. A collaborative exploration of what it means to move through and occupy space (and particular emplaced spaces) trans-temporally and cross-culturally, the piece saw Jamieson and Grenier adapting their different dance histories and vocabularies to specific points of kinetic intersection and crossing. It begins with the two women walking slowly around a single projected amoeba-like image on the floor; as a drumbeat begins and Elder Betsy Lomax begins to speak in voiceover, the image starts to expand, turning into a swirling spiral (the projections are by Josh Hite). Eventually Jamieson will step into the eye of the spiral, with Grenier continuing to move about its edge, her arms outstretched towards Jamieson, whose body alternates between slow sinuous sways and rapid staccato shakes as she absorbs the energy of this particular force field.

For most of the piece the two dancers continue in a similar manner, their bodies always contiguous in space, but their pathways mostly traversing separate trajectories, at least at the beginning. This seems an apt metaphor for the "broken historical narratives and contemporary connections of hope" that the dancer-choreographers say they are channeling in their program note. On the latter front it was particularly compelling for me to register how, in the moments when the two performers did come together in a shared movement pattern, they did not try to make their execution of that pattern seamless and exactly the same. In the animal shapes the two women would make, Karen would hold her hands in a slightly different position over her face. And in their jumps to Andrew Grenier's recorded drumbeats, Karen would tend to anticipate the beat, whereas Margaret would respond to it.

At the end of the piece, having brought their respective bodies more than once to the threshold of a shaft of light that bisects the dance floor, the dancers eventually cross over to the other's side. Thereafter they come together in the centre, both now extending their arms toward the other, but not quite touching. Again, it seemed an appropriate physical representation of the work of connection that has been undertaken in this piece, but also the work that is still ongoing. And on that note it was interesting to hear from Andrew Grenier after the dancers had taken their bows and exited the stage that light breaking broken, which was created in consultation with Cree/Gitxsan Elder Margaret Harris, brought the three women full circle from their first collaboration on Gawa Gyani (1991), a piece choreographed by Karen that the younger Margaret danced in, and on which the older Margaret and her late husband, Chief Kenneth Harris, also consulted.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 31

Earlier this morning Justine, Alexa and I gathered at The Dance Centre for our first group interview in a while. Our interviewee was Noam Gagnon and even before the conversation had officially begun he'd managed to tell us about two figures in the Canadian dance world whom, somewhat surprisingly, he had slept with. Then, when Alexa explained that we might use some of his gestures from the interview as part of a physical score Noam deliberately began pinching his nipples, rubbing his crotch and grabbing his ass. But it was the far more subtle gesture of Noam rubbing one arm with the hand of another while talking animatedly that I was most drawn to; he repeated it multiple times over the course of our interview and afterwards he explained that it was his gauge for telling the truth. If he could feel goose bumps on his arm then he knew he was being authentic; no bumps meant he was bullshitting. And there was certainly a lot of history for Noam to test his claims against.

As Noam mentioned, he started dancing relatively late, at the age of 19. Following a degree in visual art, which included a lot of performance-based and improvisation work, he appeared in a friend's dance recital and got hooked on movement. With no formal training, and at the time also speaking no English, he subsequently applied to Concordia University's Contemporary Dance Department, which uniquely focuses as much on choreographic process and creation/composition classes as it does on technique. Noam was accepted and there he studied with Elizabeth Langley, Michael Montanaro, Silvy Panet-Raymond, Jo Leslie, Martha Carter, and Andrew Harding, among others. In 1987, following the completion of his dance degree, Noam came west to tree plant; he said the experience was awful, but that it was while on a break in Vancouver between contracts that he saw an ad for auditions at EDAM, which was then still being co-directed (at this point by Peter Bingham, Lola McLaughlin, Jennifer Mascall, and Peter Ryan). Noam was accepted into the company, as was Dana Gingras, his future collaborator-in-crime at The Holy Body Tattoo (HBT). Noam spent two years at EDAM before relocating once again, this time to Ottawa to dance for Peter Boneham at Le groupe de la place royale. (Interesting side fact we learned from Justine: she took classes with Noam at Le groupe as a young high school dancer in Ottawa.)

Part of what attracted Noam to Le groupe was Boneham's desire to have him choreograph in addition to dance. And so alongside appearing in works by Boneham, Louise Bédard, Sylvain Émard, Ginette Laurin, Davida Monk, and Yvonne Coutts, among others, while at Le groupe Noam also came into his own as a choreographer. Already at EDAM he and Gingras were building a unique aesthetic together (to the point that Noam, with chagrin, admitted they were often openly disdainful of the work other choreographers were setting on them). Thus, Noam convinced Boneham to let Gingras be part of his last creation process at Le groupe, which became the piece L'Orage (1991). A year later the duo was back in Vancouver, had secured a 3000-square foot studio space (whose long and narrow L-shape configuration, according to Noam, accounted for the look of a lot of early HBT works), and had founded their company, which until 1999 included the composer Jean-Yves Thériault. For the next 16 years Noam and Gingras poured their bodies and souls into creating now legendary works like Poetry & Apocalypse (1994), our brief eternity (1996), Circa (2000), and Monumental (2005). HBT was known as much for their endless touring and inventive self-promotion as they were for the extreme physicality of the movement and their cross-disciplinary collaborations with music and film. But Noam revealed that he and Gingras were largely flying by the seats of their pants and creating opportunities for themselves the only way they knew how, which was spontaneously and without fear of the consequences (whether it be throwing all their money at a photoshoot and press kit, or maxing out a credit card for ten minutes at On the Boards in Seattle, or pretending to be producers in order to get meetings with European presenters). As Noam recalled that time, it all came from a boundless excitement and, in his words, a "thirst" to make the work, and to see where that work would take them.

