Monday, October 15, 2018

The Last Post (sort of)

I thought it was better to make an official announcement rather than just letting this blog go progressively fallow. After ten years and some 850+ posts, I am stepping away from uploading regular performance reviews to this site. The reason for this is simple: I no longer have the bandwidth to keep up with the task of responding in a thoughtful and meaningful way to all the shows that I see. My compulsive spectatorship of Vancouver performance will continue; I'm just relieving myself of the duty of writing about it.

This decision is freighted with a great deal of angst. I am well aware that public forums for arts and cultural criticism continue to diminish. It's why I started the blog in the first place--to give something back to a performance community that has given so much to me. I'm also conscious of the fact that I once wrote somewhere, in reference to precisely this act of reciprocity, that I could no more stop posting to this blog than I could give up my subscription to Ballet BC. The Ballet BC subscription is still intact, but the model of doing this off the side of my desk is no longer sustainable, especially when that desk is so cluttered with work from the institution that pays my salary (an institution, I note, that has never officially acknowledged the work I have done on this blog). Along these lines, it's instructive to me that the blog upon which I modelled my own, Jill Dolan's Feminist Spectator, has largely been dormant for the past three years, with only two posts (one of them a guest post by FS2 Stacy Wolf) since December 2015--which coincided with Jill becoming Dean of College at Princeton.

To be sure, I'm nowhere near as busy as Jill (nor has any major academic press rushed to publish a selection of my reviews--though I am, of course, open to offers...). But for my own sanity (not to mention the sake of my relationship), I am forswearing this form of criticism for the foreseeable future (say that six times fast). This does not preclude the occasional post here and there should the mood strike me, or should I be especially compelled by something I've seen. The past decade's regular cycle of morning-after reflections will, however, be retired.

To all my readers (all thirty-five of you), I thank you for your interest, and I invite those of you who might be so inclined, to consider making your own contributions to performance criticism in the city. To all the presenters out there, you can stop sending the email invites. I know I reneged at some point on my pledge always to pay for my own tickets, but now I will be returning to that principle, I swear. And, finally, to all of the artists whom I've written about: thank you for the complexity and the integrity and the generosity of your work. Please keep making more.

See you at the next show,


(P.S. And don't forget to vote!)

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Cain and Abel at The Firehall

Two men on stage: similar heights, similar complexions, slightly different builds, dressed exactly the same. Brothers, right? So we forgive their rough-housing. After all, aren't those pajama bottoms they're both wearing? Boys will be boys. Even when they grow into men and the horseplay turns more physical and the spelling of who plays victor and who victim is starkly represented for us in one standing over the prone body of another. It's nothing we haven't seen in MMA.

But what happens if you dress those boys up as girls? How do we read the sibling violence then? What kind of statements about gender and patriarchy are we being asked to contemplate? Such are the questions that form the heart of Cain and Abel, a new work of dance-theatre by The Biting School's Arash and Aryo Khakpour that is on at the Firehall Arts Centre through this evening.

It makes sense that the brothers Khakpour are drawn to the Biblical story of fratricide. Purely at a meta level, it allows them to explore--in highly physical and theatrical ways--both the differences and the overlaps in their respective training as dance artist (Arash) and theatre performer (Aryo). Professionally each has regularly crossed over into the other's discipline, and so I can imagine that over the years there have been more than a few conversations about who has booked a show and who hasn't. And yet, not withstanding individual set pieces and the structuring motif of repetition, this is not only a work about one-upmanship. For this particular take on Cain and Abel also happens to be read through Jean Genet's classic play about sisterly and sadomasochistic role-playing, The Maids.

At a certain point in the piece, having divided the stage in half with a bucket of stones, Arash and Aryo find themselves upstage, whereupon they enact for us the aforementioned victor/victim scenario, each taking turns lying under or standing over the other as they slowly move across the stage. Thereafter they remove their pajama bottoms and trainers and fetch from the clothes line in front of them the various accoutrements of a French maid's outfit: black pantyhose, black dress, white apron, and pick plastic gloves. What follows is a condensed--and, I must say, exceedingly compelling--run-through of the basic plot of Genet's play, with the object of the sisters' murderous fantasies, Madame, nicely represented by a white dress that descends from the ceiling.

But what could have been a confused mash-up of different stories of sibling rivalry is elevated to a timely comment on gendered violence by the repetition of the physical vocabulary that anchored the first half of the piece. All of sudden when we see one of the brothers/sisters lying prone on the floor with her skirt hiked above her waist we are reminded that women pay an unequal price for men's compensatory anxieties about how they measure up against each other. We have only to look at what the jockeying of a certain fraternity of male politicians is accomplishing south of the border this weekend to understand this, and as such the message of this bold work of hybrid performance couldn't be more relevant.


Saturday, September 29, 2018

CAGE at The Dance Centre

Katie Duck is a legend on the international dance and performance scene, known especially for her focus on improvisation, and for her canny combining of text, movement, sound, and visuals. All of those elements were present last night as she performed her show CAGE for one night only at The Dance Centre. The title is a nod to the composer John Cage, and especially to his practice of creating chance musical scores. For her performance, Duck has created a text structured around loosely connected disquisitions on place and institutional power, the pleasure of women's bodies, the reciprocity of love, and the sweet relief of death. A portable score that's supplemented by a few key props (a chair, several wigs, a long black dress) and a haunting washed-out video of Duck moving in slow motion towards a sunlit door that plays at the beginning and end of the piece, Duck then collaborates with local musicians and performers wherever she tours the work.

For her Vancouver stop, Duck's musical collaborators were Ben Brown on drums, kazoo, and hand-cranked music box, Roxanne Nesbitt on the double bass, and James Meger on electric guitar, looping pedals, and cello. All were perfect matches for Duck's antics, alternating in places as foils to what she was doing (as when Nesbitt challenged Duck about whether or not she could fill Meger's shoes) or as illustrative supplements (as when Brown jumped up from where he had been lying downstage to demonstrate what it would be like to carry a fetus in his penis).

As for Duck, she is an assured and inventive improvisor and an equally charismatic performer. There were times when in adapting the text to the local context of Vancouver, as at the very beginning when she talked about the need to make an acknowledgment regarding the land, that I thought things were going horribly wrong. But every time she managed to spin out another interesting and deliberately aslant point, in this case starkly calling out the fact of dispossession. Duck's costume changes were equally inspired. The long black dress she wears for the central monologue extolling the beauty and perfection of all vaginas becomes in subsequent sections a mini-skirt, a witch's hat, and an Abu Ghraib-style blackout bag covering her face as she slumps in her chair.

This last image precedes the ending of the piece, in which Duck invites her collaborators and also us in the audience to join her in a fictional death scene. Seeing Brown drape his body so dramatically over his drum kit was priceless and attests to the risks Duck is able to inspire in her fellow performers.


