Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 21

Yesterday I actually completed two interviews for the dance histories project. My second was with David McIntosh, co-artistic director (with Lee Su-Feh) of battery opera performance. It was a bit different from pervious interviews (both group and solo) for a couple of reasons. First, it took place on the deck of David's condo on Quebec Street, near Science World, and due to the way the seating was arranged I couldn't easily position the computer video to capture both David and I in the frame. Second, David is such a natural raconteur that it seemed egregious to interrupt him with our usual who/what/where/when questions. Essentially, I just let David talk.

And here, in no particular order, is what I learned:

- That David, though his parents were from Vancouver, was born in Kentucky.

- That, skipping high school one day, David wandered into the original VideoIn space on Powell Street and discovered Paul Wong flipping switches at an editing console and drinking green Chartreuse. David thought that he might like to do something like that one day.

- That David got kicked out of art school at Emily Carr for assaulting one of his teachers.

- That David is interested in what he calls the "gift of physicality" and what that allows a performer to get away with in the performer-spectator contract.

- That, having made a glitch-filled video about his days as a cab driver in Vancouver, David went to Hollywood to peddle it because he was told he looked like Steve McQueen and he was bound to find work there. Someone from MGM called him back saying he couldn't understand what the heck was going on in the video.

- That the work of battery opera, whether made by David or Su-Feh or together, is rooted in a common physical aesthetic that is derived in part from martial arts as a form.

- That for David technique is not the same thing as resonance.

- That David is not interested in working within the system to support the system.

- That David is deeply invested in Vancouver, not least in terms of its history as a (relatively recent) colonized space, and that no matter what (and whether he likes it or not) this place will always be his content.

Interview over, David then turned his camera on me and had me read (or, in truth, repeat after him) some lines from one of Clarice Lispector's novels. It seemed a fitting way to end the evening.


Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 20

Yesterday at my Woodward's office I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie LeFebvre Gnam for our Vancouver dance histories project. Earlier that day plastic orchid factory had just begun the load-in to the Wong Theatre of their set and equipment for their newest show, Digital Folk, which they will be rehearsing for the next three weeks in advance of its September 21 opening. Natalie, with her son Finn in tow, graciously took time out to talk with me about all things terpsichorean that had led to this significant moment.

Among other things, that meant talking about her childhood in Prince George, where as a young 11-year old dance student a light bulb went off when Joe Laughlin came through town and taught a workshop. "Oh," Natalie suddenly thought, "this is what dance could be." Mary Louise Albert followed, and it was she who encouraged Natalie to apply for a summer scholarship position at Montreal's École supérieure de ballet du Québec. Eventually Natalie began studying there full time, which led to an apprenticeship at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and, eventually, a professional contract with the company under the artistic directorship of Larry Rhodes (now head of the dance division at Julliard). It was at LGB that Natalie met her husband, James Gnam (she told him she admired his legs). However, she and James suddenly found themselves out of a job when Rhodes left (the details of his departure still remain unclear to Natalie) and most of the company dancers' contracts weren't renewed.

Feeling broken physically and emotionally, Natalie and James moved across the country to Victoria with the intention of taking an early retirement from dance. But while studying naturopathy, Natalie began taking class again at Linda Raino's studio and rediscovered her love of dance. Coincidentally, James made his first solo for Natalie, "Jim on the Phone," at this time. Following a showing in Victoria at Linda's studio, they brought the piece to Vancouver as part of a presentation series at the Moberly Arts Centre organized by Desiree Dunbar. Lola McLaughlin would see it, which would have important consequences for when Natalie and James began plastic orchid factory.

But that was still five years away. In the interim, Natalie had accepted a contract to dance with my colleague Judith Garay's company, Dancers Dancing, which precipitated her and James's full-time move to Vancouver. Soon after James was hired by Ballet BC and the two began settling into the dance community here, which included, for Natalie, taking class with Wen Wei Wang and at Arts Umbrella with Grant Strate and Yannick Matthon, among others. A highlight during this time was also dancing in the 2007 Vancouver Opera production of The Magic Flute, where Natalie got to work with Michelle Olson. Then, in 2007-2008, things started happening in rapid succession: Natalie and James's son, Finn, was born; Ballet BC exploded; and plastic orchid was incorporated as a company. 