Indeed, it took them all around the world, including Glasgow, where Noam recounted the horror of blanking completely on the choreography of our brief eternity during one performance and almost quitting dance as a result; and Sydney, Australia, where he and Susan Elliott both caught a bug on the plane and spent five days throwing up during rehearsal, only to power through their scheduled shows (also of our brief eternity) through sheer strength of will. (Interesting side fact number two: this is our third vomiting story so far in this project.) However, there came a point when Noam tired of life on the road, and where he and Gingras wished to move in different directions. And so in 2006 Noam formed Vision Impure as a platform to create solo work for himself, as well as to collaborate with other artists and choreographers, including the late Nigel Charnock (also a big influence on Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg) and Daniel Léveillé. (Around the same time, having practiced and taught Pilates for thirty years, he also established his Beyond Pilates Studio in the West End, knowing, as he said, there would come a point where he would have to retire from dance, but also wanting to keep himself healthy while still performing.)

Now after 10+ years making more intimate and conceptual-style works, Noam says he finds himself craving the opportunity to create larger-scale works for a bigger stage. But he's also tired of having to explain himself to presenters and granting agencies. As he put it, there remains within him a lot of thirst to explore and discover; but he doesn't have a lot of patience anymore for the institutional bullshit.

And certainly no one in this community is going to fault Noam, after the career he's had, for saying so. I just wish those in a position to do so would answer his call for change.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 30

Yesterday I interviewed Natalie Tin Yin Gan for our Vancouver Dance Histories project. Natalie began recreational Chinese folk dancing at the age of six in Scarborough, Ontario. Just a week before she was to perform in her first public recital, her family moved to Vancouver and to this day Natalie says she cannot remember a single thing about the move. Soon enough, however, she was enrolled in the Cindy Yan Dance Academy at Granville and Broadway, where she studied until she was 14; the traditional costumes that Natalie wore for various performances while studying at this institution just served as an important mnemonic in the collaboration with Eury Chang that Natalie recently participated in as part of a DanceLab residency at The Dance Centre.

In high school Natalie taught herself hip hop, going so far as to start, captain and choreograph for the first hip hop crew at her school. Following additional studio dance training at the Spotlight Academy in Burnaby, Natalie enrolled in the dance program at SFU, where she studied with my colleagues Rob Kitsos, Cheryl Prophet, Marla Eist, Judith Garay. Sessional instructors also included Day Helesic, Megan Walker-Straight, Peter Bingham (who inspired Natalie's love of contact), and Claire French, whose composition class would be instrumental in helping Natalie create her first major work, Hands in His Back. Rob was also key to fostering Natalie's first cross-disciplinary collaborations, and it was while at SFU that Natalie met theatre-maker Milton Lim and musician Remy Siu, with whom she would go on to establish the company Hong Kong Exile (HKE). While at SFU, Natalie also started Art for Impact with Alissa Stanton and Anna Kraulis, which has since become a registered non-profit and which over the past eight years has hosted countless community events and raised serious funds for a number of social causes. According to Natalie, it was helping to run Art for Impact while studying full-time that really honed her producing chops.

Upon graduation, and following a trip to Lebanon (where Natalie taught theatre to Palestinian refugees), Natalie signed up to dance with Modus Operandi for two years. By this time Natalie had already danced for Jennifer Mascall in two separate tours of Homewerk. However, the next major step in her creative progression came in 2013 when Joyce Rosario, then at New Works, put Natalie's name forward for a commission from the Kickstart program of the CanAsian Dance Festival. Natalie received the commission and according to its terms she was assigned a mentor-dramaturg to work with from the community. That person turned out to be battery opera's Lee Su-Feh and Natalie credits her for thoroughly transforming her practice. Out of this collaboration came HKE's acclaimed NINEEIGHT, which has toured festivals across Canada. Other transformative moments in her still very young career that Natalie cited for me included collaborations with La Pocha Nostra and the Le Brothers at the 2015 Vancouver LIVE Biennale; an artist talk for An Exact Vertigo that she gave at UNIT/PITT galleries; and running a workshop at fu-GEN Theatre's 2016 Walk the Walk Festival about commanding space without preparing.

