Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Lady Parts Episode 2: Brains at The Emerald

Last night was the second instalment of Katey Hoffman and Cheyenne Mabberley's Lady Parts, a sketch comedy series exploring what it means to be a woman in today's world that is being presented as part of Pi Theatre's new Pi Provocateurs platform, which aims to present "political performance in unconventional spaces." The back bar of The Emerald was certainly cramped (and the line-up for drinks achingly slow), but that also created a nice sense of intimacy, and the crowd was certainly with the performers for the whole evening.

I had missed the first episode of Lady Parts, which focused on "boobs." This second episode was structured around "brains." In the interim, the whole Harvey Weinstein scandal and its ongoing aftermath has exploded, which made the true stories shared by Hoffman and Mabberley and guest performers Genevieve Fleming and Arggy Jenati about sexual discrimination and harassment in the local acting industry all the more powerful. As effective were the fictional episodes skewering myriad myths surrounding women's intellectual capacities (an ongoing gag about staying on hold while waiting to pay one's phone bill that featured Jenati was particularly effective).

Also showcased last night was the improv work of Nasty Women (liked the killer waffles at the AirBnB from hell bit) and the stand-up of Julie Kim, who was hilarious about life with her new baby.

Lady Parts: Hearts and Lady Parts: Vaginas are up in the new year. I shall definitely be in the audience for both.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Wells Hill at SFU Woodward's

It's been almost three years since Richard and I saw the first excerpt of Vanessa Goodman's Wells Hill at the Chutzpah! Festival. We've been following the progress of the piece ever since and last night we joined a capacity audience at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre for the world premiere of the full length piece. In a unique partnership between DanceHouse, SFU Woodward's Cultural Programs and the School for the Contemporary Arts (of which Goodman is an alumna), Goodman and her creative team have been in residence at Woodward's this past summer, and then again for the past month and a half rehearsing in the actual Wong space. Including Thursday night's preview, the piece is getting four instead of the usual (for DanceHouse) two performances, and a whole suite of cognate discursive events relating to Goodman's subjects of Marshall McLuhan and Glenn Gould have been curated by Richard.

Vanessa also commissioned me to write an essay on the piece for its premiere, which you can find on her Action at a Distance company website. I won't repeat what I had to say there, and will instead concentrate on my experience of some of the changes and refinements to the work since I last experienced a run-through back in the summer. One of the biggest things I noticed was the tightening of the overall structure. Goodman has divided the work into two clear parts, which she sees as corresponding to our pre- and post-Internet ages. Both are marked by the appearance of talismanic glass icon in the shape of an upside-down pyramid. At the start of the show, as Lara Barclay performs a sinewy and graceful solo to one of Gould's Goldberg Variations, the curve and extension of her long limbs accentuated by the shimmery translucent shift designed for her by Diane Park, the rest of the ensemble stares blankly at the empty pyramid, which we might in this instance read as a stand in for a television set. The glass pyramid returns at the start of the second half of the piece, but this time projected into it is a holographic image of McLuhan talking about the effects of media, with the conceit of Goodman's dancers (and, to be sure, us in the audience) now staring into rather than at or through the glass container, combined with McLuhan's quasi-3D animation, signalling the more immersive and interactive media environment heralded by the advent of the Internet. That this shift has both connected us and atomized us in unprecedented ways as social beings is wonderfully brought out in the conclusion to the piece. Structurally we are returned to the beginning with the musical reprise of Gould's solo piano refrain. This time, however, while five of the dancers sit downstage right, Bevin Poole and Bynh Ho perform a soft and slow duet that in its fluidity and seeming bonelessness recalls Barclay's opening solo. At the same time, the fact that Poole and Ho, dancing side by side and clearly responding to the directional force and energy of each other's movements, never touch leaves us to question how truly connected to each other we are in today's wired world.

