Thursday, June 21, 2018

Camera Obscura (Hungry Ghosts) at the Roundhouse

I first saw a staged reading of Lesley Ewen's Camera Obscura (hungry ghosts) as part of frank theatre's Clean Sheets series that accompanied the Q2Q Conference at SFU Woodward's in July 2016. Two years later it is now receiving its world premiere at the Roundhouse in a production directed by Ewen and co-presented by the frank and the Queer Arts Festival. But, as Ewen recounts in her program notes, the genesis for the play really began 16 years ago, when after seeing a retrospective of Vancouver-based visual artist Paul Wong's work at the Vancouver Art Gallery she conceived the broad outlines of the play. That it has taken so long for the work to be produced has nothing to do with Ewen's working methods, nor with the quality of her writing and artistic vision; it mostly speaks to how risk-averse are most theatre companies in this country.

Camera Obscura is a fictionalized account of Wong's creative and quasi-romantic relationship with Kenneth Fletcher, and in particular their collaboration on the photographic and video project Murder Research (1977). Based on the actual murder of a First Nations man in the alley behind Wong's house, Wong and Fletcher combined documentation of the crime scene and images of the victim's body taken from the coroner's office with a dramatization of their interpretation of the story of the murder. At once a critique of our obsession with sensationalized depictions of murder and violence and an expose of the otherwise invisible Indigenous lives of many of the victims of that violence, the work was exhibited at the Western Front, toured widely, and also yielded a book. With Wong's blessing, Ewen has used this background material to investigate the ethics of turning someone else's real-life pain into art, as well as the psychological toll that such a process presumably took on Fletcher, who, after struggling with mental illness, committed suicide a year after the creation of Murder Research.

Ewen has constructed Camera Obscura as a memory play. Brandon (Jeff Ho) is an acclaimed artist who is celebrating a career retrospective. In voiceover an unseen curator (Ewen) informs us of the provocative subject matter of his work, as well as its formalist concerns, including blurring the lines between art and life. But the voices and images behind one particular work haunt Brandon and, with the aid of some imaginative video projections by Sammy Chien, we are pulled back along with Brandon to the moment of its inception. Thereafter, the play proceeds along two intersecting lines, both of which have at their heart an ethical conundrum that Ewen wishes to both foreground and poke at. On the one hand there is the politics of non-Indigenous folks trading in and seeking to make meaningful the perceived misery of the lives of Indigenous peoples. At the same time, there is the question of what constitutes the limits of a personal and professional relationship in which everything--including suicidal ideation--is treated as a performance. However, dramatically speaking these two narrative lines receive unequal weight, with Ewen's focus tilting--perhaps inevitably--towards the domestic drama of Brandon's relationship with Kevin (Julien Galipeau), at the expense of fleshing out the story of the murdered First Nations man (played by Braiden Houle) who becomes the subject of their work.

To be sure, there is a bravura scene in which Houle rounds on Kevin for his presumption in thinking his life was without meaning before he and Brandon immortalized him in an artwork. But for the most part his character remains a mute witness to his own exploitation, in addition to physically carrying the bodies of the other characters at two different moments in the play. I understand how the voicelessness of Indigenous peoples is part of Ewen's critique of colonialism, but for me this representational silence is problematically counterposed by the over-contextualization of the ethics of Brandon's art practice. The use of voiceover is extensive throughout the play, and the cooly dispassionate appraisal of Brandon's contributions to artmaking is meant to set up what we imagine to be on the walls of the gallery's white cube and the messy "reality" that we are actually seeing in the black box of the theatre as the subject of a debate with life and death stakes. But in refusing to take sides in this debate, Ewen's play necessarily ends up reaffirming the representational over the material. Indeed, we could say that Wong's original artwork is now doubly framed.

Raising such questions is what makes Camera Obscura such an important work. It needs to be seen--and talked about.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

SLIME at the Russian Hall

Last night at the Russian Hall was the world premiere of SLIME, a new play by the award-winning playwright British playwright Bryony Lavery (the crime drama Frozen) that is being produced by The Only Animal following a workshop at the Banff Centre. Staged in the round by director Kendra Fanconi, and featuring impressive scenography that makes endlessly inventive use of sheets of plastic, the play is a rather confusing apocalyptic thriller about climate change and inter-species communication that also tries to be an academic satire.

The action takes place sometime in the future at what we are meant to understand is the third international anti-slime conference, the first such event to which animal species other than humans have been invited. Our guides for the proceedings are a series of young human interns who specialize in different animal communication systems and are thus there to act as translators. Frezzle (Pedro Chamale) is an expert in dolphin, Barb (Edwardine van Wyk, an SFU Theatre alum) is fluent in the languages of other sea mammals like seals and otters, Ola (Lisa Baran) specializes in the different calls of sea birds, Godfrey (Teo Saefkow) swims with and speaks to the smaller schools of fish, and Coco (Anais West) is, I think, mostly interested in what amphibians have to say. There are two additional characters: Ev (Mason Temple, deftly motoring about the stage on a mini-segwey) is the tech liaison for the interns and also is learning a bit of bear; and Dumbo (a wordless Sophia Wolfe) is apparently present to act as a sign-language interpreter for all the other species for whom there are not assigned interpreters.

At the start of the play, the conference seems to be a celebratory event, a paradigm shift in the relations between humans and other animals, and as the auditorium fills with the various animal sounds made by our young interns, and as they additionally tell us about how excited they are to hear from their academic mentors, the tone is hopeful. Then, too, there is all of the ancillary activity between the interns that forms a sidebar to the main conference event. Mostly this consists of hooking up with each other, with Barb and Ola's sexual attraction initially sparked by a mutual meeting of minds, and with Coco and Ev simply wanting to get off with each other. Frezzle watches frustratingly from the sidelines. Soon, however, our group uncovers a secret plot that is not on the official conference agenda. With the slime they are all there to study apparently taking over the planet, leading scientists and other political and cultural elites have hatched a social darwinist plan to decamp to a remote island that will become a protected sanctuary for the world's human one percent. Betrayed by their own mentors, riven internally as a group (Ev, in particular, wants to join the island elites), and with their animal friends now turning on them, the interns must confront what they've all avoided to this point: the slime itself.

Ironically, this is where I fell into a black hole of incomprehension regarding both the plot and the politics of the play. Is the slime good or bad, human-made or naturally occurring, harmful to other animal species or modelling another way to adapt and evolve? Fanconi's program notes extol the collectivist ethos of slime, but the conference at the heart of the play is an anti-slime conference. And the ending is similarly paradoxical: the slime appears to swallow up Dumbo when she tries to communicate with it, but then we're told just before a final blackout that the plastic mass under which Wolfe's body lies is trying to say something to the interns. I wish that this message--and that of the play as a whole--had been telegraphed more clearly. In the stridently earnest delivery of most of the actors' lines we're meant to understand, I would gather, just how urgent are the issues being addressed in the play. And yet I was left without any sure sense of what kind inter-species relationship is being posited here and whether we as humans are meant to learn from slime, or learn to fear it.

As for the plastic under which Wolfe's body lies, Fanconi and her design team work with it to create some amazing bits of scenographic magic. It unfurls like a canopy above the audience's heads and then becomes a murky sea filled with other bits of plastic detritus. It is fashioned by puppet designer Shizuka Kai into a towering polar bear who likes to smoke, and also into delicate fish and sea urchins in a touching scene in which Godfrey narrates the death of one of the aquarium inhabitants under his care. Sliced and crumpled up, the plastic also, when dumped in the middle of the stage floor, appears to expand on its own--which was my only concrete sense in the whole play of what slime can actually do.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Victim Impact at The Cultch

Victim Impact, which opened at The Cultch's Historic Theatre last night, is Theatre Conspiracy's latest work of documentary theatre. Written by TC's Artistic Producer, Tim Carlson, and directed by Jiv Parasram, it focuses on an elaborate Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Rashida Samji, an Ismaili notary public who became known as The Magic Lady after she convinced hundreds of people, including friends and members of her own family, to invest in a fictitious Okanagan wine company that was seeking to break into the South American and South African markets. Promising returns of up to 30% or more, Samji ended up bilking innocent folks out of their entire life savings.

The case has been wending its way through the courts for years, with Samji's final appeal to the Supreme Court only having recently been rejected. Much of Carlson's script is based on the court transcripts, supplemented by dramatizations of interviews with several of her victims, here represented by an angry chorus of four played by Jenn Griffin, Munish Sharma, Risha Nanda, and Allan Morgan. We are first introduced to this group as backlit silhouettes speaking from behind a series of interlocking screens, an effective visual conceit for telegraphing the need to protect their anonymity as well as the fact that for Samji they were presumably just interchangeable marks. Paradoxically, however, it means that, as characters, the victims of Victim Impact register largely as hazy ciphers for whom it is difficult to muster much empathy. Sure, we do get individual monologues in which we learn some of the heartbreaking personal details behind each of their stories: that Morgan's farmer was tricked out of his retirement savings; that Nanda's graduate student had to give up on her dream of earning her Master's degree, and also watch as her parents withdrew from their community in shame. But in terms of dramatic function, the choral scenes with the victims are mostly expository, telling us what did--or as often as not, what didn't--happen next.

By contrast, I had no problem conjuring sympathy for Samji, who is superbly played by Nimet Kanji, nor for her friend, the financial planner Arvin Patel (Sharma, also excellent) whom Samji dupes into becoming her stoodge, working from his desk at Coast Capital to lure in many of Samji's investors. In part this is because we are given scenes early on in the action in which we witness Samji and Patel, both physically and emotionally vulnerable, themselves being preyed upon. Then, too, Carlson's script works hard to lay bare the many complex ties binding Vancouver's South Asian community that are also at play in this story, with the murky fixer apparently pressuring Samji in turn forcing her to turn the screws against Patel. That in Samji's case the "man from the Congo," along with the whole bounced cheque from England that started her down this path of fraud, are very likely pure fiction only makes more psychologically interesting her need to come clean in her courtroom testimony, which Kanji delivers with a compelling mixture of suspense and relief.