It was at the same festival that Natalie presented a version of her performance installation Chinese Vaginies that went horribly wrong. The piece involves the use of dough to mould into steamed buns in the shape of a certain part of the female anatomy. However Natalie said that the lights on the stage at the Factory Theatre in Toronto were far too hot and that the dough began to cook before the piece was over. At the end of the performance, fu-GEN Artistic Director David Yee was scraping bits of cooked bun off the stage floor with his credit card.

Somehow that tactile mix of food and commerce seems like an apt metaphor for art-making.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Ballet BC's Program 2 at the Queen E

For her second offering of Ballet BC's 2016/17 season, Emily Molnar has programmed a celebration of Canada's 150+ history (as she astutely re-temporalized this year's national anniversary in her curtain speech, though without an accompanying territorial acknowledgement). Even more specifically this weekend's performances are a showcase of local Vancouver choreographic talent, featuring three world premieres and the return of an audience favourite by superstar Crystal Pite.

In advance of last night's show I was most eager to see the commission by Company 605's Lisa Gelley and Josh Martin. How would their urban hip-hop aesthetic and signature transversal movement flows translate onto a ballet company, with its emphasis on verticality and readable lines? The answer, I have to say, is not so easily. Anthem begins with the Ballet BC ensemble standing upstage in a circular clump; the music (initially by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld) begins and a couple of dancers sway their torsos, sending a similar ripple throughout the rest of the group. This relay effect continues for some time, changing direction and building in choreographic complexity, but also with individual dancers every now and then taking themselves out of the transfer of a particular movement tide to stand and watch. This was my first inkling that all was not right with these new inhabitants of 605-land. A requisite feature of b-boying is members of a posse regularly ceding the floor to their confrères to perform a showcase sequence of moves; while this also allows the folks on the so-called sidelines to catch their breath, they are still kinetically engaged to what's happening around them and in Gelley and Martin's work for their own company there is never a sense that individual dancers, even when momentarily still, aren't connected to the larger movement energy of the group. Maybe it had something to do with how long this opening upstage tableau went on, or maybe it was just my desire for this largely upright crew to drop to the floor, but whenever a Ballet BC dancer paused and took themselves out of the flow of movement it felt like they didn't know what to do with themselves, that they needed a moment to re-sync their bodies with the rhythm of the rest of the group. Of course how one identifies or aligns oneself with a group or cause is implicit in the title Anthem, and Gelley and Martin were certainly playing with this idea when, eventually dispersing the dancers across the stage, they started working with unison. However, as with the music selections that followed these sequences never built to the expected choreographic crescendo. I also found I was missing two features of 605 dancing that I always look forward to: the way in which a volley of movement begun in one body is finished in another; and the sculptural clumps they so often form in their pieces, the liquid limbs of the dancers conjoining as if in a ridiculously complex game of Twister. Paradoxically it was the distance between the dancers that I most registered in Anthem.

Wen Wei Wang's Swan was next on the program. A short and sharp six-part deconstruction of Swan Lake, complete with Sammy Chien's brilliant and loudly industrial distortion of Tchaikovsky's score, the piece was in many ways deliberately derivative: I detected references to Matthew Bourne and Black Swan in the two same-sex partnering sequences, and even to Marie Chouinard in the brilliantly gymnastic solo by Andrew Bartee (who was also excellent on point) on the parallel barres (!) in the concluding sequence. But that didn't make the work any less fun to watch, and the partnering--between Bartee and Christoph von Riedemann, Alexis Fletcher and Peter Smida, Kristen Wicklund and Gilbert Small, and Wicklund and Fletcher--was sublimely accomplished.

Following a pause we were treated to a new pas de deux choreographed by Lesley Telford and danced to a spoken word composition by Barbara Adler. If I were 2 is inspired by the Narcissus myth, which put me in mind of Norman McLaren's brilliant NFB dance film from the 1980s. But Telford and Adler are much more free in their adaptation of the myth, with Adler managing to embed a Debordian critique of the "society of the spectacle" into her text--our hero and heroine first catch a glimpse of each other via their reflections in a storefront window, their faces framed by the deer antlers on the display mannequins--and Telford playing with some of the gendered dynamics of traditional ballet partnering. Thus, while near the top of the piece there is an absolutely stunning lift of the petite Emily Chessa by Brandon Alley, most of the rest of the duet sees the two trading positions of leading and following, including during a very effective play-rewind-repeat sequence in which first one dancer steps forward and points stage right and then the other replaces him or her, each look for a returned gaze simultaneously "a slip of the hook" in Adler's rhythmic phrasing. This is not the first time Telford and Alder have collaborated together and happily it will not be the last (they have another collaboration coming up at The Dance Centre at the end of April); the way they combine text and movement is utterly symbiotic, to the point where once again it is impossible to determine who is leading and who is following. This was made all the more apparent last night by the fact that in addition to a looped recording of Adler's voice, the dancers were also responding to her live recitation of the text from the orchestra pit--and she, likewise, to their movements.