As I say at greater length in my essay, Goodman's overall goal in making this piece has never been to explain or illustrate concepts from McLuhan and Gould through dance. Instead, she has taken what I've called the "'homely' coincidence" of growing up in the house once owned by McLuhan, and where the two men had lengthy conversations, to explore how dance, as an embodied medium, is contiguous with, rather than separate from, other kinds of media technologies. To this end, one of McLuhan's concepts that Goodman is most taken with is that media are themselves extensions of our bodies, even becoming part of our nervous systems to the extent that they act upon us as much as we act upon them (her example during last night's pre-show talk about our Pavlovian response to the buzzing or dinging of our various devices captures this best). In Wells Hill, Goodman explores this idea not just through the choreography, but also through the creation of a total media environment that feels uncannily immersive. That is, last night my own spectating body was not just stimulated by the sight of a twitchily hyper-kinetic Alexa Mardon buzzing about the stage like a computer cursor gone rogue as the rest of the group walks robotically this way or that; or by Arash Khakpour and Dario Dinuzzi breaking out of the latter formation to either throw themselves horizontally to the floor or shimmy vertically towards the ceiling; or even by the unexpected surprise of Karissa Barry, clad in an illuminated body suit of the sort worn for motion capture or digital character modelling in gaming and computer animation, pulsing and swaying on the other side of the footlights, right in front of the first row of the audience. My senses were also triggered by the throb of the respective sound compositions of Gabriel Saloman and Scott Morgan (Loscil), by the pixelated and increasingly accelerated wash of the projections designed by Goodman, Ben Didier and Milton Lim, and by the amazing lighting design by James Proudfoot, which uses the distinctive flash and jump in current that accompanies the turning on and off of flourescent tubes to terrific effect. In other words, despite its traditional proscenium staging, Wells Hill is a piece where the audience definitely feels part of the feedback loop of communication, in which the output from the stage most definitely affects our individual sensual experience, but in which the collective processing of that experience is likewise put back into the system of the show.

While this ideally describes the special interactive experience of any live performance, and while I cannot pretend to be unbiased about the merits of this show, I do believe that Wells Hill is that rare work where the abundant ideas informing its creation do not get in the way of its in-the-moment physical enjoyment. It is especially wonderful to see Goodman making this work here, drawing from the abundant talents of such gifted local dancers and designers. And now here's hoping it has a long and robust touring life.


Friday, November 24, 2017

Titus Bouffonius at The Cultch

In 2015 Rumble Theatre launched an ambitious project to commission new works from acclaimed Canadian playwrights based on classics from the Western dramatic canon, but adapted to a contemporary local/Pacific Northwest context. The first work in the series, Hiro Kanagawa's Indian Arm, based on Henrik Ibsen's Little Eyolf, premiered in April of that year and has just been awarded the 2017 Governor General's Award for English drama (my review of the original production can be found here). Last night, the second play in the series, by the two-time GG award-winning playwright Colleen Murphy, opened at The Cultch. The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius (which from here on we'll simply abbreviate to Titus B) is Murphy's inspired take on Shakespeare's bloodiest and most violent play, Titus Andronicus being a revenge tragedy more in the mold of contemporary works by Thomas Kyd and Thomas Middleton than what we later came to expect from the author of Hamlet and Othello and Macbeth.

