Thursday, February 26, 2015

Vanessa Goodman and Idan Sharabi at Chutzpah!

Last night at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre, the Chutzpah! Festival presented a double bill of dance. The evening opened with the premiere of a new work by local choreographer and SFU Contemporary Arts alum Vanessa Goodman. Wells Hill takes its name from the street in Toronto where Marshall McLuhan lived before moving to Wychwood Park, and where he wrote three of his most famous works: The Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media, and The Medium is the Massage. (It helps that I live with, and was sitting beside, a noted McLuhan scholar.) Goodman takes inspiration from McLuhan's ideas about mass communication and, especially via his collaborations with Glenn Gould, how media affect the ways we produce and consume art.

To a recording of Gould performing The Goldberg Variations, a sextet of incredibly gifted Vancouver dancers (Lara Barclay, Lisa Gelley, James Gnam, Josh Martin, Bevin Poole, and Jane Osborne) begin moving in formation stage right, their deconstructed white tuxedo shirts and grey skirts and slacks evoking elite private school uniforms (the costumes are by Deborah Beaulieu), an image reinforced by the evocative floor and overhead florescent lighting design by James Proudfoot. The five dancers, initially tightly grouped and moving their arms synchronously and geometrically to frame their heads and torsos, slowly break apart and fan out across the stage. At this point, Barclay begins weaving in and around them, our focus drawn to her different movement patterns, the amount of space she is covering relative to the others, and, in this instance, the deliberate showcasing of her virtuosity. If dance is a performance medium that also in some senses performs us, Goodman seems to be asking, in this opening sequence, a key structural question: how, to paraphrase W.B.Yeats, do we separate the dancer from the dance?

This parts/whole, content/form equation was what I kept focusing on throughout the remainder of the piece. For example, following the opening group sequence we get a gorgeous duet between Gnam and Poole; as they finish, they move upstage, making way for the pairing of Gelley and Osborne. As kinetically compelling as the the downstage duo is (and these women are truly exceptional movers), our attention is necessarily divided between them and the upstage duo, a reminder that in contemporary dance our awareness and sensory-motor perceptors are being hailed in multiple ways, and often simultaneously. So too is it when Martin joins the group a bit later in the piece; he is moving differently than the others, more fluidly, and as he floats in and out between the others' bodies we cannot help but follow his progress. Finally, there is the stunningly arresting final tableau that Goodman gives us: Barclay, having first been grabbed from behind by Gelley, is steered stage left, as one-by-one the other dancers attach themselves to her body (and to each other) from the wings, manipulating her limbs like she is a marionette (an image with obvious dance-world resonance). However, Gnam remains apart from this group, dancing a solo in counterpoint to the larger group machine.

A lot is going on here. On the one hand, Goodman seems to be suggesting that if the dancer's body is a medium, then it is the choreographer who ultimately works it over. But sometimes even the most disciplined bodies can resist being conscripted for a particular message--hence Gnam dancing alone off to the side. Then, too, the dance-as-performed works on us (including kinaesthetically), a reminder that in the feedback loop of communication it is the audience that completes the circuit of both the medium and the message. This is something Gould recognized. Influenced by McLuhan, he famously gave up live performance for the perfectibility of the recording studio. But he never forgot who was at the other end of "his master's voice," that his records needed to be played and listened too. (Gould and McLuhan both appear at various points in screen projections curated by Goodman and Ben Didier). Likewise, in this very smart and important new work, Goodman recognizes that if, in McLuhan's words, "Art is anything you can get away with," that art nevertheless demands a response.

Idan Sharabi's Interviews/Makom is a set of twinned works based on a series of conversations the choreographer conducted with Israeli residents (and members of his own dance company) based on the concept of home. Excerpts from the interviews play throughout both pieces and in Makom (Hebrew for "a place") dancer Ema Yuasa, originally from Japan, speaks about her feelings of displacement--even after eleven years, and despite pursuing her dance dreams--living in Holland. Interviews, the newer of the pieces, is staged first; the conversations, recorded during the most recent conflict in Gaza, are filled with moments of quite tension that the dancers occasionally respond to through physical gestures. For example, when Sharabi makes a reference on the tape to the balled up fists of the woman he is talking to, we see Sharabi and fellow dancer Dor Mamalia shake their own fists at each other on stage. Later, in Makom, another interview subject also references his hands, stating that he routinely walks with his hands in his pockets as a defence against having to shake anyone else's hand. At this point, we see Mamalia take off his pants, turn them inside out, and put them back on, the interior flaps of his front pockets now plainly visible to us.

These moments of theatricalizing the interview tapes were less satisfying to me than the otherwise mostly non-representational movement. All the dancers (the fourth of whom is Dafna Dudovich) are superb in interpreting Sharabi's alternately propulsive and flowing choreography. The complex floorwork in both pieces is a particular highlight, with the dancers sometimes sinking liquidly into jointless splits and at other times throwing themselves aggressively onto their backs, legs and arms angled awkwardly about their torsos. The threat of violence is never far from the surface in both works, with a transfer of chokeholds between Sharabi and Mamalia featuring in the first part, and with Sharabi moving Yuasa about rather wildly by the back of her neck in the second part.

Trauma--the trauma of exile and migration, as well as the trauma of a homeland that is contested and under perpetual siege--is an important through-line in Interviews/Makom. And, as Diana Taylor has noted with reference to theatrical responses to Argentina's Dirty War (in The Archive and the Repertoire), the structuring motif of trauma, like that of performance, is repetition. Thus it should come as no surprise that Interviews and Makom are to a certain extent mirror halves, with the male and female dancers further twinned along gender lines. Sharabi and Mamalia begin both pieces by walking from the wings onto the stage (in the first work backwards and more slowly, in the second facing front and much more quickly), eventually meeting in the centre and extending but not touching their hands. The women, however, never dance together. Instead, they exchange over the course of both pieces each other's roles. Yuasa lies prone upstage left at the beginning of Interviews, before eventually taking a seat in the audience to watch the proceedings--including, eventually, Dudovich dancing up a storm alongside both men--along with us. In Makom the women's positions are reversed: it is Dudovich, likewise initially lying inert on the stage floor, who watches Yuasa and the men from the audience. Maybe this was Sharabi's comment on the important role of the witness in traumatic events; but his explicit gendering of this role was a concern for me, as was how much less, as a result, the women had to do relative to the men.

While both pieces had moments of outright silliness, Makom, created first but staged second, was far lighter in tone. This is a reminder that trauma can produce moments of spontaneous comedy, not least in bodily eruptions of what Henri Bergson would call "mechanical inelasticity" (when, for example, our brain tells us to do one thing, and our body responds by doing the opposite). There were many funny moments when one marvelled at the apparent incongruity of what the very elastic bodies of Sharabi's dancers were able to do. That said, I was a bit surprised by the degree to which Makom elicited outright guffaws from some quarters of the audience, including for the songs of Joni Mitchell that Sharabi incorporates into the score.

Sharabi, in his choreographer's notes, admits that for him Interviews/Makom is still a riddle. I tend to agree, and while I'm not all that concerned that the riddle be solved, I would suggest that as the piece evolves not only should it be edited for length (each half is about 10-15 minutes too long), but also for the overall quality of feeling the choreographer is seeking to provoke in his audience.


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