Sunday, February 25, 2018

From Where We Stand at the Firehall

As readers of this blog will know, I am a huge fan of the Vancouver dance scene. But sometimes the lack of communication between presenters can be frustrating. This weekend is a case in point: between Ballet BC, Chutzpah!, DanceHouse, and the Firehall (to name only a few), there were simply too many shows to see. So last night something had to give, and in our case it was our regular subscription tickets to DanceHouse's presentation of Toronto Dance Theatre (those went to Stefan and Lara). Instead Richard and I decided to catch the Firehall's last showing of From Where We Stand, a double bill featuring new works by Chick Snipper and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.

The connection between these two dance artists is longstanding and deeply material. A decade ago, when Snipper decided to move to Ottawa, she handed over her company, DanStaBat (DSB), to Friedenberg, who reconstituted it as Tara Cheyenne Performance (TCP). Recently returned to Vancouver, Snipper and Friedenberg are now sharing a double bill to celebrate the ten year anniversary of Tara's company. Except in Snipper's case, she is not presenting the work she thought she would be creating. Big Melt, a planned investigation of the relationships between four generations of women dancers, did not receive its anticipated Canada Council funding, and so with the encouragement of Friedenberg and Firehall AD Donna Spencer and production manager Daelik, Snipper conceived Unnecessary, a piece that begins as a solo for Anne Cooper and that turns into a duet between Cooper and Snipper. That this transition also involves a dialogue between text and movement is just one of subtle surprises of the piece.

A reflection on the vitality and creativity that older women artists still have to offer, Unnecessary begins with Cooper, her normally braided hair here long and loose, straddling a chair positioned centre stage. As a woman's voice begins to reflect on how her anticipated easy slumber in old age has in fact been increasingly interrupted by late night bouts of restless insomnia (the text is by Snipper, the voiceover by Jane Perry), Cooper begins to pivot her body from side to side on the chair, her hair making wild arcs in the air, like it is a fifth limb. Indeed, throughout the solo, as she eventually gets up off the chair and starts to torque her body through space, Cooper will continually pause to lift her hair off her face, holding it above her head. Is she gathering up the multiple wild and untamed strands of her being as a woman and an artist into some tidy bundle for a scrutinizing public, or is she simply trying to be seen? Either way, the image is a striking representation of the paradoxical (in)visibility of older women in our culture--which is enough to make anyone pull their hair out. Snipper and Cooper talk about some of these issues in a downstage conversation that encompasses the collapse of funding for Snipper's originally planned piece, their generational evolution as artists, and much more. And the piece closes with Snipper reciting a moving poem downstage while we see Cooper reflected behind her in an upstage diagonal.

Friedenberg's  I can't remember the word for I can't remember, an excerpt of which was first presented at Dancing on the Edge in 2016, begins with the artist loping on stage on all fours like a chimpanzee. Friedenberg opens her big expressive eyes wide and blinks blankly out at the audience. She scratches herself, beats her breast and hoots in the air, before pausing and executing a short movement phrase with her fingers on the floor, her simian self sliding the tips of her digits out from under their curled knuckles in a rhythmic tempo reminiscent of a trained pianist--or a virtuosic texter (and digital technologies will return as a motif). Eventually Tara-as-chimp climbs into the lap of one front-row spectator and proceeds to pick invisible gnats out of his hair and eat them. Beyond serving as an hilarious set up, and also demonstrating Friedenberg's amazing gifts of physical mimicry, it's not immediately clear how this opening relates to the theme of memory, nor to the rest of what follows. For, after a short blackout, we are given Friedenberg, now fully bipedal and standing in a square of white light centre stage, asking us, in medias res, "What was I talking about?" 

She puts this question directly to two different audience members, whom she also proceeds to size up and label (as, for instance, a New York Times-reading, NPR-listening hipster), telling them how much she likes their boxes--but not as much as that of a third audience member whom she picks out, whose architecturally minimalist, postmodernly deconstructivist box is the ultimate cat's meow. This second opening establishes the narrative through-line of the piece. On the one hand, waning memory is linked closely by Friedenberg to our current age of multiple electronic devices, social media and general information overload. Who can remember anyone's phone number anymore, she asks, while simultaneously remonstrating her own cell phone, positioned in its personalized square of light, not to compete for her attention. Later she will also enact an increasingly slapstick movement sequence based on gestures associated with the tapping and scrolling and swiping of our screen devices. This theme alternates, however, with the piece's other big concern, namely the categorical boxes into which we slot different people, and into which we in turn are slotted (or slot ourselves). As Friedenberg cheekily notes, returning to her square of light following her initial discourse with the audience, we all come out of a box when we're born (which she demonstrates), and after about 36 months of running around and being allowed to remain generally formless, we're then immediately put back into a box (let's call it identity), where we'll remain more or less until it's time to climb into that other box that gets lowered into the ground when we die.

The problem for Friedenberg, however, is that in terms of her own life, there's a four year gap in her memory between the ages of three and seven. She wants to know where that box went, and also what's in it. Or does she? This part of the show involves some of Friedenberg's most personal textual material, including voiceover recordings with both of her parents (and also, very movingly, her child, Jasper). Forgetting, here, becomes associated with trauma, and the black hole of memory that Friedenberg is trying to excavate within the black box of the theatre sends her scurrying more than once to the upstage black wall, where, in perhaps seeking safety and/or escape, her body becomes that much more exposed and vulnerable and surveilled--more than once she recoils physically from the wall as the result of some sort of electrical shock or pulse it seems to emit.

