Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In the Next Room at the Jericho Arts Centre

Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is a strange work of theatre. Paradoxically, had it been even stranger--that is, had the playwright found a way both in content and form to match her provocative subject matter to a more radical and intersectional feminist/queer politics--the play might have been successful. But after first appearing to mock them, Ruhl instead opts to embrace the conventions of the nineteenth-century drawing room comedy, including its bourgeois hetero-patriarchal ending. This results in a play that veers wildly in its tone and that ends up reinscribing the very domestic structures--not least the whole idea of the family itself--it appears to be questioning. Director Keltie Forsyth, overseeing Ensemble Theatre Company's production of the play, which runs in repertory as part of their annual summer theatre festival until August 17, does her best to navigate these swings, but notwithstanding some fine performances and compelling dramatic moments, this staging leaves me flummoxed as to why the play (which ran on Broadway and was nominated for a handful of Tony awards) has garnered so much critical praise.

At the centre of the play, which is set in the late 1800s, just after the dawn of electricity, is Catherine Givings (Lindsay Nelson), an upper-middle-class woman in New York who is frustrated by the inattention of her husband, Dr. Givings (Sebastain Kroon), and also by her inability to breastfeed her newborn daughter. Dr. Givings' speciality is treating female hysteria and as a result of Edison's discovery of electrical current, Givings has found a sure-fire way to cure his patients: by applying a vibratory pulse to their pubic areas, which is supposed to relieve the pressure upon their wombs and restore them to a more contemplative mood. Thus does Ruhl introduce the conceit contained in the parenthesis of her play's title by anchoring her plot in actual history. Catherine, listening to her husband treat Mrs. Daldry (an excellent Christine Reinfort) "in the next room," becomes intrigued by her cries of pleasure and after forming a friendship with the woman over the course of successive visits (and also after sneaking into her husband's operating room and testing the machine on herself), Catherine convinces Mrs. Daldry that they should compare their respective responses to the vibrating machine's stimulus. But by this point we have learned that Mrs. Daldry much prefers the manual stimulation of Dr. Givings' assistant, Annie (Alexis Kellum-Creer), whose physiological and emotional attentions she finds much more satisfying than those of her husband (an incredibly stiff David Wallace).

Added to this mix are two sub-plots. The first concerns a black wet-nurse, Elizabeth (Mariam Barry, playing the character's suffering of numerous racist slights with just the right mix of dignity and quietly contained rage), hired to tend to the Givings' baby. The second involves a worldly painter, Leo Irving (Francis Winter), who has come to Dr. Givings for his own treatment for male hysteria (cue the vibrating anal probe). Catherine and Leo enjoy a brief flirtation that succeeds in arousing the jealousy of Dr. Givings; however, Leo only has eyes for Elizabeth. All of this culminates in a clumsy denouement that leaves no one happy except the white bourgeois heterosexual professional couple, who rediscover their passion for each other (and, it turns out, the sudden obsolescence of Dr. Givings' machine) by making love in the snow. To be sure, in this scene it is Catherine who takes control of the lovemaking, undressing her husband and making his nude body an object of erotic display. But the fact that she ends up on top in the play's concluding tableau does not, to my mind, make up for the fact that earlier in the second act the same-sex possibilities that Ruhl telegraphs in Mrs. Daldry and Annie's one shared kiss are shut down immediately and with absolute finality as soon as the two women break off from their lip-lock: "I don't suppose I shall ever see you again," Mrs. Daldry states to Annie as she moves with purpose towards the door. Similarly, the implicit critique of white liberal feminism that Ruhl seems to be embedding in her script via her suggestion that first wave suffrage in America depended on the labour of black women's bodies gets muddied by having the relationship between Catherine and Elizabeth triangulated through a man, and a rather caricatured cad at that.

