Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name

Once again something smells in this province. As Premier Gordo undertakes yet another cabinet shuffle in a desperate bid to shore up some shred of his party's dwindling popularity, news not only that Kevin Krueger is out as Minister of Tourism, Culture, and the Arts (welcome), but that the ministry itself has been renamed--it's now the Ministry of Community, Sport, and Cultural Development (which is perhaps not so welcome).

Read the details here.

It's not just that art has been banished altogether in this new moniker; it's also that whatever might be meant by the at once overly capacious and hopelessly vague category of "cultural development" comes a distant third in this catch-all ministry's apparent list of duties and priorities.

Add to that a first-time cabinet minister, Stephanie Cadieux, who is quoted on page 4 of the print edition of today's Vancouver Sun as being a bit "trepidatious" about her new job, and members of the BC arts community have yet more grounds to be worried about the direction of this government.

When is the next election, again?


The Suburban Vote

Is there any greater argument against metropolitan amalgamation than the election last night of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto? First Mel Lastman, and now this?!

And I thought Michael Bloomberg buying a third term in New York was a travesty of civic politics.

As Torontonians were going to the polls to cast the majority of their votes for Ford, Naheed Nenshi was being sworn in as the first visible minority (and Muslim) mayor of Calgary. Poor Toronto, we hardly knew you...


Micro Setting, Macro Sound

Last night Richard and I experienced a performance straight out of the 18th century. We attended a concert of the newly formed string quartet Microcosmos (Marc Destrubé, first violin; Andrea Siradze, second violin; Tawnya Popoff, viola; and Peggy Lee, cello) at the home of our neighbours, Martin Gotfrit and Patricia Gruben.

I have never listened to any kind of live music in so intimate a setting, let alone a chamber form whose sound palette is so ideally suited to the salon. Sitting directly behind violist Popoff, and within spitting distance of cellist Lee, the evening's repertoire provided the best kind of aural shock therapy: a gradual dark descent with Shostakovitch's String Quartet No. 1, followed by the pulsating, buzz saw awakening of R. Murray Schafer's String Quartet No. 1, and then finally the aggregate and richly atonal chromaticism of Bartok's String Quartet No. 1.

The six quartets composed by Bartok will in fact form the core of Microcosmos' repertoire as they present similar programs at equally intimate venues over the coming year. As last night's program notes assert, the group "takes advantage of the compactness and portability of the string quartet--four chairs and adequate light are all that is required."

Plus, of course, available ears. Do lend them yours.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Torn Curtains

It was a gorgeous, sunny Thanksgiving Sunday yesterday, and I spent much of the afternoon in a darkened theatre. Not, as originally planned, at the Granville 7 watching another VIFF offering. Instead, I decided at the last minute to catch the final performance of The Electric Company's acclaimed play Tear the Curtain! at the Stanley, in a co-production with the Arts Club and the 2010 Cultural Olympiad.

My choice of live theatre over mediated film is of course the very subject of ECT's brilliant show. The piece is at once an historical exploration of the economics of entertainment specific to the Stanley's original construction--when vaudeville stages were being cast aside in favor of cinemas, which in turn had to be retrofitted to show the new talking pictures then eclipsing the theatricality of silent movies--and a philosophical meditation (mostly via Antonin Artaud) on both the power and the limits of each medium to awaken and engage its audience's senses. That the production itself, in form and content, seemed to make some very definitive choices of its own in terms of the prioritization of media surprised me.

First the praise: Vancouver audiences are unlikely to see anything so technically accomplished and intelligently conceived on local stages this fall (although I may eat my words after Brief Encounter at the Playhouse). The interplay between filmed and live sequences was literally seamless, and the sheer inventiveness by which the former were projected (on screens, scrims, and even David Roberts' magnificent set) kept astounding. Kim Collier's direction also drew out the site-specificity of the piece, using actors' entrances and exits, in particular, to play with the Stanley's proscenium, incorporating or excluding the live audience into the (mediated) mise-en-scène as the situation dictated. Finally, the entire company was in top form, equally comfortable on stage and on screen. Laura Mennell, as femme fatale Mila, and Dawn Petten, as loyal girl friday Mavis, were especially impressive.

