A festival that prides itself on presenting works that take risks, the PuSh festival packed a lot of them into two weeks this winter in Vancouver. This year’s festival had a lot to offer audiences; not only the moving body, but also the moving, speaking, seeing, and sensing body. I took in four solos and a group piece over the course of the festival, diverse works that left me feeling hopeful about the possibilities of what dance can and does communicate. Sitting in the theatre, I was kept company by a palpable appreciation for the art form.
Early on in the festival, Louise Lacavalier’s So Blue played to sold-out audiences. They even added an extra performance to accommodate the demand. Her first self-choreographed work begins without announcement as Lecavalier entered and sat casually on a box upstage, even while the eager audience was still getting settled. She walked downstage, the lights dimmed and the piece began. A relentless downbeat of electronic music filled the theatre as she skittered furiously across the stage, in rapidly changing trajectories. What follows is an intensely energetic series of punching, vibrating, hopping and kicking across a geometrically lit stage, all in her signature fast-twitch style.
When the intensity, speed and music of Turkish composer Mercan Dede finally ceased, it is not to rest, but instead Lecavalier inverted herself in a headstand for an impressively long time. Her ribs were visibly expanding and contracting, and her beating heart was exposed in a beautifully strange, disembodied image.
More than halfway through the piece, Frédéric Tavernini entered, seemingly out of nowhere, and the two proceeded into a sequence of partnering and later an extended section where Lecavalier rides on Tavernini’s back, evoking a playful sibling dynamic in part because of the significant size difference between the two performers. He leaves abruptly in much the same way that he entered and while the choreographic logic of transitions like these are a bit lost on me, it is possible to accept them because So Blue really is a solo that lives in Lecavalier’s bodily history and her unique familiarity with the juxtaposition of wild physical abandon and controlled exactitude.
The highlight of PuSh for me was a solo by Belgium’s Lisbeth Gruwez entitled It’s Going to get Worse and Worse and Worse, my Friend. Beyond a fabulously evocative title, the solo was a mesmerizing study of precision and power. Set in a wide, rectangular corridor of light in the centre of the stage, Gruwez appears dressed in slick gender-neutral attire: buttoned-up white shirt, slacks and freshly shined shoes, with perfectly coifed and gelled hair. Gruwez stands looking straight downstage and gives the audience the rare and arresting experience of being seen and acknowledged by the performer. She holds us in the stillness of her gaze and her commanding presence just a tad longer than comfortable for effect.
When she begins to move, it is with meticulous hand gestures delivered with impeccable accuracy. She slices through the space in repeating patterns that conjure up rhythms of speech. So it is not surprising when snippets of speaking come into the soundscape created by Maarten Van Cauwenberghe. Together Gruwez and Van Cauwenberghe form Voetvolk, their collective dance/performance company founded in 2007. The work features audio clippings of sermons by televangelist and Pentecostal pastor Jimmy Swaggart. His words are thick with a charismatic American accent and are chopped up, isolated and cued live (unbeknownst to the audience) by Van Cauwenberghe in perfect timing with Gruwez’s movement. Her gestures link together, signalling words and systematically building phrases. Thankfully, this relationship between gesture and word never reaches a predictable point, but instead leaves us hanging on, intently watching and listening in order to piece the meaning together. In this section, the title of the work is delicately dropped in through Swaggart’s speech, orienting us to the content without completely directing our experience. Like the entirety of the work, it is subtle without being overstated.
Midway through the piece, Gruwez undergoes a clever and evocative costume change. By rolling up her socks over her pants and pulling up her waistband, she invokes the stature, command and power of the dictators and rulers of history and seemingly prepares herself for her great oration.
Toward the end, Gruwez appears to be in an entranced state, her body convulsing in small tremours as she moves tentatively downstage in conjunction with melodic string music building to a crescendo. I was relieved as she released from this physical hold and converted from severe exactitude to joy and lightness, in a series of buoyant and beautiful jumps. The cherry on top was the deliciously unfulfilled expectations in the piece’s ending, simple, understated, but powerful.
In Fish Eyes, the first of a trilogy written, choreographed and performed by Toronto’s Anita Majumdar, we follow seventeen-year-old Minna, from Port Moody, B.C. (also Majumdar’s home town), and “Aunty,” her classical Indian dance teacher. In this one-woman performance woven though theatre and dance, Majumdar flips between these two characters seamlessly. Interchanging, quick cuts between women are signalled with movements that are surprisingly easy to follow. The show produced by Nightswimming Theatre, centres around Minna’s angsty despair that, while everyone else in high school is living the teenage dream of hanging out, drinking and making out, she’s preparing for an Indian Dance Festival with Aunty. There is lots of humour and beauty in the strained relationship between teacher and student and tension between youth and the experience of age. Amongst the at-times trivial perspective of teenage Minna, the show confronts colonialism, feminism and cultural appropriation and the empowering role dance can play with a light touch.