I should emphasize that I see these problems as intrinsic to the structure of the play, not as symptomatic of specific choices made in this production. Indeed, given my misgivings (forgive the pun) about the play's politics, I think that Forsyth has done a remarkable job in spotlighting multiple connections between the women characters in particular, ones that suggest possible alternative outcomes for them all. On the topic of lighting, however, the dimming and raising of the lights every time Catherine turned off or on her newfangled electric lamp drove me a bit batty. As did the rickety door between the living room and Dr. Givings' operating theatre. However, Julie White's costumes were a marvel of period detail. Indeed, the successive scenes of Mrs. Daldry undressing and dressing with Annie's assistance before and after her treatments distilled for me into a wordless pantomime much that this play was trying to say about female repression and empowerment.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Wreck Beach Butoh 2018

Owing to unexpected summer teaching commitments, I was unable to participate in Kokoro Dance's annual Wreck Beach Butoh process. This was disappointing, as I had hoped to make it three years in a row. That said, I did drop in on a couple of free morning classes down at KW Studios over the past two weeks, and so I got a glimpse of what Barbara and Jay were putting together this year. I also got to say hello to some of WBB's returning crew: Tuan and Keith and Bronwyn and Leslie and Noriko and Yvonne. It was a kick to be dancing in KW's new atrium studio, as we had a built-in audience from everyone who happened to be hanging out or wandering through the basketball courts at SFU Woodward's.

This morning, I made my way to Wreck Beach to see the weekend's final performance. I'd told Barbara that I would volunteer to carry one of Kokoro's red donation buckets, and also to police anyone trying to take photos. I proved to be a surprisingly good enforcer on both counts. Otherwise, I just generally enjoyed being a spectator, which I admit meant indulging in some relief at not having to go into and (even worse) get out of the water this year: though the sun was out and things got progressively warmer as the performance went on, there was a strong wind throughout.

There was some repeat choreography that I recognized: the pirate laughs and the tick tock walk and the ecstasy jumps, for example. But the core of this year's work was a central section that involved the dancers torquing their torsos toward the sun and gently turning in the breeze, and then drawing one arm up the other and across the face in a sequence that initiates a danced exploration of the senses. It was quite moving and tender to watch, especially in the way that the dancers moved into and out of unison. However, there was also some cheekiness--quite literally--as Barbara led the dancers in a group ass grab and wiggle directed at the audience.

The start of each WBB is always memorable, and this year I was struck by the fact that the slow and sensuously gestural unison walk toward the water by the clustered group of white painted dancers was accompanied by a chorus of sounds. Various other whoops and caws recurred throughout the piece, but this opening sequence of movement and sound was especially unique.

One final thing I noted was the way in which I was able to anticipate the directional flow of much of the choreography. To be sure, Barbara and Jay generally begin with a southward trajectory along the beach following the dancers' emergence from the water, before doubling back on themselves. However, I also think my instinctive knowledge of when and where to walk contained within it residual kinetic memories of having danced in previous WBB performances. Whatever the case, it was a nice feeling to have.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 35

Earlier this afternoon Kim Stevenson dropped by my SFU Woodward's office to share with me her Vancouver dance history. Like Molly McDermott and Deanna Peters and others, Kim came to the dance program at SFU via Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, where she was heavily influenced by the teaching and mentorship of Brian Webb and Heidi Bunting. Arriving at SFU in 2005, Kim immediately connected with the aesthetic of my colleague, Rob Kitsos, and post-graduation she has continued to dance regularly for him--most recently in Death and Flying at the Vancouver International Dance Festival (about which I have blogged in greater detail here).

In addition to apprenticing with and dancing for the likes of Susan Elliott and Barbara Bourget and Serge Bennathan, Kim also joined with Molly, Cort Gerlock, Roxoliana Prus, and Ellen Luchkow to form the collective The Story of Force in Motion, commissioning work from Deanna Peters, Heidi Bunting, Shauna Elton, and also creating their own work. Most recently Tara Cheyenne Friendenberg has been a major influence on the direction of Kim's career. After appearing briefly in an excerpt of Highgate at Dance in Vancouver several years ago, Kim apprenticed with Tara as part of the process for Porno Death Cult. And she has been part of all three versions of How to Be: at the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island; at Dancing on the Edge a couple of years ago; and at the premiere of the full version of the work at the Cultch this past April. While I couldn't see the latter version, I have closely watched the evolution of this piece and I told Kim that her facility with text and movement was just amazing to watch, and also that her humour just slayed me. Interestingly, Kim said that she'd never been more terrified performing before, but that the process had also liberated something in her regarding the combination of text and movement and that there is talk of working with Tara in the future on a solo for Kim.