Thursday, September 27, 2018

Never Still at The Firehall

Fresh from the premiere of last year's Wells Hill, and with the aid of the Yulanda Faris Choreographers' Program, Vanessa Goodman and her company Action at a Distance opened the Firehall's 2018/19 season last night with another ambitious full-length creation. Never Still is about water: both the natural element that covers nearly 70% of the earth's surface and the physiological element that makes up over half of humans' bodies (the Borg to Captain Picard: "You bags of mostly water!"). Not that you need to know this to enjoy the work, and when the curtains parted and the lights came up on dancer Lexi Vajda jerking and twitching her limbs amid a sea of white Tyvek (ironically the material used to wrap houses in order to prevent water penetration) as fellow dancers Shion Carter, Stéphanie Cyr, Bynh Ho, and Alexa Mardon sunk their already partially immersed bodies deeper into its folds, I was actually put in mind of a waterless lunar landscape.

Albeit one that still ripples with movement: both from the submerged bodies that, over the course of Vajda's almost ten-minute solo, are slowly sending the Tyvek, like ebbing sea surf, upstage, and from the lighting and visual effects (courtesy of James Proudfoot and Loscil/Scott Morgan, respectively) playing across the Tyvek's surface. And I have to say that the monochromatic palette of the piece's design concept is truly compelling. When the other dancers emerge from underneath the Tyvek to join Vajda, we see that like her they are wearing baggy tennis whites; set against the projected black and white images of their floating bodies on the video that plays behind them (again by Loscil, featuring additional underwater footage by Ben Didier), the colourless blur of live bodies sets in motion Goodman's liquid choreography in a manner akin to beads of water on a flat, sloping surface--chasing after each other and occasionally forming into a single mass, but also breaking apart and hovering near each other in trembling anticipation. Such effects were especially brought to light in a duet between Cyr and Ho in which Goodman continues her experiments with non-touch partnering, and also in a group sequence in which all five dancers come together in a slowly shifting huddle, spelling the placement of each other's limbs and subtly changing their facings in a manner that challenges our conception of what is liquid and solid.

What I most appreciate about Goodman as an artist is that she creates complete performance environments. She is a choreographer of immense intelligence and talent, but she's equally interested in sound and lighting and visuals and design. With Never Still we get the integration of all of these elements into a work that while staged proscenium-style nevertheless feels immersive. I encourage folks to dive in.


Monday, September 17, 2018

The Mute Canary at SFU Woodward's

The Turning Point Ensemble's 2018-19 season opener was a program at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre that featured four works by the Czech-Canadian composer Rudolf Komorous. An added bonus was the screening of an opening short film commissioned by the Canadian Music Centre that contextualized Komorous's approach to music, and also his career as a faculty member in the School of Music at the University of Victoria, where he trained several of this country's most esteemed contemporary composers, including TPE Artistic Director Owen Underhill. As an illustrative and pedagogical tool I found the film's animation of several of Komorous's scores to be particularly effective, especially in explaining his method of spatial, or proportional, notation.

Three short works from the 60s through the 80s followed the film. In the first, Olympia, Underhill and Christopher Butterfield, from U Vic, sat on either side of a table filled with an assortment of instruments, some of them more or less recognizable (a melodica, a harmonica), some of them not (a flexatone, acolyte bells). With Butterfield having first set a stop watch, he and Underhill then combined the sounds made from these instruments into what was at once thoroughly strange and wonderfully surprising: who knew the flexatone made that kind of noise when waved in the air? How delightful to insert the nightingale whistle there! Fuman Manga, a woodwind quintet from 1981/85 followed. From a fluttery flute opening it gradually built in complexity, incorporating the deeper tones of the bassoon and french horn near the end in a way that jolted me out of my seat. This first half of the program culminated with 23 Poems about Horses, Komorous's setting of a suite of poems by the Chinese poet Li-He. The English translation of these poems was narrated by Butterfield as Underhill conducted the TPE musicians in another widely eclectic but sonically rewarding score.

Following intermission we were treated to Canadian premiere of a new chamber opera written by Komorous. The Mute Canary is based on a play by the Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes (in a translation by Butterfield) and received its world premiere earlier this summer at New Opera Days Ostrava in the Czech Republic. TPE was able to bring the Czech directors (Jan Horák and Michal Pĕchouček) and choreographer (Markéta Vacovská) to Vancouver for this restaging of the work, which features Alexander Dobson as the baritone Riquet, Anne Grimm as the soprano Barate, and Daniel Cabena as the countertenor Ochre. The deliberately non-sensical libretto largely revolves around a bored husband and wife: Riquet wants to go hunting, while Barate wants to know what time it is, while also decrying love and trying to entice Riquet, who is wont to hurl abusive epithets at her, to take notice of her. Into this dysfunctional relationship steps Ochre, a kind of satyr-figure (Cabena clops across the stage in cloven hooves and a swishy white tale). Barate is instantly smitten and wants to know his name; Ochre says he's the composer Gounod, which registers as equally strange to Barate and us in the audience. But then Dadaist operas aren't really supposed to make sense, are they? Much better to revel instead in the sensuous pleasures of the music and the staging, both of which are in this case simultaneously spare and lustrous. Watching Grimm make a perfect circle on the Wong stage floor with shaving cream was, as it were, the absurdist icing on this afternoon's delightful musical cake.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

Interplay 2018 at Moberly Arts Centre

The 2018 rendition of Interplay is on this weekend at Moberly Arts Centre. Produced by Mutable Subject's Deanna Peters, the annual event is a great chance to see the first iterations of works-in-progress by a range of very talented multi-disciplinary artists. Plus it's a nice social atmosphere in a great (if somewhat remote) venue that has been showcasing important cultural programs (especially by dance artists) for years.

Six works are divided neatly into two halves, with Peters additionally spinning a series of 45s for us as each set is struck. First up was Alexa Mardon, performing an as yet untitled solo that combines her skills as a writer and a dancer, and that asks how we can be in two places at once, and if it's possible to re-experience an event, or its trace, retrospectively through the body. Mardon cannily marshals two chairs to aid her in exploring these questions, this particular piece of furniture always to my mind bearing the doubled imprint of who has sat there before and who will yet do so in the future. This is brought out in two moments that stood out to me: first, when Mardon sits in the stage right chair and begins a series of hiccupy upper-body movements, as if rehearsing how to lean into a remembered conversation with an invisible interlocutor, or, as we subsequently discover, how to remove her orange windbreaker, which she then makes magically bloom in her hands; and, second, when at the end of the piece she slips said windbreaker over the back of the stage left chair and inflates it with an air pump underneath the seat.

Slant Rhymes is a collaboration between dance artist Carolina Bergonzoni and writer and filmmaker Joel Salaysay. To a voiceover of a male and female couple talking about dreams, Bergonzoni crafts a movement score that asks us to reach into space to consider how the conversation we are listening to might be perceived differently, that is, as also unfolding kinaesthetically. What I liked about the work was that the collaborators allowed their complementary scores to both work together and independently of each other. There were moments when we were allowed to just listen to the text, and also moments when, in silence, we could watch Bergonzoni moving.

