Wednesday, March 28, 2018

De Souffles et de Machines at the Fox Cabaret

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

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

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

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


Friday, March 23, 2018

VIDF 2018: RIFT at KW Studios

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Beautiful View at Kits Neighbourhood House

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cue those bears.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Betroffenheit at the Playhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, March 16, 2018

VIDF 2018: iyouuuswe at the Roundhouse

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

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

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

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


Friday, March 9, 2018

VIDF 2018: Dancers Dancing and EDAM at the Roundhouse

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Ten Thousand Birds at the Roundhouse

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, March 3, 2018

VIDF 2018: Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Playhouse

The 2018 edition of the Vancouver International Dance Festival is underway and last night at the Playhouse saw the Vancouver premiere of two remarkable works by Shen Wei Dance Arts. In her curtain speech VIDF co-producer Barbara Bourget said that she and her VIDF and life partner Jay Hirabayashi first saw Rite of Spring and Folding at the Montpellier Dance Festival in 2005 and that they'd been trying ever since to bring the works to local audiences. Lucky for us their persistence paid off, as together the pieces serve to showcase choreographer Shen Wei's eclectic intercultural and cross-disciplinary influences, combining the formalist rigour of American modernist dance technique (he trained at the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab following his move to New York in 1995) with the ritual compositional drama of Chinese opera.

The first piece on the program was Rite of Spring. It uses the famous Stravinksy score, but transposed to two pianos. The result preserves the pounding rhythmic dissonance of the original music, but stripped of any expressionistic embellishments that might come from string and wind and percussion instruments. Likewise, Shen Wei chooses to ignore the narrative of ritual sacrifice, abstracting the tension in the music into formal patterns of stillness and commotion, striving and collapse. That starts with the very opening of the piece, with the dancers emerging one by one from the wings and amassing in silence on either side of the stage (there are eleven in total, although a twelfth will later be added, perhaps Shen Wei's one sly and McGuffinesque allusion to a "chosen one"). In turn, the dancers then each walk stiffly and slowly to a different spot on the stage, which is painted in a swirl of white lines that matches the cross-hatching of markings on the dancers' costumes and that suggests a grid that has been exploded into broken pathways. For, indeed, once the last dancer has taken her place, the others will begin to locomote like remote-controlled chess pieces along different diagonals and axes, gradually accelerating their pace and barely avoiding collision until the walking patterns are suddenly disrupted from within when one of the male dancers throws his body through space and tumbles across the floor like an acrobat.

I can't remember if it's at this point that the music comes in, but hereafter the stage is mostly a riot of asynchronous movement, with Shen Wei especially adept at matching the various crescendos and diminuendos of the musical score with startling kinetic eruptions: as when the dancers propel themselves from a sitting position vertically into the air, or when they repeat an amazing scissor-kick sequence from the floor. In this version of the Rite, the group is not seeking to avoid being swept up into the maelstrom; they are moving with all of their energy and force closer and and closer towards it, to the point where, at the end of the piece, forming a circle out of all of the angular chaos that has preceded this moment, they become the collective whirling eye of the storm.

Folding couldn't be more different in its choreography and tone and pacing. And also its music--which combines a bell and string quartet by John Tavener with traditional Buddhist chants. The work unfurls like a strange dream, and it disappears like one too. Key to this is Shen Wei's canny use of lighting (he is clearly an adept student of Alwin Nikolais in this regard). After the curtains part, still in dim half-light, we see two figures float onto stage, again from opposite wings; they glide upstage and then disappear. This pattern repeats a few times as the lights slowly come up to full and we gradually take in who these otherworldly creatures are: wearing long red skirts, their torsos and arms and faces covered in white body paint, their heads prosthetically elongated with padding that makes them look like aliens from outer space. Eventually five (or maybe it was six) of these figures will cluster upstage right, their backs to the audience, where they will begin a simple distributed sequence of rises and falls, interrupted by the occasional dramatic pirouette, their floor-length skirts kicking out violently from underneath them like a whiplash of blood. As this is happening, couples clad in green begin emerging, the upper bodies of the women seeming to arc out, as if surgically attached, from the upper bodies of the men. Shen Wei doesn't seek to explain how these two groups are related; he leaves it to us to make our own connections, to as it were engage in the process of folding and unfolding inside from outside (and it's really impossible for me to not view this piece within a Deleuzian framework). In so doing, it behooves us to simply give ourselves over to the visual and kinetic pleasure of the gorgeous tableaux that Shen Wei creates on stage.

And the unfolding of the last of these is perhaps the most wondrous of them all. It begins with a trail of the red-skirted beings floating in a line on stage, both hands placed gracefully on their thighs. As each member of the group begins to approach centre stage, the right hand slowly moves up to the chest as the head is then thrown back, as if each dancer is making supplication to--or seeking benediction from--the gods. Out of this group one of the dancers, Alex Speedie (also a particular standout in Rite), moves further downstage and begins a slow sinuous solo that for me was all about the breathtakingly boneless floating of his arms and hands and fingers through space. It was one of the most powerful kinaesthetic representations of pure weightlessness that I've ever experienced, and it will stay with me for a long time. As will the ending of the piece, which sees the stage returned to dim half-light, the rest of the group coming together in a mass as Speedie continues his solo, and eventually ascending on risers that we did not know were there into the heavens. Utter magic.

Less enchanting, however, was the size of the house last night. These are two major works of dance genius that Vancouver audiences absolutely must see. One more performance remains tonight, and I urge folks to drop everything and buy a ticket.