At the same time, the court scenes also showcase a problem with adhering too scrupulously to the principles of verbatim theatre. Specifically, the trope of having Morgan's defence lawyer repeatedly object to the questions put to Samji by Griffin's prosecuting lawyer, each time citing the same article under the Canadian and BC criminal codes, got terribly wearying. But for the additional mix of sound and visuals in this scene courtesy of the projections by Milton Lim and the accompanying aural cues by David Meisha, I would have stopped paying attention altogether. At other times, in seeking to enliven some of the financial minutiae relating to this case, the creators adopt an overtly burlesque style, as with Sharma's soft shoe routine in the historical anecdote about the real Carlo Ponzi, and later when Sharma and Nanda explain how the banks at the heart of this scandal have sought to recover the money embezzled by Samji, only then to claw back a percentage of that in order to cover their own fees. But for me, these scenes actually served to point up all the more the earnestness of the rest of the storytelling.

I don't wish to diminish the very real pain--financial and otherwise--at the heart of this story, nor the investments of the artistic team in telling that story. I'm just not sure that the how of that telling makes for the most absorbing theatre. Indeed, given the format's success in engaging listeners with serial presentations of true crime stories, I wonder if the podcasts (or "fraudcasts") that Carlson and dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty have developed to accompany the show aren't in fact where the real drama of Victim Impact lies.


Friday, June 1, 2018

Lady Parts: Vagina at the Anza Club

The final instalment of After Party Theatre's Lady Parts, their four-part series of sketch comedy shows hosted by Pi Theatre as part of their new "Provocateurs" platform, took place last night at the Anza Club. I had previously seen "Brains" at the Emerald Club back in November, having missed the inaugural "Boobs" and also April's "Heart." But co-creators Katey Hoffman and Cheyenne Mabberley saved the best for last, devoting a whole evening of taboo-smashing guffaws to that bit of the female anatomy that they refer to on Pi's website as "a beautiful flesh taco."

Joined on stage by performers Katie Findlay and Kiomi Pykel, Hoffman and Mabberley certainly didn't hold back in a succession of skits that focused on pap smears from hell, an abortion shower, and television ads that treat vaginal health as a perpetual spring stroll through the park. There was also an hilarious film interlude in which Hoffman and Mabberley talked with their mothers about their births and had them attempt to answer Google questions about sex.

The comedian Fatima Dhowre delivered a short but sharply funny stand-up set, and the Indigenous burlesque duo Virago Nation performed a stand-out number that deftly combined elements of exotic dancing and striptease with the vocabulary of First Nations fancy dancing. All in all, it was a most enjoyable evening, and I do hope that Pi continues with this serial showcase for edgy art.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Saddest Girl at the Party at the rEvolver festival

Upintheair Theatre's annual rEvolver festival is in full swing over at The Cultch, and last night I cycled over to see The Saddest Girl at the Party, a dance-theatre duet by Francesca Frewer and Erika Mitsuhashi. The piece takes place in the Greenhouse, which is in the basement of the newly renovated green house (hence the name) just to the west of the The Cultch's main building. While there are two support pillars that cut into the performance space (and that at times obscured my particular sightlines for the projected surtitles used by Frewer and Mitsuhashi in their piece), it is otherwise a very inviting and intimate studio venue.

Following an impressive pre-show set-list that included Petula Clark, among others, The Saddest Girl begins with the performers, both decked out head to two in grey, arising in turn from their seats in the front row of the audience, walking purposefully onto the stage, and then freezing mid-stride. There follows a quick blackout, during which the performers return to their seats, and then repeat the same action over again. It's as if they're rehearsing their respective entrances to a party to which they maybe haven't been invited, or perhaps to which they really don't want to go. Then again, the freeze frame effect is also suggestive of memory, the stilled bodies and lighting combining like a flashbulb to produce the ex ante documentary traces of that which has yet to happen.

There then follows two versions of what one--a sad girl or otherwise--is presumably meant to do at a party: dance. In the first sequence, Frewer and Mitsuhashi contract and then extend their bodies joint by joint in a pair of complementary solos, Mitsuhashi's loose-limbed crumpling and spontaneous springing forth into space matched by the power and intent of Frewer's athletic marching, lunging, and rolling across the floor. Here are two women--not girls--intent on claiming and taking up space with their own kinetic vocabularies: dancing for themselves, and each other, rather than any other watchful eyes. This, however, is contrasted with what is likely a more familiar scene from parties: Mitsuhashi and Frewer, their bodies now glued to a single contained spot on the floor, cycling through a series of stop-motion poses as a metronome counts out time and the lights flash slowly in a deliberately bad strobe-like effect. The slow widening of eyes and the drawn-out flashing of overly animated smiles as the performers mime interest in what their imagined--and presumptively male--dance partners are saying is alone worth the price of admission.

Following this scene, the performers retrieve from backstage a series of clothing items and props, all in the same impressive grey palette, which they lay out in tidy piles stage right and left. Changing costumes, the performers now adopt two distinct--and distinctly theatrical--personas: Frewer that of a motivational speaker, and Mitsuhashi that of a nervous party planner. We move back and forth between Frewer trying to get through her speech and Mitsuhashi arranging a series of party hats on a chair. While I appreciated the dramaturgical impulse behind this exploration of other kinds of parties--including professional ones--at which girls might be sad, this part of the work seems not yet fully formed. Indeed, following one final transition between the two tableaux the piece ends rather abruptly when Frewer joins Mitsuhashi on her chairs, a final blackout cued to the party hat that will not stay atop the former's head. At a compact 35 minutes or so, there is room to flesh out more fully and complexly this part of the work, and I look forward to future iterations of this very thoughtful piece.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Arts Umbrella Season Finale at the Playhouse

Yesterday afternoon Richard and I took in Arts Umbrella Dance Company's annual Season Finale at the Vancouver Playhouse. As with past shows, it was a bit of a mixed bag, with the younger apprentice company in need of a pleasing end-of-year showcase for their parents, but not always up to the complexities of the choreography.

Three current Ballet BC dancers--Livona Ellis, Andrew Bartee, and Kristen Wicklund--all had pieces on the program for these younger dancers, and all three were rather formal toe shoe and tights classical compositions. Ellis's "To the Last," set to Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, was the best of the lot, but it still left me questioning the wisdom of setting this kind of work on dancers who at this point in their careers have neither the technique nor the strength to execute it satisfyingly.

The senior company fared much better in contemporary works by Cayetano Soto, Michael Schumacher (a fantastic cell phone piece called "Subtext"), Mats Ek, Crystal Pite, James Kudelka, and Wen Wei Wang, whose "Fremd" closed out the afternoon's proceedings. "Fremd" owes a clear debt to William Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated," down to its pounding sore, the off-kilter axes and non-traditional facings, and the rival ballerinas alone on stage shifting from foot to foot and sizing each other up. Regardless of its origins or influences, the piece allows the company's older dancers, alone and in pairs and trios, to shine, demonstrating their acceleration and speed, their impressive extension, and their overall theatricality.

One thing that rankled yesterday was the amount of distracting commotion in the audience during the performances. To be sure, fidgety pre-teens are only going to be able to sit still for so long. But the rustling of candy wrappers and the slurping on drinks straws was almost as loud as the music being played during each piece. Some of the parents were just as bad, ignoring the announcement about no cell phones and taking the opportunity to catch up on their texts when their own kids were not on stage. It was most annoying and makes me think that this is the last such event I'll be going to.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

Convergence x 2 at EDAM

EDAM's annual spring choreographic series featured new work from guest artists Natalie Tin Yin Gan and Shauna Elton, alongside a revival of a work EDAM Artistic Director Peter Bingham first presented a year ago.

Gan's Level 10 Life is billed as a "dance in sound and vibration." It features three performers in softly lit individual spots in three distinct areas of the stage. Alanna Ho squats in front of a laptop spinning music stage right, one leg sexily extended. Michelle Lui is downstage centre, astride a chair, a microphone positioned in front of her. An unrecognizable Aryo Khakpour (in part because, as we later discover, he's wearing giant bug eyes) lounges downstage left. As Ho continues to play music, Lui eventually leans into the microphone, quietly telling us the date and time of the performance, before calling out names of folks she recognizes in the audience. The contract between performers and audience thus having been breached, we are thus primed for anything to happen. But nothing much else does. Khakpour eventually sits and then stands up, brandishing a crop of some sort and advancing a bit downstage. Lui, meanwhile, retreats upstage and bops a little up and down to the music Ho is playing. Everything unfolds as if in a dream, or some futuristic space bar to which we have been lured on the promise of adventure, but for which we do not know the proper conventions or social codes.

Elton's Amae is a trio for Kate Franklin, Emmalena Fredriksson and the choreographer. It's a big-hearted, wide-limbed, joyous ode to bodily connection, mutual support, and psychic interdependence. The dancers run on stage in similar grey and red dresses, throw down various dance accessories (knee pads, socks, etc.), and then launch into a robust sequence of pushes and pulls and small lifts and jumps and limb-to-limb touching that combines some of the principles of contact with Elton's own contemporary vocabulary. There is, for example, a terrific moment in which Elton is carrying Franklin (or maybe it was the other way around), and Fredriksson, crouched on the floor, slides her hands between Elton's legs and beside her feet, as if giving her fellow dancer, now burdened with the weight of another body, directional guidance. Not that we don't also witness moments of tension and conflict in this piece. At one point Elton is lying on her side downstage while Franklin and Fredriksson work through who is leading and who is following whom in a series of toreador-like advances and retreats. The work concludes with the three dancers, having donned the accessories that had previously lain on the floor and simultaneously shed their outer grey frocks, in some senses becoming one single, hydra-headed body--an appropriate image for the gathering force of feminine energy and love that is at the heart of this dance.