The final piece in the first half of the program was Ziyian Kwan's The Odd Volume, the first study in what is planned as a new solo work by the artist. Working with the music of Henry Purcell, Kwan emerges onto a set that features an upright piano and a fuzzy, fur-covered piano bench wearing boxing shorts, a hoodie, and trainers. Indeed, at first the somewhat pugilistic movement seems at odds with the music, and Kwan's own bodily relationship with the piano appears antagonistic, as she first pushes against it, and then climbs on top of and over it. The piece concludes, however, with Kwan making peace with her various instruments; having moved the piano bench in front of the piano, she lifts up the seat cover, which seems to unlock something within her. She then disrobes and after first curling up on the furry bench turns her attention to the piano keys, which she proceeds to play with delicate grace.

Following intermission we were treated to The Memory Palace, a work created by Nathan Marsh, Yian Chen and Clara Chow. An interactive electroacoustic installation that also featured movement, a recording of Roy Orbison's Only the Lonely, and several plastic cup versions of old-fashioned tin can phone lines, the mash-up of ideas didn't quite come together for me. With its books and candles and various listening and playing devices scattered about the stage, it might have worked better as a full-fledged immersive installation into which an audience might be encouraged to wander and durationally linger. In its current proscenium staging it was not particularly engaging.

Patrick Blenkarn followed with Donkeyskin, a lecture-performance and mixed-media work that combines aspects of first-person video games. Based upon ongoing research Patrick is conducting on politics under late capitalism, the disappearance of skilled manual labour, and the cultural history of donkeys, the premise is that three donkeys awaiting slaughter in China (their rendered skins now a valuable commodity in the health market) convene to discuss the reasons for this breakdown in their relations with humans. Patrick reads the text of the first donkey's disquisition aloud, which is a kind of Platonic apology for what their species might have done better in their communications with humans; the second donkey's fuck you to the human world, and also his own kind, is projected onto a screen; and the third donkey, we learn, decides to escape, at which point we're launched on a careening projected gallop through forests and rolling hills. What becomes of this last donkey we'll have to wait to see.

Finally, the evening concluded with Syn(es)thetic Nature, a collaboration between sound artist Michelle Helene McKenzie and media artist Brady Marks. Improvising from a table that was piled with an impressive array of technical gear, the two artists mixed a live soundscape into corresponding visuals that morphed in and out of different geometrical shapes on two screens. At one point early on in the piece the visuals cut out due to a glitch in the projectors, but with suitable sang-froid Marks got up, went behind the two screens and used a pocket flashlight to create some interim magic. It worked beautifully.

Interplay continues tonight at 8 pm.


Friday, August 3, 2018

Timon of Athens at Bard on the Beach

It was back to Bard on the Beach last night, this time to see the all-female, modern-dress production of Timon of Athens, directed by Meg Roe. Timon is not often performed, and for good reason. It is resolutely dark. It is unevenly written (likely as a result of it having been co-authored by Thomas Middleton, which would also explain the darkness). And it has a thoroughly improbable plot.

Timon, played here with towering intensity and singular vision by the great Colleen Wheeler, is generous in spreading her wealth to an admiring group of friends, who fawn over and flatter her in order to keep the gifts coming. We meet this group in the opening scene, when they arrive at Timon's well-appointed home, which set designer Drew Facey has conceived as a beautiful and sleek modernist jewel. One by one, we meet Lucius (Michelle Fisk), Sempronius (an imperious Patti Allan), and Ventidius (Quelemia Sparrow, doing her best Real Housewives of West Vancouver impression), all kitted out in expensive couture (the amazing costumes are by Mara Gottler). This trio mixes with Timon's servants, PAs Flavius (an excellent Moya O'Connell) and Flaminius (Ming Hudson) and the silent male help (Joel D. Montgrand and Sebastian Archibald, the cops from Lysistrata), and the other guests, including a poet (Jennifer Lines) and painter (Kate Besworth), a late-to-arrive Isidore (Adele Noronha) and Timon's one honest friend, Apemantus (Marci T. House, delivering an unblinkingly truthful performance). With Wheeler's Timon sweeping in on her five-inch heels to bestow and receive air kisses, Roe plays the beginning of this opening scene as an overlapping hubbub of voices, knowing that it doesn't matter what of these characters' empty words we actually hear. Everything in this world is about appearances.

Which is why, when Timon eventually learns from Flavius, who had been trying to warn her, that she is bankrupt and is facing a posse of creditors demanding payment, she attempts to save face by dispatching Flavius and Flaminius to her friends to ask for a loan. Lucius, Ventidius, and Sempronius each spurn her request and in her rage Timon plans a final vengeful dinner party, the occasion here for a succession of coups-de-théâtre. First there is the huge round suspended table that descends from its hiding place in the overhead lighting fixture, and that the help set with expert precision. Then there is the unplating of Timon's surprise main course: bowls of warm water and smoke, one of which she promptly throws in Sempronius' face. That moment elicited a collective gasp from the audience, but it's when Wheeler started tearing up the set, lifting up a succession of floor panels and pulling out the supporting wooden joists to reveal the bare earth underneath that full pandemonium broke out. In Shakespeare's play text, Timon retreats to a cave following the dinner, vowing to spurn society. It's a genius decision on Roe's part to stage this as Timon pulling apart the literal foundations of her world. And Wheeler goes at it with absolute gusto, her white pantsuit becoming stained with earth, and her soignée chignon turning into a riot of rogue curls and loose strands.

Of course this is also where the already bizarre plot of the play becomes truly incredible. For what should Timon discover in the earth underneath her house but a treasure trove of money and gold? By this point, however, Timon is past caring, and in her complete nihilism forswears both financial redemption and, it must be said, the ex machina device of a happy ending. This perhaps explains her final exchanges with Apemantus and Flavius, the former offering simple hard reality in place of pity, the latter just not wanting her boss to die alone. But that is just what Timon does, and unlike in most of Shakespeare's other tragedies there is no attempt to sum up the moral of the story.

That is perhaps why, as Roe suggests in her program notes, the play is such a powerful parable for our own uncertain times. Rapaciousness and falsity are in ascendence everywhere, it seems, and with greatly unequal social consequences. In this stripped-down, 90-minute assault of near unremitting cynicism Roe forces her audience to do two seemingly antithetical things: ask ourselves why we are enjoying watching someone else's misfortune; and challenge ourselves to find even a smidgen of hope amidst all this darkness.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Lysistrata at Bard on the Beach

By yesterday evening Vancouver's recent heat wave had finally abated, and so it was not at all uncomfortable sitting under the tent of the Howard Family Stage at Bard on the Beach with my friend and colleague Melissa Poll. We had gone there to see Lysistrata, which I will be teaching this fall, and which in Bard's production has been adapted by Jennifer Wise and Lois Anderson, who also directs. The comedy's scabrous sexual politics and anti-war message have, for better or worse, remained remarkably timely and on-point in the 2500 years since Aristophanes fist wrote the play (witness the world-wide Lysistrata Project in 2003, to protest the invasion of Iraq, and also Spike Lee's controversial recent film Chi-Raq, which I will be teaching alongside Bard's production). So I was curious how Wise and Anderson's version would make the text speak to our contemporary moment.