In the meantime, Kim is busy with running her own dance studio, The Happening, on Fraser Street. As Kim put it to me, she has always enjoyed teaching, and at a certain point decided that if she wanted to remain in Vancouver and have any kind of lifestyle to speak of that she needed to find a supplement to her life as a pick-up professional dancer--and ideally one that didn't involving serving at a restaurant. It's been a huge and at times scary undertaking, but four years in the move seems to be paying off. Kim is just about to expand her space with a second, adjacent studio and has hired Natalie LeFebvre Gnam to teach the students ballet. The goal is to get to a place where Kim can hire more additional instructors and leave the day-to-day operations of the studio to others, while she pursues a parallel performance and choreographic career.

I was immensely happy to hear that, because we need performers as talented and charismatic as Kim to continue to appear on our stages. And we also need her mentoring the next generation of dance bunnies.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Edge 7 at DOTE

Dancing on the Edge Festival's Edge 7 program is made up of two works-in-progress that, in their full iterations, should be back at the Firehall soon. UNTITLEDdiSTANCE is a collaboration between dance artists Emmalena Fredriksson and Arash Khakpour. Based on their common, but also very different, immigrant experiences, the work opens with the artists addressing the audience in Swedish and Farsi, respectively, before segueing into the mutual instruction and execution of a floor sequence that provides them--and us--with an entree into a shared language of movement. That language is largely contact-based and in between giving and taking each other's weight and limbs in the next section, they each narrate their experiences of being othered--because of the way they look, or how they speak--in their adopted home of Vancouver. Not that the work is all about warm and fuzzy support. Indeed, the rest of the piece plays out as a series of increasingly high stakes games in which, for example, one performer, seated in front of a computer, will ask the other an impossible to answer question ("Do you feel more eastern or western?" "Would you kill a cat for a million dollars?") that s/he must respond to during an improvised solo, the movement choices of which are then interpreted and projected for us by the seated interlocutor through Google translate. In this way, and throughout the piece more generally, Fredriksson and Khakpour cannily combine language and movement to show that no matter how we position ourselves, we must always negotiate that position in relation to others--and also that, as in this case, part of that negotiation is developing a shared sense of trust.

An excerpt from Contes Cruels, by Les Productions Figlio's Serge Bennathan, was the second piece on the program. A full-length version of the work will premiere at the Firehall next May and seems to build on Bennathan's earlier Just Words. As in that work, Contes Cruels combines poetic text by the choreographer with original music by Bertrand Chénier to work through a near-death experience. However, here Bennathan has expanded his roster of dancers, with Josh Martin and Molly McDermott joining Hilary Maxwell and Karissa Barry in a quartet that sometimes moves in regimented response to and ethereally against the choreographer's onstage commands. Bennathan's repeated prompts of "Blackout" and "Lights up" late in the piece serve as an especially apt metaphor not just for a physical resurrection, but also for artistic reinvention. In this respect, Martin, who takes over some of the text early in the piece, is clearly meant to be Bennathan's dance double, or avatar, and the women his trio of muses, with their frequent blind but powerhouse leaps into space, or their held poses and offstage looks into the distance, incarnating for us what it means to embrace the unknown.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 34

