Monday, April 30, 2018

Spooky Action at the Dance Centre

Yesterday was International Dance Day and part of the celebrations at The Dance Centre included a free show of the latest iteration of Lesley Telford/Inverso Productions' Spooky Action. A shorter version of the piece was first presented a year ago (which I blogged about here), and then again in November at Dance in Vancouver. A collaboration with spoken word artist Barbara Adler and five dancers, Telford's ambitious exploration of the world of quantum entanglement seeks to make felt the uncanny kinetic experience both of making something happen and of having something happen to one.

It all begins with Adler explaining to us, via cribbed notes from Wikipedia, the basic principles of physical entanglement, how unseen particles, even separated by great distances, are somehow in communication with each other, and how the state of one particle (position, spin, momentum) necessarily affects the state of another. Action and reaction. Or as Adler later sums up the paradox in her first-person monologue: "I happened to people, but they happened back." Telford mines this choreographically in a number of intriguing ways, beginning with an opening solo in which Ria Girard explores--with her eyes closed and her searching arms outstretched--the delimited spatial orbit of her spotlit circle. But even in this suspended state things are happening: to Girard and to us. A turn in one direction produces a different facing. An arm reaching behind her back pulls her first this way, and then that way. Soon Girard is joined by five other dancers: Stephanie Cyr, Eden Solomon, Desi Rekrut, Lucas Wilson-Bilbo, and Ariana Barr. Surprised by their sudden appearance, Girard nevertheless discovers that her movements can somehow affect theirs. This ricocheting effect begins slowly and subtly, with a pivot by Girard from one dancer to the next producing a head bobble here, a buckle at the knees there. Soon, however, Girard's wizard-like turns become faster and the other dancers are bouncing up and down and boomeranging back and forth like pinballs.

But as Adler's text returns to the question of who is controlling whom, the other dancers constellate around Girard, each taking a turn whispering some secret message into her ear, before forming a chain hitched at the right arm behind her. This in turn leads into a sequence in which the group begins to move Girard, and from here the piece opens up into a succession of danced entanglements, Telford's arrangement of her bodies in space--via, for example, a simple yet beautifully captivating group pattern of unison breathing, or via more complicated duets--making manifest the axiom spoken by Adler: "There's distance, and also time." In dance, as in quantum physics, both can be stretched. And both can be folded and collapsed into each other, yet another paradox brilliantly illustrated with an elastic band, a story of the various lives affected by a car crash spoken by Adler as she moves slowly across the stage behind the elastic, and the dancers whizzing back and forth underneath it.

As Adler's text emphasizes just before this sequence, the question of the something that is happening--in the world, in one's life, in a performance--is not, or not only, an "if" or a "when" question. It's also, and perhaps most crucially, a "with" question: those seen and unseen forces that are beside one, acting upon one, and responding to one in the happening of that something. In quantum mechanics the term for this state of "withness" is superposition: that any two or more quantum states can be added together to produce another distinct quantum state. It's a principle that applies equally well to this unique collaboration, with text and movement the shared axes upon which the work spins.

I look forward to the next iteration.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Emerge on Main at the Fox Cabaret

Music on Main's "Month of Tuesdays" at the Fox Cabaret concluded last night with a concert called Emerge on Main. MoM Artistic Director David Pay's program showcased three Vancouver-based musicians whom he told us we "need to know."

First up was Nicole Linaksita, a pianist of immense talent. Performing Carl Vine's Sonata No 1, and later in the program works by Dorothy Chnag and Nikolai Kapustin, she ranged up and down the keyboard with crackling virtuosity, but also incredible clarity and sensitivity. Indeed, for all of the dazzling speed and fireworks of notes, especially in the Vine piece, it was Linaksita's contemplativeness and patient listening in the slower passages that I was most captivated by. She held the sustaining pedal at the end of Chang's piece for so long that at first I thought she had forgotten the next movement. But, no, she was just waiting for the music and her instrument to tell her--and us--when it had finished sounding.