Pite is another Vancouver-based choreographer not afraid of incorporating text into her dance compositions. And yet while Solo Echo takes inspiration from Mark Strand's poem Lines for Winter (which are excerpted in the program), the piece is actually danced to two haunting cello sonatas by Brahms. In the first movement, the seven dancers slide across the stage and orbit around each other like individual points in a rotating constellation, or isolated and pulsating pixels in a momentarily stilled and blown-up photograph. Indeed, the way that Pite has her dancers run on stage successively and then freeze mid-stride in an overlapping horizontal tableau puts one in mind of stop-motion animation, or the panels of a film storyboard (a technique she has explored elsewhere in works like Plot Point and Grace Engine). Here, in the first half of the work, the danced version of montage is used to explore how a force (including a sonic force like an echo) can reverberate from body to body, binding them into a shared resonant field (as with the gorgeous assisted walk that ends this section, with one of the women dancers launching herself from the wings into a supine position on the floor and stretching her arms above her head to capture her male partner's ankles just as he starts to put one leg in front of the other). This single force field then becomes the focus of the second half of the work as Pite exploits the connected bodily massings and domino-like chains that have become her signature in large group works. In so doing, she shows in an expressly kinetic way how the echo, as a sound launched from a singular source out into a larger environment, necessarily comes back as something more expansive, more resonant--something that, though transformed via its diffusion, nevertheless attaches us through careful listening to one another, and to our environment.

Thus for me it is this concluding work by Pite that arguably--and un-anthemically--fulfills the promise of the evening's opening.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Death and Flying at the Vancouver International Dance Festival

My colleague Rob Kitsos's latest work, a duet created with and for dancers Jane Osborne and Kim Stevenson (both of them former students of Rob's), debuted last night at the Roundhouse as part of this year's Vancouver International Dance Festival. Death and Flying combines two of Rob's latest research interests: text and movement; and embodied ethnography. To this end, the piece takes its cue from interviews with Osborne and Stevenson about memories of their families, and specifically objects and mementoes from their families that have special meaning for them (both women have lost their fathers). We hear excerpts from these interviews in voiceover, which are remixed, looped and occasionally distorted as part of the overall score by composer and sound designer Elliot Vaughn, and which the dancers also break off their movements to lipsynch to at different moments.

However, the piece actually begins with a recording of a poem by Maximilian Heinegg, about the makeshift will that his parents would always make whenever they took a plane trip together, and how their improvisatory bequeathing of their worldly goods prompts a reflection on his relationship with them, and with his siblings. Osborne and Stevenson, dressed in simple t-shirts and jeans, enter from opposite sides of the stage, meet in the middle, and then launch themselves into a series of micro-gestures, the pointing of a finger, the roll of a shoulder, or the cutting through air of a hand creating separate embodied pathways for each dancer that mirror the twin jet streams of air billowing from behind the animated air plane that traverses the screen behind them (the beguiling animations, including ink-outlined avatars of Osborne and Stevenson, that play throughout the piece are by another former student of Rob's whose name I didn't catch).

Stevenson, in her recorded reflections, more than once uses the word "resemblance" when talking about her memories of her deceased father (a former RCMP officer). In the specific phraseology of her speech the word initially struck me as an odd choice, but upon reflection it now seems an apt way of describing a kinaesthetic process of re-membering, by which the cherished tics or traits of a loved-one become physicalized in one's own body. The way we make a bed or set a table, the way we lay out a suit to be pressed or line up papers on a desk: if, as many cognitive theorists have suggested, our first and most immediate way of learning and knowing is through sensori-motor observation rather than language, then it makes sense that over our lifetimes we will have inherited and physically incorporated a storehouse of kinetic memories from our parents. In Rob's choreography these play out as felt pathways to puzzle through and decipher, often beginning with a simple isolation of a single part of the body or a quotidian gesture (like the laying of hands on an invisible countertop) that then triggers an extended line of movement that Osborne and Stevenson, sometimes individually and sometimes together, follow instinctively but also with halting deliberation, every turn in one direction or step backwards or drop to the floor reminding me of the way one feels for the light switch in the darkened room of a house to which one has returned after some time away.

Two moments in particular stood out for me from last night's performance. The first is a sequence of gestures that Osborne and Stevenson perform in unison centre stage, but facing at a diagonal from each other, alternately pivoting away from and towards each other as they cycle through a vertical hail, a horizontal reach, a hip bend, a buckle of one knee, a shoulder roll, and so on. It's a repertoire of movements at once so common and yet here, placed in quasi-canon by virtue of the performers' different facings, likewise so uniquely individual; as such it powerfully encapsulated for me how one's individual genealogy of gestures might, over time, get shared with and distributed to other kinship networks--such as, in this case, one's dance family (and here I am reminded of the fact that Rob and Jane and Kim have a working relationship that dates back to 2009's Wake, and also of some of the ideas that Justine A. Chambers is working through in her Family Dinner: A Lexicon).

