Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Random Thoughts on Performance in the Age of COVID

I hadn't anticipated writing a "performance in the time of COVID" blog post, especially on a site that's supposed to be retired. But this past Sunday afternoon's live-streamed all-request concert by local legend Veda Hille has prompted me to weigh in--if only to work through my own wildly shifting performative responses to some of the effects of this pandemic. As one of the more personal of those effects has been a temporary stymying of my ability (or desire?) to write (beyond the heaps of emails and memos and letters that have proliferated as a result of my administrative position at SFU), at the very least the following will hopefully prove a useful exercise in translating the jumble of my thoughts into slightly more coherent prose (though, no promises).

Like many the world over, I have spent the last ten weeks consuming a lot of online performance. Some of it has been fantastic, as in the case of Theatre Complicité's Encounter, in which the amazing binaural sound design seems especially suited to this headphones-wearing moment of Zoom videoconferencing--where the fixed perspectivalism of visual space has been replaced by the immersive absorption of acoustic space (that last bit of McLuhanism was mostly for Richard, but I defy anyone in a Zoom meeting of more than four to figure out instantly where to look when someone is speaking in Gallery view). But for every transportive experience like Encounter there have been reams of dreary live-streamed staged readings of cancelled productions; no matter how important or laudable the message of these works, they can't really compete with the medium (okay, that's it, I promise, but really there's a qualitative difference--including which is better suited to telling a story--between a podcast and a YouTube tutorial).

Which brings me to Sunday's concert, "Veda Hille Haunts The Cultch." Organized through Dan Mangan and Laura Simpson's Side Door Productions, the event was broadcast live from The Cultch's Historic Theatre via Zoom. Beyond the fact that it was Veda, and that she was at the top of her game in terms of singing and piano playing and storytelling, for me performer-audience intimacy transcended to a certain degree the live-digital divide by making this an all-request concert. You could email Veda your favourite songs from her catalogue, and even the odd cover suggestion, and she would draw titles from a hat (actually a coral-coloured water pitcher that sat atop her grand piano), or else spin a hand-made wheel of fortune on which several additional requested songs had been listed. When Veda picked a song and read out who had requested it (which was often more than one person), the chat box--which was lively throughout--would light up with comments and emojis, and following this thread was as entertaining as watching Veda sing. As exemplary, however, was how Mangan and his production team were able to capture the eventness of the event through their savvy camerawork. Two cameras were trained on Veda, and cut between close-ups of her singing and talking and of her fingers on the keyboard. But there was also another bird's eye view of the venue, and whenever the camera cut to this angle, I got a shivery feeling, both in the sense of momentarily feeling like I was there at the back of the house along with Veda and her crew and also perceiving a pang at the otherwise empty auditorium (and one can only note the material significance of that emptiness for Veda, who would otherwise have been performing to packed houses with a scheduled tour of her knock-out show Little Volcano, which premiered at the PuSh Festival this past January). Then, too, there were those moments--one coming during Veda's beautiful rendition of one of the songs that I had requested (Yaz's "Only You")--when Mangan cut to a montage of the screens of the online audience, which prompted enthusiastic waves and cheering, and very occasionally some displays of frolicsome exhibitionism.

Not that the success of this event has made me a full-fledged devotee of the digital dissemination of live performance. I've spent too much time looking at a screen over the past two months to accede willy-nilly to the many possibilities afforded by live-streaming (including affordability and accessibility). At the same time, I don't want to essentialize or romanticize the special co-presence between performer and spectator that supposedly comes with a live performance event. As much as sheltering in place has taught me that, introvertedly inclined though I be, I actually crave and need the company of others--especially to witness and talk about art--I find the instant nostalgia for "how things were" in theatre and performance to be specious. As many of us know, there were/are a lot of things wrong with standard performance production and presentation models, and the following debate articulated here and here about the "forgotten arts" of assembly and disassembly as they relate to the theatre is instructive about divisions within the broader global community. I am not taking a stand one way or another. These past few months I have gorged on iconic shows I would not otherwise have been able to see (hello Pina Bausch's Palermo, Palermo!), and as an educator I find video documentation of live performance to be incredibly valuable pedagogically (and our students at the School for the Contemporary Arts, seeing their scheduled end-of-semester productions and exhibitions and graduation projects evaporate one after another have adapted to various digital platforms with grace and wit and incredible ingenuity). But I also know that after all of this is over I also want to gather with others and share in all of the embodied rituals--from hugs in a crowded lobby to the sharing of laughter and applause--that come with attending (and tending to) live performance. Another thing I know, however, is that some companies may not have the means post-COVID to issue such an invitation, and so digital modes of production and dissemination might become key to survival. I refuse to make predictions or recommendations. There are too many prognosticators taking up too much space already as a result of this crisis, one that we're still very much in the middle of.