Natalie said to me that the combination of having Finn and working on Endorphin, pol's first major work, changed her relationship to her body and to dance, and that as a result it remains a watershed moment in her career. Certainly the piece seemed to punctuate a transition for both Natalie and James from the world of ballet to the world of contemporary dance, a transition underscored by the fact that just prior to her death, having seen an early version of the piece, Lola McLaughlin nominated James and Natalie for a Mayor's Arts Award. And now, eight years later, about to premiere pol's most ambitious piece to date (and also coincidentally once again with child!), and with the renovations on pol's new shared space with MACHiNENOiSY and Tara Cheyenne Performance set to begin this fall, it would seem that Natalie's place in Vancouver's contemporary dance scene is not just secure, but absolutely integral.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Pericles at Bard on the Beach

I'm not usually a purist when it comes to radical revisionings of classic texts on stage. I do, however, take exception to reinterpretations that seem designed to make "difficult" plays--whether in structure or in moral content--more palatable to contemporary audiences. Unfortunately, in the case of Bard on the Beach's current production of Pericles, directed by the usually reliable Lois Anderson, that seems to be the case on both counts. A major compressing and rewriting of the first half results in the jettisoning of one of the play's distinctive structural conceits and the displacement and dematerialization of a key sexual theme.

I admit to not knowing Pericles very well, but I did have a quick read of the text before yesterday's matinee performance. Additionally, I was attending with my colleague, Tiffany Werth, who has published on the play (her work is cited in The Norton Anthology of Shakespeare, no less). Unlike most critics, who tend to be obsessed with accounting for which parts of the play were written by Shakespeare and which by his (of course) much inferior collaborator, George Wilkins, Tiffany concentrates on how the play's romantic and fantastical elements are filtered through a residual Catholic frame within post-Reformation England. Tiffany is not arguing that old Bill is a crypto-Catholic, as others have speciously suggested, merely that the genre of English romance in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods came to be read, in a society increasingly obsessed with policing and hierarchizing virtue, as carrying with it a certain Catholic taint. How this all relates to Pericles starts with the fact that each of the acts is preceded by a chorus narrated by the figure of John Gower, the more sober contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, and whose presence in Shakespeare's play suggests that we should be reading the tale of Pericles and his family through the lens of a Medieval morality play.

Indeed, Pericles can at a very basic level be reduced to an allegory of virtue rewarded and wickedness punished. That these outcomes are even more basically--and basely--linked to sex is established in the first act of the play, which takes place in the court of Antiochus, who greets any suitor wishing to marry his daughter with a riddle. If the suitor answers correctly, he can have the daughter's hand; but if he answers incorrectly, he is beheaded. (Needless to say, the walls of his court are lined with skulls.) Pericles (Kamyar Pazandah), hearing the riddle, immediately understands that Antiochus is having incestuous relations with his daughter. But he also realizes that to say so would likewise result in his execution. So he begs for more time and then hightails it back to Tyre, with the threat of Antiochus hunting him down setting in motion his subsequent maritime wanderings (to Tarsus and Ephesus and Mytilene) and the rest of the fantastical plot, including the birth of Pericles' daughter at sea and the apparent death of his wife, Thaisa (Sereana Malani), as a result.

In Anderson's staging, the story of Antiochus is narrated to us by the healer Cerimon (David Warburton), in whom the director seems to have collapsed Gower's chorus role, while also throwing in a dash of Prospero, with Cerimon having the ability to freeze and manipulate the action as needed. He does this ostensibly to bring not just us, but also his on stage captive audience, up to speed. This would be the young Marina (Luisa Jojic), the long lost daughter of Pericles, originally left by her bereft father in the charge of Cleon (Luc Roderique) and Dionyza (Jeff Gladstone), but following an aborted murder plot arranged by Dionyza subsequently captured by pirates and sold into prostitution. Still with me? Virtuous Marina is miraculously able to hold on to her maidenhead by convincing all of her clients to become better men, something that as Tiffany has written about would have been instantly recognizable to Shakespeare's contemporaries--not least through the remediating figure of Gower--as a rewriting of the story of St. Agnes of Rome.

But all of this happens much later in the play as written by Shakespeare. The effect of Anderson's temporal analepsis and narrative abstraction at the outset of her staging for Bard on the Beach is that Cerimon's storytelling to Marina declaws the shocking sexuality of the play in two ways. First, by reducing the opening act in Antioch to a dumb show involving pots and pans and a gilded bottle meant to stand in for a daughter who has for years been sexually abused by her father, Anderson turns an embodied act of violation into a mere speech act--and one relayed retrospectively at that. Second, placing Marina "in the know" about her father and the story of their separation early in the play means that when they finally come to be reunited in Mytilene at the end of the play the frisson of sexual misrecognition between Pericles and a woman he otherwise understands to be a prostitute is obviated, as is the pattern of ambiguous relationships between fathers and daughters that gets repeated throughout the play.

If all of this were meant to be read as a deliberate burlesquing of the play, that would be one thing (and some of the frankly cheesy choreography in the first half of this production put me in mind of this possibility). But, notwithstanding all of the sexual punning that is such an important part of the text, I don't think a camp aesthetic is what Anderson was going after. Instead, I suspect that the desire to resolve the moral and narrative tensions inherent in Shakespearean romance by emphasizing a happy ending (this being a common temptation with works like The Tempest and Cymbeline as well) led to this staging's unwitting emphasis on the normative rectitude of family. Even the goddess Diana is transformed into a beneficent figure, with the last insult for Tiffany the fact that we learn nothing of the violent revenge wrought upon Dionyza and Cleon.