Their strategy has been to make this production resolutely local. This performance of Lysistrata is framed meta-theatrically as a play-within-a-play. The Howard Stage's Bard ensemble is meant to be doing an all-female Hamlet, but to protest a proposed plan by the city to expropriate and develop Vanier Park so that it can accommodate a shipping container, the company has hijacked the evening's performance in order to put on an impromptu protest performance of Lysistrata. The set-up for this conceit is wittily established via a bunch of pre-show stage business that also manages to incorporate Bard AD Christopher Gaze's curtain speech. Not everyone in the company, especially Colleen Wheeler, who is meant to be playing Prince Hamlet, is happy about this decision. The framing scenes in which the company--including Luisa Joijic as Lysistrata, Jennifer Lines as Kleonike, Marci T. House as the Spartan Lampito, and Ming Hudson as Myrrhine--argue about whether to continue, and the consequences of doing so, mirror the plot of Aristophanes' play, whose comedy turns on the fact that the women's sex strike is as painful to them as to their husbands. The framing scenes also incorporate the eventual arrival of two local cops (Sebastian Archibald and Joel D. Montgrand), who have come to question company member Adele Noronha, whose on-stage protest she has also extended to include the graffiti tagging of local landmarks. The different degrees of cluelessness of the cops, one of whom turns out to be married to Wheeler (a real-life plot point), leads to a series of lessons in feminist Indigenous pedagogy by company member Quelemia Sparrow, who somewhat uncomfortably to me is cast in the familiar role of the wise Indigenous woman who must educate her settler castmates and the audience about the real history of this place. At the same time, the frame narrative with the cops also occasions a lot of insider jokes not just about Equity theatre (who can and cannot be on stage, and for how long at a time), but about Bard as a company (as Melissa, who spent several seasons acting there herself, leaned over to let me know more than once). The risk here, however, is that the jokes becoming a little too knowing, and so end up excluding a portion of the audience from joining in the laughter.

This, of course, is always the risk of comedy, and especially of the kind of old, or sexually satirical, comedy practiced by Aristophanes. Part of my interest in attending this production of Lysistrata was also seeing how the bawdy jokes would land post-#MeToo, and also in the wake of Hannah Gadsby devastating indictment in Nanette of the very structural premises of comedy as a genre. This production doesn't shy away from those tensions, especially as they play out inequitably for women, who have historically been demeaned both for not being able to tell a good joke and for not being able to take one, no matter how bad or hurtful. In Act Two of this production of Lysistrata there is a noticeable shift in tone. Not only is this the act in which most of the singing and dancing happens (the composer and musical director is Mishelle Cuttler and the choreographer is Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg), but it also tackles head on the implicit sexual violence that underscores the climactic oath of peace that Lysistrata extracts from the men of Athens and Sparta. In Aristophanes' play Peace is incarnated as a beautiful woman, whose body the men jokingly carve up and verbally violate even as they pledge brotherhood to each other. In Anderson's staging, this violence is made material as the men rip bits of fabric from the beautiful green dress worn by Lines, who plays Peace (the wonderful costumes are designed by Barbara Claydon). It's an understandably unsettling moment for Lines and all of the other women on stage, and the edge it left me on helped redeem some of the lighter and more twee elements of the first act.


Thursday, July 19, 2018

Oh What a Beautiful Morning! at The Russian Hall

Last night I attended Fight With a Stick's opening of their latest performance, Oh What a Beautiful Morning!, at The Russian Hall. Frankly, I don't know what to make of the experience. Partly that's the point, as in their latest scenographic scrambling of our perceptions director Alexander Lazaridis Ferguson and his team of collaborators--especially video designer Josh Hite--are interested in taking what is in the background (and also off to the side) of the 1955 film version of the classic American musical Oklahoma! and moving it to the foreground. This results in some stunning visual effects, but at a scant 50 minutes the work feels a bit like a strung together series of scene studies rather than a fully realized deconstruction of the sensory and social environments of the film.

Placing the audience on risers that climb up the stage of the Russian Hall, and working with two scrims and a series of moveable walls, the piece begins by reproducing the widescreen opening shot of the film's cornfields. And then leaves us there. As the stuck first bars of the overture repeat on a loop, the video projection appears to start glitching, slowly advancing frame by frame as we plunge deeper and deeper into the thick rows of cornfields, a mash-up of genre tropes that makes one think that the creepy kids from the horror film Children of the Corn might leap out at us at any moment. Instead, we eventually are made to focus on a lone figure off in the distance toiling in the fields (a black sharecropper perhaps?), someone whose invisible labour is what helps to sustain not just farm girl Laurey Williams' romantic aspirations, but the entire state's territorial ones.

While I tend to be cautious about the aims of exposing an iconic work of art to contemporary critical scrutiny, I do want those aims to be clearly identified. Instead, I couldn't quite tell last night if Oh What a Beautiful Morning! was meant to be a study in performative decolonization (we hear stage directions referencing "Indian territory" in voiceover), a critique of capital accumulation (a windstorm blows the contents of Aunt Eller's farmhouse across the screen), or a Hitchcockian take on female hysteria. Here I refer to the fact that the piece's longest--and concluding--scene puts us in the kitchen with Laurey and Aunt Eller, the projected wallpaper on the back scrim seeming to advance on, and eventually absorb, them, as performers Hayley Gawthrop and Hin Hilary Leung slowly melt into the adjacent side walls. It was captivating to watch; I just don't know what purpose it served.

There are lots of similarly fascinating moments in Oh What, most of them abetted by Hite's uncanny video compositions: Shirley Jones dancing with herself courtesy of front and rear projections; the mirroring of live and recorded hand movements; and Gawthrop and Leung interacting with different screen avatars from the film like cutout figures from a carnival. Again, I found it difficult to figure out the connection between these moments and when the end credits and exit music from the film appeared I think everyone in the audience was a bit surprised. Oh, I guess that's it, was my response as the performers (which also include Logan Hallwas and Jessica Wilke) came out to take a bow. I'm still guessing.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

DOTE 2018: Edge Seven at The Firehall + Transverse Orientation at 395 Alexander Street

The 30th anniversary edition of the Dancing on the Edge Festival concluded last night with a 9 pm replaying of the Edge Seven program, a suitable study in contrasts featuring two distinctive approaches to movement and sound.