Bingham's Pillars concluded the evening. While it has a new name, the work appears to follow the same structure as last year's Convergence, which I first blogged about here, and whose original title Bingham has now transposed to this entire evening's worth of presentations. That is, the work begins with the seven dancers (Delia Brett, Anne Cooper, Elissa Hanson, Arash Khakpour, Walter Kubanek, Diego Romero, and Olivia Shaffer) facing either side of the studio's east and west walls. At a certain point Brett peels off and begins to improvise a solo, shimmying liquidly through space, extending first one limb then another, descending to and then rolling about the floor. Eventually making contact with Kubanek on the other side of the studio, Brett drags him into her orbit, their duo expanding to a trio with the addition of Cooper, and then to a quartet when Romero feels the group's adhesive pull, and so on until all seven dancers have peeled themselves from the walls and are improvising with each other on stage. This time around, however, it seems like Bingham has removed some of the work's previous restrictions: there is no returning to the side walls for any of the dancers, and it feels like none of them is required to hew to a specific individual line in space. As such, the performers are freer to seek out another body or bodies with which to improvise a specific contact sequence. They can also do their own thing, and there was a moment last night when Shaffer, who is such a gorgeously fluid dancer, found herself separated from the group and contrived a wonderful sitting solo for herself that I could have watched all night. As she is doing this, the other six dancers have paired off and are cycling through different gravity-defying lifts and poses against the upstage wall. Which makes me think that not all the structuring principles from the previous iteration of this piece have been jettisoned. They've just morphed into something new. Above all, what made the performance so fun to watch is that the dancers themselves were clearly having fun.

An additional surprise on last night's program was the newly renovated lobby of the Western Front. I guess it's been a while since I've last been inside the building. So I was unprepared for what I encountered when I opened the doors: a bright, airy, open and modern entryway, with the box office now to the right, two loos adjacent it, and the rest a wide open space in which to linger and mingle with fellow patrons and artists. It makes the whole EDAM experience that much more enjoyable.


Monday, May 21, 2018

Chess at the English National Opera

When I was in high school the mother of my best friend, Sandra, was obsessed with the musical Chess, with music by ABBA's Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice. She'd bought the concept album when it first came out in 1984, and eventually in 1986, on one of her frequent trips to England (where she is originally from), she saw the stage version in London's West End. Whenever I was over at Sandra's house, which was quite often, it wouldn't take much effort to convince Mrs. Hirons to play the record for us; mostly I just wanted to hear "One Night in Bangkok," which Murray Head, who sang the role of The American (later named Freddie Trumper in the musical), had turned into a big radio hit. But the entire score gradually lodged itself into my brain, to the point that I remember being very upset when the musical's Broadway transfer, following a very popular if critically mixed reception in London, turned out to be a flop.

So when I heard that the musical was being revived by the English National Opera at their plush West End home, the London Colosseum, and that it's run would coincide with my trip, well naturally I booked a ticket. I should have saved myself the money. Granted, both the plot and politics of Chess are hardly subtle, but this production screams insistently for attention in such crassly obvious (and overproduced) ways, and also misses a huge opportunity to update the work's Cold War themes for today's renewed US-Russia tensions in the era of Trump (hello Freddie!) and Putin.

Taking inspiration from the famous Bobbie Fischer-Boris Spassky World Chess Match in 1972, which at the time was seen as no less an important confrontation between the world's two superpowers than the space race, Chess, the musical, opens with the defending world champion, the American Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar), being challenged for his title by the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball), who has left his wife, Svetlana (Alexandra Burke), and his young son back in Russia. Freddie is accompanied by his manager, Florence Vassy (Cassidy Jansan) and Anatoly has a threatening minder named Molokov (Philip Browne). Suffice to say that things don't go well for the bombastic and showboating Freddie. When Anatoly quickly gains the upper hand in their matches, he accuses the Russian of cheating. Florence tries to mediate between the two men, which kindles a spark for her in Anatoly, especially when he learns her father was arrested by the Soviets when they invaded Hungary in 1956. Act 1 concludes with Anatoly defeating Freddie, Freddie immediately announcing his retirement, and Anatoly defecting to England with the help of Florence. Act 2 opens a year later, where Anatoly is now defending his title in Bangkok against a new Russian challenger. Freddie is covering the proceedings for the television media and the tension revolves around whether or not Anatoly will throw the match, as the Soviets are blackmailing him by playing on his love for both Svetlana and Florence. Anatoly's decision is satisfyingly surprising, as is the musical's eschewing of a traditional happy ending.

Unfortunately, the ENO production buries this moment of quiet heartbreak in its overall ethos of elaborate spectacle. Director Laurence Connor takes very seriously the rock opera bona fides of this work (which, admittedly, conductor John Rigby handles with aplomb). There are lights, lots and lots of lights; there is an elaborate system of moving stage machinery; there's a chorus line of dancers who look like they're moonlighting from a Madonna or Beyoncé concert (the choreography is by Stephen Mear); and, most intrusively, there are two huge walls of jagged video screens, on which are projected the close-up images of the lead characters in mid-belt via a series of live feeds. And do these folks ever belt. In number after number, the guiding principle seems to be bigger and louder. And while everyone is in fine voice, especially Jansan and Burke as Florence and Svetlana, it all felt rather wearying to have the songs delivered in the same deafening power-ballad vein.

Even more confusing to me was the apparent political cluelessness of this production. It unfolds as if the falling of the Berlin Wall never happened and in avoiding any references to our current geopolitical situation casts the Soviet regime as a cartoon version of Reagan's "evil empire." On top of this, the "One Night in Bangkok" number that opens Act 2 is in its Las Vegas style razzle dazzle a riot of Orientalist fantasy, trading in every possible visual stereotype of Asia, and not that I could tell in an ironic manner. Even more egregiously, especially given the recent conversations that were had when Miss Saigon was revived on Broadway, this production uses yellowface, with many of the white chorines sporting black bobs as they shimmy and shake in front of Howar's Freddie.

I doubt that such a move would pass muster in New York, where another revival of the musical is apparently planned for later this year. We'll see how that production handles this work's manifold contradictions. Hopefully it will be in a far more complex way than this one.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Tonight at 8:30 at Jermyn Street Theatre

This afternoon, after completing my Tacita Dean exhibition triptych at the National Gallery (Still Life) and the National Portrait Gallery (Portrait)--the RA's Landscape show having been taken in on Friday--I made my way to the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre to see a matinee of Noel Coward one-acts. It's part of repertory run of nine of the playwright's shorter pieces that the company is dubbing Tonight at 8:30, grouping the shows into three thematic clusters: "Bedroom Farces," "Secret Hearts," and "Nuclear Families." All nine plays are performed by the same repertory of nine actors. You can book for an individual cluster or, if you're especially keen, cram all three clusters in on weekends, when the company does all nine plays in succession, beginning at 11:30 am and ending almost twelve hours later (with lunch and dinner breaks in between).

I only had time for one of the clusters, so I opted for "Bedroom Farces," which includes the following  deliciously subversive one-acts: We Were Dancing, about a woman determined to leave her husband for the man she instantly falls in love with on the dance floor, only to have second thoughts when he turns out to have been previously married; Ways and Means, concerning an unhappily married pair of indebted freeloaders who suddenly face eviction from their latest borrowed guest room, only to solve their problems by taking advantage of an improbable twist of fate; and Shadow Play, about a woman who, facing the prospect of divorce, enters into a drug-induced dream-state in which she relives the early days of her courtship with her husband.

As with most of Coward's work, the dialogue is fast and light, the skewering of bourgeois heteronormative conventions merciless, and the obsession with the lifestyle of the monied upper classes absolute. Plus there's singing and dancing, which was mostly put over very well by the hard working company members, especially given the cramped footprint of the Jermyn Street stage. I was in the first row, sitting right next to the piano, and the actors were at times less than a foot away from me.

But most memorable was my conversation with the woman sitting next to me, a theatre-mad octogenarian who was returning for the evening performance, and who the day before had also seen two plays back-to-back. Then again, so had I, and when I mentioned how much I'd enjoyed The Inheritance, she smiled and nodded knowingly. She also goes to the Edinburgh Fringe for a week every year and sees most of the good stuff before it even heads to London--if it ever does at all. I helped her reset her password for her Groupon account, as she was heading across the road for a discounted dinner between shows and had somehow been locked out of accessing her voucher. She did nod off at times during each of the performances, but I only hope I have a fraction of her energy and curiosity in thirty years--okay, and maybe also a fraction of what I judged from her clothing and jewelry to be her considerable wealth.


The Inheritance at The Young Vic

On the day Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, a bright sunny warm day here in London, I happily spent seven hours in a darkened theatre. I was at the Young Vic to take in the closing performances of Matthew Lopez's acclaimed new play The Inheritance, his epic two-part exploration of the legacies and obligations of gay culture and identity post-AIDS. Directed by Stephen Daldry, and featuring a mixed UK and American cast of relatively unknown young male actors (plus John Benjamin Hickey and, oh yes, Vanessa Redgrave), the production opened to ecstatic reviews in March, and will be transferring to the West End later this fall.