In the end, the whole production was just too light, a tone that even carried over into the sandblasted costume and stage design. As Tiffany and I both agreed upon exiting the theatre, we prefer our romance a little darker and messier. Cue those skulls in Antiochus's castle.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Waka/Ciimaan/Vaka Workshop at SFU Woodward's

Nicely complementing my afternoon at the Vines Art Festival, last night I had the privilege of attending a workshop showing of Waka/Ciimaan/Vaka thanks to an invitation from playwright Yvette Nolan, who is one of the writers on the piece (the others are Miria George, Hone Kouka, and Jamie McCaskill). A unique collaboration between Raven Spirit Dance and the New Zealand company Tawata Productions, this work-in-progress brings together Indigenous artists from Canada/Turtle Island, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand/Aotearoa to develop a dance-theatre piece that is a contemporary fable about the devastating reciprocal effects of climate change and environmental capitalism on the peoples and animals of the northern and southern hemispheres.

In a neat reversal of the Biblical flood story (and we're reminded of the Christian narrative intrusion by a Psalm-quoting sailor), our story sees all the water in the world suddenly disappear. We then follow the effects of this event on several rag-tag groups that must come together to survive: a sister and brother and their talking dog; an oil executive and his told-you-so-mother; a shipwrecked crew of sailors; a penguin and polar bear who somehow find each other on their respective shrinking ice caps through the magic of cell phone technology (and who also talk); and two women who have been instructed to make a fleet of canoes for when the water returns. Presiding over all of this is a magical--and exceedingly hungry--albatross (yup, she too talks) who, via a trail of wood chips, manages to lead all the separate groups together to where Waka and Ciimaan have been building the canoes.

Both funny and despairing in tone, at once fantastical and utterly naturalistic in its dramaturgy, and punctuated by moments of simple danced beauty courtesy of co-choreographers Michelle Olson and Te Hau Winitana, this latest version of the piece (which apparently came together in a week) promises a full production, if and when it can be staged, that will be as epic in form as in content. And on the former front I was pleased that in the artist panel following the presentation we got to hear from the show's designer about his plans for and influences upon various intended scenographic effects (a selection of his drawings was also on view outside SFU Woodward's Studio D).

Keep your eyes and ears open for the next iteration of this piece because this is urgent and important work.


Vines Art Festival at Trout Lake

Last year SFU Contemporary Arts alum Heather Lamoureux created the Vines Arts Festival, an event designed to make contemporary performance more accessible by siting it in a public park (and making it free), and also to promote environmental awareness by showcasing work engaged with themes of climate activism and sustainability and/or responding to its natural setting--in this case, the south end of Trout Lake. That one-day event, put on with a budget raised solely through door-to-door fundraising by Heather, was a huge success. This year, the festival not only attracted major corporate and government sponsors, but it also expanded to four days and multiple sites, with events taking place over the past few days at Hadden Park in Kits Beach, Pandora Park on the East Side, and Maclean Park in Strathcona. However, the main event continues to be located at Trout Lake, and yesterday I cycled over just past noon to take in as much of the action as possible.

Combining installations with roaming pieces, workshops and individually timed performances on five separate "stages," the festival featured an abundance of work to stimulate one's senses, both physiologically and politically. I arrived in time to catch the last half of Ariel Martz-Oberlander's Grief + Dignity; a devised theatre piece loosely constructed around five women's attempts to blockade the Site C Dam project, the work is essentially a conversation about the relationship between intersectional feminism and attempts to raise awareness about the negative social and climatological effects of resource extraction. Next, there was Alex Mah and Arash Khakpour's Hold My Beer, a deconstructed "bromance" in the form of an alternately affectionate and aggressive danced duet that provided something of a gendered corollary to the Martz-Oberlander piece, suggesting that a reciprocal ethic of care between men might actually start with care for the environment.

Meegin Pye's Integral Elimination is a solo work of physical theatre that uses a quintessential rite of fitting oneself into a box--the job interview--to both materially and metaphorically take on how contemporary urbanites have increasingly boxed their horizons in by literally walling themselves up. While I found the text a bit jejune in parts, and the hopping from side to side to indicate different sides of a conversation somewhat of a too-easy dramaturgical choice, Pye was thoroughly engaging as a performer, and much of her piece reads as a caustic commentary on Vancouver's current crisis of accelerated development.