Incidentally, those two links on assembly and disassembly that I mention in the preceding paragraph came to me via an online conversation organized two weeks ago by P. Megan Andrews as part of her residency at The Dance Centre. She asked Justine A. Chambers, Olivia C. Davies, Vanessa Goodman, and Erika Mitsuhashi to talk about the "shift to the digital" in relation to their own practices. The conversation was wide-ranging and lively: how some folks were adapting in terms of projects and teaching and taking class, whether out of necessity or desire; and how others were hitting pause, using the radical stillness and enforced house arrest and new kinds of social choreography that have been imposed on their moving bodies (and the movement of bodies more generally) to ask deeper questions of their practice, their previous ways of making, and where they might want to go/what they might want to do differently in the future. It was all done via Zoom, of course, and following the online choreography of the conversation was as captivating as that conversation's content.

But I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge that after I left said meeting (which seems like such a weird Zoom sign-off, given that I haven't really gone anywhere) I didn't grieve a little. I so miss the company of these smart women and pre-COVID we would ideally at this very moment be celebrating the publication of my book about the Vancouver dance community. It was scheduled to be released last week, and while copies have arrived at my publisher's warehouse (I've seen the photos of the physical copies, as the attached image attests), they have delayed distribution until August. By that time, I fear that what was meant to be a celebration of the vibrancy of the dance community will already read like a period piece. Lockdown came during the middle of VIDF and one by one, dance events in this city have been cancelled. As The Dance Centre and other spaces prepare to open their doors to limited use under enhanced protocols, I worry about the futures of so many of the artists and companies I love. I also lament that the Dance Studies Association Conference that I was organizing with Allana Lindgren and Ahalya Satkunaratnam for this October at SCA, and at which Olivia and Justine were to be featured performers/presenters, has had to be postponed; I was so looking forward to introducing the Vancouver dance community to international dance scholars and artists. At the same time (and to borrow from the theme of the conference, which should be back in 2022), I know this community is so resilient. Just look at Dumb Instrument Dance's Ziyian Kwan, whom I write about in my book, and who in her response to a rise in anti-Asian racism in the city has refused to be cowed, peacefully claiming her and others' just rights to assembly and movement.

So instead of moping about what might have been, here's to looking forward to when we can all gather and dance together again (in hot pink lycra, of course).


Saturday, February 15, 2020

taker at BoomBox

Never say never, I guess. A couple of weeks ago Billy Marchenski emailed me to see if I'd be interested in writing something about the new butoh-inspired work he and Molly McDermott were working on with their Japanese collaborator Daiichiro Yuyama. Something made me say yes, and so here we are, more than a year after saying goodbye to regular posts about what I was seeing locally in terms of performance, reviving my peculiar take on the scene. Let's hope I still have something interesting to say.

Billy and Molly are, of course, fixtures in the dance community, and have moved memorably together over many years as longtime Kokoro company members. Indeed, it was under those auspices, as part of a trip that Billy and Molly and Kokoro principals Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi took to Japan in 2016 to do a workshop with the butoh company Dairakudakan, that they met Daiichiro. The three hit it off, and decided to come together under the name gigamal to initiate a trans-national creative collaboration.

The result is taker, which was developed collectively in 2018 at the Caravan Farm Theatre, and which has additionally benefitted from the rehearsal direction of Alison Denham and the dramaturgy of Tomoya Tsujisaki. Though not conceived specifically for the space, the work seems particularly well-suited to BoomBox's semi-trailer confines, which I'm embarrassed to say I had not previously visited before last night. But waiting this long to trek down to Great Northern Way to huddle with friends behind a propane heater while sipping a cider sold to me by BoomBox Artistic Producer Diego Romero's mom did come with some benefits. These include the new, portable entrance steps that Diego ushered me up, an enhanced lighting and sound system, and the murals by Chris Bose that now adorn each side of the semi's interior. Reminiscent of cave paintings that leap with added allegorical intensity due to the shadows cast by the propane tank's flames, the decorated walls framed taker's metamorphotic story in particularly apt ways.