Murphy is no stranger to dark material. Her play Pig Girl, inspired by the Robert Pickton case, depicts in one of its parallel plots the murder of an Indigenous woman in real time. But whereas Julie Taymor's 1999 film adaptation of Titus played to the gory appetites of screen audiences, bathing scenes in spectacular hues of red while also taking itself far too seriously, in Titus B Murphy chooses to mine the black humour of Shakespeare's original text, adopting a caustically farcical tone precisely in order to mock our fascination with generational violence. And she does so by drawing on the tradition of bouffon, her time writing the play having coincided with a playwright-in-residence gig at the University of Alberta, where Michael Kennard (one half of Mump and Smoot and a consultant on this show) teaches the art of clown. Thus, unlike with Kanagawa's take on Ibsen, Murphy's adaptation of Shakespeare is more one of style than of content. The characters and plot (albeit radically telescoped) remain the same, and large chunks of Shakespeare's dialogue are recited by the actors; however, at the top of the show a frame narrative introduces us to the members of the The Society of the Destitute, a taxpayer-funded community theatre troupe comprised of the very bottom layer of the 99% that will be putting on a show for us well-heeled types in the audience. Sob (Peter Anderson) plays the Roman general Titus; Spark (Naomi Wright) is Tamora, Queen of the Goths; Leap (Pippa Mackie) is a sexually aware Lavinia, daughter to Titus; Fink (a completely unrecognizable Craig Erickson) assails the dual roles of brothers Saturninus and Bassianus; and Boots (Sarah Afful) takes on the role of Aaron, though he would really prefer to be playing Macbeth.

Indeed, a whole bunch of other Shakespearean references get thrown our way throughout the ensuring 90 minutes, and if it quickly becomes clear that, notwithstanding their occasional lapses in delivering their lines, this rag-tag bunch of fringe performers knows the Bard's canon like the back of their characters' soon to be lopped off hands, we are also repeatedly reminded of why they eventually chose to stage this one: because it contains fourteen murders (a chalkboard keeps track of the victims). All of the deaths are depicted in a grotesquely cartoonish manner on stage, complete with plastic knives and ketchup bottles of fake splattering blood in the climactic scene where Titus serves up his revenge to Tamora and Saturninus in the form of a meat pie (its telegraphed appearance serving as a running gag throughout the play). And on the subject of meat pies, it should be noted that Murphy, like Stephen Sondheim in Sweeney Todd, also seems to be drawing on the traditions of Victorian melodrama, not least in her incorporation of music and song (the composer is Mishelle Cuttler). As with the story of Todd, who has been wronged by the legal justice system that has also robbed him of his wife and child, in Murphy's version of Titus's revenge plot there is a strong critique of the state, and especially a child and family welfare system that seems to prey on the most vulnerable in our society. To this end, the murders of Titus's and Tamora's sons are represented in this version via the dismembering, beheading and crucifixion of a succession of plastic baby dolls. And the real horror in watching comes not from registering the immense glee with which the performers attack this task, but in noting how hard we are laughing.

Stephen Drover's maximalist direction is perfectly suited to this material. I imagine that the operative word in rehearsal was "more": as in more mugging; more writhing; more fake blood. Production designer Drew Facey has constructed a set that nicely captures the play's gallows humour, including a final reveal that really hammers home Murphy's Swiftian point about the state eating its young. Finally, all of the actors are superb, inhabiting their bouffon humps and displaying their blackened teeth with slouchy, wide-mouthed delight. They are also able to move on a dime between line-perfect readings of Shakespeare's poetry and the contemporary comic asides interpolated by Murphy, and are clearly revelling in the physical comedy and direct cajoling of the audience. Sometimes that cajoling is scripted and sometimes it arises in the moment, as when last night, during Lavinia's "big feminist speech" about how only she has a right to decide who does what to her body, a cell phone went off. Without missing a beat, and following Mackie's lead by staying in full clown mode, the entire cast did a blistering take down of the offender and then adroitly picked things up from where they left off. Then again, maybe the interruption and ensuing admonishment was planned. Either way, it worked within the overall ethos and tone of the piece.

This is a production that takes its mandate to offend extremely seriously, and no matter our level of discomfort upon exiting the theatre we should be extremely thankful for this. We should also be thankful that we have in this country a playwright as fearless as Murphy. Formally there doesn't seem to be anything she can't do (witness the epic imagination of The Breathing Hole, which premiered earlier this year at Stratford); and in terms of subject matter, she is unafraid to stare into the abyss, and then to stare us down with what she has found there.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 40

The 2017 edition of Dance in Vancouver officially kicked off yesterday, which also means that our Dance Histories Project is now cumulatively launched into the world. Natalie Purschwitz's installation has been on glorious display for a while now, but to this in the Faris studio lobby we've now added our gesture video and sound installation. Even the turn-down trivia for DiV presenters successfully found its way to Holiday Inn hotel staff. And several t-shirters and gesturers were in evidence in the audience yesterday for the roundtable organized by DiV guest curator Adam Hayward on "Why Shrink the World?"