On the one hand, Friedenberg seems to be suggesting in this piece that there is the forgetting that happens as a result of benign neglect--that is, because we have ceded the task of remembering to software and big data. And then there is the more wilful forgetting we do, the things or events or people we put into boxes and then hide away at the back of our closets or underneath our beds. There's no suggestion or resolution of which kind of amnesia is more harmful, although (to go back to her opening entrance, which will be reprised) Friedenberg does hint that both are evolutionary processes, that within the larger context of deep, planetary time, what we do or don't remember from day to day or across the arc of an entire lifetime is really just a drop in a really big and bottomless bucket. And this Friendenberg cannily and metatheatrically demonstrates at the end of the show when, returning to the audience, she seeks our help in recalling what she's doing here on stage and what has just happened over the course of the previous hour. The fact that her interlocutors have some trouble recalling what they have only just witnessed happen is an apt metaphor for performance as a kind of anarchival forgetting in real time (it's here and then it disappears). But, at the same time, the fact that, based on what scraps of information she is able to glean, Friendenberg attempts to reconstitute the sum of the performance through the physical repetition of its various fragments points to how the body is its own memory muscle. And one whose storehouse of voluntary and involuntary recollective impulses far exceeds our own skeletal frames and even historical contexts.

That is, loping offstage once again on all fours, Friedenberg reminds us that there's a little bit of chimp in all of us.


Saturday, February 24, 2018

Romeo and Juliet at the Queen E

Five years ago Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar did something unusual. In the midst of the company's renaissance and bold recasting of itself as a contemporary ballet company, she commissioned a new version of Giselle from then choreographer-in-residence José Navas. I say unusual because just as audiences were starting to embrace her choreographic accent on mixed programs of complex non-narrative and conceptual works of dance, here she was presenting a classic example of nineteenth-century story ballet. Then, too, her choice of Navas--a Cunningham-trained dancer and choreographer steeped in abstraction--to create the work seemed strange. The resulting production was a bold updating of the ballet's sexual and gender politics for the twenty-first century (Giselle, Albrecht and Hilarion in a homoerotic love triangle), accompanied by a striking stage design. However, I had mixed feelings about how Navas took his cue from Adolphe Adam's music in crafting his choreography, especially the extent to which the work of the ensemble overshadowed the solos and duets of the principals. (You can read my full review here.)

To be sure, the flipping of this traditional balance between displays of individual virtuosity and moments of visually and technically satisfying collective dancing is in many ways to be expected when a contemporary choreographer used to working collaboratively encounters a company with the depth of talent (and lack of hierarchy) like Ballet BC's. For, with this weekend's world premiere of the Molnar-led Ballet BC's second in-house story ballet, Medhi Walerski's updating of the Prokofiev-scored Romeo and Juliet, I experienced something similar to my appreciation of Navas' Giselle: I was absolutely spell-bound by the group scenes, and by the clean modernist lines and monochromatic palette of the stage design (the set, consisting of three giant moveable portals, was by Theun Mosk, the costumes by Walerski himself); the partnering between the two leads, however, left me a little nonplussed.

The piece opens in a visually dramatic fashion. Following Prokofiev's opening overture, the curtain rises to reveal the entire ensemble--supplemented here by several Arts Umbrella apprentices, as well as member of AU's Graduate Program in Dance--massed on stage, staring out at the audience, their rigid posture and grim faces telegraphing what Shakespeare's choral prologue tells us we already know: things aren't going to end well for our star-crossed lovers. In the midst of this bit of kinetic telepathy, one of the dancers suddenly moves. It is Romeo (Christoph von Riedemann), moving horizontally across the stage to find Juliet (Kirsten Wicklund) and take her hand. But she pushes him away, and I admit that I experienced a brief moment of narrative confusion here: was this Walerski suggesting that the young lovers, or at the very least Juliet, know from the start that their romance is doomed; or could this be, as I also wondered, an opening condensation of the backstory involving poor Romeo's rejection by Rosaline, for whom he is pining before he falls for Juliet?

The question is left unanswered as we are immediately plunged into a roiling and raucous street scene in Verona. Here is where Walerski immediately places his own choreographic stamp on this signature story and music, busying the stage with so many bodies, their movements transitioning fluidly between recognizable bits of actorly pantomime (conversation and gossip, a hearty hail hello or an unneighbourly snub), physical theatre that serves a narrative purpose (a shove between rival members of the Houses Montague and Capulet that turns into a full-scale brawl), and gorgeous dancerly unison that is as pleasing for its scale as for its skilled execution. This combined group aesthetic is especially powerful during the ball scene when Romeo and Juliet first meet, where in moving between the initial hijinks of Romeo, Benvolio (Patrick Kilbane) and Mercutio (a stellar Scott Fowler) and later the love-at-first-sight encounter between Romeo and Juliet, Walerski channels a version of cinematic montage (he has stated that his research included the famous R&J films by Zeffirelli and Luhrmann). That is, Walerski is somehow able to slow down time, giving us a glimpse of romantic interiority (as with the hand on hand duet that is the danced equivalent of Shakespeare's palmers' speech) amid what is otherwise a scene of domestic exteriority. Likewise in the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt (Gilbert Small), the former's inevitable careening and off-kilter march toward death is forestalled more than once by the juxtapositional tumult of its frenzied witnessing by the citizens of Verona--a reminder that the division between these two houses affects all members of this society.