That story begins with Billy and Molly arising, as if magically from some primordial ooze, into the open west doorframe of the semi-trailer (a flipping, I was told, of the normal performance/audience configuration of the space). With their painted white faces, their stunned, unblinking eyes, their crouched poses, and the curling inwards of their arms and hands that accompanies their halting physical progress forward, we might think their butoh bodies are summoning for us an image of the first humans. Except that both Billy and Molly are dressed formally, in matching black slacks and white tops, and when they come to stop--Molly posed like an odalisque centre stage, Billy standing gravely behind her--we are arguably presented instead with a grotesque portrait of our contemporary late-capitalist selves, the good-looking couple whose backs are turned on the industrial wasteland that feeds their lifestyle.

That's when, peering into the void behind Billy and Molly, we notice another figure, perched on a mound outside the truck, and slowly starting to sway his body and flap his arms. This is Daiichiro, incarnating some kind of trickster figure, his body painted black (a visually powerful novelty for me, as I've been so trained to expect chalk-white bodies in butoh), his arms adorned with wings made of torn garbage bags, and sporting a red mask and beak. Inserting himself between Molly and Billy, Daiichiro's character moves like an unleashed id, sparking a transformation in our hitherto composed and kinetically contained couple. When, after Daiichiro's exit, Molly and Billy bend down to inspect a bit of plastic detritus left behind, they are hurtled literally backwards in space--and metaphorically in time.

Indeed, when next we see this pair they are clad only in traditional butoh fundoshis, their exposed white-painted bodies, joined by Daiichiro's black-painted one, now rawly attuned to the environment and the harshness of existence. This was represented most effectively for me when all three creators channeled through the language of butoh--already so attuned to states of extremity--various static poses of suffering. For example, lined up in a row with their backs to the audience, the trio at one point adopted different arm gestures that seemed to signify brokenness or confinement: Daiichiro bent at the waist, his arms crossed behind him; Billy's arms crossed above his head as if in crucifixion; and Molly's elbows bent above her mouth, her head thrown back in lamentation or horror. Working together as a single organism during this long middle sequence, the trio also interlaces their arms behind each other's heads, taking turns moving one or another's gaze this way and that as they explore this new strange world they find themselves in. Likewise, when on all fours the ensemble launches into a bit of counterpointed unison, a hand splayed first this way, then a hip that way, it put me in mind of a pack or a herd trying collectively to decide on which direction to move. The key is that this exploration is taking place together, and in relation to the environment, a concept that in the creators' notes on the piece they liken to foraging.

When, however, our trio rises up from the floor--an exquisitely slow and twisted and joint-by-joint vertical stacking of their bodies--something happens to change the dynamic of their relationship, a transition signalled by what appears to be the involuntary throwing of their bodies against the sides of the semi-trailer. Thereafter, they devolve into their own individual movement patterns, a sequence that culminates in another static freeze, but this time with the bodies of our performers at a noticeable remove from each other. This is the cue for Tomoya, who up until this point has been sitting with Diego at the control panel behind me, to make his way to the stage and, in his role as "curator," invite us to get up and inspect as closely as we wish each of the performers' bodies--as if they are anthropological specimens in a museum. Those bodies, however, will not remain frozen in time for us, and whether because of or in spite of our scrutinizing gaze, they once again start to move, making their way to where we had previously been seated, reprising a version of the piece's opening tableau--this time with Molly's odalisque perched on a bench and framed by Billy and Daiichiro hanging off of hooks on each wall.