Ostensibly about the idea of working locally but thinking globally (in one's artistic, curatorial and social practice), the roundtable showcased the work of three New Zealand/Aotearoa artists: Jack Gray (also presenting alongside his Native American collaborator Dakota); Julia Harvie; and Claire O'Neil. I very much enjoyed hearing about all of their practices, but the session ran rather long, and there wasn't really much time for any back and forth with the audience. Still, the session, following upon a studio showing by Olivia C. Davies (one of our Dance Histories interviewees), did importantly emphasize the parallel IndigeDiV focus of this year's biennial--a dance and conversation series organized by Raven Spirit Dance that focuses on Indigenous artistic creation and expression on these unceded Coast Salish Territories.

I didn't stick around for the reception following the roundtable, nor for that evening's performance (Wen Wei Wang's Dialogue, which I previously wrote about here). In fact, I won't be attending any of DiV's mainstage performances this year: a combination of other stuff competing for my attention and also waiting too long to purchase tickets that I'd wrongly assumed might be extended our way complimentarily as a result of our Dance Histories work (which is, after all, featured in the DiV program). Not a big deal, as I've seen and written about most of the work before. But it does mean that I won't witness how DiV presenters and audiences experience and interact with our "lobby animation," as it's officially been called.

Nor, for that matter, will Alexa, who beginning tonight will be busy performing in the world premiere of Vanessa Goodman's Wells Hill (which I look forward to seeing Saturday evening). We'll have to rely on Justine to let us know how things go. Indeed, I look forward to the post-DiV debrief. In the meantime, I think this post more or less concludes the on-line documentation of our work on this project. Hard to believe it's been more than two years since we've been working on this (and closer to three for Alexa and Justine). And, of course, it's not finished, nor will it ever be finished. Figuring out where we go from here will almost surely be part of our debrief conversations.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Smart People at Studio 16

Currently I'm reading Ta-Nahisi Coates' newest book, We Were Eight Years in Power. A collection of several of the essays he wrote for The Atlantic during Barack Obama's two terms in the White House, it is a sobering account of the brief window of racial possibility that was opened in the US with the election of the country's first African-American president, but even more so of the accompanying retrenchment of the forces of white supremacy that then paved the way for Obama's replacement in the Oval Office by Donald Trump. Drawing on the sweep of American history, as well as pop culture and his own personal experience, Coates lays bare in at once measured and urgently impactful tones that the US will always be a racially divided country until it comes to grips with the fact that its very foundations (politically, ideologically, economically) are based on slavery and the violent suppression of one race by another, and that this fact continues to inform every aspect of American society.

