Monday, August 28, 2017

The Winter's Tale at Bard on the Beach

Yesterday morning the only things I knew about Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale was that it was the play that contained the ambiguous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear," and that its ending--SPOILER ALERT!--featured a statue coming to life. So in advance of our visit to Bard on the Beach to take in a matinee performance of the play, I duly read Andrew Dickson's Rough Guide summary of the plot and notable major productions (as is to be expected, it is not revived as often as Shakespeare's more popular plays); I also quickly skimmed the acts in the pages of my Norton anthology. Note to last-minute Bard crammers: Dickson's more populist contextualizing of Shakespeare's plays is frankly far more astute (and readable) than the chain-yanking academese of the Norton's header notes.

As with the fellow late romance Pericles, which was produced at Bard last season, The Winter's Tale is a tonally and spatially fractured play involving a tyrannically jealous king, a dead queen, an abandoned child, a storm at sea, roguish cutpurses, and a happy ending magically reuniting a father and his daughter. However, unlike Lois Anderson's production of the former--which radically cut and rearranged the text, and which everyone but me seemed to adore--Dean Paul Gibson, in his take on the latter, wisely hues to Shakespeare's original design. Not that I'm a purist when it comes to such matters; I just think that in this case, unlike with Pericles last year, Gibson's directorial vision actually helps to bring out more clearly the sexual politics of The Winter's Tale, exposing the deep-seated misogyny at the heart of King Leontes' jealousy and, courtesy of lady-in-waiting Paulina's mysterious machinations, turning the play in a feminist allegory on the pitfalls of patriarchal power.

When the play opens we are in Sicily, at the court of Leontes (Kevin MacDonald). Having had no luck persuading his bosom friend from childhood, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Ian Butcher), to stay another week visiting the family, Leontes entreats his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione (a regal Sereana Malani), to try her luck. But her success actually piques Leontes' jealousy and after espying them enjoying what he thinks is too much intimacy during a court dance, the king convinces himself that his wife and best friend are having an affair and that his unborn child is not his own. Sounds like Othello 2.0, right? But whereas Shakespeare's earlier play about the "green-eyed monster" had the villainous Iago to poison the marital chalice, everyone else in The Winter's Tale has no idea what Leontes is on about. So when he instructs his faithful servant Camillo (Laara Sadiq) to kill Polixenes, she instead absconds with him back to Bohemia. Similarly, Rogero (Ashley O'Connell) and Antigonus (Andrew Wheeler) try to reason with Leontes, at least persuading him to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi in advance of Hermione's trial for adultery and treason. But when Antigonus's wife Paulina (Jennifer Lines, taking over the role from Lois Anderson as of the middle of this month) brings Leontes his newborn daughter, thinking her sight and the consequent registering of his likeness will soften his heart, the king explodes in fury at Paulina's impudence, instructing Antigonus to take the child far away and leave her to fend for herself in the wilds. Even when the words of Apollo are read out from the oracle, pronouncing Hermione blameless and warning that if Leontes persists in his mad belief of her infidelity he will be left without an heir, the king refuses to swallow his wounded male pride; instead he rips up the oracle and orders Hermione executed. Whereupon, thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening, the king's son and sole remaining heir, Mamillius (Parmiss Sehat), is struck dead. And then his mother, the queen. This latter news is delivered by Paulina to a finally chastened Leontes in full righteous fury, berating him for not listening to her or believing his wife. In this scene, and in the earlier one in which she entreats the king to acknowledge his daughter as his own, Paulina emerges as the moral conscience of the play, daring to stand up to Leontes' and call out his wilfully blind narcissism where all others only cower and meekly do his bidding. In these scenes Lines is in full-throated physical command of not just the men on stage, but of the entire audience. You cannot take your eyes off of her as she swirls around a prostrate and weeping MacDonald, her gowns flowing around her like a sorceress. Except that, as she had earlier told Leontes, and what she will remind everyone of at the end of the play, what she sees (and eventually does) must not be called witchcraft or, in the current Trumpian lexicon, fake news; instead, we along with Leontes must call it what it is--speaking truth to power.