But by flipping once again the performing and spectating spaces, the conclusion of taker also asks us to consider who, exactly, is on display--who is feeding on, or off, of whom? In terms of the ideas gigamal's team is exploring about humans' transition from foraging to scavenging, from sustaining what we need through environmental co-stewardship to extracting all that we want through individual ownership--here powerfully encapsulated in Billy's character's leaving behind of the prone bodies of Molly and Daiichiro (the woman and the man of colour)--this implicating of the audience in what we are taking away from this experience is one final satisfying moment in what is an incredibly smart and deeply thoughtful performance.

taker continues this evening at BoomBox. It will travel to Kyoto later this year, and we can look forward to a companion piece sometime next year. But maybe don't look forward to another blog post from me for awhile...


Monday, October 15, 2018

The Last Post (sort of)

I thought it was better to make an official announcement rather than just letting this blog go progressively fallow. After ten years and some 850+ posts, I am stepping away from uploading regular performance reviews to this site. The reason for this is simple: I no longer have the bandwidth to keep up with the task of responding in a thoughtful and meaningful way to all the shows that I see. My compulsive spectatorship of Vancouver performance will continue; I'm just relieving myself of the duty of writing about it.

This decision is freighted with a great deal of angst. I am well aware that public forums for arts and cultural criticism continue to diminish. It's why I started the blog in the first place--to give something back to a performance community that has given so much to me. I'm also conscious of the fact that I once wrote somewhere, in reference to precisely this act of reciprocity, that I could no more stop posting to this blog than I could give up my subscription to Ballet BC. The Ballet BC subscription is still intact, but the model of doing this off the side of my desk is no longer sustainable, especially when that desk is so cluttered with work from the institution that pays my salary (an institution, I note, that has never officially acknowledged the work I have done on this blog). Along these lines, it's instructive to me that the blog upon which I modelled my own, Jill Dolan's Feminist Spectator, has largely been dormant for the past three years, with only two posts (one of them a guest post by FS2 Stacy Wolf) since December 2015--which coincided with Jill becoming Dean of College at Princeton.

To be sure, I'm nowhere near as busy as Jill (nor has any major academic press rushed to publish a selection of my reviews--though I am, of course, open to offers...). But for my own sanity (not to mention the sake of my relationship), I am forswearing this form of criticism for the foreseeable future (say that six times fast). This does not preclude the occasional post here and there should the mood strike me, or should I be especially compelled by something I've seen. The past decade's regular cycle of morning-after reflections will, however, be retired.

To all my readers (all thirty-five of you), I thank you for your interest, and I invite those of you who might be so inclined, to consider making your own contributions to performance criticism in the city. To all the presenters out there, you can stop sending the email invites. I know I reneged at some point on my pledge always to pay for my own tickets, but now I will be returning to that principle, I swear. And, finally, to all of the artists whom I've written about: thank you for the complexity and the integrity and the generosity of your work. Please keep making more.

See you at the next show,


(P.S. And don't forget to vote!)

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Cain and Abel at The Firehall

Two men on stage: similar heights, similar complexions, slightly different builds, dressed exactly the same. Brothers, right? So we forgive their rough-housing. After all, aren't those pajama bottoms they're both wearing? Boys will be boys. Even when they grow into men and the horseplay turns more physical and the spelling of who plays victor and who victim is starkly represented for us in one standing over the prone body of another. It's nothing we haven't seen in MMA.

But what happens if you dress those boys up as girls? How do we read the sibling violence then? What kind of statements about gender and patriarchy are we being asked to contemplate? Such are the questions that form the heart of Cain and Abel, a new work of dance-theatre by The Biting School's Arash and Aryo Khakpour that is on at the Firehall Arts Centre through this evening.

It makes sense that the brothers Khakpour are drawn to the Biblical story of fratricide. Purely at a meta level, it allows them to explore--in highly physical and theatrical ways--both the differences and the overlaps in their respective training as dance artist (Arash) and theatre performer (Aryo). Professionally each has regularly crossed over into the other's discipline, and so I can imagine that over the years there have been more than a few conversations about who has booked a show and who hasn't. And yet, not withstanding individual set pieces and the structuring motif of repetition, this is not only a work about one-upmanship. For this particular take on Cain and Abel also happens to be read through Jean Genet's classic play about sisterly and sadomasochistic role-playing, The Maids.