The second memorable moment came near the end when Osborne and Stevenson, again working in unison, engage in a series of super fast and barely perceptible stutter steps and sideways jerkings. Maybe it was because of the preceding voiceover from Osborne, about a gift of digitized Super-8 footage of her parents that she received from her brother, or maybe I was influenced by the evocative image by David Cooper included in the program, but the sequence reminded me of the glitches or unexpected jumps in an old video recording, or of the blur of motion stilled in a photograph. Either way it perfectly captured for me the ideas of embodied or kinetic memory that Rob is playing with in this piece: some recollected actions we can call on at specific moments for comfort or solace, and some overtake us, unbidden, and convulse us with their suddenness and their force.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 29

Yesterday I interviewed Lesley Telford in my SFU Woodward's office for our Vancouver Dance Histories project. It was a rare free hour for the busy choreographer as she prepares to premiere a new commission for Ballet BC tomorrow at the Queen E, and as she continues the development of a new piece called spooky action at a distance (about particle entanglement) for her company Inverso as part of her current residency at The Dance Centre. The premiere of the latter work at the end of April coincides with the remount of my play Long Division, for which Lesley also did the choreography--and which she has said to me she'd still like to polish and tweak. I don't know how she'll manage being in two places at once, but certainly her inventiveness as a choreographer (as well as her partiality for working with text) is part of the reason I was so keen to collaborate with her.

I first encountered Lesley's work when her Brittle Failure played the Chutzpah! Festival in 2013. At that point she was still based in Madrid (she moved back to Vancouver permanently the following year). How she got to Madrid begins with ballet lessons at age five in Cloverdale to correct a turned-in foot. From there she went on to study at the Kirkwood Academy and Goh Ballet, before moving to Montreal to train at the École supérieure de danse du québec. From there she joined her first company, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, then under the direction of Larry Rhodes. Her first show for the company was Balanchine's Agon, and very early on she also partnered Louis Robitaille (now AD at Ballets Jazz de Montréal) in a piece by James Kudelka. At 24 Lesley moved to Spain to dance for Nacho Duato at the Spanish National Dance Company; it was there that she first encountered the choreography of Jiří Kylián. Six years later she was a company member at Nederlands Dans Theater, helping to create original works by Kylián, Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, Crystal Pite and others.

It was while at NDT (where she danced from 2000-2010) that Lesley first began to choreograph. During this time she was also traveling back to Vancouver in the summers, at one point approaching Artemis Gordon at Arts Umbrella about the possibility of teaching for her. Artemis said yes, and that part-time summer gig has turned into a full-time position since Lesley's return to Vancouver. Indeed, Arts Umbrella, in allowing Lesley to combine her interests in making and teaching, has enabled her to develop work over longer stretches of time and to have a shared continuity of choreographic information with her collaborators. A case in point is her piece "An Instant," which she first developed on the senior students at AU; she was later invited by Emily Molnar to re-set the work on the dancers of Ballet BC. That two of the original AU dancers in the piece, Emily Chessa and Christoph von Reidemann, had since joined Ballet BC only made that process that much more fluid. Similarly, the dancers in the new Performance Research Program that Lesley has started at AU--all of them already working professionally, but also seeking additional post-graduation opportunities for intensive training--are also helping Lesley create the first phase of spooky action at a distance (a glimpse of which I was able to see at an open showing last week at the DC). These same talented performers were also integral to creating and helping to teach to the actors the choreography in Long Division.

It was through that process especially that I was able to see what an inspired teacher-choreographer Lesley is. We're lucky to have her back in the city.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dairakudakan's Paradise at The Vancouver Playhouse

In 2015 Jay Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget welcomed the Japanese butoh company Dairakudakan to the Vancouver International Dance Festival. Their presentation of the wild and surreal Mushi no Hoshi (Space Insect) was a sensation (I wrote about that performance here). Since then Hirabayashi and Bourget have gotten to know the company and its charismatic founder and lead performer, Akaji Maro, quite well, traveling to Japan to train with them and now inviting Dairakudakan back to Vancouver on the occasion of the company's 45th anniversary to present Paradise, their latest full-length work.

In the program notes Maro says that he has no problem imagining what hell looks like. For paradise, however, it's another story. His solution was to begin with the word itself, specifically its Persian etymological root, which means "enclosed garden." This of course synchs up with a Christian cosmology that begins with Adam and Eve romping through an earthly paradise, and that supposedly ends with a rapturous rising of the righteous and redeemed to a heavenly one. However, as Maro additionally notes, in Buddhism another word for hell is Sukhavati, or "Western Paradise." And it is this very dialectical relationship between apparent opposites--heaven and hell, garden and desert, life and death, misery and ecstasy--that constitutes Maro's vision of paradise in this piece.

The work is structured in eight movements. In the first, "Nature," the curtains part to reveal the full company, in traditional white body paint, crouched downstage, a single trembling mass that is punctuated by individual heads every now and then twisting this way and that. Slowly the twenty dancers stand up and fan out in a circle, their bodies attached by chains to the central figure of a green-robed Maro, who had been hidden amongst them, and around whom they now pivot like slaves to an all-powerful god, or maybe just cogs in the wheel of some churning elemental force that needs them as much as they need him. For when the company members eventually release themselves and leave Maro alone on stage dragging his chains about his skirts against a projected backdrop of lush forest he appears like a once mighty tree that is about to teeter and fall.