With the PuSh Festival's Joyce Rosario and Bonnie Sun by this point having joined me (graciously sharing their blanket), we then roamed to a succession of dance and movement-based performances. Sophie Brassard and Carly Penner's Pseudo-Flora-Commorancy, a piece for nine women dancers, captivated with its clever use of a net of tied-together plastic bags. Initially the women get caught in this net like so much discarded flotsam, but though a combination of working together (cue some ingenious unison) and discovering, successively, their individual relationships with the space around them, the women are able to free themselves from the artificial tentacles of this ur-symbol of consumerism. Sarah Gallos' Follow is a duet with Hailey McCloskey that uses a succession of slow falls and rises from the ground as a motif for co-animacy of and in space, both in terms of the dancers' awareness of each other and their responsiveness to their surroundings (which included some initial choreographing of the audience). In Archaea, dancer Molly McDermott develops an improvised score of micro-moves as a way of physicalizing the micro-biology of park ecosystems that remain invisible to us, her every neck twitch and foot flex accompanied by Stefan Smulovitz on the violin. Even standing stalk still McDermott is interesting to watch, but with her body wrapped upside down around a tree you can only gape in awe. Finally, in Toothpaste Carolina Bergonzoni enacts the story of her year-long quest to make an all-natural cleaning agent for the teeth and gums from household products through the slow accretion of a simple yet effective gestural vocabulary that mimics the trial and error methodology of her dentifrical experiments. All while wearing a skirt made of used toothpaste tubes and boxes!

Borgonzoni also collaborated with my fellow Wreck Beach Butoh colleague Bronwyn Preece (who, in addition to Molly and her mom Irene, Dana Marquis, and Henry Wong made up quite a strong WBB contingent at this year's Vines) on a unique sartorial painting project that greeted me upon arrival. Together with the music of Son Bohemio, a unique and meditative installation by Elissa Hanson and Claris Figuera called At House, At Home, and an inspiring talk by the Coast Salish ethno-botanist Cease Wyss these were just some of the many Vines offerings I was able to take in. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon and I hope this new addition to our local festival landscape continues to grow.


Friday, August 19, 2016

West Side Story at TUTS

It took us a while, but Richard and I finally made to the venerable Malkin Bowl for this year's iteration of Theatre Under the Stars. Eschewing all things Disney for the classic idiom of American musical theatre, we chose to see West Side Story, and we certainly had beautiful night for it.

I've seen the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story, but never a live production of the musical, not even the version staged by the Vancouver Opera a few years ago. Leonard Bernstein's score is certainly operatic, not least in the signature numbers Maria and Tonight and Somewhere. But the orchestrations also draw as much, if not more, from jazz, with Bernstein ably distilling that form's polyglot influences into a story about the tragic consequences of a cross-cultural love affair. That said, under musical director Chris D. King (who also, somewhat mysteriously, doubles as the racist detective Schrank, requiring him to vacate his conductor's box for long stretches), the playing last night seemed a little underwhelming, even slow. Many of the jazzier numbers lacked pep to my admittedly untrained ears.

Notwithstanding all the glorious music (supplemented of course by the wonderful lyrics of Stephen Sondheim), it is the dancing that has always set West Side Story apart. The great Jerome Robbins (who also conceived and directed the musical's Broadway premiere) was responsible for the original choreography, which has become so iconic--all those finger snaps and high-flying leaps--that it continues to be quoted everywhere. Local dance artist and choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg was given the unenviable task of creating a completely new movement score for this production (she had to sign a waiver from the Robbins estate attesting to this), while also providing enough of an homage to encourage buy-in from audience members familiar with the musical's choreographic pedigree. She succeeds brilliantly, drawing on period street dance idioms, contemporary acro, and her own take on classic mambo and waltz steps (especially in numbers like America and I Feel Pretty). She is aided immeasurably by her talented cast, especially the boys who make up the rival Jets and Sharks gangs, who are able to get so much air in the opening prologue (a musical theatre movement sequence that, when it first appeared, was as groundbreaking as Agnes de Mille's famous dream ballet in Oklahoma!) that one would think they were experts parkourists (Brian Ball's brilliant set of moveable scaffolding aids immeasurably in this regard). The second act number Gee, Officer Krupke is also a terrific showcase for the movement talents of the Jets half of the male ensemble, with William Edward Hutchinson (as Action) and Kurtis D'Aoust (as Big Deal) demonstrating admirable strength and flexibility respectively. (An interesting side note: for all the progressive social politics regarding the treatment of Puerto Rican immigrants embedded into Arthur Laurents' book to West Side Story, it is noticeable just how much less stage and singing time the Sharks get throughout the production.)

Not that the women in the show are slouches in the dancing department. Friedenberg's update of the shimmying salsa steps and kicks accompanying America requires speed and precision and, above all, abundant personality. The women, led by a terrific Alexandra Lainfiesta as Anita, more than deliver. I also very much appreciated those moments when Friedenberg slowed things down, as when Tony and Maria first spot each other at the school dance, with the rest of the cast swaying in place as the doomed lovers move towards each other from across the room, pulled by a force they are unable to resist. During the dream sequence in Act 2 Friendenberg also features some interesting partnering, suggesting in her same-sex pairings that the right to choose whom one loves extends beyond cultural difference.

