Vancouver December 7-10, 2016
As a practice, I don’t read program notes before taking in a performance. I’ve had various conversations throughout the years with other people who don’t, preferring to come to a new work with as clean a slate as possible, open to what will unfold without too many preconceived ideas. Belgium-based dance artist German Jauregui, who choreographed Albatross in collaboration with Company 605 Co-Director Josh Martin and independent Vancouver artist Hilary Maxwell, also avoids programs notes, adding to the program a paragraph that included “No words should interfere with how the public will witness the performance, and nothing should condition this meeting … there is no explanation to give, or meaning to search for or find, just an experience to live, in complete intimacy.”
And yet titles are unavoidable clues. The word albatross speaks of an inescapable moral or emotional weight, something burdensome that impedes action or progress. And this we see. The duet begins with Maxwell alone centre stage, lying nude on top of a light-coloured tarp that is spread across the entire stage space of the Firehall Arts Centre theatre. A green projection of seaweed flowing in water, or bushes flowing in the wind, covers the expanse of the fabric while Maxwell lies upon it with a white blindfold on her eyes. The scene shifts as a warm spotlight finds her body and begins to grow, like a flame under paper, engulfing the entire projected scene. In this new, stark environment, sterile in its brightness, Maxwell’s body trembles to life and moves through a drawn-out sequence of dressing and standing before gathering the former floor through her legs and up into a ball.
Paired with the eerie sound by Stefan Smulovitz, the opening scene was from another world – I kept thinking of the new Netflix series Stranger Things. It was a lot more specific in its design with props and colour, and lasted more than twice as long as Martin’s solo, which followed.
We first see Martin’s black-clothed body facing the back of the stage as he looks up and into a harsh spotlight. He walks backwards toward us, very slowly, tripping and standing back up as he goes. Falling again and again and again, Martin never looked back to the audience; we never saw his eyes. As the next scene opens, Maxwell and Martin are standing with hands over each other’s eyes, now both in black clothing and sneakers. It dawns on me in this moment that we’ve yet to see any part of either of their eyes.
Albatross is a duet of need, a need to support and to be supported. The dancers move across the entire stage, walking, running, spinning, falling, at first with the task of always keeping at least one hand over the other’s eyes. They slip up a couple of times as their momentum picks up pace but surprisingly not as much as would be natural given the force that they eventually reach – these two artists have figured out how to listen with their bodies and adjust accordingly, if not perfectly.
When the hands do eventually peel away, it is without drama, as though it is just something that was ready to happen. It is a moment in their journey that allowed for what needed to come next, which was an even more physical scene of resistance and boundary seeking. The pair use one another’s bodies to find the limits of their extremities, all the while never losing touch of their connection. At one point the soundscape fades to silence and all we hear is breath, the effort of their partnership expelled.
This middle section of Albatross, the duet, surrounded by solo scenes, is in itself a collection of ideas – a rather long collection of similar ideas. Maxwell and Martin as two separate entities eventually blur into one – an image that is repeated, and most tenderly so, in a quiet moment near the end. Lying on the floor, Maxwell gently crawls on top of Martin, settling into the negative space of his body and rests. She eventually adjusts and moves on so that Martin can rest on top of her, manoeuvring each part of his body with total precision as though looking to lock into a complementary fit.
The duet’s ending is more a transitory pause, at least for Martin as Maxwell moves into her final solo, a bookend to the beginning of the piece. She finds chalk and writes “To Dust You Shall Return” on the back wall before picking up a hidden bowl of white liquid and returning to Martin’s resting body. From the bowl of, possibly, milk, Maxwell picks out a book as well as coins before splashing her face and rinsing. She then turns to dump the remainder of the liquid across the floor toward Martin’s head and walks off through a side stage door. Now surrounded by a puddle of white, Martin slowly comes to and exits to the back of the theatre, through doors that lead to the back alley. This final image of Martin in the doorway was stunning as we see just his silhouette between the dark stage and the illuminated outdoors, steam rising from his chest. Before disappearing into the night, he turns around to give us one last look, marking his end, her end, their end, the end.
In the post-show talkback, Jauregui mentioned that the duet started from a Renaissance painting featuring Adam and Eve, Masaccio’s fresco The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Looking at the image after the fact, I can see how the movement referenced elements of the work: a hand covering eyes, one chest concaved as though in shame, the other chest projecting outwards as though in plea, both bodies moving forward. And though interesting as a starting point from a movement perspective, this was not the dance of Adam and Eve. Albatross is more about equals, two individuals inescapably connected. The duet had an otherworldly quality about it, a science fiction influence that seemed to place it in another dimension. It was weird and wonderful in its performance of the universal human condition.
Cohorts in the Vancouver dance scene, Anne Cooper, Ziyian Kwan and Ron Stewart have known and worked with each other for thirty years. But creating a concert together, things near & far at the Firehall Arts Centre, was a first. Choreographers Josh Martin and Tedd Robinson brought Dwelling, the title of both pieces, to fruition.