Earlier this afternoon I interviewed Lara Barclay for our Vancouver Dance Histories project. I got to know Lara while participating as one of the community dancers on the PuSh Festival presentation of Sylvain Émard's Le Grand Continental, for which she served as rehearsal director. Since that time I have enjoyed watching her perform in work by Jennifer Mascall and Vanessa Goodman, among other local choreographers. And yet while Lara grew up and began her dance training in Port Moody, most of her adolescence was spent studying at the National Ballet School in Toronto, where, as she put it, she was always the tallest girl in the class (and frequently taller than her male partners as well). Following graduation from NBS, Lara won a scholarship to study in Europe, and she ended up in Hamburg, taking class and studying with John Neumeier. Her first company job, however, was in the northern port city of Kiel, Germany, where she danced repertoire that included works by Johann Kresnik and Martin Stiefermann. While in Europe, Lara also took class with Bill Forsythe at Ballett Frankfurt and workshops with Frey Faust and Lloyd Newson. As she put it to me, it was in Europe that she discovered a whole other world of dance--and also that ballet was, quite literally, not ever going to be the right dance fit for her.

Following this initial stint in Germany, Lara moved back to Toronto to take up a position with Toronto Dance Theatre, where she remained for three years, dancing in works by Christopher House and James Kudelka, and also reconnecting with mentor Peggy Baker, who first taught her modern dance at NBS. Dominque Dumais and Kevin O'Day, who were just starting up a new company in Mannheim, lured Lara back to Germany, but it was in 2006--following a soccer-themed gig during the world-cup with Brazilian-based choreographer Deborah Colker--that Lara and her husband made the big move back to Vancouver. This coincided with the birth of Lara's first daughter and a slight shift in focus to teaching (with Monica Proença, Lara is the co-founder of the Lamondance Company, a pre-professional training program in North Vancouver). However, very soon after arriving back in the Vancouver area, Josh Beamish asked Lara to work with Move: the company. And then, in 2012, came a transformative collaboration with Aszure Barton, who invited Lara to be part of the creative process that led to Awaa, a piece about motherhood and masculine-feminine relations that I remember seeing at the Chutzpah! Festival, and in which Lara is the lone female dancer among a cast of six other male dancers. Lara continues to tour the piece in slightly different iterations to this day (including an upcoming stint next month in LA), and she said that working with Barton taught her to discover patience on stage.

Lara ended our interview by saying this is a transformative time in her career. She's recently had surgery on her right foot, which has meant making certain adjustments in her dancing. As she framed things, aging as a dancer means you have to become better at listening to your body, and also choosing work that pertains to what it is that you are still able to do to the best of your abilities, and without fear of injury. Lara is also interested in moving into the area of expressive arts therapy, and she and her family are contemplating a move back to Germany. If and when this happens, I will be sad to have Lara leave the Vancouver dance community. In the immediate future, however, I can look forward to seeing Lara (alongside VDH co-conspirator Alexa Mardon) once again in the full-length premiere this fall of Vanessa Goodman's Wells Hill.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Edge 2 at DOTE

Last evening's Edge 2 program at the Dancing on the Edge Festival was an immensely satisfying mix of very different, but equally strong, short works. Natasha Bakht's Blessed Unrest, a solo danced by Monica Shah, led things off. Bakht, who just happens to have a side gig as an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa (!), is trained in bharatannatyam, and in this work she gives the classical Indian form a contemporary twist, not least through her choice of music. In the first and most extended section, Shah's intricate footwork, knee bends and hand gestures are performed to a bracingly fast piano composition by Alexander MacSween, and are additionally set against a projected backdrop of the blankly white looped end of a film reel. However, at a certain point the piano music cuts out, an inky black projection of what looks like a river bed comes up, and Shah slows things way down. Indeed, this section begins with the dancer splaying the toes on her right foot in such an unhurried yet utterly compelling way that I would have been content to watch this one gesture for the rest of the piece. In this fusion of tempos and tones, Bakht shows that contemporary Indian dance is as exciting and complexly varied as any western concert dance form.