By contrast, in the famous balcony scene Walerski doesn't really give the young lovers that much to do by way of compelling or interesting dancing. He is in a rush to bring the two together, but the lifts that result are often physically and visually awkward, and where one would hope for something surprising by way of a transition he frequently substitutes a kiss. In this scene of the play, before Romeo announces his presence, Juliet expresses her excitement at having met Romeo in vocabulary that is richly physical and kinetically alive and she is in many ways the more active and worldly of the two characters ("You kiss by the book," she tells Romeo). Yet here I found her to be mostly passive, spending more time in the air than on the ground, danced more by Romeo rather than dancing for or around him. (Contrast this with Kenneth MacMillan's famous staging of this scene with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, in which the latter spends a full minute or so in stillness on his knees as the former twirls around him.) I did respond more enthusiastically to the scene in Act II when the lovers consummate their secret marriage, Walerski's crafting of a pas de deux that is mostly floor-bound and a rolling mix of intertwined limbs nicely conveying that for these two teenagers they are as much in lust as they are in love. And in this version of the ballet Juliet is, uniquely, given a long moment of psychological interiority when, having been instructed by Friar Laurence (Peter Smida, effecting the sexiest onstage priest I've ever seen) to take the poison that will induce her family to think she is dead, she is allowed to gaze upon a tableau vivant version of these events, the witnessing of the inert body of her double perhaps giving her momentary pause as to whether this passion isn't just high stakes folly. And the way all of this plays out in the tomb when the banished and lately returned Romeo discovers what he thinks to be Juliet's dead body is a truly amazing coup-de-thèatre.

In the end, what is perhaps most surprising about this production is the extent to which a contemporary choreographer like Walerski has embraced the narrative and characterological codes of dance drama. This includes effective front of curtain bits of pantomimed action that serve as transitions between scenes. And it also includes the casting of three veteran Ballet BC dancers in non-dancing roles: the alums Sylvain Senez and Makaila Wallace as Juliet's parents; and longtime company member Alexis Fletcher as the Nurse. Fletcher, especially, proves herself up to the dramaturgical challenge of acting with her body, and her stolid and physically grounded presence as confidante, interlocutor, and witness is a reminder that no monument to these lovers' senseless deaths will absolve anyone on stage from their complicity in this tragedy. As such, when the ensemble gathers at the end over Romeo and Juliet's bodies--in a reprise of the opening diorama--it was the Nurse, in her distinctive checked skirts, whose image I first sought out.

Notwithstanding the caveats outlined above, I look forward to encountering the Nurse and all of her fellow Veronese when this ambitious production is next revived in repertoire.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jitters at The Stanley

David French, perhaps English-Canada's most produced playwright of the 1970s and 80s, is getting two revivals in the Greater Vancouver Area right now. Salt-Water Moon, part of French's Mercer Family cycle, opened at the Gateway this past Friday; directed by Ravi Jain, this touring co-pro from Toronto's Factory Theatre and Jain's own Why Not Theatre is a heavily stylized take on French's period-set Newfoundland love story. The production got raves when it opened in Toronto in 2016, but according to our friends Richard Wolfe and Connie Kostiuk--with whom we had dinner last night, and who attended the Gateway opening--Jain's choices produce decidedly mixed results, and there were more than a few walkouts.

By contrast, the Arts Club staging of French's backstage comedy Jitters, on at the Stanley through February 25, adopts a reliably naturalistic take to its story, and the audience ate it up. Director David Mackay has chosen to set the play in the year it was first produced, 1979, in part as an homage to outgoing Arts Club AD Bill Millerd, who opened the company's second Granville Island venue that year. More practically--and very rewardingly--in terms of production design, this choice has given costume designer Mara Gottler free rein to reproduce the shaggy hairstyles and flared pants and garish colour palettes and clothing patterns of the period. An eye for authentic temporal specificity also extends to both sides of Ted Roberts' revolving set, including: the psychedelic hues of the wallpaper, throw pillows, and afghan in the living room of the play-within-the-play of acts one and three; and the grimy, overstuffed dressing rooms of act two. Even the pre-show and intermission music was chosen with care.

Likewise the entire cast feels at home--both emotionally and physically--in their parts. Megan Leitch, as the diva Jessica Logan, and Robert Moloney, as her cynical and hard-drinking co-star, Patrick Flanagan, are expert foils, their constant verbal sparring nevertheless allowing us to see the vulnerability that each is attempting to mask: for Jessica, the Canadian who has made it in New York, a fear that she is past her prime; for Patrick, the home-grown talent who has decided to remain a big fish in a small pond, the gnawing anxiety of failing on a bigger stage. James Fagan Tait, whom I mostly know as a director, reveals himself to be a hilarious master of comic timing in playing Phil Mastorakis, the jobbing character actor who has a habit of drying on stage and who still lives with his mother. Kamyar Pazandeh, as the company's male ingenue Tom Kent, conveys just the right amount of wanting-to-please-everybody desperation, and also gets a breakout moment of Y-fronts-wearing physical comedy in the second act. As, respectively, the put-upon director George Ellsworth and the alternately protective and self-doubting playwright Robert Ross, Martin Happer and Ryan Beil do their best to referee all of these egos, while also finding time to needle each other on various artistic choices. Raugi Yu, looking like an Asian member of the Bay City Rollers, gets in a few good digs against everyone as the martinet of a stage manager Nick. Kaitlin Williams, as the front of house manager Susi, and Lauren Bowler, as props person Peggy, make the most of what little their parts give them to do.