As virtually every review of the play has already stated, Lopez's work is essentially Angels in America meets Howard's End. His debt to the former work (which the playwright does not shy away from acknowledging, sometimes cheekily, sometimes more subtly) is largely structural and thematic: two sprawling parts tracking the romantic entanglements and social betrayals and surprising relationships that play out amongst a group of gay men in New York struggling to make sense of the world in a time of renewed political crisis (the election of Trump looms heavily over the plot, making the play feel, again as with Angels,  like an instant historical document). The adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel is much more conscious and complex, with the Schlegel sisters' fateful intertwining of their lives with those of the Wilcoxes here transposed to the accidental friendship between lovers Eric Glass and Toby Darling (Kyle Soller and Andrew Burnap) and the older couple Walter and Henry (Paul Hilton and Hickey), who live in the same Upper West Side apartment complex. Eric and Toby have a large circle of friends, all of whom are smart and gorgeous and witty and socially progressive and take for granted their right to marry and have kids and shop at Whole Foods for expensive organic produce. Eric and Toby are themselves planning to marry (the proposal is made during an hilariously athletic sex scene), but the damaged and narcissistic Toby's obsession with the young actor, Adam (Samuel Levine), who is starring in his new play, threatens to derail their happiness. Eric turns to Walter for solace, and the two men form a deep bond, with Walter especially serving as Eric's instructor and guide regarding what it was like to live through the AIDS epidemic. In particular, Walter tells Eric about the country house to which he and Henry had first retreated as a way of shutting out the disease, and then which Walter--to Henry's bitter regret--eventually turned into a hospice for those who were dying.

Those familiar with Forster's novel will realize where all of this is leading, and when, indeed, Vanessa Redgrave herself appears at the end of the play's second part--playing a woman whose son was cared for by Walter at his house, and who now serves as its caretaker--it feels both inevitable and deeply satisfying. Lopez's treatment of Forster's work is careful, honest and, above all, deeply sincere. And while, on the one hand, it is fun to spot the different references to the novel, as well as the ways in which the playwright subtly recasts them--how, for example, both Toby and the rent boy Leo (also played by Levine) he takes up with after Adam spurns him, are versions of Forster's Leonard Bast character--the play's use of Howard's End as an intertext is less self-referentially postmodern than it is deliberately pedagogical. That is, the novel becomes a touchstone for instructing audiences in a theory of contemporary gay belonging that, in Elizabeth Freeman's words, is also a way of "being long": of knowing who you are and who you might yet become through a conscious act of knowing where you've come from, and who has come before you. To this end, Morgan himself appears as a kind of teacher figure in the play (superbly incarnated by Hilton), framing the action by offering bits of writerly exposition, by cajoling the younger men to probe more deeply their characters' motivations, and finally by demonstrating that only they can be the authors of their own stories.

To be sure, this overtly presentational narrative conceit--with characters referring to themselves in the third person and addressing the audience directly on a range of contemporary and historical issues--can sometimes feel too earnest, a bit like a high school civics lesson. This is most apparent in the scene in which Eric and Toby and their friends take the measure of their progress as gay men in the twenty-first century, asserting their rights to marry and adopt while also lamenting the closing of gay bars and the commodification of queer culture and those who have been left behind. It all sounds like a confirmation of Lisa Duggan's argument about the "new homonormativity," except there is the somewhat problematic irony that the men reciting this argument--most of them white and economically well-off and healthy and able-bodied--are themselves part of this very constituency. (One can already anticipate the critiques that will inevitably be levelled against Lopez's play--not least that it is another example of gay men talking out of their arseholes to themselves.)

At the same time, I greatly admire the way Lopez openly traffics in sentiment, which is here marshalled not as a soporific of emotional exaggeration or self-indulgent nostalgia in order to dull audiences' critical faculties, but rather as an attitude of fellow-feeling in which different positions and perspectives and experiences might meet through the shared acknowledgement of our bodily vulnerability. This is most successfully--and feelingly--demonstrated in the endings to both parts of The Inheritance. In the first, Eric, on his initial visit to Walter's property, has an encounter with the ghostly emanations of the men whose deaths Walter eased, an encounter that, in Daldry's execution of the scene--twenty or more men seeming to manifest spontaneously from the walls of the auditorium and descending to the stage through the audience to greet Eric by name--had myself and many more in the audience openly weeping. In the second, Redgrave tells Eric and Leo the story of her son Michael's death at the estate: how, after initially spurning him for his sexuality, she was reunited with him by Walter, only to realize too late what additional time with him her prejudices had robbed her of. In Redgrave's thoroughly unsentimental delivery of this make-believe story, the no-nonsense Margaret repeatedly banging her head at her own stupidity, Lopez and Daldry create the very conditions for making belief in the audience, our identification with Margaret's pain forcing an examination of what, in the same circumstances, we might have done differently. In a play bursting at the seams with amazing performances, it is worth noting that the great Redgrave's belated appearance is the exact opposite of stunt-casting. Yes, she is there in part because of her name and because of her connection to the Merchant/Ivory film of Howard's End. But her performance commands through its understatement, not its showiness. Her presence sutures together the various threads of the play, and the other actors are not so much diminished by her on-stage shadow as burnished by it.

On a bare wooden set designed by Bob Crowley that consists of a retractable central plank that can be raised or lowered to signify a table or a swimming pool or gravesite as needed, director Daldry commands our attention through spareness and the intensity of his actors' physical presence. And I mean this quite literally. There are few props or scenographic embellishments (save for a couple of stunning upstage dioramic reveals at key moments in the action), but for almost the entirety of both parts of the play most of the actors remain on stage, listening along with us as the story unfolds, and also through this careful listening helping to shape in no small way how this story unfolds. There are no small parts in the theatre, as the saying goes, but in the collectivist ethos of this play--with Lopez's script taking care to identify both the uniqueness and the togetherness of Young Man 1 through 10--Daldry's decision to show us how corporeally proximate is this idea on stage seems absolutely crucial. I just hope that when the production transfers to a grander house in the West End the humbleness of this idea--and the entire staging more generally--is retained.

Because yesterday's matinee and evening performances were the closing ones of this run of the production, the energy in the auditorium felt especially charged and electric. At the curtain call some of the actors were openly weeping along with members of the audience. And Lopez, brought up on stage to share in the kudos, seemed genuinely stunned and grateful that what he had written had made such a connection. As with Angels, whose two-part premiere on Broadway I was initially thwarted from seeing (long story), this production of The Inheritance feels like an event. I am thrilled I got to experience it.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera

I'm currently in London, on my way back from giving some lectures in Stockholm, and trying to soak in as much art and performance as possible over my four days here. That means, in the former category, checking out the linked Tacita Dean shows at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts (in their newly renovated Burlington wing), as well as the Bacon and Freud Human, All too Human exhibition at the Tate Britain (I'm skipping the Picasso at Tate Modern). And, in terms of performance, things started off last night with Lessons in Love and Violence, a new opera by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, that is having its world premiere at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in a production directed by the uber-talented Katie Mitchell.

Benjamin and Crimp have collaborated twice before (on Into the Little Hill in 2006 and Written on Skin in 2012), and this newest work is already booked to play several major international institutions following its London run. Not a huge opera queen, I was attracted to the work not simply because of the buzz surrounding the production and the stellar reviews, but because the plot is based on the story of Edward II's tempestuous and ultimately tragic relationship with his lover and confidante Piers Gaveston. Drawing inspiration in equal measure from Christopher Marlowe and Derek Jarman, Crimp nevertheless adds to and updates the narrative by focusing on the effects of the King's all-consuming passion on his wife and children, as well as how such private emotional fissures spill over into and affect matters of national governance.

Indeed, there is a way in which Mitchell's contemporary setting of the story (aided by superb and sleekly modern designs by Vicki Mortimer) serves to make it a cautionary tale for any politician seeking to negotiate the rule of desire and the rules of politics in an age of intense social media scrutiny. Intimate scenes between the King (a stirringly soulful Stéphane Degout) and Gaveston (a dashing, though perhaps not in full voice, Gyula Orendt) leading up to their downfall, or between the Queen, Isabel (the magnificent Barbara Hannigan), and her son, now the new King (Peter Hoare, making the most of a smallish part), following that end are contrasted with large staff and media scrums in which Mitchell fills the stage with blue-suited bodies literally leaning into the anticipated bloodsport of another public figure's evisceration. That, in the final scene, Crimp gives this to us in the form of the boy-King's execution of Mortimer (an excellent Peter Hoare), the deposed military advisor who had worked to elevate him above his father, attests to how fully and completely has the young new leader absorbed the brutal lessons of power.

Benjamin, who also conducts this production, has created a score that to my untrained ear somehow feels lushly spare, and whose strings include effectively contrastive parts for the harp and what I think was a zither (both were in a box stage right of the orchestra pit). There were also several bits of percussion that stood out as especially strong moments of dramatic punctuation. At an intermissionless 95 minutes, the opera is certainly streamlined and tightly structured. But both the music and the themes make it feel substantial--and also hugely relevant.


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Ballet BC's Program 3 at the Queen E

The concluding program of Ballet BC's 2017/18 season arrived this weekend. Two acclaimed remounts from the company's repertoire bookended a new piece by artistic director Emily Molnar. Because of time constraints this morning, I'll offer just a few brief reflections on each.

Cayetano Soto's Beginning After premiered in 2016, and is very much a showcase for Ballet BC dancers' incredible speed and technical virtuosity, not least in terms of partnering. (I wrote at greater length about that performance here.) Soto, who is also responsible for the lighting and costume design, creates evocative stage pictures with this work, and the fade ins and fade outs on different bodily configurations and lines and movements frequently have you questioning what you are seeing. Indeed, the piece's opening epigraph, about the fine line between truth and memory, applies not just to one's post-performance impression of the work, but to one's in-the-moment spectating experience. Did I just see what I think I saw? Did that male dancer just rotate that female dancer's leg around three times at the hip, like Barbie? If so, why didn't it, as my friend Kerry asked with astonishment at intermission, come off?