An excerpt from Jennifer Mascall's work-in-progress, Quartet, was shown next. Mascall, subbing for Vanessa Goodman, served as on-stage intermediary for the audience, announcing from a downstage right stool that what we were watching was a lecture-demonstration about a process concerning what we know, and what we don't know. An exploration of voice as much as movement, dancers Anne Cooper, Eloi Homier and Walter Kubanek sing, grunt, breathe, and speak with varying degrees of intelligibility, while simultaneously and/or in counterpoint interposing their bodies between or alongside each other. Within these circuits of vocal and kinetic communication, the performers are variously in and out of sync with each other, Homier's off-beat syncopation in a tap sequence, for example, or his slightly different tonal inflections in a virtuoso grunting session with Cooper and Kubanek, indicative of the ways in which sense-making is inherently sensual. As slyly funny as it is sharply intelligent, this excerpt is hopefully the first of many iterations of Quartet.

Finally, demonstrating that she can go compositionally maximalist when she wants to, Yvonne Ng, whose spare autobiographical solo is also included in this year's Edge 1 program, serves up a boldly expressive (and even expressionist) trio with her excerpt of Zhōng Xīn. Superbly danced by Mairéad Filgate, Irvin Chow and Luke Garwood to a booming score by Max Richter, the work plays out, on one level, as a love triangle in which none of the points can connect. Indeed, it was surprising to me just how little actual partnering there was in the piece. Instead, like sub-atomic particles colliding in space, the dancers are as repelled as they are attracted by each other's energy, and the moments that registered most powerfully for me were the ones in which each performer obsessively repeated a gestural or movement pattern in his or her own isolated world: Filgate, otherwise standing still, windmilling her arms wildly in the air; Chow running from point to point on the floor like he is playing tag with himself; and Garwood, at both the top and the end of the show, waving his hands in front of his face. As with the excerpt from Quartet, what Ng showed here only wets one's appetite for more.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

Edge 1 at DOTE

The offerings in the 2017 Dancing on the Edge Festival's first mixed program, Edge 1, were, well, mixed. Reversing the order in the printed program, the first piece presented was local choreographer Chick Snipper's Phasmida & Scorpiones: a study. Performers Jess Ames and Julianne Chapple wear matching coral-coloured lyotards with cross-hatched stitching on the backs, and also black leggings. While one of the dancers lies supine on the floor upstage right, with one hand stretched above her head, the other moves out of a lunge she is holding centre stage and into a deep plie, the first phase in her own eventual trajectory floorwards. Here she will begin a series of crawling patterns across the stage, her body low to the floor, her arms outstretched and bent at the elbows, feet flexed: in other words, an approximation of the morphology of the predatory arachnids in Snipper's title. By contrast, the other dancer's orbit is upwards, her physical vocabulary and locomotion more vertical, with her limbs tending towards a series of extensions: and thus do we discover (with the aid of a bit of post-show Googling) that phasmida are a class of stick-like insects. Of course, arachnid and insect must meet, and in Snipper's study they do so twice: once on the floor, rolling onto and over each other in some contact-inspired phrasing; and once while standing, leaning into each other's chests, entwining their arms, syncing two of their knees together, and beginning an approximation of a slow, three-legged walk upstage. I'm not sure if this meant that the scorpion wins out over the phasmid, but it did register to me as one more way in which this piece was a bit too literal and representational in the physical phrasing it was deploying.

Representational gestures also figured in Yvonne Ng's Weave ... part one, a solo in which she tells the story of her mother's complicated patrimony through speech and movement. However, for every rocking back and forth of Ng's arms to indicate a swaddling baby there was also a through-line bodily grammar of more formally repetitive and non-expressive gestural sequences, the patterning of Ng's limbs, when combined with her talk, putting me in mind of the mathematically-inflected work of Sarah Chase. Additionally layered over top of this is a meta-commentary in which every so often Ng will comment on either the appropriateness or the ridiculousness of the particular movement she is executing. The approach works, and not just because the petite Ng, artistic director of the Toronto-based tiger princess dance projects, is such a charismatic performer. The combination of deconstructed formalism and emotional lyricism captures the complicated story of Asian feminine identity that Ng is trying to tell, which we discover is as much about finding an anchor for herself where her mother had none.