Liam Hockley is completing his PhD in clarinet performance, and like Linaksita is an amazing solo artist whose interests range across classic and contemporary repertoires. In terms of the latter, Hockley's first set featured new work by Michelle Lou, Ray Evanoff, and Wolf Edwards. Lou's telegrams called for a tin can to be placed in the bell of Hockley's bass clarinet, and additionally sent sounds reverberating throughout the Fox via bluetooth technology. Edwards' Um allein zu kämpfen was a version of anarchist metal clarinet. It was sound unlike anything I'd ever heard that instrument produce, and it was amazing. Following intermission, Hockley returned to play the North American premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen's FREIA. He did so in three iterative poses: sitting cross-legged on the stage; kneeling; and finally standing up.

The evening concluded with the world premiere of SCA MFA alum and current collaborator Nancy Tam's Walking at Night By Myself, an eight-channel surround-sound composition performed by Tam and Anjela Magpantay that also features an amazing projection design by Daniel O'Shea and a movement score dramaturged by Lexi Vajda. All of this comes together in the following way. Tam and Magpantay, wearing striped dresses, stand on wired pads. Their movements to the right and left, backwards and forwards, trigger different sound loops based on Tam's field recordings. We hear footsteps and the whoosh of traffic and other ambient noises, which are in turn manipulated, distorted and overlain with electronic music recorded in the studio. As the performers are moving, O'Shea's strobe-like projections outline, shade, and travel up and down and across their bodies, sometimes isolating body parts, at other times doubling and tripling profiles and silhouettes. For example, there is a moment when Magpantay, at this point alone on stage, repeats back and forth what appears to be a simple quarter turn, her body at once moving into and out of, with and against, the luminous vertical white lines O'Shea is just then sending across the stage. The effect put me in mind of Michael Snow's iconic "Walking Woman" series, reappropriated here as a reminder of what it means for a woman of colour to walk by herself at night. As with everything Tam does, the piece is just not just an amazingly thoughtful merging of different disciplines, but also an immersive sensory performance that forces you to think.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Explanation at The Cultch

Fresh off a standout performance in the Arts Club's recent production of Jitters (which I blogged about here), James Fagan Tait premiered his new play, The Explanation, at The Cultch's Culture Lab last night. Tait, who also directs this frank theatre production, highlights in his program notes the rather ironical premise of what is his first queer-themed show: how two straight men should end up married to each other.

Wearing a black wig, miniskirt, and combat boots, John (Kevin MacDonald), begins the account with a long opening monologue about how he started dressing up in women's clothes. The wondrous discovery of his inner femininity in a Value Village changing room occasions in John more than a simple outward transformation. While it's not always clear that it's being done consciously, Tait is deft in these opening passages in telegraphing some of the paradoxical non-alignments of gender expression and sexual identification. Which is also to say that when John puts on women's clothes, feminist solidarity doesn't automatically usurp a sense of masculine entitlement. For example, after he starts venturing out in public cross-dressed, John tells us he likes that men are staring at his ass, the sense of power this gives him--which is, on one level, just a reinforcing of the power he already had. And while he begins by correcting himself whenever he refers to himself as a "girl," amending this to "woman," eventually this pretence is dropped and thereafter John takes special delight in self-identifying as a "big ol' girl."

Eventually John, who lives in Burnaby, starts venturing downtown to the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library every Saturday in drag. (The timeframe of the play is a little fuzzy; there are several references to "pre-Yaletown" Vancouver, but other descriptions suggest that the VPL central branch being referred to is the one now at Homer and Robson.) On one such Saturday, while browsing among the Literature DVDs section, John meets Dick (Evan Frayne), who tells us in his opening monologue that when he first spied John he immediately thought: "This is the kind of woman who would go out with me." So Dick asks John to coffee and John says yes and in that moment Dick discovers that John is a man. But they have coffee anyway and the awkward thrill of this semi-public conversation liberates an additional something in each of them, which is how they end up dancing at a gay club on Davie Street later that night. Here, with the aid of Noam Gagnon's perfectly calibrated choreography, which mixes Dick's awkward straight white man's shuffle with John's unleashing of his inner diva, the two men cement their bond (James Coomber's on point sound design also helps to add great comic texture to these scenes). Soon a regular Saturday routine is established and a relationship is formed.