The world premiere of Molnar's when you left was doubly special because it was accompanied by live music from Vancouver's Phoenix Chamber Choir, led by conductor Graeme Langager. Set to an evocatively layered work of vocalise by Pēteris Vasks, Plainscapes, the piece begins with the dancers (the entire Ballet BC company, joined by several apprentices) advancing slowly from upstage in half light (the lighting design is by James Proudfoot), their bodies pulsing every now and then. Once arrived at their staggered positions, the dancers begin to cycle through a largely gestural score, a choreographic style I have not previously seen from Molnar, and one that here counterpoints the rising and falling pitches of the music most effectively. Indeed, when the dancers start to repeat their gesture bases--a reach with a hand, a collapse at the knee or hip--in canon, the syncopation of sound and movement is deeply satisfying. This, however, is only the prelude to an even more complex canon structure involving different group formations of dancers moving purposely through space, with successive cohorts breaking off and others tacking themselves on to a given trio or quartet. In the past I've sometimes felt that the frequent running and sliding sequences by which Molnar moves her dancers on and offstage are shortcuts to thinking more complexly about how to link different sections in a work. But here they are absolutely essential to the kinetic roundelay effect she creates in response to the music.

I was utterly captivated by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar's Bill when Ballet BC first introduced the work, also in 2016. So I was excited to see this remount, and it did not fail to disappoint. The combination of Ori Lichtik's house beats with Eyal and Behar's distinctive choreography (which combines the former's fascination with walking patterns with a more fluid and whimsical vocabulary inherited from Gaga) is just so enjoyable to soak in. I wrote at greater length about the company's premiere of the piece here, so I will only reiterate how taken I was by the way the piece begins, with the solo studies for three male dancers and one female dancer. In their nude body stockings, and executing with their always-in-motion limbs a crazily successful combination of balletic and cartoon-like moves, they struck me as channeling the energy and iconography of both Nijinsky's faun and an animated stick figure by Keith Haring. The entire company was excellent, but I will also single out Scott Fowler, here taking over from Gilbert Small, in the hieratic solo that is the capstone to the piece.


Monday, April 30, 2018

Spooky Action at the Dance Centre

Yesterday was International Dance Day and part of the celebrations at The Dance Centre included a free show of the latest iteration of Lesley Telford/Inverso Productions' Spooky Action. A shorter version of the piece was first presented a year ago (which I blogged about here), and then again in November at Dance in Vancouver. A collaboration with spoken word artist Barbara Adler and five dancers, Telford's ambitious exploration of the world of quantum entanglement seeks to make felt the uncanny kinetic experience both of making something happen and of having something happen to one.

It all begins with Adler explaining to us, via cribbed notes from Wikipedia, the basic principles of physical entanglement, how unseen particles, even separated by great distances, are somehow in communication with each other, and how the state of one particle (position, spin, momentum) necessarily affects the state of another. Action and reaction. Or as Adler later sums up the paradox in her first-person monologue: "I happened to people, but they happened back." Telford mines this choreographically in a number of intriguing ways, beginning with an opening solo in which Ria Girard explores--with her eyes closed and her searching arms outstretched--the delimited spatial orbit of her spotlit circle. But even in this suspended state things are happening: to Girard and to us. A turn in one direction produces a different facing. An arm reaching behind her back pulls her first this way, and then that way. Soon Girard is joined by five other dancers: Stephanie Cyr, Eden Solomon, Desi Rekrut, Lucas Wilson-Bilbo, and Ariana Barr. Surprised by their sudden appearance, Girard nevertheless discovers that her movements can somehow affect theirs. This ricocheting effect begins slowly and subtly, with a pivot by Girard from one dancer to the next producing a head bobble here, a buckle at the knees there. Soon, however, Girard's wizard-like turns become faster and the other dancers are bouncing up and down and boomeranging back and forth like pinballs.

But as Adler's text returns to the question of who is controlling whom, the other dancers constellate around Girard, each taking a turn whispering some secret message into her ear, before forming a chain hitched at the right arm behind her. This in turn leads into a sequence in which the group begins to move Girard, and from here the piece opens up into a succession of danced entanglements, Telford's arrangement of her bodies in space--via, for example, a simple yet beautifully captivating group pattern of unison breathing, or via more complicated duets--making manifest the axiom spoken by Adler: "There's distance, and also time." In dance, as in quantum physics, both can be stretched. And both can be folded and collapsed into each other, yet another paradox brilliantly illustrated with an elastic band, a story of the various lives affected by a car crash spoken by Adler as she moves slowly across the stage behind the elastic, and the dancers whizzing back and forth underneath it.

As Adler's text emphasizes just before this sequence, the question of the something that is happening--in the world, in one's life, in a performance--is not, or not only, an "if" or a "when" question. It's also, and perhaps most crucially, a "with" question: those seen and unseen forces that are beside one, acting upon one, and responding to one in the happening of that something. In quantum mechanics the term for this state of "withness" is superposition: that any two or more quantum states can be added together to produce another distinct quantum state. It's a principle that applies equally well to this unique collaboration, with text and movement the shared axes upon which the work spins.

I look forward to the next iteration.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Emerge on Main at the Fox Cabaret

Music on Main's "Month of Tuesdays" at the Fox Cabaret concluded last night with a concert called Emerge on Main. MoM Artistic Director David Pay's program showcased three Vancouver-based musicians whom he told us we "need to know."

First up was Nicole Linaksita, a pianist of immense talent. Performing Carl Vine's Sonata No 1, and later in the program works by Dorothy Chnag and Nikolai Kapustin, she ranged up and down the keyboard with crackling virtuosity, but also incredible clarity and sensitivity. Indeed, for all of the dazzling speed and fireworks of notes, especially in the Vine piece, it was Linaksita's contemplativeness and patient listening in the slower passages that I was most captivated by. She held the sustaining pedal at the end of Chang's piece for so long that at first I thought she had forgotten the next movement. But, no, she was just waiting for the music and her instrument to tell her--and us--when it had finished sounding.

Liam Hockley is completing his PhD in clarinet performance, and like Linaksita is an amazing solo artist whose interests range across classic and contemporary repertoires. In terms of the latter, Hockley's first set featured new work by Michelle Lou, Ray Evanoff, and Wolf Edwards. Lou's telegrams called for a tin can to be placed in the bell of Hockley's bass clarinet, and additionally sent sounds reverberating throughout the Fox via bluetooth technology. Edwards' Um allein zu kämpfen was a version of anarchist metal clarinet. It was sound unlike anything I'd ever heard that instrument produce, and it was amazing. Following intermission, Hockley returned to play the North American premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen's FREIA. He did so in three iterative poses: sitting cross-legged on the stage; kneeling; and finally standing up.

The evening concluded with the world premiere of SCA MFA alum and current collaborator Nancy Tam's Walking at Night By Myself, an eight-channel surround-sound composition performed by Tam and Anjela Magpantay that also features an amazing projection design by Daniel O'Shea and a movement score dramaturged by Lexi Vajda. All of this comes together in the following way. Tam and Magpantay, wearing striped dresses, stand on wired pads. Their movements to the right and left, backwards and forwards, trigger different sound loops based on Tam's field recordings. We hear footsteps and the whoosh of traffic and other ambient noises, which are in turn manipulated, distorted and overlain with electronic music recorded in the studio. As the performers are moving, O'Shea's strobe-like projections outline, shade, and travel up and down and across their bodies, sometimes isolating body parts, at other times doubling and tripling profiles and silhouettes. For example, there is a moment when Magpantay, at this point alone on stage, repeats back and forth what appears to be a simple quarter turn, her body at once moving into and out of, with and against, the luminous vertical white lines O'Shea is just then sending across the stage. The effect put me in mind of Michael Snow's iconic "Walking Woman" series, reappropriated here as a reminder of what it means for a woman of colour to walk by herself at night. As with everything Tam does, the piece is just not just an amazingly thoughtful merging of different disciplines, but also an immersive sensory performance that forces you to think.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Explanation at The Cultch

Fresh off a standout performance in the Arts Club's recent production of Jitters (which I blogged about here), James Fagan Tait premiered his new play, The Explanation, at The Cultch's Culture Lab last night. Tait, who also directs this frank theatre production, highlights in his program notes the rather ironical premise of what is his first queer-themed show: how two straight men should end up married to each other.

Wearing a black wig, miniskirt, and combat boots, John (Kevin MacDonald), begins the account with a long opening monologue about how he started dressing up in women's clothes. The wondrous discovery of his inner femininity in a Value Village changing room occasions in John more than a simple outward transformation. While it's not always clear that it's being done consciously, Tait is deft in these opening passages in telegraphing some of the paradoxical non-alignments of gender expression and sexual identification. Which is also to say that when John puts on women's clothes, feminist solidarity doesn't automatically usurp a sense of masculine entitlement. For example, after he starts venturing out in public cross-dressed, John tells us he likes that men are staring at his ass, the sense of power this gives him--which is, on one level, just a reinforcing of the power he already had. And while he begins by correcting himself whenever he refers to himself as a "girl," amending this to "woman," eventually this pretence is dropped and thereafter John takes special delight in self-identifying as a "big ol' girl."

Eventually John, who lives in Burnaby, starts venturing downtown to the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library every Saturday in drag. (The timeframe of the play is a little fuzzy; there are several references to "pre-Yaletown" Vancouver, but other descriptions suggest that the VPL central branch being referred to is the one now at Homer and Robson.) On one such Saturday, while browsing among the Literature DVDs section, John meets Dick (Evan Frayne), who tells us in his opening monologue that when he first spied John he immediately thought: "This is the kind of woman who would go out with me." So Dick asks John to coffee and John says yes and in that moment Dick discovers that John is a man. But they have coffee anyway and the awkward thrill of this semi-public conversation liberates an additional something in each of them, which is how they end up dancing at a gay club on Davie Street later that night. Here, with the aid of Noam Gagnon's perfectly calibrated choreography, which mixes Dick's awkward straight white man's shuffle with John's unleashing of his inner diva, the two men cement their bond (James Coomber's on point sound design also helps to add great comic texture to these scenes). Soon a regular Saturday routine is established and a relationship is formed.