Last on the program was Tedd Robinson's Logarian Rhapsody, a commission for the Winnipeg-based dance artist Alexandra Elliott. A duet that Elliott dances with Ian Mozden, it begins with the performers whispering offstage. Eventually they enter, their eyes rimmed in black kohl, and dressed like lounge singers from the 1970s in white leisure suits. Mozden appears to be holding some orb-like object in one hand. That object turns out to be a green apple and via snippets of the live whispering of the dancers, and also via the voiceover that eventually joins this whispering, we learn that both dancers wish to eat the apple. However, it takes a very long time for either of them to do so, and first we must cycle through a series of anticipatory tableaux: Mozden coming downstage to show us the apple and comment on how desirously delicious it looks; Elliott placing the apple on Mozden's shoulder for them and us to admire, or be in fearsome awe of; Elliott and Mozden trading the apple back and forth; Elliott rolling the apple on the floor; and so on. We go through variations of this sequence many, many times, and while I normally find Robinson's conceptual imagination highly engaging, here the conceit felt tedious. Adam and Eve: we get it. Just someone please bite the apple already. Spoiler alert: they both eventually do so, and the choreographic effect is decidedly anti-climactic. There is, however, a final saving grace: a fantastic lighting cue to end the piece.


Friday, July 7, 2017

Beijing Modern Dance Company at DOTE

The 29th edition of the Dancing on the Edge Festival (DOTE) kicked off last night with the Canadian premiere of Beijing Modern Dance Company's Oath--Midnight Rain. The company's artistic director and the choreographer of the piece, Gao Yanjinzi, has been to Vancouver--and DOTE--before, having previously collaborated with Wen Wai Wang and Sammy Chien (who translated for her from the stage) on Made in China. The piece she presented for us last night, which first showed at the 2006 Venice Biennale, explores concepts associated with the Buddhist wheel of life, or Samsara, a temporal cycle of suffering that encompasses death and rebirth, but also the liminal or threshold spaces linking binary pairings of night and day, black and white, ending and beginning.

Gao investigates these spaces of transformation through a series of linked movement studies in which four male and one female dancers incarnate, in turn, a flower, a blade of grass, a fish, a mosquito, and a bird. For example, in an opening sequence which put me in mind of Anna Pavlova's dying swan, a male dancer sits centre stage amid a swath of blue tulle, which he will eventually gather up around and then over his head, spreading his arms out to the sides to effect a kind of blooming. But he also shows us the stem of the flower by rolling over from the floor onto his shoulders and raising his bare legs to the ceiling in a series of developpés. With the exception of the winged dancer caught in a web of cloth and dripping a beard of blood (and also a whole lot of talcum powder), I confess it was not always clear to me which of the aforementioned non-human figures or elements the dancers were personifying. Were we meant to see the swaying in the wind of a blade of grass in the second dancer's snaking on the floor and through the air her horse-hair wand? The darting of a fish through water in the third dancer's gracefully flowing arm sleeves? And the rest and flight of a bird in the coquettish poses and oscillating swaying of the fifth dancer on a swing descended from the rafters? In the end, I was glad that the choreography eschewed overt mimeticism, with Gao clearly incorporating some of the abstract gestural vocabulary of classical Chinese opera into each section (and also, it seemed, some of its gender-bending conventions with the costuming and make-up of three of the male dancers).

However, in the movement of the sixth dancer, a kind of hungry ghost figure veiled in red who serves to link each section and also occasionally interacts with the other dancers, I detected some traces of classical Indian dance. The music in these sections may have also contributed to this sensation, but it's also a reminder that the idea of Samsara (a Sanskrit word) crosses various Eastern religions, including Hinduism. At the very least, the mix of classical and modern traditions in Oath (including in the utterly mesmerizing sound score) can be seen as another way in which Gao is exploring this idea of liminal transformation.