I have spent so much time talking about the dancing in this production because, frankly, the singing was only so-so. Jennifer Gillis, as Maria, and Matt Montgomery, as Tony, make a winsome couple, but vocally they failed to impress. Montgomery can hit the high notes, but he needs greater depth and projection in the lower range to make a song like Maria truly soar. Gillis certainly has power, but her soprano often lacks nuance and without the right control comes across as a bit shrill in the upper register. When she is forced to reign things in a bit, as in the delightful I Feel Pretty, the results are quite pleasing. By contrast, Lainfiesta's Anita and Daniel James White's Riff, are standouts in both their singing and their acting, which in turn points to one of the central paradoxes of this work: pace Shakespeare, the secondary characters are far more interesting than the leads.

And speaking of folks in the background making an impression. Director Sarah Rodgers chooses to end the show with a reprise of Somewhere, but this time sung as a solo by Daren Dyhengo, who plays the otherwise mostly anonymous Shark Luis. Dyhengo has a beautiful tenor and his rendition of the song was perhaps the single most electrifying musical moment in the whole production. Which begs the question: why wasn't he front and centre from the beginning?


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Digital Folk 3.0 at the Shadbolt

Yesterday, on perhaps the single best day we've had so far all summer, I hiked it out to the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts for a beta test of the latest version of plastic orchid factory's Digital Folk. I've been following the various incarnations of the performance, which began with a residency at the Cultch in 2014 (and which I wrote about here), and which continued with a presentation as part of Boca del Lupo's Micro Performance Series at the Anderson Street Space in October of last year (more on that here). For the past three weeks plastic orchid's James Gnam and Natalie LeFebvre Gnam, together with their collaborators, have been refining the work at the Shadbolt in advance of the piece's premiere at SFU Woodward's at the end of next month (September 21-25 in the Wong Theatre, to be precise).

Digital Folk has evolved into a fully immersive experience that combines video game design, a bit of cosplay, music and dance, and an interactive installation. The main conceptual and scenographic advance in this version of the piece is that pol has built a set that places the audience in the middle of the action, and my understanding is that for the Woodward's performances the hour-long show will play on a loop, with spectators invited to come and go as they please. The cast of performers has also gotten bigger, with pol having engaged several members of the School for the Contemporary Arts' Dance program (three of them my former students) as interns. However, the core of the piece remains concerned with how we interact, cognitively and kinaesthetically, with myriad screen avatars, and how this in turn affects and/or disrupts our live bodily engagements with others. This conceit plays out in various instances of mirroring, including a few new ones for this version: I was particularly taken by the synchronized smartphone folk dance, and also by the virtuoso vocal call and response sequence shared by James Gnam and Jane Osborne. That all these screens are in turn mediating audience response is strikingly evidenced by how passive we generally were yesterday. After the first few minutes of dress-up and exploration of the site and its different play stations, most of us took up a fixed standing or sitting position and watched the action unfold around us. It's true, there is a group dance at the end; however, I wonder the extent to which more (or perhaps less) participation will be encouraged in the final version.

There is much more I could say, including all the different explorations of folk stories and folk dance in the piece--to say nothing of those bumbling musical folklorists from the future, The Sally Field Project. But I think I'll save further discussion for the September performances.

It's going to be fun.


Saturday, August 6, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 19

Yesterday I interviewed the amazing and hilarious Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg in my office at SFU Woodward's. Turns out we arrived in the city more or less at the same time, me to start grad school at UBC, and she to begin the dance program at SFU. Tara had come to Vancouver from the University of Calgary, where she had been in the theatre program, and she continued to work across both disciplines while at SFU--as, of course, she does today in her own creations, as well as the choreography she does for theatre (including this year's TUTS mounting of West Side Story, which is on my list of must-see shows next week).

Notwithstanding Tara's adeptness at, in her words, "working the system," her time at SFU was fortuitous in terms of the development of her own career: my colleague Judith Garay cast Tara in her very first Dancers Dancing show; Chick Snipper, who would later cede her company to Tara, created work on SFU students dancers while Tara was in the program; and she also performed in Judith Marcuse's States of Grace while at SFU. Coincidentally, Tara received her first commission to choreograph for the theatre when Mary Louise Albert, who was then a dancer in Judith Marcuse's company, said she didn't have the time to do it, and was Tara interested? Flash forward several years and Tara is presenting her first 11-minute solo, Frame, at the Chutzpah! Festival, which Mary Louise has overseen for the past decade or so. So once again we see how everything--and everyone--is connected in this community.