For questions of sexual identity and conjugality aside, what we are witnessing over the course of the play is at base the slow and by no means always smooth formation of a deep affective bond, and one that completely blows up the typical conventions of the bromance genre. Which is partly why I was disappointed in the rather conventional ending to the play. When, after mixing up their regular weekend pattern by having Dick cross-dress instead of John, the two men have drunken sex together, a crisis of identification threatens to destroy their friendship: are they gay, the two men muse separately to the audience. And does that even matter? Sorting through these questions, the men discover that they do in fact want to be together, including sexually. But not including drag. The final image is of John and Dick, dressed in suits, telling us not just that they've gotten married, but also that they've adopted two children. In its aping of what queer sociologist Lisa Duggan has diagnosed as the new "homonormativity," this scene actually entrenches the heternormative foundations of the two men's identities.

John and Dick were far more radical queer outlaws in their single days dancing up a storm in women's clothes.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Dorrance Dance at the Vancouver Playhouse

Last night DanceHouse's 2017/18 season concluded with a triple bill by Dorrance Dance, the award-winning tap company overseen by the choreographer and artistic director Michelle Dorrance. I was a bit dubious about sitting through 75 minutes of continuous tap, my usual threshold for the form being a few minutes of thematically juxtapositional razzle-dazzle within an otherwise rigorously contemporary work (as in DanceHouse's previous presentation of Betroffenheit), or else the paced out show-stopping routines of classic musical theatre (e.g. 42nd Street). But it seems that Dorrance's MacArthur Genius Grant is well-earned. Her aesthetic is one that marries deep respect for tap's history and traditions with a desire to push the form technically and conceptually.

This means, among other things, challenging the notion that it is only the soles of a tap shoe that can produce sound. In the opening number on last night's program, Jungle Blues, I was absolutely floored (the metaphor seems appropriate) when one of the company dancers first dragged the tops of their shoes along the parquet floor, producing a noise like a needle scraping across a vinyl record, and sending a corresponding shiver of delight down my spine. In this ensemble piece, set to a classic song by Jelly Roll Morton, the dancers alternate between unison choreography and character-based solo improvisations, with Dorrance herself playing up a gangly white-girl persona, all ungraceful angles and splayed knees. But my eyes were mostly on everyone's feet, watching how long someone's remained on demi-point (and sometimes full-on point), how often another's buckled over onto their sides, and so on.

If classic tap is all about the syncopated relationship between rhythm and gravity, such that we are made to marvel at how a person doing a freewheeling, double wing step, with both arms likewise windmilling the air, is able to remain upright, Dorrance is not afraid to push those limits--literally floorward. Her tap choreography is most interesting when it explores the off-axis and when, in doing so, it traces a genealogy between tap and a more contemporary form like break-dancing. This came to the fore especially in the concluding piece on the program, Myelination, which is an anatomical term that refers to the maturation and sheathing of nerve cells, allowing nerve impulses to travel more quickly. One can see how this applies to the hyper-kineticism of tap, but in this 30 minute piece with live music Dorrance also demonstrates its relevance to B-boying. Two of her dancers alternate between tap shoes and high tops, and some of the most innovative choreography relates to a sequence of intertwined prone legwork between this pair.

In between these pieces, Dorrance programmed a short but deeply affecting trio, Three to One, featuring herself and dancers Byron Tittle and Matthew "Megawatt" West. It begins with the three dancers, dressed in matching black cloth garments, standing side by side in a rectangle of downstage white light. Dorrance, wearing tap shoes, is positioned between the two men, who are both barefoot. As Dorrance begins to shuffle and click her feet together, almost like Dorothy seeking to return to Kansas from Oz, the men also start to move, sometimes falling into step with Dorrance, at other times breaking into quick, darting contraction and release movements of the hips and torsos and legs that are reminiscent of traditional African dance. Indeed, it is hard--especially once the two men exit the stage and Dorrance continues with a virtuosic solo that sees her alternate between retreating into the darkness of upstage and reemerging into the downstage light--not to read this work as an express comment on the specific African-American lineage of tap, as well as of so much American social dance more generally (from jive to hip hop).

This is hardly surprising coming from a choreographer as intelligent as Dorrance, who in addition to her years of tap training also designed her own undergraduate curriculum at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. According to Wikipedia, her courses focused on concepts of race in America in relation to democratic culture. If you're going to devote your life to reclaiming and celebrating tap as a form, this makes total sense.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

De Souffles et de Machines at the Fox Cabaret

Music on Main's A Month of Tuesdays series is back at the Fox Cabaret. This weekly, one-night only presentation of the best in contemporary new music launched last night with the Montreal saxophone quartet Quasar. If you're thinking big band swing sound or jazz riffs or even Kenny G, think again. Quasar specializes in avant-garde mash-ups of acoustic and electronic sounds: hence the evening's title, De Souffles et de Machines.

I'll admit that much of the work was challenging, especially the first half of the program, which ended with Solomiya Moroz's On Fragments. The piece is based on her field recordings of the Griffintown area of Montreal, then (as it is still, I gather) in the midst of massive redevelopment and construction. Some of these sounds Moroz asked the members of Quasar (Marie-Chantal Leclair on soprano saxophone, Mathiew Leclair on alto saxophone, André Leroux on tenor saxophone, and Jean-Marc Bouchard on baritone saxophone) to imitate; others that she had herself manipulated electronically were looped in and out. And overlaying all of this was a bizarre movement score that saw the musicians ambling every now and then out from behind their music stands and turning their instruments this way and that in what I took to be a mimicking of heavy construction equipment.

I much preferred the two pieces on the second half, which began with Pierre Alexandre Tremblay's Les pâleurs de la lune, an award-winning chamber work that ended with a burble of ghostly sounds that were amplified from the back of the Fox space, so that it almost seemed as if the moon was itself seeking to come inside the room. The last piece on the program, Alexander Schubert's Hello, was accompanied by a witty video that featured the composer more or less accompanying the ensemble from the screen. It was a clever conclusion to the evening.

MoM Artistic Director David Pay himself plays the saxophone, having earned a Master's in Music from UBC in the instrument. At intermission he told Richard and I that he rarely plays anymore, but that he's been coaxed by friends to perform for them in the near future. That is an event I would definitely attend were tickets being sold. In the meantime, A Month of Tuesdays continues through April 24th.


Friday, March 23, 2018

VIDF 2018: RIFT at KW Studios

Salome Nieto is the recipient of the 2017 Vancouver International Dance Festival Choreographic Award. With it she and her company, pataSola dance, have created RIFT, which plays KW Studios as part of VIDF 2018 through this weekend. The piece tackles the difficult issue of femicide, the targeted killing of women and girls by men. With Nieto's trademark combining of the techniques and aesthetic principles of Butoh and flamenco, her powerful stage presence, and pataSola co-founder Eduardo Meneses-Olivar's highly theatrical stage design, RIFT becomes both a lament for and a protest against this unnecessary loss.

The piece is structured in three parts. In the first, Nieto emerges wearing a white slip dress, her body covered in traditional Butoh white make-up, and her feet sheathed in heels. But where we might anticipate the sharp staccato footwork of flamenco, Nieto mostly stays on her toes, concentrating instead on her braceo, or flowing arm work, and slowing down the rhythm of her movement to align not just with Butoh-time, but also with the time of grief, which stretches on for eternity. At the end of this section, we hear the stories of two women who have been brutally raped and murdered, and channeling this pain and trauma, Nieto descends to the floor, ripping up the paper children's drawings that cover it.

The second section read to me as Nieto incarnating the avenging persona of a female warrior. It starts with a Bata de Cola, the long ruffled dress worn by women flamenco dancers, being pulled on stage by wires. Nieto, now wearing only one red shoe, then proceeds to shimmy into the dress on the floor, her mask-covered face and arms suddenly emerging to startling effect. The inner red lining of the dress is used as a potent symbol throughout this section, with Nieto at one point going into a deep plie and raising her skirts, the obvious allusion to menstrual blood serving as a bold feminist reclamation of the senseless spilling of women's blood under patriarchy. Likewise, at the end of this section, the dress becomes the red-lined cape of a proud female toreador, Nieto's ramrod posture and unflinching gaze challenging anyone or anything to cross her.

The final section incorporates a series of affecting projections, and sees Nieto, once again in her white slip dress, reapplying additional body paint while sitting on a white chair. In an attempt to repair all that has been ripped open in the representation of violence from the previous sections, she then tapes pieces of rent paper from the floor onto the upstage wall. She also uses a white fan to imagine the souls of the victims of femicide as butterflies taking flight, the return of her graceful arcing braceo hauntingly doubled via the projection of her shadow self onto the upstage wall.

Nieto is an extremely captivating performer, and in RIFT she uses the intercultural language of dance to speak to an urgent issue of social justice.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Beautiful View at Kits Neighbourhood House

Several years ago I remember seeing a Ruby Slippers production of Daniel MacIvor's A Beautiful View at Performance Works starring Colleen Wheeler and Diane Brown. I distinctly recall during one particularly emotional exchange between the two characters, tears and snot and spit leaking in copious quantities from the always intense Wheeler's face. What I forgot altogether was the stuff about the bears.