At a certain point in the piece, having divided the stage in half with a bucket of stones, Arash and Aryo find themselves upstage, whereupon they enact for us the aforementioned victor/victim scenario, each taking turns lying under or standing over the other as they slowly move across the stage. Thereafter they remove their pajama bottoms and trainers and fetch from the clothes line in front of them the various accoutrements of a French maid's outfit: black pantyhose, black dress, white apron, and pick plastic gloves. What follows is a condensed--and, I must say, exceedingly compelling--run-through of the basic plot of Genet's play, with the object of the sisters' murderous fantasies, Madame, nicely represented by a white dress that descends from the ceiling.

But what could have been a confused mash-up of different stories of sibling rivalry is elevated to a timely comment on gendered violence by the repetition of the physical vocabulary that anchored the first half of the piece. All of sudden when we see one of the brothers/sisters lying prone on the floor with her skirt hiked above her waist we are reminded that women pay an unequal price for men's compensatory anxieties about how they measure up against each other. We have only to look at what the jockeying of a certain fraternity of male politicians is accomplishing south of the border this weekend to understand this, and as such the message of this bold work of hybrid performance couldn't be more relevant.


Saturday, September 29, 2018

CAGE at The Dance Centre

Katie Duck is a legend on the international dance and performance scene, known especially for her focus on improvisation, and for her canny combining of text, movement, sound, and visuals. All of those elements were present last night as she performed her show CAGE for one night only at The Dance Centre. The title is a nod to the composer John Cage, and especially to his practice of creating chance musical scores. For her performance, Duck has created a text structured around loosely connected disquisitions on place and institutional power, the pleasure of women's bodies, the reciprocity of love, and the sweet relief of death. A portable score that's supplemented by a few key props (a chair, several wigs, a long black dress) and a haunting washed-out video of Duck moving in slow motion towards a sunlit door that plays at the beginning and end of the piece, Duck then collaborates with local musicians and performers wherever she tours the work.

For her Vancouver stop, Duck's musical collaborators were Ben Brown on drums, kazoo, and hand-cranked music box, Roxanne Nesbitt on the double bass, and James Meger on electric guitar, looping pedals, and cello. All were perfect matches for Duck's antics, alternating in places as foils to what she was doing (as when Nesbitt challenged Duck about whether or not she could fill Meger's shoes) or as illustrative supplements (as when Brown jumped up from where he had been lying downstage to demonstrate what it would be like to carry a fetus in his penis).

As for Duck, she is an assured and inventive improvisor and an equally charismatic performer. There were times when in adapting the text to the local context of Vancouver, as at the very beginning when she talked about the need to make an acknowledgment regarding the land, that I thought things were going horribly wrong. But every time she managed to spin out another interesting and deliberately aslant point, in this case starkly calling out the fact of dispossession. Duck's costume changes were equally inspired. The long black dress she wears for the central monologue extolling the beauty and perfection of all vaginas becomes in subsequent sections a mini-skirt, a witch's hat, and an Abu Ghraib-style blackout bag covering her face as she slumps in her chair.

This last image precedes the ending of the piece, in which Duck invites her collaborators and also us in the audience to join her in a fictional death scene. Seeing Brown drape his body so dramatically over his drum kit was priceless and attests to the risks Duck is able to inspire in her fellow performers.


Thursday, September 27, 2018

Never Still at The Firehall

Fresh from the premiere of last year's Wells Hill, and with the aid of the Yulanda Faris Choreographers' Program, Vanessa Goodman and her company Action at a Distance opened the Firehall's 2018/19 season last night with another ambitious full-length creation. Never Still is about water: both the natural element that covers nearly 70% of the earth's surface and the physiological element that makes up over half of humans' bodies (the Borg to Captain Picard: "You bags of mostly water!"). Not that you need to know this to enjoy the work, and when the curtains parted and the lights came up on dancer Lexi Vajda jerking and twitching her limbs amid a sea of white Tyvek (ironically the material used to wrap houses in order to prevent water penetration) as fellow dancers Shion Carter, Stéphanie Cyr, Bynh Ho, and Alexa Mardon sunk their already partially immersed bodies deeper into its folds, I was actually put in mind of a waterless lunar landscape.

