Friday, June 30, 2017

Battle Your Demons in Dreamspace at the James Black Gallery

Last night at sunset, just as the province was experiencing the twilight and eventual eclipse of Christy Clark's Liberal government, I was gazing up into the open bay windows at the front of the James Black Gallery on East 6th Avenue in Vancouver, luxuriating in the warmth of a gorgeous summer evening and the proximate haze of pot smoke, and thus somatically primed to receive the healing trans-dimensional message of love delivered by the bewitching lounge singer Linda Foxx.

Foxx is the creation of multi-talented performance artist Layla Marcelle Mrozowski, who in collaboration with musician and mixed-media artist Dave Biddle--and accompanied by back-up dancers Justine A. Chambers, Alex Mah, and Andrea Cownden--stageed an hour-long virtual or conceptual concert/house party called Battle Your Demons in Dreamspace. Lipsynching to a clutch of "synthetic" voice-altered songs created and played by Biddle through vocoder technology, Foxx/Mrozowski, sporting a bright orange wig and wearing day-glo blue lipstick, invited us in the most sinuously seductive manner possible to throw off any remaining inhibitions we might have and indulge in the myriad pleasures afforded by an apocalypse that is not just imminent, but that has already arrived.

In a world where the earthquake is here, where fear can be buckled into a car seat and sent on its way, and where caged goats patiently offer up their necks to the impress of our newly sharpened incisors, the only thing we need to do to prepare for the time of love, Ms. Foxx instructs us, is to get in touch with our bodies: feel the earth underneath our feet; breathe in through our noses and out through our mouths; rub our tongues along our teeth (and taste that goat's blood). And, above all, unloosen our hips and groove to the music she is carrying to us via her other-worldly voice.

Maybe it's because I'm currently watching The Leftovers on television, or maybe it's just that in this current socio-political moment nothing seems out of the ordinary any more, but I found Foxx's strangely unsettling message just the narcotic of belief that I needed on this particular evening.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Cinerama at Spanish Banks

Extending their enquiries into the principles of materialist scenography and the performativity of performance environments, Fight With a Stick's (FWS) latest production is called Cinerama, and is a site-based work set on Spanish Banks at low tide. At an appointed time (it varies each day) and regardless of the weather, audience members assemble just beyond the beach's western concession stand. After checking in with an attendant yesterday afternoon around 1:15 pm and receiving some general instructions, we are all issued noise-cancelling earphones and instructed to head off in the general direction of one of the many container ships dotting the horizon.

It was a surprisingly long trek, a good 12-15 minutes, before we arrived at the playing space, which was an instructive lesson in just how vast a sweep of shoreline is covered by the intertidal, or littoral, zone the closer one gets to the mouth of the ocean. This initial journey was also a crucial first phase of the performance. For me, the earphones accomplished two interrelated goals. First, they made me more aware of my breathing, which in turn put me more in touch with my body as a whole, including the feel of the sand underneath my bare feet and the warmth of the water collecting in different tidal pools. At the same time, the absence of sound extended my visual sense outward, so that the entire panorama in front and to either side of me--from the human and animal action on the sand, to those sublimely disturbing ships set against the backdrop of the north shore mountains, to the built cityscape to my right, and to the hazy, shimmery archipelago of Vancouver and the Gulf Islands to my left--seemed to present itself as a series of shifting relationships of scale that regardless of actual physical distances nevertheless felt collectively within and out of reach, all at once: as if my body might punch through a trompe l'oeil painted backdrop on an old-school Hollywood studio set at any moment. In this way, the opening walk in Cinerama sets up the context for the rest of the piece, which seeks to make manifest the mechanisms by which we frame--and, by extension, annex--the natural spaces around us.

Once we arrive at the playing space, which FWS has positioned several hundred metres from the edge of what is already the incoming tide, we are instructed by sound designer Nancy Tam to place our headphones in an awaiting wagon and to take a seat on any of the vertically staggered chairs not marked with an X that have been anchored into the sand. To the backs of the X-marked chairs have been affixed mini-iPods, from which issue Tam's score, a mix of recorded extra-diagetic nautical sounds (the whoosh of water ebbing and flowing, boat horns, the squawking of birds) that combines with the live diagetic noise being produced around us (including the curious and/or flummoxed comments from passersby who happen upon the scene). Produced through this hybrid double-act of DJing is an assemblage of the natural and the mechanical, the ambient and the amplified, that is in keeping with Cinerama's overall troubling of the categories of background and foreground, and that contributes to an exploration of an idea of "atmosphere" that is at once theatrical and climatological.