My colleague Rob Kitsos, together with collaborators Yves Candau and Martin Gotfrit, lead things off with their Real-Time Composition Study. Based on their shared interest in improvisation, the performers compose our perceptual environment in the moment, moving their bodies and sound through the space in response to each other, and to shifting geometric patterns of light that play across an upstage screen. While lighting designer Kyla Gardiner is in the booth overseeing all of this, much of the manipulation of light also happens from the stage, with Rob repositioning and partially shuttering and unshuttering a series of small LED spots in order to frame different areas of bodily focus. The result produces some uncanny trompe l'oeil effects, in which the shadows cast by the performers merge in such a way as to make one doubt whose limb is whose. Likewise, sound is often made to travel through space in a what initially appears to be an "unsourced" or acousmatic way, with Martin--and sometimes Rob--starting to play an instrument offstage that one thinks one can identify, only to emerge with something percussive or stringed or wind-based that totally upends such expectations.

The second piece on the program was Pathways, by Vision Impure's Noam Gagnon. Reworking a series of past solos into a large ensemble creation that Noam has set on eight young dancers whose ranks collectively represent some of the best talent to emerge from Vancouver's three main pre-professional dance programs (at Arts Umbrella, Modus Operandi, and SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts), the piece is performed to a pounding industrial score by Guillaume Cache. Clad all in black, and wearing matching knee-pads, the dancers hover outside the taped-off square of the main stage space, eyeing each other up and down like they are gladiators--or professional wrestlers. And, sure enough, once Eowynn Enquist (who has certainly been busy this festival) takes a running start and throws herself diagonally across the square, sliding to a stop on the other side, we are off on a non-stop contest of pure physicality. This is classic Gagnon choreography from his Holy Body Tattoo days: extreme, high energy, and punishingly visceral. We register the speed and impact of every body roll, the repeated jolts of limbs being thrown over and over again into the air (that five of the six women have long loose tresses that Noam shakingly exploits gives everything that much more of a rock and roll feel). The relentless kinetic and aural assault on our senses is almost overwhelming, but at a certain moment Noam shifts registers, with the dancers who seemed previously to be in competition, or just trying to run away from each other, now seeking each other out in a series of duets whose vocabulary of bodily climbing suggests that in this world even intimacy and tenderness can only be expressed in a similarly intense way.

Following some mixing with friends and artists in the community at DOTE's closing party, Richard and I (and several others circulating throughout the Firehall lobby and on its patio) headed north a few blocks to a warehouse space in Railtown owned by designer Omer Arbel to take in a midnight showing of Transverse Orientation, a new work of dance by Rachel Meyer. This is the second work of original choreography from the former Ballet BC dancer, who has only recently come back from maternity leave, looking impossibly lithe and limber. Based on the flight patterns of moths, and in particular how those patterns are oriented by and towards different natural and artificial sources of light, Transverse Orientation features: fellow Ballet BC alum Christoph von Riedemann as a lone moth-man figure, whose slow, calendrically-marked progress down a vertical runway frames the beginning and end of the piece (we move from watching his initial improvisations in a pre-show anteroom to the main playing space, from which we can track his progress towards us through a canny use of lighting and mirrors); Stéphanie Cyr, Ria Girard and Maya Tenzer as a trio of moths whose various bodily metamorphoses--from bumpy, fluttery proximity to grander, more swooping arcs of circular movement--are tracked through accompanying costume changes; and Meyer herself as a kind of queen moth figure (if I'm not mixing my insect metaphors), whose oversight of the proceedings progresses, transversally one might say, from semi-removed metteur-en-scène to fully engaged primum mobile, around which the others now must move--including violinist Janna Sailor, whose live playing is a key ingredient of the piece, and also eventually von Riedemann, who joins Meyers for a concluding duet that read a little too obviously as a mating dance.

For a self-produced show, Transverse Orientation has certainly spared no expense (including on its programs). Rigging up the lighting (by James Proudfoot) and configuring the set design (by Meyer herself) requires ample resources, and the apple budget alone must have been significant. As per the dramaturgical function of those apples, Meyer certainly has some sharp choreographic instincts. Fragments of the piece are individually compelling, particularly when Meyer is working with smaller, almost micro-movements: I'm thinking especially of von Riedemann's opening gestural sequence, and also Meyer's own fluttering responses to Sailor's improvised plucking and bowing--the way she can pulse a single shoulder blade, or infinitesimally shift the position of a bone in her foot is kind of amazing. That said, the fragments don't add up to a coherent whole and in seeking to interpret different aspects of moths' behaviours (why, for example, in their nocturnal attraction to artificial light, they frequently end up bumping against transparent surfaces, leaving a trail of dust from their wings), the movement comes across as mostly mimetic. I think the piece as it stands is also too long. But just as I always looked forward to what Meyer could do as a singularly virtuosic dancer on the Queen E stage, so do I anticipate great things from her in her new career as a choreographer.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

DOTE 2018: Volcano at The Firehall

In the spring of 2010 an Icelandic volcano with an intimidatingly Norse-sounding name, Eyjafjallajökull, erupted, spewing ash and billowing smoke all over Europe. The resulting flight cancellations and delays constituted the largest disruption of air travel since World War II. This is the background to Liz Kinoshita's Volcano, a 2014 work of dance-theatre conceived and directed by the Canadian-born and Belgian-based choreographer that is receiving its Canadian premiere at this year's Dancing on the Edge Festival.

Created and performed by Kinoshita and fellow dancers Salka Ardal Rosengren, Justin F. Kennedy, and Clinton Stringer, the piece is structured as an intricate investigation into the vocal and movement-based rhythms shared by popular musical and dance idioms from the middle of the twentieth century, in particular bebop and tap. As with Mascall Dance's OW (also playing this year's DOTE, and which I blogged about here), Kinoshita and her fellow performers have had to learn two fully integrated scores, cycling through a songbook's worth of co-composed a cappella numbers (a print copy of which is available upon exiting the theatre) alongside fifty minutes worth of almost non-stop soft shoe syncopation. The voices of all four performers are extraordinary, pitch-perfect and harmonically rich, handling changes in tempo and the complex asymmetrical phrasings that blend in and out of different melodies with as much virtuosity as they move through their different unison and non-unison tap routines. It all starts with a bit of freestyle scatting to a classic horizontal shuffle-toe-bang formation. Thereafter the songs self-reflexively address the mechanisms of performance itself, from pre-show routines to the pressures of time to the machinery of touring, including negotiating the security line at the airport: in a number called "Wall" that fittingly unfolds against the Firehall's exposed backstage, and which sees the dancers take turns passing each other over its surface via a series of proffered limbs on which to climb or lean against for support. This section of the piece culminates in an ode to the audience that sees the four performers wading into our ranks, each seeking out a different spectator to serenade (I was one of the lucky chosen ones).

The beginning of the second half of the piece is signalled by the one song that addresses Eyjafjallajökull by name; it starts with a haunting atonal sounding of the volcano's multiple syllables before melding into an elegant four-part harmony. This then leads into an extended floor sequence, in which the dancers' silent and slowed down diagonal dragging of their tired bodies, heavy limb over heavy limb, across the stage serves as a seductive visual and kinetic contrast to the faster tempo of the rest of the work--and to the accelerated pace of daily living more generally. "I am being propelled" is the refrain we hear most often throughout Volcano--and it comes back especially here in a solo number sung by Ardal Rosengren. But what might it mean to "suspend momentum," even just for a minute?