Having danced for Deborah Dunn, Conrad Alexandrowicz, Lola McLaughlin, and having worked with the folks at Radix Theatre and others, Tara took some time off "to find herself" in South America. Coming back from Chile after a few years away, she was eager to work and realized if she wanted to do so--and, moreover, to be in work that reflected her own hybrid interests in and talent for dance and theatre--she had best create the opportunities herself. Such was the beginnings of Tara Cheyenne Performance and Tara's trademark character-driven solos, which achieved a significant turning point when Tara premiered bANGER in 2006. For the permission to inhabit the psyche and physicality of a male character for the first time Tara credits working with mentor Denise Clarke (of One Yellow Rabbit fame) on a project "where the process was great, the product not so much," and also seeing Nigel Charnock perform in his solo Frank at the PuSh Festival. Before his untimely death, Charnock was to have been involved (as director) in the next big step in Tara's evolution as a choreographer: her first group piece, Highgate, which grew out of an invitation from Peter Bingham to "do something different" for his annual choreographic series at EDAM. You couldn't get much different than the mourning triplets that Tara sent out on stage in the wonderful group dress created by her mother, Alice Mansell. I still remember the impact of first seeing those three women (Jackie Collins, Barb Murray and Jane Osborne) bobbing back and forth to the chimes of Big Ben. Combined with my discovery of Tara's work at the BC Scene showcase in Ottawa in the spring of 2009, as well as the subsequent delight I took in the premiere of Goggles at The Cultch later the same year, that moment at EDAM confirmed to me that this was someone whose work I had to absolutely follow from now on.

Indeed, the interest that Tara and I share in the combustible performance possibilities of combining dance and theatre, text and movement, has meant that I have increasingly sought her out as a collaborator: first on a semi-private studio experiment involving research into the performance ethnography of humour (you can find the results on the web if you google assiduously); and hopefully in the near future on a more formal collaboration for which I will supply the words and Tara the movement (and the French accent). So it was only fitting that our conversation yesterday ended with Tara turning the tables and interviewing me for her "Talking Shit" series: chats, discussions, gossip-fests that she tapes with members of the Vancouver dance community on any number of topics.

That in Tara's estimation I am someone who merits inclusion in that community means a lot.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 18

It's been a while since I've posted about the Vancouver Dance Histories project. Justine, Alexa and I have been individually dealing with other commitments. However, yesterday I was able to sit down with Judith Marcuse in the Artist-in-Residence office on the sixth floor of the Dance Centre to talk about her remarkable 50-year dance career, which includes roles as a dancer, choreographer, producer, educator, mentor, arts advocate, community activist and, in her capacity as Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Education and Director of the International Centre of Art for Social Change, my colleague at SFU.

We touched on many fascinating topics during our 90-minute conversation, but one thing that has stayed with me from near the end of our time together was an article published by UNESCO that Judith recommended to me. It is a study of how social and cultural and personal background informs artists' practices. Certainly Judith's own dance pedigree is impressive. She began her training in Montreal with her aunt, Elsie Salomans, who had studied with Kurt Jooss and Anna Sokoloff. At 15 Judith moved to London to study at the Royal Ballet School, where as she put it to me she experienced something of a double life: conforming to the Victorian-era strictures of RBS by day (which began with a weekly weigh-in) and delighting to sights and sounds of swinging sixties-era London by night. Following her studies at RBS, Judith danced with a string of major ballet companies, including Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Ballets de Génève (where she got to experience the imperiousness of Balanchine, as well as the graciousness of his protege Patricia Neary), Bat-Dor Dance Company in Israel, the Oakland Ballet, and Ballet Rambert, where Judith said she felt most at home.

Indeed, it was at Rambert that Judith came into her own as a choreographer, creating Four Working Songs (based on the Studs Terkel book Working) in 1976; this piece would also be performed by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens later the same year in Halifax at the fourth Dance in Canada Conference, which Judith described to me as "legendary" and "absolutely wild." The Halifax premiere of Four Working Songs announced Judith as a major new choreographic talent in the country, earning her a Chalmers Award for Excellence in Choreography. This success, combined with the ascension of Margaret Thatcher to the leadership of the Conservative Party in the UK, convinced Judith and her husband Rick that it was time to return to Canada. They chose to settle in Vancouver, in part because of Rick's previous ties to the West Coast.