Thus seated and newly "attuned" to our environment, we await the next phase of the performance. Not that things aren't already happening all around us: folks of every age and shape and state of undress promenading on the sand and in the surf; dogs chasing after balls; kids water skimming; birds and the occasional float plane soaring past in the sky. And not that we aren't also, as previously mentioned, the surveilled object of other onlookers' more or less focussed gaze. But at a certain point these multiple circuits of looking start to shift in a single direction as, on our left (or western) periphery, we begin to become aware of something (and someone) advancing towards us from the horizon. Two large steel frames, mobile picture windows onto the vista's equally portable vanishing point, are being carried by FWS performer-devisers, one person on either side of the frame and similarly apparelled in designer all-weather hazmat-style suits that Natalie Purschwitz has assembled from fabric that seems to mimic the elements of sea and sky, clouds and earth, so that at a greater remove it appears as if the performers are at one with their surroundings and that the frames are moving all on their own (a trick of perception FWS had previously experimented with in the award-winning Revolutions). Somewhere in this process I must have looked away, because when next I focussed on the progress of the advancing frames and performers, two had suddenly multiplied to five (and four to ten); I can only surmise that three of the frames had been positioned to lie in the sand more proximately to where the audience was seated and that as the more distant ones crossed their paths, they were raised up and also started moving. At any rate, the peripatetic journey of the frames ends when they are installed at different junctures in between the staggered line-up of audience chairs, so that depending on where one is seated in this line-up one's experience of watching watchers watch is diffracted x-fold.

Had the performance ended here I would have been supremely (and sublimely) satisfied, so content was I to stare out through the four frames in front of me, this mise-en-abyme of human and non-human actants coalescing into a single long take that was refreshingly contemplative: an installation- or site-based version of slow cinema. However, the performance was far from over and the frames, no matter our initial expectations, did not remain stationary. Instead, over the next half hour or so the FWS performers (company co-directors Steven Hill and Alex Lazaridis Ferguson, alongside collaborators who included Scott Billings, Delia Brett, Elissa Hanson, Josh Hite, Diego Romero, and Paula Viitanen) manipulated the frames in a kind of mechanical ballet. The movement started slowly and subtly, with the frames being raised up and down a quarter-inch or so, and rippling backwards from the frame positioned closest to the water. Eventually the tempo picked up and the up-and-down movement was supplemented by the frames being tilted forwards and backwards, shifted horizontally to the left and the right, and arced vertically on their axes by incremental degrees. As this was going on, the tide was slowly (and then more and more quickly) creeping in, with the movement of the frames not so much mimicking as complementing the locomotive drift of the water, which swirls and eddies from different directions, picking up speed and force, until what seemed impossibly distant and at a safely calculable physical and temporal remove is suddenly lapping at your knees.

And this, finally, is what comprises the brilliance of this production, what I'll call the framing of the rhythms of diurnal events. The tide goes out and it comes back in. Still at this point in the anthropocene such a statement remains a dialectical certainty. Cinerama focuses our attention on the inevitability of waiting for what we know is coming. And the payoff is that we still end up surprised.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Music on Main at Frankie's Jazz Club

Having just come back from the city of Brahms' birth (and having actually walked through the very square where his childhood house still stands), it was appropriate that last night Richard and I should attend a Music on Main fundraising concert that culminated in a sonata (Cello Sonata in F No. 2, Op. 99, to be precise) by the composer. It was part of a program pairing Jane Hayes on piano and Rebecca Wenham on cello that also featured works by Robert Schumann (his increasingly exuberant Fantasy Pieces Op. 73) and Claude Debussy (the late Spanish-inflected Cello Sonata from 1915).

All of this was presented in the intimate setting of Frankie's Jazz Club, on Beatty Street, a throwback to MoM's pioneering presentations of classical and contemporary music at The Cellar a few years ago. It was certainly a treat to be able to experience up close the musical chemistry between Hayes and Wenham, and to do so while enjoying a glass of wine. I also appreciated the commentary by both artists in between each piece, which added rich context to our listening enjoyment. For example, Wenham noted that Schumann, who wrote his Fantasy Pieces in three frenetic days, originally composed the work for piano and clarinet, but that he also authorized its transcription for cello. Hayes asked us to think about flamenco dancers as we absorbed the piano part of the last movement of Debussy's sonata. And both added equally rich commentary to their dual introduction of the concluding Brahms piece.