And in terms of action, French's play is not an all-out farce in the manner of Michael Frayn's Noises Off. Which perhaps explains why, as a spectator, I kept leaning in and out of yesterday's performance. All three acts have significantly different tonal qualities, which mostly pertain to the additional statement about Canadian artistic nationalism and our longstanding cultural cringe towards the United States that French wishes to make. Thus, in act one, the set-up of the animosity between Jessica and Patrick at a rehearsal four days before opening is skewed in its beats mainly towards punctuating the binary choices facing theatre artists in Canada in the 1970s: flee to the US to make it on Broadway; or plod along anonymously in rep in Canada. To be sure, the start-and-stop rhythms of the rehearsal--with everyone offering an opinion on the script or wanting something from director George, and with Nick in voiceover reminding everyone about the ticking clock--are a warmly affectionate poke at the world of the theatre more generally. But it's only towards the end of act one, with an aborted entrance by Phil, that we actually start edging into the comedic hijinks we've been waiting for. And it's only in act two--set on opening night, with both Phil and Tom seemingly AWOL, and with the Broadway producer who's come to see the show stuck at the airport--that we move into full-blown farce. Director Mackay and the entire ensemble nail all of the physical action here, and both the laughs and the pacing are satisfyingly relentless, with the audience exiting into intermission on a nice collective high. But in act three French makes another tonal shift, returning to meta-commentary via an extended dissection of a post-opening review in the Toronto Star. Again, there are some nice moments of insider recognition here, but the resolution of the supra-conflict around artistic integrity as distilled through the opposition between Jessica and Patrick feels somewhat forced.

And also dated. This is by no means a fault of the production. I'm merely noting my own feeling that the extra layer of quasi-political critique about Canadian cultural production that French attempts to fuse to the genre of farce (and for a Quebec-focused 70s-era take on this see Robert Lepage's film No) hasn't aged so well.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Chutzpah 2018: Open at The Rothstein

You gotta have a gimmick, right? Clearly Daniel Ezralow, Artistic Director of the LA-based Ezralow Dance, thinks that when it comes to Gypsy Rose Lee's maxim, the more the merrier. In Open, which--ha, ha--"opened" the 2018 Chutzpah! Festival last night at the Rothstein Theatre, gimmick after gimmick is trotted out in attempt to mask the empty ideas and utter lack of choreographic distinction at the heart of what is essentially a succession of brief dance-theatre vignettes. Roped-off boxing ring? Check. Potted palm trees? Check. Finger puppets? Check. Black and white face paint? Check. Mismatched costumes? Check. And let's not forget the supra-gimmick of the constantly moving screens, the locomotion of which was perhaps the most technically accomplished physical activity of the entire evening.

To be fair, the eight dancers are trying very hard. But it is clear that most are not classically trained and that they come from more commercial dance and musical theatre and even circus arts backgrounds. And then there's the fact that the choreography is itself better suited to a cruise ship than a concert stage. Ezralow clearly subscribes to the So You Think You Can Dance school of physical expressiveness: Faster! Bigger! More! And don't forget the costume changes. The partnering is especially clumsy and genitally awkward, with the lifts of the women more in line with the look-at-what-we-can-do posing of ice skating than the structural plot pointing of ballet. This was especially notable in an early man-at-beach-meets mermaid sequence and then later in what I can only describe as a gold laméd tribute to physique posing. (During the latter the women behind us burst into uncontrollable laughter.)

It would be one thing if this were all being done with a wink and a nudge, if Ezralow was taking the piss out of his audience. After all, he does pair most of the vignettes with iconic musical compositions by Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Bach, among others. However, I could detect absolutely no irony at work in the juxtaposition of musical and dance scores. Indeed the Prokofiev-themed homage to Romeo and Juliet was utterly sincere, which just made it that much more painful to watch--especially as the Robbinsesque choreography was so derivative. Likewise, a gum-booted line dance to Bach was clearly undertaken with the utmost seriousness, and was not meant as a burlesquing of either artistic variation.

The programming of Open is a real head-scratcher. Normally the dance presentations at Chutzpah! are reliably rewarding, with Mary-Louise Albert bringing in top international companies and also showcasing amazing local talent. This work is definitely the worst piece I have seen at the festival, and ranks among the poorest dance performances I have ever attended. How it continues to tour in the way it does is beyond me.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

My Funny Valentine at The Dance Centre

Zee Zee Theatre's tenth anniversary production of Dave Deveau's My Funny Valentine is currently running at The Dance Centre, following a successful tour to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. It's an anniversary in two senses: it's the first play by Zee Zee playwright-in-residence Deveau that the company shared with an audience, beginning with workshop presentations overseen by Zee Zee Managing Artistic Director Cameron Mackenzie in the summer of 2009; and, more soberly, it also commemorates ten years since the death of Lawrence King, whose murder in February 2008 by a male classmate to whom he'd had the temerity to send a valentine inspired Deveau's own love letter of a play to all who have suffered violence for following their hearts.