The piece is filled with stunning imagistic moments that play with both religious and popular conceptions of paradise: two snake-like figures, their bodies wound with rope, who tempt two trios of men and women with forbidden fruit; wooden containers atop which six women contort their bodies, their bottoms at one point pushed skywards by the utterly surprising appearance of six male heads rising up from unseen holes in the boxes and pressing against the women's pelvises; a disco parade of "Club Paradise" revellers roller-skating about the stage; the deaths and burials of these same revellers in a rainstorm of rose petals presided over by Maro; and finally a re-chaining of the entire company to the central figure of Maro, who over the course of this paradisal journey seems to have become unsettled in his being. "Who am I? What am I?," he asks at the end. It's an accounting of self that in many traditions we have to make before being granted access to paradise. But here, in the feverishly imaginative worlds conjured by Maro and Dairakudakan on stage, the suggestion is that such questions are prompted through a by no means benign encounter with paradise itself.


Crumbling at KW Studios

There is a new venue being used for select performances during this year's Vancouver International Dance Festival. Alongside familiar spaces like the Roundhouse and the Vancouver Playhouse, VIDF co-producers Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi have added the new KW Production Studio to their roster of performance sites. KW is the former city-owned cultural amenity space that belonged to W2 Media Arts in the Woodward's complex at Abbott and West Hastings. In 2015 Bourget and Hirabayashi's Kokoro Dance, together with VIDF, Vancouver Moving Theatre, and Raven Spirit Dance were given the nod to take over the vacated space, which included a suite of offices on the second floor of the tower above TD Bank, a ground-level space that opens onto the atrium and basketball court (and which W2 had used as a cafe), and a subterranean concrete shell which I had only previously seen host meetings and book launches.

Bourget and Hirabayashi have spent the last year and a half overseeing renovations of these latter two spaces, with the aim to turn both into rehearsal, teaching and performance venues for dance and music (there is now a new recording studio adjacent the basement space). It has been a slow and arduous process working with city contractors, and with a great many complex things (like converting a concrete floor into something you can dance on) needing to happen in a specific sequence (e.g. the lighting grid needing to be installed before drywall can be put up). And while the spaces are still not completely finished, Bourget and Hirabayashi were determined to open them up during this year's VIDF to show the public that they did in fact exist, and to introduce those who were interested to their special intimacy.

All of which explains what I was doing at 4:45 pm yesterday afternoon hanging out after a School meeting at the eastern end of the Woodward's atrium. A half dozen of us had gathered there for VIDF's presentation of Crumbling, a solo choreographed by Bourget for the Toronto-based dancer Matthew Romantini. Soon Bourget arrived and led us down the labyrinthine staircase and hallway that leads to the underground KW Production Studio (one of the challenges moving forward in terms of usage of the space will be public access, as presently Bourget can only let us in and out with her magnetized fob). I had been given a tour of the venue late last summer, when it was still very much in mid-construction; Bourget's caveats about what still has to be done notwithstanding, the transformation of the space to date is nothing short of remarkable. A very real material obstacle to both performance and spectatorship in KW is the fact that its ceiling is supported by two giant concrete pillars. There are a few different configurations that can be used to work around this and yesterday's solution was to conscript the pillars into a quasi-proscenium, with chairs for audience members placed in contiguous alignment with them. This means that the stage space is very shallow, but for yesterday's performance that worked to our benefit as it meant we were that much closer to Romantini, who is a very expressive performer.

Crumbling was a doubly uncanny spectating experience for me. Not only was I sitting in this new black box space with the memory of its former concrete shell still fresh in my mind, but the solo being performed by Romantini also evoked very real kinetic memories in my own body. To explain: Bourget set portions of Crumbling on those of us who participated in Kokoro's 2015 Wreck Beach Butoh performance. And so when to the sounds of the haunting and eerie music by George Crumb Romantini begins his slow butoh walk, extending his right arm across his chest and turning to look to his left I couldn't help but flash back to the EDAM Studios at the Western Front when Bourget first taught the movement to us (and more often than not told us we were doing it wrong). It was a strange experience anticipating what was coming next movement-wise, but also wanting to concentrate on how Romantini was executing that movement in the present. Bourget took inspiration for the piece from a poem about Icarus by Yukio Mishima, and the work is filled with moments of striving upwards towards flight, which are invariably followed by earth-bound collapses. One of the most compelling things for me yesterday was to watch how Romantini would contract his body inward in the moments immediately preceding these falls. It seemed to happen bone by bone, vertebra by vertebra. And the landings were always so soft, like he was indeed a bird.

