Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ga Ting at the Richmond Cultural Centre

Minh Ly's Ga Ting, a co-production by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and the frank Theatre Company that closes today after a very successful run at the Richmond Cultural Centre, is not your typical domestic melodrama. On a business trip to Toronto, the Caucasian Matthew (Michael Antonakos) visits Hong and Mei Lee (a perfectly cast BC Lee and Alannah Ong). The Lees are the Chinese parents of Matthew's dead boyfriend, Kevin, with whom he lived for three years in Vancouver. Matthew, excluded from Kevin's funeral, wants  some closure to his grief, and the Lees--or at least, Mei--wants to know more about Kevin's life with Matthew.

Alternating between Chinese and English surtitles, the play begins by exploiting over the meal Mei has prepared the awkwardness of the protagonists, upending various cultural stereotypes for comic effect. For example, the initially monosyllabic Hong baits Matthew about his gift of bamboo and even momentarily convinces him that he and his wife are Korean, before asking the mortified visitor if he sees any kimchi on the dinner table. Soon, however, things turn serious, as Matthew accuses the Lees of alienating their son by not supporting his choice of career as an artist, and by refusing to talk about his sexual orientation or his bipolar disorder. Hong, meanwhile, blames Matthew for Kevin's death by keeping him in Vancouver and introducing him to a depraved gay lifestyle (although never stated explicitly, it's implied Kevin has died of a drug overdose). Mei, meanwhile, attempts to mediate between these two hot-headed men, asking Matthew how he and her son met and chastising her husband for being so rude.

At times the circularity of these arguments can feel a bit static and repetitive, not helped by how long the trio sits at the dining room table. But Ly helps break things up structurally with occasional flashbacks, exploited nicely by director Rick Tae through lighting and sound effects: here we're filled in on some of the details of Matthew and Kevin's life together, as well as the depth and complexity of the Lees' love for their son.

Ly clearly struggled with how to end the play, and right now there are about four different dramatic climaxes, none of them entirely satisfactory. I would have left things with Matthew's gift of Kevin's painting--which, we're told, includes all present as part of Kevin's family, and which allows Hong to articulate just how talented was his son as an artist. But accompanying this is Matthew's revelation that just prior to Kevin's death, he had left him, unable to deal with his boyfriend's mood swings and drug use any further. This leads Mei, previously Matthew's ally, to swing over to her husband's side, in effect accusing Matthew of killing her son by not loving him enough. Dramatically I understand why this reversal of positions is there, especially when juxtaposed against the play's brief coda--which puts Matthew at Kevin's graveside sometime in the future, when relations with the Lees seem to have thawed, but which casts the Lees backwards into the past, when they first learn of Kevin's acceptance to art school in Vancouver. In the latter vignette, it is revealed just how proud both parents have always been of their son; but we also learn that it is Hong, and not Mei, who first intuits Kevin is gay.

I appreciate the way in which this helps to redeem Hong's character, hitherto in danger of seeming a one-note patriarch. But it feels that this comes at the expense of Mei's character, and the way in which she turns on Matthew seems a bit dishonest to me.

That said, Ga Ting is still a very affecting play, with much to say to multiple communities about who and what constitutes a family.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

S'envoler at VIDF

I regret that for various reasons I have not been able to attend more of this year's Vancouver International Dance Festival. Last night Richard and I finally got to our first show. S'envoler, which has one final performance at the Roundhouse this evening, is choreographed by Estelle Clareton, in collaboration with Kathy Casey's Montréal Danse. Originally created four years ago with the research and performance participation of twelve dancers, this version features ten, including Clareton herself.

Inspired by the migratory patterns of birds, Clareton structures the work around the spatial and kinesthetic motifs of group and solo movement patterns and shapes. The dancers begin in a tightly massed clump, twitching and fluttering across the stage, a head or a hand occasionally poking out. The clump eventually unfolds into a horizontal line, birds on a wire who jostle and bump into each other and shift positions in a comical version of an avian chorus line. Three of the dancers break away to form a trio, which unleashes different versions of individual and partnered flight in the rest of the group, the stage now a riot of restless, venturesome bodies that come together and move apart in ways that are at once intensely physical and surprisingly tender.