It's after this climactic scene in Sicily that the play abruptly shifts tone and location. We next encounter Antigonus abandoning the babe Perdita in the woods of Bohemia, but not before fending off the aforementioned bear, which is here wonderfully realized by puppet designers Heidi Wilkinson and Frances Henry as a limber-limbed War Horse-like mechanical being operated underneath by a partially visible human player (later some adorable braying sheep will also make an appearance). Threat duly taken care of, cue the shift to a more appropriately pastoral setting as the requisite shepherd and his son (a perfectly in sync David M. Adams and Chris Cochrane) discover the "wee bairn" and decide to raise her as part of their family. Sixteen years then pass, a fact which is duly announced to us in the play by the allegorical figure of Time, and in Gibson's hands here cleverly collapsed into the figure of the all-seeing and all-knowing Paulina. The remainder of the play concerns the working out of the improbable romance between the now grown shepherd's daughter Perdita (Kaitlin Williams) and Polixenes' son, Florizel (Austin Eckert). Polixenes is of course against his son marrying beneath him, but owing to Camillo once again failing to do her master's bidding, the young couple hightails it to Sicily. Shakespeare leavens the rather creaky mechanics of the play's resolution (and distracts us, it has to be said, from the insipidness of the young lovers) by introducing the cutpurse Autolycus (a superb Ben Elliott), who has fun duping the shepherd and his son, often while singing a jaunty song and simultaneously relieving them of their money. Eventually all of the players make it back to Sicily, where it is revealed that Perdita is the long-lost daughter of Leontes and that both kings, having reignited their interrupted bromance, consent to have their children marry.

But the biggest reveal of all is left to Paulina, who announces that a sculpture in Hermione's likeness that has long been in the works is now ready to be shown to the court. When the curtain is drawn to reveal the actress, Malani, who plays the queen, everyone marvels at the verisimilitude of the sculpture, including the fact that the artist seems to have coincidentally made Hermione age sixteen years like the rest of them. Then, counselling Leontes and the others that they mustn't succumb to superstition in explaining what they're about to see, Paulina announces that she will make the sculpture move. And with that, she brings Hermione back to life, to be reunited with her grown daughter and, for better or worse, her feckless husband.

The play's ending, a coup de theatre that is here all the more effective for the lack of spectacle that accompanies it, is utterly fantastical but precisely because of that underscores the themes of faith and belief--or the lack thereof--that course through it. And here we must come back to the central figure of Paulina and how in this production the focusing of our gaze through hers (both acts open with Paulina/Paulina-as-Time functioning as a chorus and leading the company in a group dance) makes the sexual politics of the play feel utterly contemporary without being heavy-handed. That is, Paulina's condemnation of Leontes for not believing in the faithfulness of his wife and her indignation at the spectacle of Hermione's trial should remind us of how in the prosecution of sex crimes, the burden of proof continues to remain with the female victim.

Then, too, the metatheatricality of the final scene--showing us how a work of art is made to come to life--reminds us that the make-believe world of the stage is also about making belief--and not merely by agreeing to suspend disbelief. In the case of this production we are aided immeasurably in our acceptance of the "magic of the theatre" by the simple and unfussy set design by Pam Johnson, by the similarly sleek costumes of Carmen Alatorre (including a fantastic use of masks), and by the movement score of Tracey Power. Gibson also coaxes mostly excellent performances from his cast, an unusual number of which (for a Shakespearean romance, at any rate) have moments where they are required to pitch their characters' speeches outward to the audience. None more so than Paulina. And I can think of no actress in Vancouver more skilled at inviting an audience to empathize and identify with the action unfolding before them on stage than Lines. When she opens her arms towards us, smiles and tilts her head in a gesture that says "come with me," it's awfully hard to resist.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Chorus Line at Waterfront Theatre

Before Hamilton there was A Chorus Line. I was thinking about the relationship between Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2015 hit musical (which Richard and I will finally get a chance to see in LA this October) and the Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban/James Kirkwood/Nicholas Dante classic from 1976 as I watched a matinee performance of Fighting Chance Productions' staging of the latter yesterday at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island.

Though the subject matter of both musicals couldn't be more different, the connections between them are striking. Both originated as off-Broadway productions at the Public Theatre that then went on to become massive Broadway hits, each earning a slew of Tony Awards as well as the Pulitzer Prize (two of only nine musicals in history to do so). They both also spawned successful touring productions, and as with A Chorus Line I'm sure Hamilton will soon be adapted to film. But what most came to mind yesterday as I looked at the cast Fighting Chance director and choreographer Rachael Carlson had assembled on stage was how A Chorus Line had begun to tackle the issue of diversity on Broadway some 40 years before Hamilton. Asian, Latinx, and Black actors are all featured prominently alongside white singers and dancers, and the ensemble of the musical, famously developed out of conversational workshops Bennett conducted with members of the cast, additionally features characters who self-identify as gay and Jewish.

