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.


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