In the talkback following last night's performance Clareton remarked on the relationship between set movement structures and improvisation in the piece, noting that while most of the work is choreographed, within different sections the dancers are free to explore their own expressive impulses. This keeps things fresh and alive, but also helps to advance Clareton's conceptual and practical goals of exploring the relationship between the individual and the group, as out of the chaos and jumble of distinct phrasings and eccentric gestures will suddenly emerge a gorgeous bit of unison.

Clareton and the dancers also talked about the two rubber boots filled with water that lead to the work's slip-and-slide finale. Clareton said that she knew early on she wanted some representation of oceanic flight in the work. And the dancers talked about how, when it became clear they'd be moving on and through a wet surface, managing that risk simply became about mastering a new technique: how to weight one's body to move safely, what to do at the end of a slide, etc. A fascinating glimpse into the creation of a very rare bird.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lowest Common Denominator at PAL

Thanks in no small measure to a tour de force performance by Deborah Williams, Dave Deveau's Lowest Common Denominator is a tsunami of a play, alternately buoying and buffeting its audience with wave upon wave of roiling action and intense emotion.

In this Zee Zee Theatre production directed by Cameron Mackenzie, and on at the PAL Theatre until this Sunday, Williams plays Harmony, a 40-something divorced telemarketer raising her seventeen-year-old son, Trevor (Dallas Sauer), and tentatively re-entering the dating pool via an impromptu dinner with her new insurance agent, Peter (an affecting Shawn Macdonald). Harmony's confidence is momentarily shaken on both fronts when first her son (accidentally) and then Peter (clarifyingly) announces he is gay. But Harmony is nothing if not resilient, and soon all three characters find themselves back in her kitchen, very much in their respective cups (signature Harmony line: "They say you really have to meet a gay person to understand them and now, look, I've got two"). So far, so much fun. However, when Harmony, having earlier retired to bed, returns to find Trevor and Peter in a hot and heavy lip-lock, she instantly goes into lioness mode, warning Peter and, by extension, us in the audience that we have no idea what's coming next.

And, indeed, following a very tightly focused and almost classically Aristotelian first half (down to the more or less unified troika of time, place, and action), the second act gets decidedly surreal, opening with Harmony and Peter in caftans, straw hats and sunglasses, sipping from giant coconuts while relaxing on a beach. We soon learn that we're inside Harmony's head, a space to which we will return, and in which she and Peter, in between their improbable and hilarious banter, try to talk rationally about what's best for Trevor. I actually preferred these scenes to the realistic ones they punctuate, in which a year has passed and Trevor, now 18, pursues his liaison with Peter, despite the 30 year age difference. Eventually the two move in with each other, and after initially trying to reconcile herself to the situation, Harmony goes on the attack, threatening to out Peter as a pedophile unless he abandons the relationship.

In Deveau's hands, the battle over Trevor and his well-being is, mercifully, less of a moral issue (the rightness or wrongness of inter-generational sex) than an emotional one. Neither Harmony nor Peter want to be alone. The irony is that in doing battle with each other, they will both end up losing Trevor. My only problem with this equation as the play now stands is that Trevor, as currently written, is something of a cipher; we don't get enough sense of his own agency in making the choices he does and in Sauer's performance I unfortunately couldn't distinguish Trevor's devastation and sense of betrayal at being abandoned by Peter from his anger at his mother for trying to break them up: both come across as so much teenage petulance when, I think, we are meant to understand (at least as retailed by Peter) that Trevor is wise beyond his years.