Of course there was much in the performance that was new, as we had only learned a portion of the solo in 2015. For example, the poem by Mishima that Bourget had given us as inspiration for our execution of the movement Romantini actually speaks. And an image at the end that perfectly encapsulates the dialectic of creation and destruction at the heart of this work (and the myth of Icarus more generally) elicited a gasp of surprise from my closest neighbour in the audience. It involves Romantini scooping up a baby, or maybe an injured bird, from the ground and then cradling it in his arms, before biting off the head of the swaddling creature and picking out bits of imaginary bone from the back of his throat. Perhaps this is Romantini now as Daedalus eating his young, a comment by Bourget on what has to be consumed to make great art. Whatever the case, it put a memorable stamp on a performance piece that I have come to know quite well, and on a performance space that I look forward to revisiting many times in the future.


Saturday, March 4, 2017

Alonzo King LINES Ballet at The Playhouse

Vancouver International Dance Festival favourites Alonzo King LINES Ballet are back in town, in residence at the Vancouver Playhouse yesterday evening and tonight following their last visit to the city in 2012. As was the case then, King has brought his trademark melding of classical technique and contemporary expression to a program of two ensemble works that also showcases his and his company members' innate musicality.

The first piece on the program, Shostakovich, is set to four string quartets by the Russian composer, with the dissonant tonality and sharp contrasts between the notes finding kinetic form through the repetition of different patterns of suspension and release. Indeed, the simple act of relevé--further heightened here by the fact that the women are in point shoes--turns into a dramatic precipice from which the dancers, sometimes following and sometimes anticipating the music, alternately launch themselves into space, catching still more air, or else fall back to the ground.

Sand features a contemporary jazz score by Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran and a simple yet wonderfully effective set design by Christopher Haas that is made up of a backdrop of oscillating ropes (and behind which some of the dancers occasionally appear). Across the piece's eight sections the dancers move as individual grains, as composite forms, and as a single mineral mass. The final section, in which company members arrange themselves in different poses of stillness about the stage while watching, along with us, a gorgeous pas de deux performed by Madeline DeVries and Robb Beresford, perfectly captures this idea of granularity, simultaneously embodying proximity and distance.

Of sand it is often said that no two grains are alike, but that when aggregated in a sandbox or on a beach they are indistinguishable. I can think of no better metaphor for the way this company works. Looking at the dancers on stage, for example, one can't help noticing their refreshing racial diversity. But, at the same time, when they move together they become a single--and incredibly fine-tuned--instrument.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Elbow Room Café: The Musical at the York Theatre

Two years ago Zee Zee Theatre presented a workshop version of Elbow Room Café: The Musical at Studio 58. Written by Zee Zee playwright-in-residence Dave Deveau, who also serves as co-lyricist with composer Anton Lipovetsky, the workshop was directed by Zee Zee’s Managing Artistic Director, Cameron Mackenzie. It was such a hit that the creative team decided to move towards a full production, which is of course never a sure thing given the expense and risk of any musical without a proven pedigree or the imprimatur of Disney. That Elbow Room honours the owners of a quirky local landmark in Vancouver’s gay village would only seem to further segment its potential audience. However, none of this deterred the Vancouver East Cultural Centre’s Executive Director, Heather Redfern, who came on board as a co-presenter, and who together with Deveau and Mackenzie presided over last night’s world premiere of the full musical at The Cultch’s York Theatre, where the work runs until March 12. Get your tickets now, as this baby is going to be a hit (and I’m not just saying that because I’m on Zee Zee’s board).

For anyone not in the know (and, honey, that really is a pity), The Elbow Room Café is a legendary breakfast spot opened by life and business partners Patrice (Patrick) Savoie and Bryan Searle in its original cramped quarters on Jervis Street in 1983. It moved to its current location on Davie Street in 1996. The Elbow Room is renowned for the caustic verbal abuse served up by Savoie, Searle and their employees alongside orders of pancakes, eggs and toast. Savoie, in particular, treats all customers with equal disdain, and many Hollywood stars have lined up for a chance to be on the receiving end of his rebarbative wit. But the Elbow Room has also long been a driving charitable force in the community, with a strictly enforced donation policy for every plate upon which food remains—monies that are passed on to A Loving Spoonful, the volunteer-driven, non-profit society that has provided free meals to people living with HIV/AIDS in Greater Vancouver since 1989. More quietly, Savoie and Searle worked behind the scenes in the early days of the pandemic to ease the burden of those living with the disease, which included retaining on staff several employees who were HIV-positive.

All of this is referenced in the musical, a contemporary day in the life of the café that coalesces around several parallel storylines. Tim (Steven Greenfield) and Tabby (a terrifically brassy Emma Slipp) are married tourists from Tennessee who stop into the café on their way to Stanley Park, and whose initially wide-eyed and then increasingly participatory observations of staff and patrons’ camp antics mimics the fish-out-water scenario of Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Show. Jackie (the immensely talented Christine Quintana) is a regular waiting to meet her former girlfriend, Jill (Olivia Hutt, also a stand-out), who arrives late, as expected, but also carrying (quite literally) some very unexpected news. Finally, Stephen (a queerly acerbic Nathan Kay), Beth (Stephanie Wong) and Amanda (Stephanie Yusuf) are part of a bachelorette party that’s gone off the rails; the trio comes into the Elbow Room ostensibly to sober Amanda up before she hops a plane to Mexico to marry her fiancé, but Stephen and Beth seem to have very different ideas about how best to go about this, or whether this is even what their friend really wants. All of this is set against the central drama of the musical, with the habitual bickering of Patrick and Bryan (an expertly matched Allan Zinyk and Bryan D. Adams) threatening to lead to a breaking point as a result of Patrick’s desire to get married and retire, leaving the café in the hands of their capable and long-suffering employee, Nelson (the hard-working Justin Lapeña, who also doubles as Chiffon, a drag fairy only Tim can see, and a Mountie stripper who gives the uptight Beth a much-needed lap dance late in the musical).