For some reason, I failed to blog about that initial Vancouver production of MacIvor's play. Now I get to remedy that with this response to Naked Goddess Productions' mounting of the work, which is on at the Kitsilano Neighbourhood House (KNH) through this Sunday. In this production, directed by Tamara McCarthy, Melissa Oei (Lucy from Long Division) and Sandra Medeiros take on the roles of Elle and Emme, women whose intimate friendship begins in the realm of comic farce, settles into a version of domestic melodrama, and ends on a note of surreal spirituality (the characters never call each other by their names, and I suspect that the script--which I have not read--allows cast members and director to come up with their own, as I've confirmed that Wheeler and Brown went by Linda and Mitch). Oei and Medeiros handle these shifts in style and tone with deft precision and the play itself uses a retrospective "she said, she said" narrative conceit, with multiple direct addresses to the audience, to provide a structural and temporal through-line.

That line begins with Elle and Emme's first meeting, at a camping store, and continues through a series of subsequent encounters during which each tells the other a succession of white lies about herself, and then promptly tries to undo them. The dissembling culminates in drunken sex at Elle's apartment, a seduction each woman pursues because she's under the misapprehension the other is a lesbian. Following Emme's ashamed and wordless retreat the following morning, the women don't speak to each other again until, several years later, they bump into each other while camping. Elle is now married and once they clear the air around their respective sexualities, the two women fall into a fast and easy friendship that sees them weather Elle's divorce, several changes of job, and the general ups and downs of life. Until, that is, another woman comes between them and the seemingly irreparable rift in their relationship that results can only be mended through a final camping trip. I won't reveal here all that happens during this concluding rapprochement, but let's just say that what transpires is enough to suggest that the "beautiful view" that gets described several times throughout the play may in fact be extra-earthly.

What I will say instead is how much I admired McCarthy's approach to staging this scene. As Oei and Medeiros sit facing each other on chairs, as at the top of the show, we hear the conversation they are having at their campsite in voiceover (a tapedeck, a key prop throughout the play, is positioned in front of them, a pitched tent behind). Both actors are incredibly compelling in stillness, fully engaged with each other, but with their profiles nevertheless telegraphing to the audience the multiple layers of emotion and memory that go with any long coupledom. For, questions of sexuality aside, that is in effect what MacIvor is giving us here: a portrait of two women who are more than sisters or best friends, a duo whose love for each other transcends conjugality but not the feelings of hurt and betrayal that are part and parcel of a truly meaningful relationship. In this respect the on-stage chemistry between Oei and Medeiros is effectively winning. Oei's Elle is the more confident and expressive of the two, with Medeiros's quieter and more insecure Emme frequently taking her cue from her friend. There is a moment, for example, when Elle invites Emme to join her inside a light-filled box, part of a pretentious art installation whose opening the two are attending. Elle tells Emme to close her eyes and feel the moment, with Oei intertwining her fingers through Medeiros' and throwing her head back in blissful abandon. But Medeiros' Emme, tinier and decidedly anxious, can only look up at her friend with incomprehension, saying she feels nothing. It is also Elle whom Emme takes her cue from regarding a possible afterlife, and there is no better sight on stage than watching the play of inner perceptions dance across Oei's face as she conjures from her character's imagination the wonderland of heaven. Even when she immediately undercuts her vision, we believe, along with Emme, that such a place might exist.

McCarthy's staging makes creative use of KNH's somewhat awkward playing space. Essentially a long vaulted hall that is a remnant of the building's former life as a church, there is a small raised dais at the room's north end. But rather than be constricted by a traditional vertical proscenium, McCarthy has flipped the action horizontally, with the audience positioned in a semi-circle and facing the wider and windowed eastern wall, and with a porous proscenium in this case framed by strings of lights that descend from the ceiling (the lighting design is by SFU alum Celeste English). As a result, we are remarkably close to the actors, and in part because of the complicity established between performers and spectators through the play's use of direct address, it often feels like we are immersed in the different spatial worlds referenced in the action, eavesdropping on the characters, as it were, from the next tent over.

Mind you, the actual tent on the stage is my one main bugbear from this production. I don't think it's needed. The other spaces in the play are evoked through just a few simple props, and in a play that goes back an forth between realism and abstraction, I think the visual signifier of the pitched tent is just distracting, especially as the women are rarely if ever inside it. It's also a bit awkward to move around, with Medeiros being the one who is tasked with retrieving it and then stashing it away stage right, an action that mostly has the effect of calling attention to the presence of stage manager Nico Dicecco (tucked away in a corner upstage right). Not that I'm opposed to showing the wires. I just think that rolling out and up a sleeping bag would have sufficed. Even that's probably too much. Indeed, it makes sense for the dark beyond of the campground--where these women are forced to confront both their innermost and their outermost fears--to be a wholly imagined space.

Cue those bears.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Betroffenheit at the Playhouse

Betroffenheit, co-created by Kidd Pivot's Crystal Pite and Electric Company Theatre's Jonathon Young, was first presented as part of the Panamania Festival accompanying Toronto's Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games back in the summer of 2015. It's been touring the world to acclaim ever since. Like most in Vancouver, I first saw the show when it was presented by DanceHouse at the Vancouver Playhouse in February 2016 (you can read my original impressions here). Now, just before it embarks on the final leg of its three-year world tour, DanceHouse has brought the show back to the same venue. I was there once again last night.

In part this was practical: I've updated an essay I've written about Pite and Kidd Pivot to include a discussion of Betroffenheit; and I'll also be speaking about the work at the University of Stockholm in May. So I wanted to ensure that I hadn't made any egregious errors in my representation of the work, particularly with respect to its complex distribution of the human voice. But really I just wanted to be swept up once again by the amazing on-stage world that Pite and Young have created, and to revel in the sublime movement of the performers. On both counts I was not disappointed. Christopher Hernandez, replacing Bryan Arias (who I think is premiering a new work of his own in New York), fits into the ensemble seamlessly. Hernandez is about double the size of Arias, and so this does change the partnering with Cindy Salgado somewhat; but his solo that opens Act 2 is still a marvel of off-axis lightness and grace. Otherwise, all of the other performers seem to have grown more deeply into and with their parts; none of the movement felt mechanical or marked, and there were new expressive details in the choreography that I had the pleasure of discovering--such as the little foot wiggles that Tiffany Tregarthen does at one point when she's turned upside down in her role as the devilish monkey on Young's character's back in Act 1. Ditto David Raymond's incredibly controlled staccato work with his arms and fingers during the therapist scene. And what I'll call Salgado's breathing solo in Act 2 was deeply affecting, the simple inflation and deflation of her shoulders speaking volumes about the bodily manifestations of grief.

As the blue silk suited co-hosts of our show-within-a-show, Young and Jermaine Spivey are by now expertly attuned to each other's rhythms, both in terms of the movement and the lipsynched dialogue that they share. I remain amazed by Young's technical facility with Pite's complex choreography, but it was Spivey whom I couldn't take my eyes off of. If anything, it seems like his body and limbs have grown even more elastic and liquid; the flipping of his legs backwards over the arm of Young, or later their wave-like rippling along the floor, seems absolutely of a piece with Young's floppy manipulations of his puppet stand-in. Likewise, the speed and precision of Spivey's turns and the air he catches while flipping his body through space seem to defy the laws of physics. Needless to say, the solo by Spivey that concludes the work remains a devastatingly gorgeous summation of the archive of grief and trauma that has been passed from body to body in the preceding two hours.

Of course there were aspects of the work that I'd forgotten about, mostly relating to the text and how personally self-accusatory it is. Betroffenheit both is and isn't Young's story, but in abstracting his and his family's tragedy onto this fictional world he hasn't spared himself a nightly real-time examination pertaining to his grief and guilt. Mostly this comes in the form of subtle repetitions of phrases that are inflected with telling pronouns ("Is he at fault?," "I know she...," "They're in there," "They're in this"). But there are also just incredibly raw and open displays of pain, and the failing of others that is a consequence of this pain--as with the phone call from Mom. Somehow I'd also forgotten the desperately uncomprehending solo that Tregarthen performs in Act 2, her final pose--arms bent in front of her, as if cradling an absent child--giving me new context as to why her character is Young's chief tormenter in Act 1.

For all of the very real sorrow upon which Betroffenheit is built, the work is also filled with joy. To me, the piece is the danced equivalent of one of my favourite poems, Hart Crane's "Chaplinesque." There Crane writes about how, in the wake of all the torment and unhappiness the world throws at us, no matter how the game of life smirks at us, "we make our meek adjustments," we find "our random consolations." Because "what blame to us if the heart live on"? And it does. That was clear last night during the curtain calls. The love on stage, in the audience, and between the two was physically palpable.

What's more, everyone gets to renew the affair next year when Pite, Young, the dancers, and virtually the entire Betroffenheit creative team return to the DanceHouse stage with the world premiere of a new work of dance-theatre, Revisor. I spoke briefly with composer Owen Belton while exiting the theatre, and he said they have already been workshopping the piece at Banff. It will apparently be something of a political satire. Given the new Cold War we suddenly find ourselves in, it should be timely.


Friday, March 16, 2018

VIDF 2018: iyouuuswe at the Roundhouse

I liked the music a lot (the mostly original score is by composer Ki Young). And there was some great dancing, particularly by company members Jesse Obremski and Guanglei Hui. But overall I found last night's Canadian premiere of WHITE WAVE's iyouuswe at the Vancouver International Dance Festival to be structurally incoherent, with choreographer Young Soon Kim providing little to no connection between the different sections (there were nine of them)--beyond the multiplication or subtraction of dancers on stage. That I was counting entrances and exits more than I was concentrating on the movement tells you a little bit about my difficulties with this work, not least its caginess about when and how to end. There were about three different possibilities that I noted, and the less said about the one that Young chose the better.