In part this imbalance is because Harmony and Peter are so well-written and their scenes together--not least the ones inside Harmony's head--so believable. I'd kill to see the two of them reunited in another play set a few years in the future--maybe a reconciliation at Trevor's wedding. With the booze flowing freely again, and maybe a couple of additional characters, I can just imagine the possibilities.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A West Coast Macbeth

Sexy and conceptually innovative restagings of The Scottish Play seem to be all the rage these days. Sleep No More, Punchdrunk's immersive, film noir-style take, in which audience members follow different characters from room to room, is into its second year at a New York hotel. The National Theatre of Scotland did a one-man version of the play on Broadway last year starring Alan Cumming. And on through this Sunday at the Russian Hall on Campbell Street in Strathcona is To Wear a Heart So White, Leaky Heaven Circus' re-imagining of the text for our Coast Salish West Coast that is equal parts historical, liturgical, and scatological.

In the Shakespearean canon one thinks of The Tempest as the "postcolonial play"--as, indeed, it has been taken up in countless rewritings, including Aimé Césaire's classic Une Tempête. However Leaky Heaven director Steven Hill and his creative collaborators take as their starting point for this piece the fact that shortly after "discovering" our fair shores, Captain George Vancouver (along with Captain James Cook and others, one of several white colonial "ancestors" to whom we are invited to pay homage at the top of the show) and his crew staged as a little diverting theatrical entertainment for Indigenous locals a version of--you guessed it--Macbeth. Using Shakespeare in this way to reconfigure the colonial project not as a Prospero-like act of magic (e.g., the depopulating rhetorical sleight-of-hand that comes with declaring an inhabited region terra nullius) but as a calculated power grab and incredibly bloody conquest is a bold and fascinating move. As is the suggestion that the violence continues in and through Shakespeare's historical and contemporary (re)productions--from the various audio and video excerpts from past Macbeths to which the Leaky Heaven actors attempt to synch their performances to that species of local theatrical colonization that unfolds every summer in Vanier Park.

Plot-wise, To Wear a Heart So White condenses the action to the three characters of Macbeth (Alex Ferguson), Lady Macbeth (Lois Anderson), and Banquo (Sean Marshall, Jr.). And, taking a cue from Roman Polanski, the creative team does not stint on the gore. At the climactic banquet scene (generously laid to involve a portion of the audience), Banquo, oozing blood from the knife stuck in his back, serves a pig's head to the newly crowned king and queen, whom we see (via outsized pantomimed gestures) and hear (courtesy of Nancy Tam's brilliant sound design) gulping their wine and slurping their food with lustful abandon.

The play concludes with Ferguson's Macbeth accepting a bear's head from Marshall's Banquo, and being coaxed by Anderson's Lady Macbeth into taking to the proscenium stage with it (where several of the scenes, along with Parjad Sharifi's amazing projections, take place). Once on stage, Ferguson recites Macbeth's famous concluding soliloquy ("Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..."). Following a brief blackout, Marshall emerges with a step-ladder and squeegee, and as he appears to wipe down the condensation from the inside of the rain-swept windshield we see projected on the screen, Ferguson reappears from the stage's back safety door in full British naval regalia. A perfect synecdochic image linking our colonial past to our neoliberal present.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Helen Lawrence at the Stanley

Richard and I weren't planning to go to the Arts Club production of Helen Lawrence, on at the Stanley through mid-April. However, a pair of free tickets came our way and so we made a night of it. The experience confirmed my initial misgivings.