Answering this question, Kinoshita uses the occasion of a volcano's "untimely" eruption to create a smart and rhythmically embracing work of art that shows us all that can and does happen when time is out of our control.


Friday, July 13, 2018

42nd Street at Theatre Under the Stars

After skipping last year, Richard and I returned to Malkin Bowl last night for our annual pilgrimage to Theatre Under the Stars. The production we were seeing was the classic Depression-set toe-tapper 42nd Street, one of Richard's all-time favourites. Despite the era in which it is set, 42nd Street was only first produced on Broadway in 1980, directed by the legendary Gower Champion, who dropped dead on opening night; and in terms of current trends on the Great White Way, it is interesting to note that 42nd Street is both a jukebox musical and an adaptation of a movie. That would, of course, be the famous 1933 film directed by Lloyd Bacon (based on the novel by Bradford Ropes), and with its eye-popping choreography for the camera by Busby Berkley. Those routines are hard to reproduce on stage, but nevertheless one of the signature pleasures of watching this musical remains its mostly all-tap dancing, and in this TUTS production veteran choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt finds a number of innovative ways to showcase the hoofing chops of director Robert McQueen's very talented cast.

The musical's star-is-born plot concerns would-be chorine Peggy Sawyer (Paige Fraser), who after initially missing her audition finds herself cast at the last minute in director Julian Marsh's (Andrew Cownden) latest blockbuster entertainment, Pretty Lady. The work is meant to be a vehicle for the aging star, Dorothy Brock (a very fine Janet Gigliotti), whose mobster boyfriend is bankrolling the production, but who is also seeing Pat Denning (Matthias Falvai) on the side. When Dorothy injures herself in an out-of-town tryout, she blames Peggy. Marsh immediately fires her and announces that the production will close and that audience members will have the cost of their tickets (a whopping $4.40) refunded, a nice meta-theatrical moment that brings us to intermission. In the second act, Peggy's fellow chorus girls (all splendid, especially Jolene Bernadino as the polkadot-wearing Annie) hatch a plan to avoid unemployment and the bread lines, scheming with the show's junior tenor lead, Billy Lawlor (the velvety-voiced Blake Sartin) to get Peggy rehired as the show's replacement lead. Peggy has only 36 hours to learn all of Dorothy's songs, dialogue, and dances, with Marsh reminding her at every turn that the fate of the show, 100 jobs, and a one-hundred thousand dollar investment are resting on her tiny shoulders.

Of course, she triumphs and the climactic title number is, in McQueen's and his designers' hands, a rousing spectacle of eye-popping colour (the costumes are by Christina Sinosich) and razzmatazz movement. Interestingly, the lyrics of "42nd Street," the song, are all about the mixing of different classes and social demographics ("where the underworld can meet the elite") and in a little bit of subtle stage business off to the side, McQueen makes it clear that Marsh still depends on mob money to make the confection-within-a-confection that we are watching fly. And while Marsh is a mostly benign and soft-hearted impresario who just wants to make the best musical he can, it is interesting to consider his bullying of Peggy in light of our present #MeToo era. No matter their singing and dancing talents, the chorus girls in Pretty Lady fundamentally owe their jobs to their abilities to match that description, and whether or not they are able to eat very much depends on the whims of men like Marsh and Dorothy's mobster boyfriend. Which is why the scene that is most affecting for me in the show is the one in which Dorothy, hobbling but now happily married to Pat, confers with Peggy in her dressing room just before the curtain of Pretty Lady is set to rise. Here we get not the usual Hollywood scene of bitter female rivalry, but rather a tenderly shared duet ("About a Quarter to Nine") between two assured professionals.

As always, the TUTS orchestra was in excellent form, with the hard-working music director and conductor Christopher King here doing double duty as the on-stage pianist Oscar. And while I missed hearing the musical's usual penultimate number, "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" (despite it being listed in the program), the production--and the splendid open-air summer evening--more than lived up to my expectations.


Thursday, July 12, 2018

I Miss Doing Nothing at Left of Main

Hard to believe, but plastic orchid factory turns ten this year. Rather than marking this milestone with a bold, forward-looking new production, or throwing a celebratory party, pof principals James Gnam and Natalie LeFebvre Gnam are using the occasion of their company's anniversary to intervene in what theorist Elizabeth Freeman has called "chrononormativity": the yoking of time and bodies to a neoliberal emphasis on productivity through work schedules, appointment calendars, deadlines, even show opening and closing dates.

In I Miss Doing Nothing, James and Natalie, together with collaborators Nancy Tam, James Proudfoot, and Vanessa Goodman, attempt to interrupt the serial- and output-oriented logic of time and labouring bodies in two ways. First, rather than using their rehearsal and development process to make a "new" work, they have chosen to play with the kinetic repertoires that continue to linger within their bodies, re-calling over the course of this piece bits of choreography from past works, and seeing how this movement in, through, and across time can create different kinds of affective rhythms and flows. Watching James and Natalie feel their way into how something felt, the slow and often surprising real-time discovery of where an arm was positioned, or in what direction one is meant to be facing, imbues time with a layered, ludic quality, in which the past and present can be made to touch. As with the reverberating echoes and feedback loops of Nancy's live mixing of sounds--a combination of field recordings, rearrangements of old pof music scores, and miked noises from outside the Left of Main studio--such uncanny perceptual relays are also available to the spectator, as an energetic bounce up and down by James or a bit of subtle finger work by Natalie will trigger flashes of memory for those audience members familiar with the company's repertoire.

And it is in their invitation to audience members to self-curate how they wish to be with them in this space experiencing this work that James and Natalie and company have made their second intervention against the organizational march of time-as-usual, not least in terms of how dance and performance works are often shoehorned into hour-long presentation slots. As with Digital Folk, there is no obvious beginning or end to I Miss Doing Nothing. Subtitling the piece "a lived retrospective installation for experiencing time differently," the work unfolds durationally over a three-hour period. Upon entering Left of Main, the first thing one is invited to do is pause: sitting down on the steps up to the studio and affixing a pair of headphones to listen as Natalie gives instruction in what it might mean to open up an interval--even a small one--in the routine pace of our daily lives. Thereafter, and with a lazy mid-afternoon spritzer mixed by David McIntosh in hand, we are free to watch and linger with James and Natalie in the studio for as long as we like, lounging in various states of languorous repose against a chosen bit of wall (as I and most other attendees yesterday opted to do), or moving freely about the space, or coming and going as we see fit. In this respect, it is not as if time stops completely. Whether or not we choose to look at our watches, we are made aware of time's passing via the movement of sunlight and shadows in the space, a choreographing of natural illumination that is slowly revealed via James P and Vanessa's expert manipulation of a set of louvered vertical blinds on the west-facing windows, and the successive removal of the shimmery panels and wooden frames initially covering up the south-facing windows. These panels and frames, together with additional rolling screens, are moved about the room and configured into various architectural formations by Vanessa and James P, whose purposeful--and purposefully timed--activity contrasts with the seemingly more unplanned and aimless progress of Natalie and James G.