Soon after Judith launched an extensive period of freelance dancing and choreographing, creating works for Toronto's Dancemakers, Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers and the RWB, and in Vancouver for Pacific Ballet Theatre, Mountain Dance Theatre, Goh Ballet, Arts Umbrella, the Vancouver Opera and the Vancouver Playhouse. In 1978, after being awarded the Clifford E. Lee Prize, she formed her own company, Judith Marcuse Dance Projects Society (now Judith Marcuse Projects, or JMP), among whose members were James Kudelka, Peggy Baker, Sacha Belinksky, Michael Trent and, more locally, Serge Bennethan and Joe Laughlin. Indeed, one of the things Judith said she was most proud of was giving a number of important local dancers their first jobs in the city, including Wen Wei Wang (whom she and Grant Strate helped relocate from China), and Alison Denham. Coincident with her own creations for Judith Marcuse Dance Projects Society, Judith founded in 1983 the Repertory Dance Company of Canada, a touring company that commissioned work from folks like Lar Lubavitch, Mark Morris and Ohad Naharin (before they became the international superstars they are today), as well as Canadian choreographers like Ginette Laurin, Lola McLaughlin, Christopher House, Danny Grossman, and Serge Bennethan. I asked Judith what it was like working with Mark Morris, and while she told me many things "off the record" during the course of our conversation, this I can share: apparently Mark liked his drink (he'd show up to rehearsal with a six-pack of beer), and also at that time wasn't very interested in cleaning up his work, which was left to rehearsal director Betty Carson and Judith herself.

In the 1990s, Judith created the KISS Project, which ran at Performance Works on Granville Island from 1995 to 2000, and which brought together local dance and theatre artists to experiment across disciplinary boundaries. She also began working more with teenagers, drawing on past collaborations with David Diamond (of Headlines Theatre) to create workshops and collaborative projects around teen suicide (ICE: beyond cool), violence (FIRE... where there's smoke), and the environment (EARTH=home). This period in Judith's dancemaking career dovetailed with her increasing involvement in the evolving international field of art for social change, culminating in the founding of ICASC at SFU in 2008. Most of Judith's current activities are devoted to running this Centre, managing its research partnerships, and consulting on social engagement through the arts nationally and internationally. On the latter front, Judith lamented that most recently this has meant lobbying the Canada Council on their "disappearance" of community engaged art from its revamped list of funding categories, with the two of us agreeing that community engagement has increasingly become an instrumental add-on for major companies to demonstrate empirically a version of "audience outreach"--rather than as a meaningful and material application of the arts for social change.

There were many more things Judith and I talked about, including her involvement in the realization of the The Dance Centre as a building (and her lamenting that they didn't follow up on her idea of including a coffee-shop or canteen on the premises) and amazing stories from her years of touring: how in the days before proper dance surfaces in most theatres they used Coca-Cola to make stage floors sticky; that her starting salary at Les Grand Ballets was $66/week; that she and her fellow dancers slept in the aisles and atop the luggage racks in their tour buses; and on and on.

As we do with everyone we interview, I ended with the WHY question: why Vancouver; and why stay? While acknowledging the struggle, as well as some of the conflict in the community over the years, Judith said that she nonetheless felt that the city remained a place "where you could try things." Arriving from London, she immediately fell in love with the landscape, noting that "there's air here." Throughout her years of touring, and still today whenever she returns from a speaking engagement or consulting trip, she always come back to this sentiment: in Vancouver there's space to breathe.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Romans in Britain at the Jericho Arts Centre

The plays of Howard Brenton are performed far less regularly in North America than those of British New Left contemporaries like David Hare and Caryl Churchill. That's a shame, because Brenton's work is every bit as formally inventive, historically capacious, and politically hard-hitting--and on the latter front often more so. So it comes as welcome news that Ensemble Theatre Company is presenting Brenton's 1980 play The Romans in Britain as part of its fourth summer season in residence at the Jericho Arts Centre; the play runs in repertory with Ensemble's productions of Harold Pinter's Betrayal and William Wycherly The Country Wife through August 20th.

The conceit of Brenton's play is to juxtapose and invite historical comparison between the Roman invasion of Britain in 54 BCE and England's military occupation of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 70s; he also throws in some scenes depicting the Saxon invasion and war with the Romano-Celts in the 4th century AD, though wisely decides to forgo a staging of the Norman conquest in 1066. The play opens with two petty criminals (Yurij Kis and Matthew Bissett) on the run. Having killed a man and stolen his iron and wine, they are hoping to make it to the Irish Sea ahead of the advancing Romans, terrifying stories of which are already sweeping the land--including the fact that the Romans are said to have eagle heads, an allusion to their iconic centurion helmets (duly reproduced by expert costume designer Julie White). Publicly, however, one Celtic family, led by a formidable matriarch played with assured command by Rebecca Walters, is having none of the rumours, arguing that the Romans are just a ruse to get them to abandon their land. The folly of such thinking is brought to stark and brutal light in the next scene, when the sons of said family, having just enjoyed a pleasant afternoon swim, find themselves staring down the swords of three Roman centurions. What follows earned the play lasting notoriety when it premiered at London's National Theatre, the graphic depiction of an attempted rape of one of the sons--also a Druid priest, and here played by Ensemble company member Ennis Hannah with a palpable mix of defiance and vulnerability--having provoked a legal charge of "gross indecency" by one offended and over-zealous patron, Mary Whitehouse. While director Richard Wolfe does not shy away from foregrounding the physical violence in this scene, what shocks the most is Brenton's language, liberally salted with obscenities that transcend historical time periods and reflecting the casual brutality of the soldiers' actions: indeed, the Roman rapist is most upset that his victim's soiling of himself has caused him to lose his hard-on. (Brenton is quite fond of the scatological, and there is a running joke about the building of latrines that spans the play's different temporalities.)