Conceived and created by Vancouver-based conceptual artist Stan Douglas, in collaboration with television writer Chris Haddock (Da Vinci's Inquest), the work combines live theatrical performance with real-time video projection and pre-recorded 3D imaging. Whereas the earlier Arts Club co-production at the Stanley, the Electric Company's Tear the Curtain!, had mostly cut between its live and mediated mise-en-scènes, Helen Lawrence attempts to superimpose them. On a mostly bare stage, behind a floor-to-ceiling scrim stretching across the proscenium, the actors perform a series of live action scenes. These are captured by three cameras we see being operated downstage, with the images simultaneously projected on the scrim, which via those pre-recorded 3D sequences fills in the details of the missing set. It's a neat trick, to be sure, but what's on the scrim so commands our attention--because so often in close-up--I don't know why Douglas and Haddock didn't just make a film. Indeed, liveness and the theatre seem completely ancillary to the whole ethos of the project. There isn't even a debate about the complementarity or the competition between the two media (as in Tear the Curtain!): not least because we are so insistently drawn to both the images on the scrim and the apparatus of their projection behind it, film completely dominates theatre in this equation.

To the point where the piece's film noir conceit seems completely foreign to the stage. Haddock squeezes virtually every cliché of the genre into his script and the hard-boiled dialogue, while handled deftly by the entire company, often sounds tinny and recycled. More problematic are the larger structural problems with the story. The ostensible main plot, about the eponymous wronged femme fatale (Lisa Ryder) traveling from LA to Vancouver to track down her no-good lover, Percy Wallace/Walker (The X-Files' Nicholas Lea), feels (thematically and politically) secondary to the sub-plot about brothers Buddy Black (Allan Louis) and Henry Williams (Sterling Jarvis) battling each other and the corrupt Vancouver constabulary in Hogan's Alley. Neither story is satisfactorily resolved, to say nothing of the confusing narrative MacGuffin we are thrown in the form of small-time grifter Edward Banks (Adam Kenneth Wilson), who holds up with apparent impunity Chief of Police James Muldoon (Gerard Plunkett) near the end of the play; meanwhile Banks' long-suffering German wife Eva (Ava Markus) may or may not be on her way to Hogan's Alley to have an abortion.

A noticeable hiccup in Helen Lawrence's development was the departure of original director Kim Collier (ex of The Electric Company). In press leading up to the premiere last week, she cited concerns with the story as one of the reasons for her parting ways with Haddock and Douglas, who assumed directing duties (assisted by the National Arts Centre's Sarah Stanley). I now understand what she means.

However, an even more serious concern for me is the aesthetic ideology behind the piece. The performance theorist Patrice Pavis has written that intermedial interdisciplinarity doesn't just mean taking the technologies of one medium and plunking them down in another (e.g. screens in the theatre); rather, it means remediating those technologies within an aesthetic idiom specific to the mode of presentation of the work (e.g. finding a way to represent montage on stage through blackouts, or within the body of a performer). I think, in this regard, of how "cinematic" Crystal Pite's choreography often seems to me; now, she is not one to stint on additional technological effects (including projections). But in a work like Grace Engine, for example, she also gives one the kinesthetic "feel" of film noir with nary a camera in sight.

There is a lot of creative and financial muscle behind this production of Helen Lawrence, and it is on its way to some pretty prestigious presentation venues. It remains to be seen what kind of critical reception it will receive from national and international theatre audiences. For now, I remain convinced that the project would have been much more successful--and easier to make--as a narrative film. Given Stan Douglas' career to date (Suspiria, Journey into Fear, etc.), one would have thought that to be the logical next step (though, to be fair, in works like Monodramas, he has also shown previous interest in the theatre--particularly the work of Samuel Beckett). One wonders if the likely comparisons to Steve McQueen are an impediment.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Tempest Replica Redux

Last night, at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Theatre, was a chance to revisit Crystal Pite's Tempest Replica, the most recent of her works for her company Kidd Pivot. I had first seen the piece in 2012 when it was staged at the Playhouse by DanceHouse. After touring the work to the US and Europe, Pite took a year's sabbatical; now she is back, relaunching Kidd Pivot with another mini-tour of The Tempest Replica, one that will take her to Sadler's Wells in London, where Pite has just been appointed an Associate Artist, and for whom she will be choreographing a large-scale work later this year.