And yet it is precisely in the different kinds of attention solicited by these parallel movement scores that we discover that being "in time" together does not have to be reduced, if you'll forgive the boy band metaphor, to being "in sync": with each other, or with the prescribed rhythms of daily life. At different moments yesterday I was alert, sleepy, bored, stimulated, contemplative, anxious, worried, bewildered, absorbed, distracted, and transported. At no moment, however, did I think there was anywhere else I would rather be. Watching Natalie move in and with the last slat of light from the middle of the west-facing windows as its slow disappearance marked the approach of six o'clock (yes, I stayed for the whole three hours), I thought of how productively this time doing nothing had been spent.

In arguing for a more longitudinal approach to time, especially as it relates to the historical survival of different collectivities, Freeman invokes the term belonging to refer not just to identification with a group, but to denote a way of "being long," of a group persisting over time. Artistically and affectively, pof and its extended family of collaborators are definitely peeps I want to grow old with.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

DOTE 2018: Mascall Dance's OW at St. Paul's Anglican Church

Yesterday evening I trekked to the West End to take in one of Dancing on the Edge's "Edge Off" presentations, that is, works not taking place at the Firehall or Dance Centre. The piece was Mascall Dance's latest ensemble creation, OW, created by Jennifer Mascall in collaboration with 20 (yes, that's right, 20!) incredible dancer-performers, and presented as always at Mascall Dance's home base at St. Paul's Anglican Church on Jervis Street.

OW is a study of the relationship between sound and the body. Working from a libretto made up of vocalized syllables, cries, noises, and utterances that are deliberately non-sensical--similar to improvised scat singing in jazz music--the piece is made up of a series of interconnected vignettes that explore how, why and from where our bodies produce sound, and how that additionally reverberates in movement. (The vocal coach for OW is DB Boyko, and additional musical composition is provided by Stefan Smulovitz.) While Mascall takes pains in her brief program note to explain that OW is non-narrative, structurally it is styled like a work of musical theatre, at least in its groupings of dancers (the soundtrack playing before the start of the work is also a clue).

Our would-be romantic principals are Billy Marchenski and Molly McDermott, although the mostly hissing sounds that emanate from their mouths when they are near each other, and their wary circling of each other on the in-the-round stage floor--not to mention the way Molly climbs over Billy's body during their climactic duet--mostly suggests a tonal dynamic of repulsion rather than attraction. Comic relief comes by way of a quartet comprised of Anne Cooper, Walter Kubanek, Vanessa Goodman, and Eloi Homer, who banter back and forth with each other in an exuberantly demonstrative phonetic glossolalia, their strung-together plosives and fricatives and diphthongs and glottal stops accompanied by a range of popular dance styles, from a virtuosic tap sequence to a chest- and shoe-thumping folk dance circle in which the dancers' vocal communication is now filtered through kazoos.

Finally, there is a large chorus of younger dancers whose mostly unison and canon choreography is complemented by an enunciated score of call and response: with each other, and also with the other groups of dancers. Here, especially, it was fascinating to take note of the ways in which certain sounds seem intuitively to call forth distinctive styles of physical expression, with harsher noises (guttural cries and shouts) often accompanied by more martial movements (marching and foot stomping), whereas softer sounds (coos and whistles) seem to produce kinetic ripples that are more flowing and undulating. On this front, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the impressive cameo appearance made by Eowynn Enquist, who together with Molly McDermott and Vanessa Goodman forms a gorgeous trio, one whose sinuous arm waves and buffeting back and forth in space of each other's bodies is held aloft through a softly sung three-part harmony. (That Enquist thereafter becomes a kind of avenging angel, moving between different chorus members and miming a series of eye plucks that produce from each a version of the work's title is a whole other matter.)

Watching OW, and how much fun the dancers seemed to be having (despite the obvious complexity of having to learn two different scores), I was reminded of those moments of pure kinetic joy one experiences on a dance floor, when the feeling of being transported by the energy and rhythm of movement and music can only be answered by a whoop of delight. Kudos to Jennifer Mascall and her entire ensemble for reminding us so brilliantly and blissfully of the somatic connection between sound and movement.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

DOTE 2018: Edge 2 at The Firehall

Dancing on the Edge's second mixed program, Edge 2, serves as a showcase for a powerful group of strong women dancers in Vancouver.

The first piece is by Lesley Telford/Inverso Productions. Lesley first presented IF in Vancouver at The Dance Centre in April 2017, and I have previously blogged about the work here. An exploration of the triangulated relationships between three identically clad dancers (Karin Ezaki, Ria Girard, and Eden Solomon, all excellent), the piece operates through a dynamic of displacement/replacement, with different bodies' successive occupations of a lone chair positioned stage right suggesting not just a redistribution of space but the sedimentation of time. Key to this is the exchange of looks that is sustained by the dancers as they repeat a circular pattern that serves as the work's structuring movement phrase, with one dancer passing in front of her seated other just as she is about to be upended from the chair by a third dancer moving towards her from upstage: the act of watching someone watching herself being watched completes a feedback loop of physical presence in which the conditions of existence are reduced to basic matters of proximity and distance. One difference in this iteration of IF is that it is being performed without the text by Anne Carson that originally accompanied it (long story). Lesley mentioned to me before the performance that she was very worried about how the work would now read, but afterwards I assured her that this version had succeeded in supplanting my own previous memories of how text and movement had played off each other. In so doing, it actually focused my attention away from the more sedentary action involving the chair and towards the bolder physicality that gets played out in a series of solos and duos that unfold stage left.

Amber Funk Barton's For You, For Me is a solo she has composed as a gift to DOTE on the occasion of its 30th anniversary. Amber arrives on the bare and fully illuminated Firehall stage in black shorts and top, and wearing a pair of runners. She looks around the space, taking it in, and then registers how it reverberates in her body kinetically. She reaches a hand out into space, traces a line along the floor, tests her balance by leaning over the sides of her shoes to the left before falling to the ground. Part of the joy of this piece comes from watching Amber remember all that she has done on this stage, and also what she can still do. When she lifts one leg above her head in full extension and then pivots 360 degrees on the other, a smile of "wow" lights up her face and it is instantly contagious. As is how Amber mixes the different movement vocabularies that reside in her body, a pirouette and jeté, or a walking line on demi-pointe, contrasted--sometimes instantly--with a body roll or a bit of floating and flying. Even the way she rearranges her top from front to back through a quick and dextrous shifting of her arms is utterly captivating. Amber performs all of this without music. All we hear is the squeak of her shoes and her breathing, effort here being another of Amber's gifts to us and this space. Hence her perfect ending. Bending backwards to the floor as the intensely bright lights slowly fade to black she moves the square she has formed with the thumb and forefinger of one hand from her heart centre to the ground beside her: everything she has, she has left on the floor.

