Saturday, March 11, 2017

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.


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