Now the critique: Tear the Curtain! does not, it seems to me, challenge the binary between film and theatre (at least not in the way other ECT shows have, particularly No Exit). Rather it maintains, and even reinforces that binary--at times in some ideologically disturbing ways. Not only does the play's plot (which, for all the curve balls it throws us, is fairly conventional) resolve itself in favor of the soporific effects of Hollywood romanticism; its blending of filmic and live theatrical effects mostly unspools as a form of continuity editing, with progressivist and predominately linear match cuts between the two trumping those moments when their coming together was more engagingly juxtapositional (as when, in a favourite moment of mine, Mavis drives Jonathon Young's Alex across the stage in a makeshift Model T, while a projected rear screen backdrop moves behind them).

My bigger problem is that the case for the theatre--which, don't get me wrong, is there--is made almost as an inside joke, with winking references to Peter Brook (the Empty Space Society) and Philip Auslander (the television set's "liberation"/remediation of theatre in the end only a red herring) presented for the cognoscenti, but otherwise not fully elaborated in terms of a theory of either theatrical liveness or sensory and political "aliveness." A telling moment, in this regard, is when jaded theatre critic Alex, equal parts amanuensis and usurper of local artistic visionary Stanley Lee (James Fagan Tait), delivers his/Stanley's Artaud-inspired manifesto in favour of a new kind of total theatre. At the end of his oration, the house lights come up and Alex comes to the downstage lip, acknowledging the felt connection between audience and actor that can only come through live performance: "You are here," he says. "Here you are."

Too often, however, it felt like the audience's only available response to the material was "Where are they?," so relentlessly are we buffeted back and forth between virtual and embodied actors, not to mention the representational telos specific to each medium. For André Bazin, that telos in film has, ever since the camera began to move, been realism--but a realism that, in the words of another French film theorist (Christian Metz), is doubly imaginary (in the sense that what is imaginary masquerades as real). By contrast, even the "bourgeois" theatre that Mila and her revolutionary cronies in the ESS decry acknowledges its constructedness, makes visible in greasepaint and in costumes and in wires and in different-hued specials its status as a representation. For theorists from Plato to Michael Fried this very artificiality condemns the theatre to corrupting inauthenticity, and its audiences to slavish worshippers of false idols. But for artist-theorists like Brecht and Artaud, among other members of the European avant-garde who borrowed extensively from non-Western traditions, the theatre's codified and anti-mimetic properties also make it the ideal form to make an assault on representationality itself. (This included linguistic representationality, and a further irony of a play that takes Artaud, and his anti-textual bias, as a guiding light, is that it is incredibly wordy, Young and Kevin Kerr's script clocking in at well over 2.5 hours. I had the same complaint about Studies in Motion--it was just too long.) Moreover, they trusted their audiences enough not just to weather this assault, but to actually welcome it.

Would that ECT, in putting together Tear the Curtain!, placed more trust in their audiences to follow Alex beyond the threshold of the new theatrical experience he quite literally brings them to the very edge of. Instead, theatre is presented as a cordon sanitaire, a form of cultural capital that, as businessman and impresario Patrick Dugan (Gerard Plunkett) suggests, is meant to keep the riff-raff out. Whereas film emerges as the medium with which the masses can, again quite literally, most identify. Thus, the piece ends with Alex and Mavis, now a happy couple after the faithful secretary has helped the troubled critic find his "real" self, seating themselves amongst us in the audience, and then staring contentedly up at their screen surrogates.

Romantic, yes. Radical, no.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

You Are Here

Last night at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby Crystal Pite presented her company Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM in a Mixed Repertoire of works in progress. It was a rare opportunity to see the acclaimed local dancer-choreographer not just talking about, but actively soliciting feedback on, four pieces she's currently building as part of a full-length evening of dance called The You Show. That show will premiere next month at the Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt, which has stepped in where no Canadian institution or government agency has, and provided Pite and her company with a two-year residency to create new work. Thereafter, the show will tour, eventually ending up back in Vancouver at The Cultch in May.

But audiences this week at the Shadbolt were treated to a sneak peek in an intimate studio setting. Even better, a visibly pregnant Pite was on hand to chat with the audience and welcome commentary on the work in between pieces.