Amanda’s ambivalence about marriage and Patrick’s belief in the institution is just one of the queer/straight binaries that Deveau and Lipovetsky play with. There’s also the queerness within straight marriage that we gradually discover through the unfolding relationship between Tim and Tabby, with the former eventually embracing his glittery inner drag diva, and with the latter showing who in fact wears the pants in this family via the show-stopping number “A Girl’s Gotta Eat!” Indeed, part of the immense charm of Elbow Room Café: The Musical is that it knowingly traffics in the stereotypes and sentimentality of the musical genre at the same time as it exuberantly subverts and deconstructs them. Some of the jokes and one-liners in the book are groan-inducingly obvious and hammy (especially as delivered by Zinyk’s chief buffon, Patrick, who at one point wades into the audience looking for his next mark); but in every collective laugh or sigh of recognition we also experience a community in formation. That’s what we see in the camp aesthetic onstage in this work, and also in the legendary social gathering place upon which it is based. Like Tim and Tabby, if you’re not initially in on the joke then it’s up to you to find out why—and to find your own way in.

Not everything about Elbow Room Café: The Musical is perfect. In its current state it actually feels a bit book-heavy, with the exposition especially weighty in the overly long first act. One consequence of this is that before they come together, the structural shifts between each storyline sometimes mean that the bulk of the performers on stage are for long stretches left with very little to do except mime some bits of business at their respective tables. Overall, however, this is clearly a labour of love on everyone’s part, a musical that despite the relative intimacy of its scale (including a crackerjack all-female band of Sally Zori, Clare Wyatt and Molly MacKinnon) is so very big in its heart.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

In Penumbra at The Dance Centre

In astronomy, penumbra refers to a space of partial shadow between full illumination and full shadow, as in an eclipse. And so perhaps it is to be expected that audience members are handed sunglasses upon entering The Dance Centre's Faris Studio for the world premiere of In Penumbra, a new work by Paras Terezakis' Kinesis Dance Somatheatro (which is how the choreographer is now branding his company in this, its 30th anniversary year). A co-presentation with the Vancouver International Dance Festival, the piece does feature a stunning lighting design by the incomparable James Proudfoot. Much of that design is an active and agential part of the larger scenography, including a hanging net of hundreds of incandescent bulbs, several plastic fluorescent tubes attached to long cords and lying on the stage floor, even a bunch of wearable LED headlights. Combined with the fact that the audience is seated in the round, it is hard not to be caught in the direct beam or refracted glare of one or more lighting sources over the course of the hour-long piece. (That said, the sunglasses pose a practical challenge for those of us who wear regular glasses, and so I ended up dispensing with them pretty quickly.)

The entire design concept for In Penumbra is incredibly sophisticated and integrated, starting with the unique banner-style program that we are handed in the lobby (yeah for challenging the hegemony of the DC's boring white one-page fold-overs!). Kudos as well to the rest of the design team, including sound designer Nancy Tam (who does wonders with a reverberating microphone stand), costume designer Natalie Purschwitz, and video designer Josh Hite (though the non-proscenium seating in this case somewhat worked against the projections, as they only played out on what would normally be the upstage wall, and so one only registered them when one or more of the dancers moved in that direction). The piece also features perhaps the most original and effective entrance and exit of its performers that I've ever seen in the Faris Studio, with dancers Arash Khakpour, Elissa Hanson, Hyoseung Ye, Diego Romero, and Renée Sigouin descending and then later ascending a ladder propped against the lobby-level tech booth.

As for what happens movement-wise in between these bookended coups-de-thèȃtre, things are much more inchoate, with the "grey zone" of kinetic exploration and discovery in relation to the objects and other material properties on stage sometimes going on too long and feeling a bit self-indulgent. That said, individual moments were utterly compelling, including the group waltz that opens the piece, a mechanical kissing duet between Khakpour and Hanson, each of the wildly careering solos by the men, and Sigouin's dragging of the microphone against the upstage wall. In between, however, it often felt like many physical actions were functioning more as stage business than as fleshed out movement ideas (a case in point being all of the taking off of and putting back on of clothes). And as far as I could tell the dragged out ending to the piece--in which audience members are coaxed out of their chairs, which are then removed along with other freestanding items on stage--seemed more like an expedient way to strike the set than as meaningful concluding statement about the dark spots of enlightenment.