Coates' book is useful supplementary reading to Mitch and Murray's production of Lydia R. Diamond's play Smart People, directed by David Mackay and running at Studio 16 through this Saturday. The play, while written in 2016, is set in 2007-January 2009, spanning the period from Obama's announcement of his presidential candidacy to his inauguration. Diamond gives us a cross-sectional snapshot of race relations in Cambridge, Massachusetts during this period by focusing on four highly accomplished professionals. Two of them work at Harvard. Brian (Aaron Craven) is a white liberal neurobiologist who claims to have hard scientific data proving that white peoples' brains are genetically hardwired to hate black people. At a faculty meeting on diversity Brian meets Ginny (Tricia Collins), an Asian-American psychologist who studies the internalization of stereotypes by young Asian-American women, some of whom she also privately counsels. The two other characters are both graduates of Harvard and are also both black. Jackson (Kwesi Ameyaw) is a surgical resident chafing under the paternalistic mentorship of his white hospital superiors, while also running his own clinic in a predominantly Asian-American/mixed ethnic neighbourhood. He meets Valerie (Katrina Reynolds), an MFA graduate in acting whose classical training comes up against the limits of colour blind casting, when she visits the clinic to receive stitches after an accident during rehearsal. The play is loosely structured around the progress, or lack thereof, of the two couples' relationships. Along the way, we see Ginny visit Jackson's clinic to make a case for recruiting participants for her research; we witness Valerie take a job as a research assistant for Brian in order to earn additional rent money; and we learn that Brian and Jackson are old friends who like to shoot hoops together. However, all four characters don't come together and sort out their intersecting ties to each other until the penultimate scene, a dinner party at Brian and Ginny's. Crucially, this is also where we learn that even among this rainbow collection of educated, progressive people, those ties do not and cannot supersede race. Brian by this point has lost his bid for tenure, Harvard only having so much tolerance for his proof of its institutional racism. When the other three people of colour at the table try to make him understand that his research represents not so much a solution to the scourge of white supremacy as a threat to the ways in which it continues to flourish by invisibilzing its claims to majority power, Brian proves this very point with his own racist outburst.

Diamond is herself a very smart playwright. Her script trades in some complex, hot-button issues, but it never feels like she is hectoring the audience, or scoring points off of her characters, all of whom she portrays as richly complex and sympathetic, even the hapless Brian. Mackay has elicited superb performances from the entire ensemble; you can tell the actors are really enjoying sinking their teeth into Diamond's fast-paced and meaty dialogue, especially the many comic barbs, and there is palpable chemistry emanating from the stage. That said, I did find the mostly episodic structure of the play a bit of a spectating challenge, with the succession of short, sharp scenes punctuated by blackouts a bit visually wearying. Mackay resolves this structural issue somewhat by staging this production in the round, with the four points of access allowing for swift actor-driven transitions, while also suggesting that a shared arena is both materially and metaphorically perhaps the most apt container for the bloodsport that is race in America. Still, I wondered if we needed all of the moving on and off of furniture between the scenes, or even the multiple blackouts; perhaps having some of the scenes overlap spatially and temporally would have aided in structural continuity. And depending on one's position in the audience, it can be challenging to see some important stage business. Richard and I, for instance, did not learn [SPOILER ALERT!] that Brian had hooked himself up to the heart rate monitor attached to his computer in the final scene--in which the other characters separately report on Obama's inauguration ceremony--until Richard Wolfe (who was seated in another section) told us what was happening in the cab ride home.

But that is a minor criticism. This is stellar production of an incredibly timely play, one that in using Obama's election as the social and political background to its dramaturgy ends up foregrounding the problems with Donald Trump being given free reign on the world stage.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 39

In addition to commissioning Natalie Purschwitz's amazing installation (now on full glorious display in the lobby of The Dance Centre), one of our more inspired ideas for how we would disperse and animate aspects of the interviews that we collected for our Dance Histories Project during the upcoming Dance in Vancouver biennial was to pull quotes from each of our interviewees and, with their permission, iron them on to T-shirts that also had that their name and interview number on the back, like so:

That's the front of Deanna Peters' T-shirt, and the back of Jane Osborne's, carefully decaled into place at an ironing party that Justine and Alexa and I had at my house last Monday morning. Over the rest of that week, I completed the rest of the 53 total T-shirts (in my earlier summary of the folks we'd interviewed, listed here, I left out Kelly McInnes and Olivia Shaffer, both of whom Alexa interviewed, but whose videos she hadn't been able to upload to our shared Dropbox folder from her phone). Yesterday Alexa and Kate Franklin and I distributed about half of them to the current students of Modus Operandi following their Sunday hip-hop class at The Dance Centre:

For the second half of this part of the project is that we're asking volunteers to wear one of the T-shirts during the week of DiV, and also to learn three shared gestures, and however many additional ones they'd also like to embody--all culled from our video interviews with Vancouver dance artists; whenever they're at The Dance Centre, or wherever else they might be in the city, our T-shirt-wearing volunteers are then invited to either slip these gestures covertly into routine conversations and interactions, or else to deliberately interrupt and/or open up a space through the repetition of the gestures. In this way, the discursive histories we've captured through our interviews will be reembodied and redistributed through this double act of transfer.