Pite introduced the evening's program by saying that the idea behind The You Show was to think about how one would compose works of dance in the second person, and how this might in turn enable audience members to locate themselves in a dancer's movements, and see their own stories and conflicts and losses reflected in the physically embodied language on stage. Her basic architecture for each piece is the duet, and the evening began with the only previously performed piece in the repertoire, "A Picture of You Falling," created in 2008 for Anne Plamondon and Peter Chu. Both dancers were back together on stage last night, and as precise and articulate as ever in their telegraphing not just of Pite's deconstructionist choreography, but of the narrated text (written by Pite) to which that movement is con-/dis-joined: "This is a picture of you falling--knees, hip, hands, elbows, head." Continuing Pite's fascination with the body's marionette-like qualities, the collapsings and strivings of which we are not always the agent (see Dark Matters, which also featured Chu as the puppet-master who comes to be controlled by his creation), the work establishes the leitmotif for the evening, which Pite has elsewhere described as a "kinesthetics of rescue," and which we might translate here as finding the you in me (and vice-versa).

That process can involve a descent to some very dark places, as the second piece in the program demonstrated. Going back and forth for the time being between two possible titles--"The Brother You Thought You'd Lost" or "The Other You"--Pite paired longtime collaborator Eric Beauchesne with new company member Jiří Pokorný in a study of increasingly high stakes brinksmanship and animal aggression that culminates in a surprisingly tender pas de deux to Moonlight Sonata. Afterwards, Pite said that she had no idea she would end up choreographing to that piece of music, but that when it became clear she would, she felt the prelude to it had to be even darker, in order to "earn," in her words, the romantic climax.

Then came an untitled work for Cindy Salgado and Yannick Matthon that began with an image of shattering glass, to which Pite then asked longtime musical collaborator Owen Belton to compose a score. Intensely physical and featuring an amazing lighting design by Robert Sondergaard, this was the one work of the evening that Pite herself labelled still unfinished. In the feedback she solicited, I couldn't help much with the movement, but I did, as per her instructions, suggest a title: "Pieces of You" is perhaps a bit kitschy and cliched, but she promised to write it down.

Finally, the evening concluded with the longest work, "A Picture of You Flying." It begins with dancer Jermaine Spivey sitting on a chair (!) talking to the audience about sacrifice, strength, endurance, the body's armor, and the physical and mental toll exacted by his line of work. At first you think this is a bit of self-reflexive commentary on his profession as a dancer, especially when he mentions the drawbacks of wearing tights. But then he lifts his pant leg to reveal a bit of red lycra underneath. And then dancer Sandra Garcia picks a bit of red cloth up from the floor and wraps it around Jermaine's neck, like a cape. When he mentions flying, you know he's talking about being a superhero, not a dancer. But then, as this piece (and others by Pite) reveals, what precisely is the difference?

In this 35-minute work, Pite has a great deal of fun playing with various iconic poses and movement imagery associated with comic book superheroes, and their related pop culture offspring. There's a lot of slow motion "ka-pow!" sequences and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger moves. And the highlight is the Transformer-esque duet between Spivey and Garcia, these two friend-foes and possible lovers raised aloft, their arms and legs and heads shielded and manipulated by other company members as they dance/fight to the death--or sheer exhaustion. But, again, as Pite's work repeatedly suggests, what's the difference?

All in all, a thrilling evening of dance. I can't wait to see the finished work next May.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Getting Angry at VIFF

Although Reginald Rose's play Twelve Angry Men (itself adapted from Rose's own 1954 teleplay for CBS Studio One) was revived successfully on Broadway in 2004, most of us are probably more familiar with Sidney Lumet's 1957 movie version, starring Henry Fonda as the famously dissenting juror. A classic liberal drama about prejudice and society's quickness to judge (the accused is Spanish-American), the play and film also function as sharp allegories of the intersection between class and masculinity in 1950s Cold War America.

Now imagine transporting all of that to a prison in Lebanon. The documentary 12 Angry Lebanese, which I saw yesterday at the Vancouver International Film Festival, chronicles director Zeina Daccache's year-long project working with 45 inmates in Lebanon's Roumieh Prison on a staging of Rose's play. A proponent of drama therapy as a way of transforming the lives of disadvantaged and marginalized individuals, Daccache is at once an inspiring human being and a terrifying theatre director, cajoling, haranguing and generally browbeating a motley collection of "murderers, drug dealers, and rapists" into putting on a production that is not merely competent but artistically rewarding for audiences and actors alike. In so doing, she manages not just to effect concrete social reform (in helping to jumpstart a stalled bill on early prison release), but also to restore a sense of purpose and self in her actor-inmates' lives, some of whom are serving life sentences or even sitting on death row.