Of course the deliberate irony of A Chorus Line's conceit is that this celebration of individual difference, so wonderfully brought out through the stories the sixteen "gypsies" narrate and sing over the course of being whittled down to a final selection of eight for director Zach's casting cut, will per force be subsumed into the absolute sameness and unison precision of a singular dancing machine--memorably encapsulated in the musical's high kicking, top hat popping, gold lamed concluding number, "One." As Zach (played here by Chris King) tells the dancers early on, and as he subsequently quarrels with Cassie, an ex-flame whose planned Hollywood career didn't pan out, in the line no one can stand out or pull focus from the star whom they are meant to support. That Cassie (a winning Lucia Forward) is in fact given a show-stopping solo number, "The Music and the Mirror," as illustration of her desire to return to being an anonymous member of the ensemble is just one of the many inside jokes this piece revels in.

In this semi-professional staging by Fighting Chance (King is the only Equity member in the ensemble), it must be said that the women stand out better than the men. Vanessa Quarinto as Diana Morales, who sings the memorable numbers "Nothing" (about a disastrous high school improv class) and the penultimate "What I Did for Love," is a definite triple threat, with a pure, soaring voice, clear technical dance training, and natural stage presence. Lindsay Marshall brings the house down as the sassy Val, who gets the cheeky (in more senses than one) song "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three." Alishia Suitor nicely reveals the vulnerability behind Sheila's hard-edged exterior in "At the Ballet" (where she is joined by Haley Allen's Bebe and Amanda Lourenco's Maggie). And Kailley Roesler has great comic timing as the tone-deaf Kristine. Kaden Chad, as Kristine's husband Al, does a good job playing off of Roseler in the tricky duet "Sing!," but elsewhere his voice was all over the place. Greg Liow as Mike is a phenomenal dancer, but his singing of "I Can Do That" at the top of the show was likewise only so-so. Jesse Alvarez, as Paul, is very moving in the monologue he delivers about his relationship with his parents; however, it was interesting to me in watching him and other of the men dance that the diversity in body size among the male cast members didn't really extend to the women.

Some things, I guess, never change.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Embryotrophic Cavatina, Part 1 at SFU Woodward's and Vines Art Festival at Trout Lake

I couldn't attend yesterday's counter-demonstration protesting the gathering organized by the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam at City Hall because I had committed to previous plans. However, it seemed appropriate, given the WCAI organizers' base dissembling that their quarrels with Islam were cultural and not racist, that my plans involved an engagement with different forms of free cultural expression that were in direct dialogue with their environments.

My first stop was the atrium at SFU Woodward's. There, starting at 2 pm (and then again at 3 pm), Kokoro Dance presented a free showing of the first half of their reworked Embryotrophic Cavatina, which will have its full-length premiere at the Roundhouse September 20-29. The genesis of the piece dates back to 1998, when Kokoro founders Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi created the first iteration of the work for themselves and dancers Ziyian Kwan and Michael Whitfield. They then reworked it a year later into a shorter 30-minute piece that was performed at Dancing on the Edge with the same company; this version featured as a musical score the first half of Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem for My Friend, written as a tribute to the filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, with whom Preisner had collaborated on the Three Colours trilogy. Last year, Barbara and Jay remounted this second version of EC on twenty dancers from Danza Teatro Retazos in Havana. It was at that time that they got the idea to revisit the piece a fourth time, choreographing a new second half that would accompany the remainder of Preisner's album.