Albeit one that still ripples with movement: both from the submerged bodies that, over the course of Vajda's almost ten-minute solo, are slowly sending the Tyvek, like ebbing sea surf, upstage, and from the lighting and visual effects (courtesy of James Proudfoot and Loscil/Scott Morgan, respectively) playing across the Tyvek's surface. And I have to say that the monochromatic palette of the piece's design concept is truly compelling. When the other dancers emerge from underneath the Tyvek to join Vajda, we see that like her they are wearing baggy tennis whites; set against the projected black and white images of their floating bodies on the video that plays behind them (again by Loscil, featuring additional underwater footage by Ben Didier), the colourless blur of live bodies sets in motion Goodman's liquid choreography in a manner akin to beads of water on a flat, sloping surface--chasing after each other and occasionally forming into a single mass, but also breaking apart and hovering near each other in trembling anticipation. Such effects were especially brought to light in a duet between Cyr and Ho in which Goodman continues her experiments with non-touch partnering, and also in a group sequence in which all five dancers come together in a slowly shifting huddle, spelling the placement of each other's limbs and subtly changing their facings in a manner that challenges our conception of what is liquid and solid.

What I most appreciate about Goodman as an artist is that she creates complete performance environments. She is a choreographer of immense intelligence and talent, but she's equally interested in sound and lighting and visuals and design. With Never Still we get the integration of all of these elements into a work that while staged proscenium-style nevertheless feels immersive. I encourage folks to dive in.


Monday, September 17, 2018

The Mute Canary at SFU Woodward's

The Turning Point Ensemble's 2018-19 season opener was a program at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre that featured four works by the Czech-Canadian composer Rudolf Komorous. An added bonus was the screening of an opening short film commissioned by the Canadian Music Centre that contextualized Komorous's approach to music, and also his career as a faculty member in the School of Music at the University of Victoria, where he trained several of this country's most esteemed contemporary composers, including TPE Artistic Director Owen Underhill. As an illustrative and pedagogical tool I found the film's animation of several of Komorous's scores to be particularly effective, especially in explaining his method of spatial, or proportional, notation.

Three short works from the 60s through the 80s followed the film. In the first, Olympia, Underhill and Christopher Butterfield, from U Vic, sat on either side of a table filled with an assortment of instruments, some of them more or less recognizable (a melodica, a harmonica), some of them not (a flexatone, acolyte bells). With Butterfield having first set a stop watch, he and Underhill then combined the sounds made from these instruments into what was at once thoroughly strange and wonderfully surprising: who knew the flexatone made that kind of noise when waved in the air? How delightful to insert the nightingale whistle there! Fuman Manga, a woodwind quintet from 1981/85 followed. From a fluttery flute opening it gradually built in complexity, incorporating the deeper tones of the bassoon and french horn near the end in a way that jolted me out of my seat. This first half of the program culminated with 23 Poems about Horses, Komorous's setting of a suite of poems by the Chinese poet Li-He. The English translation of these poems was narrated by Butterfield as Underhill conducted the TPE musicians in another widely eclectic but sonically rewarding score.

Following intermission we were treated to Canadian premiere of a new chamber opera written by Komorous. The Mute Canary is based on a play by the Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes (in a translation by Butterfield) and received its world premiere earlier this summer at New Opera Days Ostrava in the Czech Republic. TPE was able to bring the Czech directors (Jan Horák and Michal Pĕchouček) and choreographer (Markéta Vacovská) to Vancouver for this restaging of the work, which features Alexander Dobson as the baritone Riquet, Anne Grimm as the soprano Barate, and Daniel Cabena as the countertenor Ochre. The deliberately non-sensical libretto largely revolves around a bored husband and wife: Riquet wants to go hunting, while Barate wants to know what time it is, while also decrying love and trying to entice Riquet, who is wont to hurl abusive epithets at her, to take notice of her. Into this dysfunctional relationship steps Ochre, a kind of satyr-figure (Cabena clops across the stage in cloven hooves and a swishy white tale). Barate is instantly smitten and wants to know his name; Ochre says he's the composer Gounod, which registers as equally strange to Barate and us in the audience. But then Dadaist operas aren't really supposed to make sense, are they? Much better to revel instead in the sensuous pleasures of the music and the staging, both of which are in this case simultaneously spare and lustrous. Watching Grimm make a perfect circle on the Wong stage floor with shaving cream was, as it were, the absurdist icing on this afternoon's delightful musical cake.