This is not the first time My Funny Valentine, which has won many awards, has been remounted by the company. I previously attended and blogged about the last Vancouver production at the Firehall here. I won't rehearse all that I said in that earlier review about the play's structure. But I will note that one of the unique  features of Deveau's play--and also a way he solves the conundrum of writing for and to the ghost of someone whom we can only ever know through media reports, or as some group's positive or negative symbol--is how he tells his story at a slight remove, through the voices of those who knew the boy or have come to be affected--including, in some cases, positively or opportunistically--by his murder (Lawrence is never identified by name). These characters are all played by a single actor, in this case SFU Theatre alum Conor Wylie, who is as convincing inhabiting the body language and drawn out vowels of the bored and cynical tween Gloria as he is the at once bluffly swaggering and emotionally desperate working class masculinity of a homophonic father.

That said, two characters stand out for me, both in terms of the quality of Deveau's writing and the luminosity of Wylie's performance. The first is Helen, a teacher at the high school of the murdered boy who cannot let his death go. She is the only character we meet more than once, and the recurring conceit of her nervously and clumsily spilling whatever she is drinking all over herself is a sign of how shattered she is by these events--to the point where she burns through both her job and her marriage. Her final appearance at the end of the play, ten years after her student's murder, also allows Deveau, in this most recent staging, to do some subtle updates to the script--in part to show us all that hasn't changed in America in the past decade. The second character I found most affecting was little Ronda, a motormouth of a girl who has two Dads and who is awaiting a liver transplant--a final act of love from the dead boy that this time is reciprocated fully and completely, because that's all Ronda has herself been shown in her life. Wylie is able, in turn, to convey this joyful contagion to us in a way that is simple and direct and that feels like a blessing--just when we need it most. All while talking a mile a minute about hating the smell of tuna fish sandwiches.

Today's matinee audience was a bit sparse; no doubt we were partly competing with the weather. The play continues for another week and I urge folks to get out and see it. Quite simply, Deveau has written a classic, and Wylie is giving a star turn.


Friday, February 9, 2018

No Foreigners at The Cultch

No Foreigners is Hong Kong Exile's second major production to open in Vancouver in the past two weeks (I previously reviewed Foxconn Frequency [No. 3] here). The busy and artistically adventurous company continues its multidisciplinary exploration of diasporic Chineseness, this time in collaboration with Toronto-based fu-Gen Theatre's David Yee, who wrote the text. Originally commissioned by Theatre Conspiracy as part of its Migration Path Project, No Foreigners runs under the direction of HKE project lead Milton Lim at The Cultch's Culture Lab until February 17, before traveling to Toronto for a run at the Theatre Centre.

The story concerns an unnamed Asian-Canadian millennial (voiced by Derek Chan) who is neither fully assimilated into mainstream white culture nor conversant with the traditions of his Cantonese mother and grandfather. He discovers just how estranged he is from both parts of himself when he visits that quintessential global export: the Chinese mall. Wishing to browse among the Hermes bags at an upscale boutique called Milan Station, he is denied entry by the ancient storeowner (April Leung), who insists that "No foreigners are allowed!" Affronted by this attack on his cultural identity, and additionally spurred by the news that his grandfather has left him his estate, but only on the condition that he can supply the probate officer the correct codeword, our hero embarks on a three-year occupation of the mall in an effort to become authentically Chinese. His guide and mentor on this journey is the wise-beyond-her-years Sodapop Mah, the fugitive daughter of a bickering couple whose electronics business is all but bust.

All of this provides HKE and writer Yee with ample opportunity to open up the surreal space of the Chinese mall to theatrical exploitation and critical analysis, giving us a portrait of a place where fantasy and superstition intersect--sometimes sweetly, at other times more violently--with commerce and the geopolitics of fashion and pop culture. The anthropologist Marc Augé has described the shopping mall as a "non-place," a transient space of "supermodernity" that holds little cultural or architectural significance for its users, who consequently remain anonymous and indistinguishable within it. What is most compelling about No Foreigners is the suggestion that this is far from the case for Chinese malls of the sort one finds in Richmond or Markham. Instead, we learn that they are vital community gathering places, rich in drama, haunted by history, and deeply connected to the idea of a home away from home.

My problem has to do with how all of this is presented. Performers Derek Chan and April Leung function as a cross between voice actors and Bunraku puppet masters, moving miniature human figures and set pieces in front of a bank of computer screens, the projected images of which we then see transposed via live camera feeds to a larger movie screen (the miniatures are by Natalie Tin Yin Gan, the projections by Lim, working with Remy Siu, who also designed the sound). Our perspective as spectators is at once multiplied and telescoped all at once, and the seamless integration of the technology is on one level a marvel to behold--as, for example, with the fluttering of an eclipse of moths that begins on the smaller bank of computer screens and then migrates to overtake the whole of the larger movie screen. And yet while I appreciate how dispersed and multi-focal viewing in No Foreigners mimics the ways in which seeing has become split and distracted in today's media-saturated environments--of which the shopping mall is paradigmatic--as live theatre this production feels strangely static and emotionally inert. Despite all of the illuminated screens and the images and the translated surtitles being thrown at me, I found myself continuously looking to Chan and Leung, crouched below the computers and platforms of miniatures, speaking almost surreptitiously into their head mics. And it's surely no coincidence that the moment in the production that connects the most with the audience is when Chan--his character having graduated to the ultimate test of his Chineseness--breaks out into a rousing karaoke number, a single spot following him as he makes his way into the audience.