We'll have to wait until September to see what that looks like. But yesterday interested audience members were offered a glimpse of the original 1999 version of EC, with dancers Molly McDermott and Billy Marchenski joining Bourget and Hirabayashi to round out the quartet. Performed in the circle of the basketball court between London Drugs and Nester's Market, and with Preisner's music issuing clearly and pristinely from two speakers, the piece seemed expressly designed for this space. Likewise the match between choreography and music. In its elegiac tempo, simple harmonies and showcasing of the soprano voice, Preisner's Requiem put me in mind of fellow Polish composer Henryk Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Except whereas Górecki's work is a slow and steady build to a haunting emotional lament, Preisner's work features more tonal peaks and valleys. Bourget and Hirabayashi play with this in terms of the way they contrast bodies crumpling in on themselves (splayed knees and twisted lower legs; bent backs; hands thrust backwards between thighs) with movement that extends horizontally and vertically into space (a simple reach outward from the torso of one arm and the tracing of the other up the length of this proffered limb; or the joyous leap into and catching of air that comes with Kokoro's trademark ecstasy jumps). The intervals between the Requiem's movements, and especially the soprano parts (e.g. from the Kyrie Eleison to the Dies Irae), also give the dancers ample opportunity to explore that quintessential butoh element of ma, the gap or pause or negative space between different structural parts. Kokoro is expert at expanding our sense of time: by sustaining our interest in a held pose (the opening butoh-at-rest position: bent knees, shoulders soft, eyes staring off into the distance); by forcing a perceptual recalibration through a barely registered shift in our attention (when, in the course of said pose, four heads slowly start to turn to the left); by isolating our focus on the seemingly smallest part of a dancer's body (for me it was a wagging index finger near the end of this showing). All of these actions that look like inaction, these doings that simultaneously undo our expectations about what should happen next, or what even constitutes movement, encourages even greater contemplation in the audience. To the point that despite all the to-ing and fro-ing happening all around me in the Woodward's atrium, my attention was never less than riveted on the dancers in front of me.

After the Kokoro performance I hopped on my bike and cycled over to Trout Lake to take in some of the main "earthstage" shows at this year's Vines Art Festival. The festival was started by Artistic Director Heather Lamoureux in 2015 with two aims: to make contemporary performance more accessible by siting it in a public park (and making it free); and to promote environmental awareness by showcasing work that responds to its natural setting and that is engaged with themes of climate activism and sustainability. The 2015 festival, a one-day event in Trout Lake, mounted with a budget raised solely through door-to-door fundraising by Heather, was a huge success. In 2016 the festival not only attracted major corporate and government sponsors, but it also expanded to four days and multiple sites, with events taking place at Hadden Park in Kits Beach, Pandora Park on the East Side, Maclean Park in Strathcona, and its mainstage site of Trout Lake. This year Heather has grown the festival even further, expanding events to ten days and spreading them across seven Vancouver parks.

However, the main event continues to be the culminating day-long series of performances, workshops and installations at Trout Lake Park. Unfortunately, this year my timing was not so great. I arrived too late to take in Robert Leveroos and Isabelle Kirouac's Alien Forms, and only caught the tail end of Meegin Pye's Boxed In (which seemed to be about homelessness and housing affordability). I did catch the Blue Cedar Stage set of the Son Bohemio trio, who were back again this year with their mix of Argentinian folk songs. And I stuck around long enough to see and hear A Complicated Intelligence, a collaborative sound installation-cum-interactive performance by Stefan Smulovitz, Lara Amelie Abadir, Dave Biddle and beekeeper Andrew Scott. Learning about how bees communicate with each other (by vomiting into each other's mouths) and deal with genetic diversity (by cannibalizing eggs deemed insufficiently heterogeneous) was all I needed as a capstone to how art can trump the rhetoric of white supremacy.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 36

Earlier this afternoon I found myself perched on the beautiful back deck of Wen Wei Wang, interviewing him about his dance history. It began at the age of six in Communist China when, having seen a performance of the revolutionary model opera White Haired Girl, Wang decided he wanted to become a dancer. His parents were less than pleased, but when he later auditioned and was accepted to the army art school in his home province, they relented; becoming a company member and then a soloist of a dance company within a military academy was somehow acceptable. During this time, Wang had already started choreographing, even winning a major televised dance competition in 1987 for a duet, Love Song, that he had co-choreographed and performed with a fellow company member.

Having been accepted into a prestigious choreographic program in Beijing in 1989, Wang left before completing the program in order to attend a summer dance intensive at SFU in 1991. His trip was sponsored by Grant Strate, who would end up becoming Wang's life partner. Almost immediately after completing the SFU residency, Wang was hired by Judith Marcuse. From there he went on to become a company member of Ballet BC, where, but for a brief stint with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, he remained until 2000. In 2003, he formed his own company, immediately garnering acclaim for highly theatrical works that mixed Western and Asian dance traditions.

Wang's most recent full-length work for his own company, Dialogue, premiered this past May at the Dance Centre (see my review here). It will be remounted as part of this year's Dance in Vancouver biennial, where it will coincide with the unveiling of our own Vancouver Dance Histories project. I feel like we still have so much work to do--and interviews to collect. But slowly things are coming together, and I can't wait to get back into the studio with Justine and Alexa to brainstorm further some of our ideas for making sense (and nonsense) of the tangled web of connections we've been unraveling over the past two years.