At the end of the first act, one lowly female slave, having just avenged herself by killing her own rapist (one of the criminals from the first scene), raises a rock against the anonymous hordes who will surely continue to come. And, indeed, this is the cue for a coup de théâtre that will also serve as Brenton's transition to his depiction of more contemporary "troubles" on the British Isles: for the slave woman's rock-wielding arm is immediately answered by the arrival of half a dozen fatigues-clad and machine gun-toting British paramilitary. Plus ça change. What makes the second half of Brenton's play continue to resonate, even after the Easter Accords and almost 20 years of tenuous peace in Ireland, is that he doesn't force the historical parallels; he merely lays bare the evidence by counterpointing scenes. Thus, in the 1970s we are presented with Tom Chichester, an English intelligence officer attempting to infiltrate the IRA by posing as a sympathizer and runner of illegal Communist weapons having uneasy dreams in a wheat field of past atrocities, including the death of a Saxon soldier, an act of patricide by two Celtic sisters, and the murder of a Romano-Celt lady by her servant-turned-lover. (At last night's performance the role of Tom, as well as that of Julius Caesar in Act 1, was taken on with last-minute aplomb by the on-book Ensemble AD, Tariq Leslie, who was subbing for an absent cast mate.) Tom's own eventual murder by the IRA members who expose him underscores the brutal logic of endless wars begat by self-perpetuating imperial powers, a lesson as applicable to Iraq and Syria and the DRC and the Ukraine and the war against ISIS today as it was to Northern Ireland or Vietnam or any number of African states in the 1960s and 70s: as one of the IRA cell members puts it, in war the rules are simple, whereas in peace they are much less clearly defined.

Nevertheless, Brenton ends his play with an epilogue that takes us back to the 4th century, where the two sisters form an alliance with two runaway cooks, formerly part of the retinue of the murdered lady. The male cook starts to tell a story of a legendary king in whose name a long peace is established in the land; when the sisters ask the name of this king, the male cook turns to his female companion, who says: "Arthur? I don't know, Arthur?" That Brenton has to turn to myth to construct a plausibly perfectible narrative of national solidarity for Britain--just as successive generations from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era would likewise recycle Arthurian legend to shore up their sense of identity--is telling. Indeed, this scene and the play as a whole had special resonance for me post-Brexit, when the political chimera of a united (and ethnically pure) Albion is also being returned to as justification for anti-immigrant sentiment and ugly acts of racism. As interesting to me is that Brenton begins and ends his play with scenes depicting members of the lumpenproletariat (criminals, slaves, refugees and other members of the lower orders whom Marx theorized could not be trusted to achieve class consciousness and join the workers' struggle), suggesting perhaps that if the revolution continues to perpetuate the crimes of the imperial state, then perhaps it's best to eschew organized system of power altogether. In our present post-Occupy and hacktivist era, with multiple forms of precarity (economic and otherwise) extending through various strata of society, it's a bracing sentiment that likewise continues to resonate. And it offers lessons to those guilelessly angry followers of Donald Trump who continue to think he has even the remotest clue (let alone a genuine desire) about how to make America great again. Faded empires do not return to past glory; they simply sputter on, mired in the detritus that is their legacy.

All of which is to say that this production deserves to be seen. Mounted in the round, and with Ensemble's incredibly hard-working cast of 16 taking on a remarkable 45 different parts, the staging is as sensorially affecting (dirt and stones litter the floor, we hear the howling of dogs and the cawing of birds, and live drums beat throughout) as it is intellectually invigorating. Sitting in the front row, I was able to feel the pulsating physicality underscoring so many of the performances--even when characters are cowering behind rocks or bushels of wheat, hoping to remain unseen. The simple yet highly effective choral movement that Ziyian Kwan has choreographed for the opening of each act helps to telegraph this reciprocal kinaesthetic bond between the performers and spectators, something amplified by Wolfe's decision to have most of the ensemble, when not onstage, remain visible and seated alongside the audience on opposite risers--as if they, too, are powerless to stop the terrible onslaught of history.

From 1978-1980, Hare, Churchill and Brenton scored a theatrical trifecta with plays that deconstructed, in both form and content, the legacy of British imperialism. And yet while Hare's Plenty and Churchill's Cloud Nine have definitively entered the Western dramatic canon and are often remounted (with a revival of Plenty starring Rachel Weisz scheduled for New York's Public Theatre this fall), Brenton's Romans in Britain remains more on the fringe. Kudos to Ensemble and director Richard Wolfe for giving Vancouver audiences a rare opportunity to see this important and still powerful work.