Yee's text is filled with beautiful poetry, and there are so many smart and interesting things going on in No Foreigners. I just wish they could break free a bit more often from the apparatus of their mediatic scaffolding.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

PuSh 2018: The Eternal Tides at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre

My 2018 PuSh Festival came to a close last night with a performance of Legend Lin Dance Theater's The Eternal Tides at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. This two-hour intermissionless show, co-presented with Taiwanfest, marks the Canadian debut of choreographer Lin Lee-Chen, who is revered in her home country of Taiwan and also acclaimed internationally. However, to say that Lin is just a choreographer is to limit the scope of her creative vision. To judge by last night's performance, she builds works of total theatre (in Artaud's sense of that term), using music, dance, and design to compose exquisite stage tableaux that are as precise in their detailing as they are deliberately unhurried in their execution.

The Eternal Tides seems to celebrate as well as issue a caution about humans' relationship with nature, and especially the sea. It unfolds almost like a fertility rite. Following the dimming of the house lights, the two onstage musicians emerge from the wings holding candles, and make their way slowly to their stations at the extreme stage right and left lips of the stage. One begins to sound a gong, and gradually the long white sails of cloth that have been draped over the stage start to recede heavenward, into the rafters. What they reveal are two figures, one crumpled up into a ball centre stage in the middle of a large circular white cloth, the other seeming to guard her from upstage. As both musicians begin to drum, the figure on the cloth (in white body paint, and naked to the waist) begins to move, rotating her torso round and round until her spine is vertical, and then eventually standing up--whence we discover the incredibly long mane of jet black hair that she sports. This she proceeds to spin through the air again and again as she keeps time with her body to the drumbeats; the whole sequence goes on for a good ten-fifteen minutes (the man next to me kept checking his watch), and after a while you just have to give yourself over to the rhythmic ritual--one in which it is not entirely clear if the figure (who may be a goddess or a ghost) is conjuring or exorcising something.

Whatever the case, the scene culminates with the figure issuing a series of piercing screams, and then picking up the cloth on which she has just danced so ecstatically, and slowly retreating with it upstage. As she does this, a whole ensemble of performers emerges from the wings, the women crouched low carrying candles, and the men standing tall and brandishing long fluffy reeds. A band of white light bisects the stage horizontally, and it is upon this that a man and a woman will walk slowly towards each other, eventually meeting and presumably coupling. To this point, the pacing of Lin's compositions has been fluidly protracted and carefully balanced, each new element introduced in such a harmonious way and with the slowness of the movement never devolving into absolute stillness. For me it was the theatrical equivalent of watching a single continuous filmic dissolve.

However, Lin jolts us out of any languorous spectating habits with a subsequent scene of warring male quartets, the violent thrusting and parrying between the groups to the relentlessly quickening beats of the drums culminating in the death--or sacrifice?--of one of the men. This whole sequence put me in mind of a reverse Rite of Spring. Whatever the intent or cultural reference point, the violence must be expatiated and this sets the stage (quite literally) for Lin's final masterstroke in choreographic painting: at the heart of this culminating tableau, we watch as one dancer unfurls a white cloth vertically from upstage and then daubs it with a succession of ink stains, as all around her other performers array themselves in perfect symmetry.

One can, of course, read any number of meanings into this ending. But, as with the work as a whole, it is much more rewarding to give oneself over to the formal beauty and the sensual pleasures evoked within and by it. Because, while The Eternal Tides is mostly a visual feast, its sounds and smells and textures also very much feed our other senses.


Saturday, February 3, 2018

PuSh 2018: Spokaoke at the Fox Cabaret

Last night concluded at the Fox Cabaret, with the Club PuSh presentation of Annie Dorsen's Spokaoke. Dorsen is a pioneer in algorithmic performance, and earlier this week she gave what was by all accounts a bravura artist talk about the creative possibilities of working with algorithms (I was unable to attend). For Spokaoke, however, it's Dorsen herself, rather than a computer, who is problem-solving the live sequencing of participants' performance operations.

The premise is pretty simple: an evening of karaoke, but featuring speeches rather than pop songs. A photocopied list of options is made available to audience members: a mix of famous political speeches (by Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, Harvey Milk, etc.), pop culture memes (excerpts from Game of Thrones or the film Clueless or the Oscar acceptance speech of Michael Moore), and random Internet samplings (a generic eulogy for a friend named Michael, a beauty queen's answer to a skill-testing question). One is invited to put in a choice of speech, with Dorsen mixing the order for counterpoint and contrast. When your name is called, up you go to the stage, grabbing the mike and awaiting the colour-coded progress of the text on the monitor in front of you.

I had gotten there early, and selected Socrates' "Death Before Dishonour" speech at his trial (as recorded in Plato's Apology). I think I gave it the requisite moral weight, even conscripting the audience as my judges and accusers. Of course, any lofty pretensions to profundity were immediately undercut by Hilary Meredith's follow-up Miss South Carolina speech, an unwittingly hilarious and geographically skewed send-up of American exceptionalism. Part of the fun of the evening is the degree to which the speakers choose to "perform" their speeches (the prize on that one goes to the guy who impersonated Il Duce), and also the way in which they either work with or against what they are saying. Then, too, there is the issue of timeliness, with the thought given to how an historical speech from the past (even the recent past) might comment on the present moment often producing wild applause: kudos, on that front, to my friend Alexa Mardon for choosing Bill Clinton's pre-#MeToo apology for the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio. And we ended with a collectively cathartic performance of Peter Finch's "I'm Mad as Hell" speech, from the movie Network.

I absolutely love the concept of this work; my only critique has to do with the content of the speeches. They are heavily skewed towards American reference points, and it would have been nice to have some Canadian touchstones in there for juxtapositional reference/relevance.


