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.


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