But what is so amazing about the film record of this journey is that it gives equal weight to the social message and the artistic process, juxtaposing interviews with the prisoners' about their lives and the galvanizing effects of Daccache's production with fascinating scenes of the men rehearsing Rose's play and building additional elements for the larger evening's performance, of which the play will serve as the climax. To this end, the men work with Daccache in developing individual monologues about their lives and the crimes they committed, original music to accompany the production, dance and movement sequences, and even a bit of drag. Throughout, Daccache is solicitous and stern, funny and fierce, tender and terrifying in equal measure. She's not afraid to yell at her actors until they get their line readings right, nor even to fire one of them two weeks before they open because of his inability to commit to the project one hundred percent. And then there's the scene when she learns that Mustafa, who is to play Juror #5, has been released from prison--five days before they open! As much as she's elated for Mustafa, there's the little matter of finding a replacement. She calls on Capo, who up to this point has remained somewhat apart from the proceedings, only willing to take on a backstage role. That Daccache not only convinces Capo to agree to the part, and to memorizing his lines with the aid of his cellmate at night, but further solicits from him a bravura performance, is a testament to her uncompromising vision. As the VIFF program guide puts it, Daccache essentially is the star of her own documentary.

If I see nothing else of any note at this year's Festival, this film alone has made the experience truly memorable.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Of Parks and Musical Recreation

The best recent satire of municipal politics and competing Vancouver lifestyles is playing through to October 17 at Langara College's Studio 58, and best of all, you can hum along.

The Park is an original musical by Benjamin Elliott, Hannah Johnson, and Anton Lipovetsky about Vancouver's oasis of green in the West End, Stanley Park. It began life as a one-act collection of songs that premiered last spring, and has since evolved into a classic two-act musical comedy that weds the signature elements of the genre (including a central boy-girl romance and its impediments) to a bit of local colour. Add a firecracker cast having goofy fun with every outsized stereotype they're asked to incarnate and punchy lyrics dripping with irony, and you have a recipe for a hit. Can a summer run at Malkin Bowl be far behind? The setting would be appropriate.

The story pits tree-hugging environmentalist Geena (Amy Hall-Cummings) against the dastardly Gabriel Fines (Dustin Feeland), a developer who, in the words of Joni Mitchell, wants "to pave paradise and put up a parking lot." Caught in the middle is the hapless John Bristle (Joel Ballard), a Parks Board employee who pines for Geena from afar and who, in a fit of pique after receiving a pink slip from the city, is tricked into signing a petition supporting Gabriel's plans. When Geena starts a rival petition to save the park, John joins her fight in an attempt to woo her. But things go south in parkland when Geena learn that John's name is the first one on Gabriel's petition. That's the one that ends up receiving the blessing of the city's "President," a yoga-addicted, bicycle-driving, juice-swilling pretty boy who plays both sides of the development/environmental divide with equal charm, and who will have you doing double-takes about some of Mayor Robertson's kookier ideas. (Suffice to say that Geena's Chicken Waltz number will have you rolling in the aisles.)

As does the current administration occupying City Hall, and the musical deus ex machina ending--which sees Gabriel's former radical environmental activist parents talking their son out of his plans by offering him a job at their sustainable forestry business--is an apt allegory for a city that wants its cake green, but to eat it too.

Again, the entire cast is top-notch, but kudos must especially go to the male leads, Ballard and Freeman, who play off each other perfectly. Musically, the score mixes classic show tunes with rap and hip hop, and even barbershop, all to great effect. Elliott on keyboards and Lipovetsky on guitar, together with Specer Schoening on drums, make a crackerjack three-piece orchestra.

I can't wait for this creative team's next offering. Might I suggest something around the Olympics and the whole Athletes' Village debacle? With Millennium only yesterday defaulting on their loan, the provincial government rejecting all three social housing bids, and the City now scrambling to rescue the whole project, what could be more timely or topical?