The good news, however, is that despite such high-profile commissions--and multiple offers to lead major companies elsewhere--Pite has made the decision to remain in Vancouver and to use the city (and, I gather from SFU Cultural Programs Director Michael Boucher, SFU Woodward's) as her base to make new work for Kidd Pivot. That work will now have to be project-to-project based, as the stable multi-year funding she enjoyed from Frankfurt between 2010-2012 is not possible here (the latest tour has been partially subvented by an Indiegogo campaign). Still, Pite seems determined to make a go of it, and we are the luckier for it. To have such an internationally renowned dance artist making work here, in Vancouver, and mentoring local performers and choreographers is extraordinary.

As I have already blogged at length about the 2012 Vancouver production of The Tempest Replica, I won't elaborate on too much more here. I mostly wanted to see if the archive of my memory of that earlier performance matched Pite's repertory re-enactment of the piece--not least as I have an article coming out shortly in Dance Research Journal (46.1) on Pite's work and so wanted to ensure that my description of the piece was more or less accurate. As far as I can tell, Pite has made only minor adjustments, tightening up a movement transition here, tweaking a sound or light cue there. I don't recall there being as much projected text from Shakespeare's play in the second half as I witnessed last night, but that may just be a trick of memory. Ironically, it is Pite's use of text (projected, narrated, etc.) that is partly the focus of my article.

The movement is as compelling and complex as ever, and it is always a pleasure to see how Pite's amazingly gifted dancers incarnate that balance--or pivot--between technical precision and fluid organicity that her choreography requires. This remains most kinesthetically affecting to me in the duets that structure the second half--with the lush and ethereal pairings between Prospero (Eric Beauchesne) and Ariel (Sandra Marín Garcia), and Ferdinand (Peter Chu, filling in for Jermaine Spivey) and Miranda (Cindy Salgado), a counter-weight (quite literally) to the more tough and muscular ones between Antonio (Yannick Matthon) and Sebastian (David Raymond, replacing Jiří Pokorný), and Prospero and Caliban (Bryan Arias).

The Tempest Replica is Pite's most fully realized Gesamtkuntswerk to date, a piece in which movement and text and sound and visual design are seamlessly integrated. The contributions of Pite's Vancouver collaborators (composer Owen Belton, sound designers Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe, lighting designer Robert Sondergaard, set designer Jay Gower Taylor, projection maestro Jamie Nesbitt, and costumers Nancy Bryant and Linda Chow) are central to this. That Pite has made the decision to continue working with this local community of virtuosic talent is her gift to this city. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Worshipping at the Altar of Tara Cheyenne

Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg is a fearless performer: in making character the centre of her unique brand of dance-theatre; in using humour to probe some of our deepest cultural taboos and human fears; and in putting herself over and over again in positions of extreme vulnerability and/or ridiculousness in order to establish a connection with her audience.

All these elements are on display in her latest work, Porno Death Cult, on through this Saturday at the Firehall in a production directed by Neworld's Marcus Youssef. Based on a 2010 pilgrimage Friedenberg took along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the work explores the eroticism of devotion, the pornography of belief: whether that comes in the form of slick, Vegas-style Christian evangelism; new age Yoga maxims; or simply wanting to be filled up, like Friendenberg's central character Maureen, with something that incarnates, or indeed makes plainly carnal, the experience of faith.

Channeling the seductive androgyny of Jared Leto on Oscar night, as well as so many images of a crucified Christ, Friendenberg arrives on stage in a white suit, her long hair hanging over her eyes, her body twitching and gyrating convulsively as she flits about the stage, trying not to step on the red-carpeted aisle leading from the audience to the wonderful altar-cum-iconographic-shrine designed by Mickey Meads. Eventually Friendenberg puts her hands together, as if to pray, and parts her mane of hair, peeking out shyly at us, her expectant congregation. But she cannot immediately speak and so instead she repeats a sequence of meek, almost apologetic gestures: grabbing her crotch, for example, as if in shame, or slowly turning her palms toward us in search of the stigmata she would have us understand was really there. Indeed, one of the things I found so compelling about this performance was how Friendenberg, as a dancer, made an idea like the mortification of flesh--a fetish at once religious and deeply erotic--into a richly satisfying kinesthetic experience.