The evening was also a chance for MoM's David Pay to announce their upcoming 2017/18 season. One of the highlights will be MoM's co-hosting of the International Society for Contemporary Music's World New Music Days in Vancouver in 2017. This is the first time this globetrotting presentation of the best in contemporary world new music has been to Canada in 30+ years, and it will be a terrific opportunity to hear compositions representing some 50 nations. Good on MoM for taking the lead in bringing this event to Vancouver.


Friday, June 9, 2017

Vu du pont at Theater der Welt Festival

Our second outing to the Theater der Welt Festival here in Hamburg was to celebrated Belgian director Ivo van Hove's French-language version of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, which is having its German premiere at the venerated Thalia Theater. I had always wanted to see a production by van Hove, whose radical adaptations/deconstructions of classics from the dramatic canon, most designed by his long-term partner Jan Versweyveld, have earned him an international reputation. He has a particular affinity for twentieth-century American plays, and this is his second major production of a Miller work; The Crucible ran on Broadway alongside Bridge in 2016, with the latter earning two Tony awards.

Miller's Bridge, which began as a one-act verse drama, and which also seeded the screenplay for On the Waterfront, was the playwright's attempt to transpose the structure and themes of classical Greek tragedy to an American context. It centres on Eddie Carbone, who works alongside his friend Louis as a longshoreman on the waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Eddie is married to Beatrice, and together the childless couple has raised Catherine, the orphaned daughter of Beatrice's sister. At the play's opening Catherine has just turned 18 and has gotten a job as a stenographer, earning more money in a week than her stepfather. This is the first of the jolts to Eddie's old-school masculine sense of how the world should be. The second comes when Catherine falls in love with Rodolfo, one of two illegal Italian immigrants whom Eddie has agreed to take in and help find work. Eddie is convinced that Rodolfo, who is blond and likes to sing, cook and sew, is gay and only wants to marry Catherine so that he can stay in the country legally. This climaxes in Eddie publicly kissing Rodolfo in an attempt to expose the latter's hidden sexuality, but the act actually reveals more about Eddie's own latent tendencies. When Catherine still refuses to part with Rodolfo, a desperate Eddie calls the immigration authorities, a move that has graver consequences for the second of the two migrant workers, Marco; his subsequent revenge is the final piece of Eddie's tragic downfall.

All of this is narrated to us by the lawyer Alfieri, Miller's allusion to Vittorio Alfieri, considered the founder of Italian tragedy. In Bridge Alfieri is at once the conduit between the old world and the new world, and between the world of the play and the audience. His pronouncements--to both Eddie and Marco--on the coldness of the law, and the fateful consequences for those who would take it into their own hands, continue to have resonance. And, indeed, there is a way in which van Hove's production read to me on one level as a comment on the current global refugee crisis--and America's apparent indifference to that crisis under its current presidential administration. Versweyveld's set may have had something to do with this impression. At the top of the show the audience, which is configured in the round, is confronted with a huge steel-grey box that could double as a shipping container; when the play begins, the bottom half of the box rises to reveal the playing space, a bare white floor enclosed by a low glass wall, and with a single upstage door from which the actors enter and exit. All of the action--which takes place over a continuous two hours, with no scene breaks or blackouts--occurs in this space, and the spareness of van Hove's staging, together with the removal of any overt markers of the narrative's Brooklyn setting, seems to be part of the director's attempt to recuperate the play as a tragedy tout court--rather than as an expressly American tragedy.

Notwithstanding this impulse, as well as the fact that van Hove has successfully staged a version of this production in London, New York, Amsterdam, and Paris, there is still a way in which this piece seems quintessentially of its time--and, even more so, of a particular period in Miller's writing life when he was wrestling with what it meant, for him, to be an American man. Eddie is such a curious character; to my mind, he comes across as a kind of male hysteric. Maybe it was this particular view, or maybe it was the overall acting style of this company from Paris' Odeon Theatre, that suggested to me that Bridge is fundamentally a work of melodrama rather than tragedy. Then again, we're having a melodramatic moment, so maybe this is exactly the right register in which to stage this play.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Burning Doors at Theater Der Welt Festival in Hamburg

I'm in Hamburg, Germany at the moment attending the annual Performance Studies international conference. It has been programmed in conjunction with the biannual Theater der Welt Festival, which moves around different German cities every two years. Last night Richard and I attended a performance of Belarus Free Theatre's latest production, Burning Doors. As political theatre, it makes anything I've seen before in North America under that label pale by comparison, not least because BFT company members are clear that the stakes of their performance choices must match the stakes of the personal choices of the dissidents whose stories they are telling on stage.

