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.