Then, too, whether it was through a compelling and physically exhausting sequence of kneels, or in her expert demonstration of various iconic yoga poses, Friendenberg also used movement (alongside a steady stream of words) to suggest how much of belief is merely habit. As Pascal famously said, "Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe." Which is, on one level, the lesson that Maureen learns over the course of the show. Having waited in vain for a special visitation from the Son of God--a deeply longed for embodied encounter, à la Madonna in "Like a Prayer," with that obscure object of desire on the cross--at the end of the show Maureen takes a seat among us in the audience, turning to a fellow supplicant in the daily pilgrimage that is life and asking: "How was your week?"

It is Friendenberg's uncanny ability to combine the ecstatic and the banal into such moments of collective transformation that makes me a believer.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY and Donald Sales/Project20 at Chutzpah!

In the as yet still young history of 21st-century contemporary dance, someone will surely have to write a study on the world-wide influence of Ohad Naharin. Already at this year's Chutzpah Festival, courtesy of LA's excellent BODYTRAFFIC company, we have seen the choreography of two well-known Bathsheva alums, Barak Marshall and Hofesh Shechter, on the Norman and Annette Rothstein stage. Last night it was the turn of Danielle Agami's Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY, also based in LA (where they seem to be found of majuscule letters).

Agami is an acclaimed teacher of Naharin's Gaga method, and it shows in her choreography, which is as physically contortionist as it is conceptually rigorous. Mouth to Mouth, which Chutzpah! audiences are getting a sneak peek at in advance of its official LA premiere in April, features backwards crab crawls, hip-to-head leg extensions while hopping across the stage on the opposite foot, convulsive floor works, and all manner of double and triple-jointedness. Each of the dancers is mesmerizing, not least as a result of their unusual costumes, which include bolero jackets paired with underwear, a version of leather lederhosen, and a burgundy jersey dress deconstructed before our eyes via two sets of sewing shears at the outset of the piece.

At the centre of the action is Agami herself, distinctive in her shaved head and so wonderfully dextrous in demi-point. There is a moment, near the end, when Agami pauses to receive a kiss from each of her dancers. Far from obeisance, however, I interpreted the gesture--especially in light of the work's palindrome-like title--as a representation of the always mutually sustaining relationship between choreographer and performers, the dancers and the dance. And the fact that post-performance I saw Crystal Pite in animated conclave with Bryan Arias and Yanick Matthon, two of the dancers in her company Kidd Pivot (preparing for the remount of The Tempest Replica at SFU Woodward's next week) more or less confirmed this.

The second piece on last night's double bill was gR33N, a new work by Donald Sales' Project20 Company. The former Ballet BC star (alongside Pite) is also on stage throughout the piece; however, unlike Agami, he is mostly sedentary, dressed in a hospital gown and confined to a leg cast and chair positioned upstage. Three nurse-orderlies--Sarah Brinson, Katie Cassady, and Rebecca Margolick--do the bulk of the movement, dancing singly and in unison, in sequences of structured improvisation and overt pantomime, to a varied sound score built around original music by local composer (and Pite favourite) Owen Belton.

The colour green's associations with illness--signaled most materially by the bright lime backlighting that accompanies the exchanges between Sales and his doctor (Fred Middleton)--are juxtaposed with sequences that explore, mostly playfully, other feelings linked to this particular palette, including envy, greed, and innocence. Overall, the work itself feels a bit young and not fully ripened at this stage; it could definitely do with some editing. And one, of course, wishes that Sales, in his brief ambulatory forays downstage, would occasionally join his three muses in some more physically locomotive movement.

At the same time, I was also fascinated to watch Sales watching his own choreography being performed. Here's hoping he liked what he saw.