That said, I was taken by the opening. It featured a duet by Jesse Obremski and Katie Garcia that showcased some strong side-by-side unison choreography. However, Young's vocabulary shifted noticeably in the second section, with the partnering by Lacey Baroch and Mark Willis mostly comprised by a series of acrobatic lifts. This points to another minor (or perhaps not) issue that irked me about the performance: the costumes. The five men in the piece were all dressed similarly and non-descriptly in casual pants and untucked dress shirts. The four women, however, wore shiny pants, leggings, or short shorts, accompanied by sleeveless tops that were either sequined or backless or flowing. Fine, that's a specific dramaturgical choice. But if this piece is, as the program notes state, about "developing relationships by which we struggle to find a sense of 'i' as part of a 'we,'" why emphasize so starkly the gendered differences of your dancers? Or another way of asking this is why, in accessorizing the women on stage, turn them into danced accessories of the men? This question was in my mind during most of the opposite-sex partnering sequences, but was perhaps most starkly on display during the first sub-section (!) of the penultimate section 8 sequence, in which the tiniest of the women dancers, Michelle Lim (she of the short shorts and sequined camisole), is helped to step from chair to chair by Mark Willis.

I haven't yet mentioned the chairs. There are nine of them arranged in a row upstage at the start of the piece. During the first two duets they are mostly ignored. However, an ensuing sequence of structured improvisation featuring the entire company is punctuated by the dancers' mass retreat upstage to the chairs. I freely admit that I have a weakness for choreography involving chairs (having written a play on the subject); but in this case it was hard for me to engage because I found much of the choreography to be overly familiar: a step-up and down here; a slouch to the ground and hip swivel there; throw in some retrograde; etc. There was also the fact that the dancers didn't seem to have enough room to give themselves over fully to the movement. The distance between the chairs was indeed tight, with some space no doubt lost to the many curtain legs Young was employing for added wing space (cue all those entrances and exits). Then, too, the upstage line of chairs, combined with the backstage curtain meant that the Roundhouse stage was unusually shallow. When the full company was on stage things got quite crowded, and some of the downstage dancing was additionally obstructed by the annoying bar in front of the first row that has been added to the new seats at the Roundhouse.

The latter, I gather, is for safety reasons, but last night it was just one more annoyance to my spectating pleasure.


Friday, March 9, 2018

VIDF 2018: Dancers Dancing and EDAM at the Roundhouse

The Vancouver International Dance Festival continued last night at the Roundhouse with a double bill of works by local companies that were linked by themes of memory and reconstruction. The free seven o'clock show in the exhibition hall was choreographed by my colleague Judith Garay, whose company Dancers Dancing celebrates its twentieth anniversary next year. In Confabulation, Garay is joined on stage by former students and DD company members Jane Osborne and Bevin Poole. In them, Garay appears to be watching versions of her former self, and after beginning the piece with a simple gestural hand sequence that somehow managed to combine feelings of both supplication and worry, Garay roams the stage in her long brown coat watching from both the inside and the outside as Osborne and Poole make their progress through space and time. (Garay quotes Tennessee Williams on memory in her program note, and there is definitely a sense in which she is functioning, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, as both narrator and character in this piece.)

As for the progress of Osborne and Poole, it begins in the upstage left corner of the stage as a gorgeous slow motion and on-the-spot run. To recorded sounds of street noise and muffled conversation and babies crying and the general hubbub of life, the two women--at first together, and then separately--lift one leg and extend it in front of themselves, while the other kicks out behind. Garay has always been meticulous about the technique of her dancers, and one of the pleasures of this simple opening is revelling in the detailed articulation of feet and toes, and the striving, unhurried reach of pumping arms. Much of the rest of the piece operates as a duet for Osborne and Poole, with the similarly dressed dancers working in counterpoint, and often at different vertical and horizontal axes, but also coming together in moments of effortless unison. But Garay does more than just circle the stage. She has a stationary solo that sees her stretching for the sky, and she joins Osborne and Poole on a bench for a highly satisfying reprise and extension of the her opening gestural sequence. Soon after this, Garay exits the stage; but she reappears at the end of the piece in a most unexpected way to offer a final benediction on those whom she has so wisely mentored.

The mainstage show last night spotlighted EDAM and was a mixed program featuring highlights from company director Peter Bingham's choreographic career. It began with Hindsight, from 1995, a duet here featuring company veteran Olivia Shaffer and Kelly McInnes. It is set to songs by Berlioz and Richard Strauss that are sung by Jessye Norman, and begins with the two dancers standing upstage, fluttering their arms up and down like they are birds trying to fly. But thereafter most of the movement takes place on the floor, with an extended opening sequence in which Shaffer and McInness roll back and forth across the stage, simultaneously moving towards and away from each other, and managing to locomote from upstage to downstage by every now and then launching their rolls on a diagonal axis. But it's the coming out of and the pauses in between the rolls that are the most captivating, with the two dancers arresting their momentum with an amazingly graceful placing of their hands on the floor, their bent elbows and bowed heads suggesting a prayer of repair for broken wings. Equally amazing is how Bingham has essentially constructed a non-contact work of contact in this piece. Not that Shaffer and McInness don't eventually come together or make it to vertical (once downstage, positioned against two oppositely placed door frames); but even here the contact is fleeting and the piece ends with McInness back on the floor and Shaffer executing a painfully beautiful series of fluttering changements, desperately willing herself to lift up off the floor and soar through the air for both herself and her partner.

Sinking SuZi is a solo for Ziyian Kwan that was originally commissioned in 2002. It is the perfect showcase for Kwan's technical artistry and compelling stage presence. Beginning upstage left, and with her back to the audience, Kwan moves horizontally across the stage, arcing one arm out from her torso and then upwards into the air. This will be followed by a diagonal series of tilting pirouettes, at first with Kwan's hands resting on her thighs, and then circling about her body. But the most beguiling--and also the most extended--of the repeated movement sequences choreographed by Bingham for Kwan is the one in which she sinks to the floor in a deconstructed lotus position, one leg in front, the other behind, from which she then propels herself upward, turning once around as she lifts one arm upwards in a hail hello and places one foot over the other. I could have watched that one move go on forever.

The final piece on the EDAM program is also the most recent. Engage the Feeling Arms is a trio from 2016 that I first wrote about here. In this iteration Diego Romero (replacing Farley Johansson) joins Shaffer and Walter Kubanek in a dynamic display of virtuosic contact, but one that begins as a quasi-Orientalist shimmer of floating and ever-shifting intertwined arms before exploding into the dynamic physicality of thrown bodies and caught and distributed weight that is Bingham's signature. Watching this work again in combination with the other pieces, and also thinking about the different generations of dancers represented on stage, is to register just how instrumental Bingham and EDAM have been to the dance ecology of this city. Kudos to VIDF for showcasing these contributions in this mixed program.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Ten Thousand Birds at the Roundhouse

Last night Richard and I went to an extraordinary concert at the Roundhouse put on by Music on Main (MoM). The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams' Ten Thousand Birds is a work for chamber orchestra. As its title suggests, it is based on the sounds of birdsong. However, rather than stage the work in a traditional proscenium setting, MoM Artist-in-Residence Vicky Chow and her all-star ensemble put together a roving musical installation. That is, the Roundhouse's main presentation hall was stripped of its seats, and apart from a few fixed stations for piano and percussion, the rest of the musicians move with their instruments around the space. Likewise, we are invited to do the same, experiencing what MoM Artistic Director suggests in his program note is the equivalent of "an enchanting forest walk."

It was indeed a magical experience, as much for the opportunity to be so up close to the musicians as for the richly ambient saturation of the sound. On the former front, I can only marvel at the poise and sangfroid of the artists, as they were not only negotiating our unpredictable locomotive pathways, but also our sometimes intensely proximate and scrutinizing gaze (on the way in, running into Nancy Tam, who was playing the melodica, I couldn't help myself from waving hello). Then, too, the environmental distribution of the sound meant that it was possible for one to close one's eyes (as I saw many patrons in fact do) and follow the acoustic direction of the various instruments as they came in and out--except that navigating the intersecting trajectories of other audience members would have been a bit dangerous.

I'm gathering that as music director of the piece, Chow reset Adams' score to allow for improvisation among her ensemble members. No one was using sheet music, but they did all have timers that they'd consult at various moments that no doubt cued them as to when it was their turn to come in or to fade out. But judging from the call and response between the various instruments/musicians, this framework seemed flexible. I was especially taken by the interplay between Alexander Cannon on trumpet and Jeremy Berkman on trombone: both with each other, and with the other ensemble members. Their variously short and sharp or elongated honks and beeps and toots suggested everything from an airborne gaggle of geese to a waddling group of ducks to a tree full of crows having an animated argument. The more whistling notes of Liesa Norman on flute, Terri Hron on recorder, and Tam and Nicole Linkasita on melodica conjured robins and bluebirds and other smaller avian beings. When the wind instruments were combined with strings (Newsha Khalaj on viola, Mark Haney on bass, and Nicole Li on the delightfully resonant erhu) and/or percussion (Katie Rife and Julia Chien, playing a variety of instruments), multiple symphonies burst forth in a manner of seconds, and then just as quickly disappeared--as with the birds outside our bedroom windows who both awaken us and put us to sleep.

One especially memorable sequence occurred near the end when Rife, playing the marimba in the centre of the Roundhouse space, was riffing in response to all the other calls from the other instruments swirling around her. Special mention also needs to be made of the moving duet between Chow at the piano and Liam Hockley on clarinet, their slightly more mournful tones suggestive of what it might mean if the daily toll of our birds' sounds were to stop.

If and when that ever happens, we're in real trouble, and the fact that last night's concert was presented in conjunction with the Vancouver International Bird Festival (!) and the 27th International Ornithological Congress is a reminder that, aesthetic representations aside, the music birds make is something we should all be deeply invested in maintaining.