PuSh 2018: Foxconn Frequency (No. 3) at Performance Works

Last night was a double-header at the PuSh Festival. It started at Performance Works, with local collective Hong Kong Exile's latest genre-defying work. In Foxconn Frequency (No. 3): For Three Visibly Chinese Performers, HKE project lead Remy Siu uses game systems software to drill three pianists (fellow HKE member Natalie Tin Yin Gan, the classically trained Vicky Chow, and a young male prodigy who unfortunately is not named) in various keyboard exercises. They do so while sitting in front of computer monitors hooked up to 3-D printers (the inclusion of which I did not fully understand). As they complete the exercises they have been assigned, a live camera feed projects their images on the screen behind them, a red countdown clock indicating the time in which they have to complete the task, and a white line showing the progress of their labour (the projections, including brilliantly edited satellite map images, are by HKE member Milton Lim). If the performers fail to complete their exercises in the assigned time, or if they make a mistake along the way, a red Chinese character will flash on the screen. If they succeed, a white character will appear.

Over the course of the work's 80 minutes, the repetition of this conceit moves from being dramatically compelling to being sensorily overwhelming and exhausting to being just plain boring, sometimes within the space of only a few minutes. In this, the "theatre" of human-machine interface that Siu and his collaborators create in this piece presumably mimics the conditions of factory-line assembly at any one of the plants owned by the real Foxconn, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer (its clients include Apple and Sony), with the company's Shenzhen location having attracted worldwide attention for a spate of worker suicides. Competition is, of course, what structures most of the action in this work: the performers are playing against the computer, but also each other, and the countdown clocks, combined with the complexity of the exercises, ramp up the dramatic stakes. I was especially drawn in at one point when Gan kept failing at a particularly tricky passage; she had to do it over and over again until she got it right, and by the end the relief in my own body when she finally succeeded was physically palpable. It's perhaps to be expected that the professional pianist, Chow, would have the lowest failure count by the end of the piece; that said, at the beginning of Foxconn the young boy--a model of cool calm throughout--was more than keeping his own.

The work is not entirely cutthroat. At various moments, the pianists are required to collaborate, with Gan and the young boy, positioned on either side of Chow, performing one passage repeatedly, eventually finding the required synchronicity in their timing. And even more interesting is when, after the boy has mysteriously opted out of the game altogether by leaving the stage (perhaps a comment on child labour or on the suicides of young Foxconn workers), Chow and Gan work to game the system itself, deliberately failing at their assigned tasks. The somewhat heavy hand of social commentary that gets imposed at the end of the piece, including a projection of a poem by Xu Lizhi, a writer and Foxconn worker who committed suicide, suggests that there is still some work to be done integrating medium and message, especially in terms of implicating and involving the audience. To this end, I wonder if in future iterations of Foxconn Frequency (will there be a number 4?) whether an immersive and interactive stage design might not be something to explore. That the audience was invited to tour the performers' play stations after the end of the performance suggests the potential in such an option.


Friday, February 2, 2018

PuSh 2018: Pour at The Dance Centre

Along with with Justine A. Chambers and Vanessa Goodman, Métis dance artist Daina Ashbee is one of the inaugural recipients of the Dance Centre's recently constituted Yulanda Faris Choreographers Program. Originally from BC, she now is based in Montreal, where her works have won multiple awards. Pour, on at the Dance Centre through tomorrow evening in conjunction with the PuSh Festival, is an entrancing solo performed by the amazing dancer Paige Culley in a power display of endurance, vulnerability, and control.

The piece begins in darkness, with the audience stumbling towards there seats as haunting cries emanating from the stage occasionally pierce the air. Soon everything quiets and it appears as if there is a body moving about before us, a ghostly figure whose aura haunts our imaginations precisely because her identity as yet remains unmarked. But then, with sudden violence--for both the audience and the performer--bright white lights come up, and we are literally blinded by what we see: Culley, naked to the waist, staring out at us. She moves downstage centre and stands absolutely still, holding our gaze in silence, for what seems like five long minutes. Then, ever so slowly, she moves her hands to the button and zipper at the top of her jeans, undoing both with an unhurried deliberateness that is both provocative and disturbing: does she feel compelled to do this because of our collective gaze, or is she doing this to test the quality, kind, and limits of that gaze? For she does, eventually, push down her jeans to reveal to us her sex, but in a way that is entirely unerotic, in fact, almost clinical, as if Ashbee is saying to both her dance audience and the world more generally: now that we've got the "fact" of woman's gender out of the way, we can get on to the far more interesting question of how she performs her sexuality.

That performance initially takes the form of Culley dropping to the floor, which looks to be made of some kind of white polyurethane substance, overlain with some kind of translucent mylar or viscous liquid, or maybe a combination of both. For as Culley begins rolling around the floor, her body becomes shinier and shinier, sweat mixing with whatever residue from the set that she is picking up as she reverses the masquerade of femininity, pouring herself out of (rather than into) the synthetic carapace of her jeans and back into not necessarily a more "natural," but certainly a more direct relationship between the materiality of her self and the materiality of her environment: a place where skin meets landscape in a surface encounter whose simultaneous porosity necessarily changes both. (In her program notes, Ashbee explains that she "used her own menstrual cycle as the hub of her interest throughout the development of the work.")