Founded in 2005 in Minsk and banned from its own country on political grounds soon after, BFT works in exile from London, combining agitprop and physical theatre aesthetics in a manner that is at once virtuosic and visceral, making every moment seem as if it is a matter of life and death. For Burning Doors, the company is collaborating with Maria Aloyhina, one of the members of Pussy Riot. Inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the painter Egon Schiele, the piece explores the relationship between the body, power, and art, focussing specifically on the stories of incarceration of three dissident artists in Russia: Aloyhina; the St. Petersburg-based performance artist Petr Pavlensky; and the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who remains in prison, serving a twenty year sentence. The production of Burning Doors is dedicated expressly to raising international awareness regarding Sentsov's detention.

As the performance was in Russian and Belarussian, with German surtitles, it is impossible for me to distill the entire narrative of the piece (although an English translation of the script was very graciously provided). That said, I could follow that each of the three artists' stories were being told in turn, and that these stories were likewise being juxtaposed with two additional layers of meta-narrative: one in which the Foucauldian routines of discipline and punishment inside the prison are clinically dissected for the audience; and one in which Russia's bureaucratic administration of political protest is played for existential--and scatological--laughs (most often featuring a pair of hapless Kremlin clerks, and accounting for the relevance of Dostoevsky as an authorial source). However, it is the scenes of extreme physicality that most affectively demonstrate how the brutality of dictatorial regimes is visited upon the bodies of its political dissidents. While these scenes occur throughout the piece, the last twenty minutes comprise a steady accretion of acts of physical extremity that in their duration and accumulation literally knocked the wind out of me: and repeated punches and kicks to the gut are indeed part of this sequence.

None of this is easy to watch, but it definitely conveys in a startlingly felt way that communicating the risks of protest demands similar aesthetic risks. I am so glad that I got to see the work of this brave and urgently relevant company.

Addendum: I just learned that Burning Doors will play Seattle's On the Boards from September 28-October 1. I urge folks in the Vancouver region to head down to check out this thrilling show.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Soliloquy in English and All the Way at the rEvolver Festival

I had hoped to get to much more of this year's rEvolver Festival than at present looks likely. I blame the fact that, unusually for me, I'm teaching this summer, am fighting a cold, and am preparing for a conference in Hamburg next week.

That said, I did want to plug one show that has its last performance this evening. O, o, o, o's All the Way, playing The Russian Hall at 8 pm, promises to be a wild and surreal ride into the world of haunted houses and game shows (and what, really, is the difference). Any company that can use the word "hypnagogic" in its show description has to be on to something. This super-talented collective of SFU Theatre grads haven't made a ton of work (because they're all busy with other gigs), but when they do it's usually a stunner. Check out my review of their site-specific take on a short play by Caryl Churchill here.

And I also wanted to give a brief shout out to the one rEvolver show that I did get to, Patrick Blenkarn's Soliloquy in English. This intimate take on an old-fashioned reading circle has three more performances: today at 5 and 8 pm, and tomorrow at 7 pm. The piece involves audience members reading together from the contents of a hand-made book that Blenkarn has crafted from interviews with friends and acquaintances for whom English is an additional language. At once a political commentary on the hegemony of English as a global (and globalizing) lingua franca and an alternately funny and moving concatenation of voices remembering what it's like to dream and swear and sing in another tongue, Soliloquy's spare dramaturgy also effectively implicates participants in the story being told. For we each take turns reading different passages in the book, a pattern of arrows indicating when we are to pass the book to our left or to our right. I found this simple physical act of passing an open book to a neighbour and indicating the place on the page where they are to continue reading to be one of the purest elaborations of what I understand to be the goal of relational aesthetics in art and performance. That last Sunday our group of five (including Blenkarn) lingered after we'd turned the final page of the book to keep talking about what we'd just experienced certainly attests to the larger conversations this work will inevitably spark among those lucky enough to participate in it.