The Modus students all seemed eager to participate, and also proved amazingly adept at learning some very complicated gestures. Next Monday we'll have a further T-shirt and gesture distribution session at The Dance Centre with a bunch of dance artists (including several of our interviewees) who are keen to participate. Together with the sound and video installations we're also planning, it will hopefully be a lively complement to the regular DiV programming.

Everything kicks off on November 22nd. You can check out the full schedule here.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Powell Street Festival at ISCM's World New Music Days

Music on Main is partnering with the International Society for Contemporary Music and the Canadian League of Composers to present the 2017 edition of World New Music Days. As MoM Artistic Director David Pay has put it, the event is sort of like the Olympics of contemporary classical and post-classical music, featuring hundreds of composers from around the world, and traveling to a different host city every few years. It's a rare opportunity for Vancouver audiences to see daring new work and innovative programs showcasing performances by a roster of the city's most talented performers and ensembles.

Such was the case yesterday, when Richard and I attended an early evening concert at the Annex dubbed the Powell Street Festival. It wasn't entirely clear to me if the iconic summer festival of Japanese Canadian art and culture was a co-presenter of this particular ISCM event, but it did culminate in the Canadian premiere of Japanese composer Yasunoshin Morita's Reincarnation Ring II, a delightful work of "surround" sound performed by Ko Ishikawa that pairs the shō, a traditional vertical reed instrument, with five "half-broken" iPods playing similar tunes. The performative aspects of the piece were as fascinating as its conceptual premise.

The rest of the program featured Mark Takeshi McGregor on flutes, Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa on piano (together they perform as the Tiresias Duo), and Brian Nesselroad on percussion performing works by Justin Christensen (Canada), Etsuko Hori (Japan), Murat Çolak (Turkey/USA), and Laura Manolache (Romania). I was captivated by all of them except the first, by Christensen, which employed spoken text in a way that I found knowingly pretentious. But the other pieces, especially those of Çolak (flutes and percussion) and Manolache (flute, piano and percussion), were wonderfully inventive, producing combinations of sounds that were completely new to me, not least for the ways in which they were produced instrumentally.

I guess that's what the world of new music is all about, and I look forward to the other concerts we have planned for today.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ballet BC's Program 1 at the Queen E

Because Richard and I were attending the world premiere of Marie Clements' and Brian Current's new opera, Missing, last night, we had to trade our usual Friday night Ballet BC tickets for replacement seats on Saturday. It was the final performance of the season-opening Program 1 for the company, and for it Artistic Director Emily Molnar featured the return of two familiar Ballet BC choreographers: resident choreographer Cayetano Soto; and Johan Inger, whose Walking Mad (the piece with the big wall), was a crowd-pleaser back in 2012. In style and tone the works could not have been more different. Nor my reaction to them.

Soto's Eight Years of Silence was first on the program. A dark and moody piece set to a mournfully elegiac musical composition by Peter Gregson, it opens with Brandon Alley (I think) standing alone and centre stage. He (and the rest of the company, as we shall soon discover) wears a shiny, leather-like leotard that hugs his body, almost like an exoskeleton one would see on a lizard or a turtle. From this position of stillness he moves suddenly into a sharp and contained solo, kicking out one leg and then raising it into the air while windmilling his arms around his head and about his torso. Midway through this another male dancer appears upstage and falls effortlessly into unison with the movements being performed by Alley, who eventually cuts short his dancing and walks off stage. This pattern of a new dancer falling into step with and then almost erasing away the movement of a previous one continues with the entrance of the first female dancer, and for a time I was quite taken with the conceit.