Wen Wei Wang's Ying Yun is also performed mostly in silence. A tribute to the memory of the choreographer's mother, this excerpt from a larger work-in-progress features five incredibly talented young female dancers: Eowynn Enquist, Sarah Formosa, Ria Girard, Daria Mikhaylyuk, and Stéphanie Cyr. At the top of the piece they are clumped together as a group centre stage, rocking from side to side as they breathe audibly and in unison in and out, like they are a single lung. Following a brief blackout, we next find the dancers with their backs to us in a staggered formation upstage. They hold this pose for a time before suddenly, and on Enquist's split-second cue, shifting their weight backwards onto one leg and twisting their torsos slightly. This move is repeated and then added to, Wang building a repertoire of strong, heroic poses--a reach to the heavens with both hands, a deep plié, a lunge and calf grab to the side--that the dancers start to cycle through at a faster and faster rate. Mixed in with this looping score are also more gestural phrases that the dancers count through together, always stopping on the seventh beat. The exquisite unison is completely beguiling, and as a study in virtuosic synchronicity I could have watched these patterns repeat forever. However, Wang slowly builds in a counterpoint to the unison by having each of the dancers break off at certain points into solos, all of which showcase the unique talents and physicalities of these exceptional young dancers. This shift is also accompanied by the introduction of music composed by Amon Tobin. It's not clear to me at this point how these two aspects of the work fit together, and while I appreciated the note on which this current version of the work ends--a return to one of the signature poses from the beginning--the way it was arrived at felt a bit awkward. That said, I very much look forward to how the rest of this work unfolds.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

DOTE 2018: Lara Kramer, Dab Dance Project, and Company 605

This year's Dancing on the Edge Festival, its 30th anniversary, opened yesterday, and I had tickets for both of the evening performances at the Firehall. The 7 pm show showcased the Vancouver premiere of Lara Kramer Danse's Windigo. I have not seen Kramer's work before, but I have read a lot about her 2013 work, Native Girl Syndrome, a difficult and viscerally affecting examination of the inherited intergenerational trauma of cultural genocide. In the program notes, Kramer refers to Windigo as NGS's "masculine counterpart, where trauma is externalized through different ages and bodies, individuals and objects." Two of the main objects that dominate the quasi-installation-like set are a pair of mattresses on which performers Peter James and Stefan Petersen (replacing Jassem Hindi) are sprawled as the audience files into the auditorium. Kramer sits between the men, engaging both in quiet conversation. Another mattress, still in its protective plastic, is positioned against the upstage left wall, and in the upstage right corner is a huge pile of discarded clothes, toys, and other objects. Pictorially, this tableau suggests any number of possible scenarios, including the aftermath of a terrible violence and an ongoing struggle for survival.

Soon after Kramer moves to her laptop and audio console to live mix the striking sound score for the piece (composed by Kramer and featuring field recordings of crackling fires and other natural noises overlain with conversations between Kramer and her children), Petersen removes a switchblade from one of his jeans pockets, and all of a sudden the relationship between the two men takes on new stakes. In fact, the knives in the piece--for we eventually learn that James has one as well--are only ever used on the mattresses: the slash marks Petersen makes on his bed perhaps represent his own psychic wounds (at one point he eats a bit of the mattress stuffing); James, on the other hand, is intent on secreting away clothes and other personal belongings into the holes he has created, whether for safekeeping or added comfort it is unclear. Either way, both the hollowed out and overstuffed mattresses become key dance partners for both men; despite the knives, their attention to the mattresses is solicitous, almost tender, turning them into ceremonial objects, with the slash marks on Petersen's and the peekaboo bits of coloured clothing emanating from James' recalling, in some ways, the residual traces of carving and beadwork traditions, respectively. Later, Petersen will wear his mattress like a polar bear skin and James will ride his like a sled, and suddenly the scenographic landscape we are wont to read as evidence of urban blight and decay turns into a northern topography whose ancient cultural magic can transform what is potentially threatening and strange into something protective and even hopeful--which is how I read the shaggy pink puppet that James dances around the stage towards the end of the piece.

After the performance I had a conversation with the woman sitting beside me, who wondered how what we had just seen in Windigo was any different from what we might see on any given day on a street corner just a few blocks from the Firehall. But as PuSh Festival Interim AD Joyce Rosario and I agreed in a shared cab ride home, walking by two men on mattresses on Hastings Street we have the option to do just that: walk on by. Framing that scene aesthetically on stage, Kramer forces us to sit with what we might otherwise choose not to see, to deal with its complicated layers of history and, perhaps most importantly, our own discomfort. This is not an easy work, but it is incredibly powerful, and I was never less than compelled.

The 9 pm show was a double bill featuring South Korea's Dab Dance Project and Vancouver's own Company 605. Dab Dance's Bomberman is a trio that takes place inside a plastic box. Three men (performers Hoyeon Kim, who also choreographed the work, Jungha Lim, and Gunwoo Jun) introduce us to their quarantined environment via illuminated fluorescent tubes. The cooperation they must enact physically in order to form the tubes into a triangle that frames each of their bodies becomes a metaphor for working together within this enclosed space. For when they are moving on their own in different competing displays of virtuosity, as happens soon after this opening, there is always the possibility that one of them will suck up all the available oxygen. By contrast, when they move in unison, often in striking acrobatic formations, there seems to be more air to breathe--for them, and for us. Indeed, the atmospheric connection between performers and audience is made manifest at the very end of the piece when, from the now foggy inside of their translucent box, one of the dancers breaches the plastic, making a hole in it and reaching his hand through.

Company 605's Loop, Lull is an excerpt from a work in progress by Lisa Gelley and Josh Martin that explores repetition and transformation. Dancers Sophia Wolfe, Laura Avery, Bynh Ho, Jessica Wilkie and Francesca Frewer cycle through a range of iterative movement patterns, testing out different individual starting positions and bodily combinations, and even taking turns adjusting light and sound levels (via two downstage consoles; the striking sound design is by Matthew Tomkinson). At first the staggered entrances of the dancers (several carrying water bottles and snacks) and the instant replay of their struck poses makes it seem like we are watching a rehearsal warm-up, something reinforced by the casual banter back and forth, as well as the occasional on-stage documentation via a mini-Polaroid camera. But following a duet between Ho and Wilkie in which they ask each other how their attempts at perfecting their partnering sequence feel, the choreographic looping gets more complex, with Gelley and Martin pressing the reset button through a group pattern in which the dancers take turns spelling each other in the middle of a phrase. Like binary code, the different bodily integers produce a movement algorithm that is always morphing and shifting, a pattern we think we recognize, but that is also simultaneously reshaping our perception.


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.