For questions of sexual identity and conjugality aside, what we are witnessing over the course of the play is at base the slow and by no means always smooth formation of a deep affective bond, and one that completely blows up the typical conventions of the bromance genre. Which is partly why I was disappointed in the rather conventional ending to the play. When, after mixing up their regular weekend pattern by having Dick cross-dress instead of John, the two men have drunken sex together, a crisis of identification threatens to destroy their friendship: are they gay, the two men muse separately to the audience. And does that even matter? Sorting through these questions, the men discover that they do in fact want to be together, including sexually. But not including drag. The final image is of John and Dick, dressed in suits, telling us not just that they've gotten married, but also that they've adopted two children. In its aping of what queer sociologist Lisa Duggan has diagnosed as the new "homonormativity," this scene actually entrenches the heternormative foundations of the two men's identities.

John and Dick were far more radical queer outlaws in their single days dancing up a storm in women's clothes.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Dorrance Dance at the Vancouver Playhouse

Last night DanceHouse's 2017/18 season concluded with a triple bill by Dorrance Dance, the award-winning tap company overseen by the choreographer and artistic director Michelle Dorrance. I was a bit dubious about sitting through 75 minutes of continuous tap, my usual threshold for the form being a few minutes of thematically juxtapositional razzle-dazzle within an otherwise rigorously contemporary work (as in DanceHouse's previous presentation of Betroffenheit), or else the paced out show-stopping routines of classic musical theatre (e.g. 42nd Street). But it seems that Dorrance's MacArthur Genius Grant is well-earned. Her aesthetic is one that marries deep respect for tap's history and traditions with a desire to push the form technically and conceptually.

This means, among other things, challenging the notion that it is only the soles of a tap shoe that can produce sound. In the opening number on last night's program, Jungle Blues, I was absolutely floored (the metaphor seems appropriate) when one of the company dancers first dragged the tops of their shoes along the parquet floor, producing a noise like a needle scraping across a vinyl record, and sending a corresponding shiver of delight down my spine. In this ensemble piece, set to a classic song by Jelly Roll Morton, the dancers alternate between unison choreography and character-based solo improvisations, with Dorrance herself playing up a gangly white-girl persona, all ungraceful angles and splayed knees. But my eyes were mostly on everyone's feet, watching how long someone's remained on demi-point (and sometimes full-on point), how often another's buckled over onto their sides, and so on.

If classic tap is all about the syncopated relationship between rhythm and gravity, such that we are made to marvel at how a person doing a freewheeling, double wing step, with both arms likewise windmilling the air, is able to remain upright, Dorrance is not afraid to push those limits--literally floorward. Her tap choreography is most interesting when it explores the off-axis and when, in doing so, it traces a genealogy between tap and a more contemporary form like break-dancing. This came to the fore especially in the concluding piece on the program, Myelination, which is an anatomical term that refers to the maturation and sheathing of nerve cells, allowing nerve impulses to travel more quickly. One can see how this applies to the hyper-kineticism of tap, but in this 30 minute piece with live music Dorrance also demonstrates its relevance to B-boying. Two of her dancers alternate between tap shoes and high tops, and some of the most innovative choreography relates to a sequence of intertwined prone legwork between this pair.

In between these pieces, Dorrance programmed a short but deeply affecting trio, Three to One, featuring herself and dancers Byron Tittle and Matthew "Megawatt" West. It begins with the three dancers, dressed in matching black cloth garments, standing side by side in a rectangle of downstage white light. Dorrance, wearing tap shoes, is positioned between the two men, who are both barefoot. As Dorrance begins to shuffle and click her feet together, almost like Dorothy seeking to return to Kansas from Oz, the men also start to move, sometimes falling into step with Dorrance, at other times breaking into quick, darting contraction and release movements of the hips and torsos and legs that are reminiscent of traditional African dance. Indeed, it is hard--especially once the two men exit the stage and Dorrance continues with a virtuosic solo that sees her alternate between retreating into the darkness of upstage and reemerging into the downstage light--not to read this work as an express comment on the specific African-American lineage of tap, as well as of so much American social dance more generally (from jive to hip hop).

This is hardly surprising coming from a choreographer as intelligent as Dorrance, who in addition to her years of tap training also designed her own undergraduate curriculum at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. According to Wikipedia, her courses focused on concepts of race in America in relation to democratic culture. If you're going to devote your life to reclaiming and celebrating tap as a form, this makes total sense.