But, as with everything in this ponderous and bloated work, it goes on far too long. Soto has structured the piece episodically as variations on a theme, which means there is a lot of starting and stopping, with dancers--at first individually and then in duos and trios--spending a lot of time walking on and off stage in a kind of slouchy zombie mode before they hit their marks and launch into a new movement pattern (for all of their extraordinary talents as virtuosic movers, Ballet BC dancers are among the worst walkers I have ever seen). Occasionally Soto mixes things up by throwing in a blackout and surprising us with the apparition of an unexpected group formation, and as the piece progressed the partnering became more complicated and visually interesting. However, dramaturgically there is frankly no accounting for the decision to bring down the curtain half way through the piece; first of all, if you are going to do so while two of your dancers are still moving in unison, and thus focalizing our attention on their lower limbs and feet, then you had better ensure that they are in sync (last night they were not). Then there is the fact that, per force, most in the audience will assume that the piece is over. Unfortunately, it was not. Nor was there a radical shift in scenographic design or kinetic composition when it came up again: just the same wash of chiaroscuro lighting and the same washed out movement. Consequently, I was even more bored during the second half than the first.

By contrast, I was fully engaged from the get go by Inger's B.R.I.S.A. First created for Nederlands Dans Theater's Company 2, the piece has two things going for it from the very outset: a musical score set to the songs of the great Nina Simone; and an arresting design feature in the form of a shaggy brown carpet that covers the stage. Indeed, these two design elements combined to suggest to me a cross between Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs and Pina Bausch's famous Rite of Spring, with its dirt-strewn stage floor. The latter reference may not be so far off; for, whereas Bausch's work culminates in a sacrificial death, Inger's B.R.I.S.A. opens with a symbolic image of rebirth. As the curtain rises and the lights come up, we see two or three dancers shuffling their feet back and forth along the carpet, motoring from side to side like blown up ants in the sand revealed through the lens of a telescope. But we also notice that there is a large bump in the carpet in the middle of its upstage lip, and sure enough one of the dancers soon drags the body of another out from underneath it. This act of rescue seems to send a new current of libidinal energy throughout the ensemble, and one of the pleasures of the piece is to watch the dancers successively release their hips and sway their pelvises to the contagious rhythms of Simone's songs, often falling into simple but infectiously joyous bits of group unison.

However, just as the heat on and off stage starts to ignite, Inger decides to cool things down, with one of the female dancers moving downstage right to catch the cooling breezes of an offstage fan. Curious, the other dancers soon join her. But then the fan suddenly cuts out, which leads to some conceptual hilarity as the various members of the ensemble compete for the use of a red hand fan that Peter Smida somehow magically produces from about his person. From there, things ramp up as first rival hair driers and then leaf blowers are retrieved from offstage. All of this might have devolved into mere shtick had the accompanying movement not also been so effective, the various wind producing devices, when directed at different nether regions of the body especially, helping to initiate some surprising currents of movement--as when, for example, Smida and Christoph von Riedemann, lying on their backs on the carpet, lift their pelvises and begin a lively routine of Cossack-style air kicks. Eventually the carpet gets rolled up, and with it one of the female dancers.

But this is not her, nor our, ending. There is a final danced coda that, fittingly, concludes by shooting the breezes on stage out into the audience. And on the warmth of this particular zephyr Richard and I exited contentedly into the cool night.