These changes we witness in the slow, repetitive cycle of Culley's rolling progress across the stage, lifting herself up onto her elbows, shifting the weight underneath her pelvis, slapping her arms and thighs and buttocks over and over again into the floor, her gaze never wavering from us even as the sound and the acts we can imagine it stands in for challenge us to look away. In these sequences and others--including an extended moment near the end when Culley struggles to find the voice we presumably heard at the beginning, but now only able to emit a few chocked hiccups--Ashbee refuses to resolve neat antimonies of pain and pleasure, power and resistance. Is Culley performing for us, or are we performing for Culley (and, interestingly, last night's audience was among the most quiet and attentive I've ever encountered at The Dance Centre)? The final sequence of the piece, in which Culley shuffles back and forth along the downstage lip of the stage with her back towards us once again cannily forecloses on an easy answer.


Thursday, February 1, 2018

PuSh 2018: King Arthur's Night at the Freddy Wood

Niall McNeil is a Vancouver-based actor with a distinguished professional pedigree, acting and making theatre as a child with the storied Caravan Farm Theatre, and appearing in several shows created by Leaky Heaven Circus. He also just happens to have Down's Syndrome. In 2011 Niall's first play, Peter Panties, co-written by Neworld Theatre's Marcus Youssef, and co-produced by Neworld and Leaky Heaven, premiered at the PuSh Festival. It was a boldly inventive and visually stunning reimagining of the Peter Pan story that was directed by my colleague Steven Hill (I blogged about it here). Now Niall and Marcus have collaborated on their follow-up work, King Arthur's Night, which opened last night at UBC's Frederic Wood Theatre as part of the 2018 PuSh Festival. A commission of Toronto's Luminato Festival, where it received it's premiere last summer. the piece has also toured to the National Arts Centre. But there's nothing like a hometown audience to bring the best out in a production. On that front, Niall and his team did not disappoint.

Many of the core collaborators on Peter Panties are back for King Arthur's Night, including composer and music director Veda Hille, this time not only leading the on-stage band (herself, drummer Skye Brooks, and the occasional additional accompanist), but also a 20-person choir. Theatre Replacement's James Long, who played the lead in Peter Panties (although Niall might dispute that), takes the helm as director this time. In addition to Niall, the cast includes three other Down's actors, including Tiffany King as Guinevere, Andrew Gordon as an axe-wielding Saxon warrior, and Matthew Tom-Wing as a goatherd. That the production very quickly moves from asking us to celebrate the presence and on-stage accomplishments of these differently abled performers to having us fall under the dramatic spell of the world they and the rest of the cast (Amber Funk-Barton, Nathan Kay, Billy Marchenski, Lucy McNulty, Kerry Sandomirsky, and Youssef) have collectively created is just one of many remarkable things about this show).

As with Peter Panties, the development process for King Arthur's Night involved Niall speaking the broad outlines of the story as he conceived it into an audio recorder, and then Marcus shaping and editing Niall's words into a loose narrative. An opening framing conversation and slide-show presentation by the two men contextualizes their working process, important aspects related to the development of this particular show, and the broad outlines of Arthurian legend. If in this prologue, Marcus-as-Merlin serves as amanuensis to the story of Niall-as-Arthur, the latter never lets the former forget who is star of this show. That said, one of the more interesting things about this telling of the Arthur story is how much stage time Niall cedes to the hero's rivals. In this respect, the play is loosely divided into two intersecting plot-lines. The first details the forbidden romance between Guinevere and Lancelot (Marchenski), which is beguiling both for the tenderness the lovers bestow upon each other, and for the tenderness they cannot help but still feel for the husband and best friend they are betraying. King is especially moving in the dancing she displays, which helps to convey both the excess of emotion she feels, and also how trapped she is as a woman in Camelot. Arthur's injunction to Lancelot early in the play not to overstep his station with Guinevere is also a subtle encoding of the dynamics of consent into the larger themes of the play--something that additionally resonates with our current #MeToo moment.

The second plot-line concerns Arthur's usurping son, Mordred (Kay), born of Arthur's incestuous relationship with his sister Morgana (Sandomirsky), who from her perch in Lothia is very much Merlin's equal in string-pulling: a slyly hilarious bit of downstage verbal jousting between the two telegraphs this perfectly. I don't know this part of the Arthur story well, but I gather that the siblings' forbidden coupling in a goat pen resulted in a cursed progeny who was born with horns. Whatever the exact details, spurred on by his mother's hatred for her brother, Mordred's destiny is to join Albion's sworn enemies, the Saxons, and attack the Knights of the Roundtable. The lead-up to this climax is punctuated by some wonderful additional movement sequences, first involving Funk-Barton leading Marchenski and McNulty in some bucking goat moves, and then this trio taking their cues from Gordon in how to wield their weapons in battle (the choreography is by Company 605's Josh Martin). All of this culminates in a coup-de-theatre that sees the choir descend from their upstage perch behind a scrim to become strewn corpses on the battlefield, McNulty's Sir Galahad and Tom-Wing's goatherd the only apparent survivors.

Indeed, Freddy Wood's large proscenium stage is the perfect venue for the imaginative scale of this production. That includes Long and his design team (including lighting designer Kyla Gardiner, sound designer Nancy Tam, and video designer Parjad Sharifi) matching Niall's interior dreamscape with equally vivid on-stage effects. But it also involves letting a sense of emotional intimacy pierce through all the spectacle. Hille's score is key to this; it manages to feel both rocking and whispered, and that after the battle scene we're left with Hille and the choir performing vocal murmurations as King's Guinevere flutters her hand above her heart reminds us that how ever dark this story gets, at its core there is love.