Saturday, November 4, 2017

Missing at the York Theatre

Last night at the York Theatre was the world premiere of Missing, an opera co-commissioned and co-produced by City Opera Vancouver and Pacific Opera Victoria, and presented in partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre and the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival. The libretto is by the award-winning playwright, filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist Marie Clements, and complements previous work she has done on the subject of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in The Unnatural and Accidental Women and, most recently, The Road Forward (both the live musical performance and the hybrid documentary film). Settler composer Brian Current was chosen to write the music after a blind jury process, and his very contemporary score is surprisingly spare: for example, there is one haunting section, a nightmare scene of attack upon the Native Girl, that is sung almost completely a cappella, with only the occasional rat-a-tat-tat of some kind of drum or woodblock conjuring the terrifying sounds of approaching and retreating footsteps in the woods. Current's score also makes interesting use of percussion and wind instruments, particularly to ring out lighter, more hopeful notes from the triangle and the flute, in keeping with a thematic focus on Clements' symbol of sparrows taking flight. Another important aspect of this production is that much of Clements' libretto is sung in Gitxsan, and while surtitles are used throughout (including, somewhat unnecessarily, for the English lyrics), one does not have to spend much time looking at the screens bracketing either side of the stage to understand the story of inter-generational and inter-cultural trauma that Clements is trying to tell.

For one of the more interesting choices that Clements takes to telling the story of BC and Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women--along with abstracting and deliberately depersonalizing the violence none of us really wants to confront (we never see the attack upon Native Girl, who is also never named)--is to filter it through the perspective of a white settler woman. Following a car crash on the Highway of Tears, Ava (Caitlin Wood) locks eyes with Native Girl (Melody Courage), who is lying on the ground. Returning to law school at UBC, Ava cannot shake the image from her head, and thanks to her Indigenous professor, Dr. Wilson (Marion Newman), she becomes newly schooled in the epidemic of violence against First Nations women in this country--which also means cutting ties to her racist friend, Jess (Heather Malloy). Ava's increasing politicization around Indigenous issues leads her to begin studying the Gitxsan language and she eventually marries her classmate, Devon (Kaden Forsberg), in a traditional Gitxsan ceremony. In the hands of any other writer, the charges of cultural appropriation would likely fly fast and furious, but having established Native Girl's haunting of Ava in the first scene, Clements explores the idea of shared trauma and reciprocal empathy as a bodily process of incorporation--and also, as interestingly, excorporation. That is, the opera culminates in a moving duet between Ava and Native Girl in which, both naming and then touching different hurt parts of their bodies, they physicalize what feeling the pain of another actually means. At the same time, Native Girl's trapped soul can only be freed once she takes Ava and Devon's baby--whom we are told cries often and seems to be wracked by some sort of spirit--in her arms and soothes her.

Parallel to this story of inter-cultural connection we also witness the effects of Native Girl's absence upon her mother (Rose-Ellen Nichols) and her brother, Angus (Clarence Logan). Crucially, the only interaction between the family is shown in a brief flashback scene, in which Angus and Native Girl frolic and play across time and space, while in the present their mother keens her relentless and bottomless grief. In this we are witness to one of the other major issues connected to this national tragedy: that without these cases being solved and the bodies of the missing and murdered women being recovered, there can be no closure for their families, only an endless void. As effective as this is, I have to admit that as with Corey Payette's Children of God (which played the York earlier this year, and which I blogged about here) I did feel at times like the Indigenous characters at the heart of this story appeared peripheral to it. Nichols (who played Pauline in City Opera's original opera about the life of E. Pauline Johnson a few years ago) is such a commanding stage presence, and on some levels she seems under-used. To be sure, Clements is far too intelligent and savvy a writer not to understand what she is doing on this front. Just as this story would not have been ignored for so long had the women who were going missing been white, so is Clements forcing us to ask ourselves, in our focus on Ava, why are we only paying attention now? And to the issue of settler self-positioning in relation to this tragedy, it's important to note that Native Mother does indeed get the last word. And it is very much a challenge: what are you missing?

Assuredly directed by Peter Hinton, and with expert conducting by Timothy Long (subbing for an ailing Charles Barber), this production also features amazing projections by Andy Moro (who also designed the set) and a terrific lighting design by John Webber. With the troubled inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada having just released its interim report (asking for, among other things, more time and money), and with the recent discovery and identification of the remains of Traci Genereaux on a farm in Salmon Arm, this opera couldn't be more timely. But it also deserves to have a much longer life, and will ideally tour across the country, and also enter into Canadian operatic canon.