Highlight moments included a classical Indian dance performed to Destiny’s Child’s I’m a Survivor and Majumdar’s skilled delivery of complex and quick text complete with accents while sustaining intricate rhythmical footwork. It’s the multitasking and swift changes between striking stillness and spirited dance that are the real gems of the piece.
Majumdar brings Fish Eyes to a most satisfying ending that melds movement and storytelling together in its most harmonious way with beautiful imagery. It’s in this moment that we reflect back on the intricate construction of the story and all that she has woven together to bring us this completion.
Later on in the festival Majumdar performed the entire trilogy in one epic performance that also included Boys with Cars and Let Me Borrow That Top.
In Faustin Linyekula’s solo Le Cargo, he poses the question, “what is the point of all this dancing?” The multitalented Congolese artist goes right to the heart of the matter in this upfront and personal blend of storytelling, music, singing and dance. Linyekula’s direct address of the audience expresses his doubts about whether ten years of touring the world as a performer has made any difference at all to the people of his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As he talks about his homeland and the survival of culture, tradition, identity and artistry despite decades of war, one wants to answer his question in the affirmative, but instead the depth and weight of the question hangs in the air throughout the performance.
Le Cargo, which has toured extensively in Europe, Africa and North America since 2011 is refreshingly frank. Linyekula is barefoot, in a skirt-like wrap of brown cloth and simple shirt. He enters onto a bare bones, modest and slightly subdued scene that waits to be animated. On stage right, sits a circle of spotlights, plugged in, cords exposed, all facing inward, a microphone downstage centre and shin busters upstage left. Nothing is hidden, no trickery or theatrical magic, and the house lights remain up long past the piece’s beginning.
The storyteller sits down on a small stool he has carried in with him and tells us about his first memories of dance in a little village called Obilo where he grew up. He takes us along on a trip back to Obilo in adulthood in hopes of recapturing those dances of celebration and ritual. “But I am not here to tell stories. I am here to dance,” he repeats as his fingers move delicately and purposefully, our first indication of the expression that his body holds.
When he does turn to dance, it is a blend of contemporary and traditional movement. He approaches the stream of light coming from the shin-busters stage left, carefully dips his feet into the path of light with soft joints, a twisting spine and winding articulations. Later, he enters the circle of lights that act as a contemporary campfire. They light his body as he moves in pulsating, polyrhythmic, trance-like undulations. It is a dance that doesn’t care if anyone is watching and yet with recorded sounds and voices, and a collection of giant shadows cast by the lights behind him there is the impression of an entire community surrounding him.
Alternating between narrations, dance, music, soundscape and singing, Le Cargo has a distinct rhythm. Linyekula demonstrates his incredible skill as a storyteller by providing pause and giving space to digest what has occurred both in word and in movement. And with a beautiful use of repetition, he gives us time to reconsider. His solo is inextricably tied to the reality of his long-suffering homeland, but despite the state of the Democratic Republic of the Congo he manages to offer us an understated feeling of hope and beauty that counters the darkness of some of his story and ultimately leads us to affirm his question about the role of his art. Yes, it matters.
In the final weekend of the festival, I caught Time Machine by Vancouver’s MACHiNENOiSY at Scotiabank Dance Centre. The ambitious new work created by Co-Artistic Directors Delia Brett and Daelik brings together seven professional dancers and eight children ranging in ages from five to thirteen. Time Machine is a costume, set and prop extravaganza that showcases the imaginative work of collaborating sculptor/costume artist Natalie Purschwitz.
It begins with a lighthearted exploration of design: circles, squares and tubes of grey foam are arranged and rearranged by the performers who build and dismantle numerous sculptures. The pieces evoke parts of an imaginary contraption, perhaps cogs and mechanical pieces of the time machine that eventually leads these professional dancers into a playful world with children. This first section is accompanied by strangely dark and droning live music by Chris Kelly, Peggy Lee and Dylan VanDerSchyff and has a suspicious lack of children.
The piece takes an otherworldly turn when Purschwitz’s whimsical costume pieces appear and produce oozing, amorphous forms as bodies disappear into long tubes of fabrics and meld with giant, globular, beanbag-type outfits. Despite the pleasure of watching such amusing forms, I kept waiting for the much-anticipated appearance of small dancing bodies to break the darkness. At one point three kids are birthed onto stage via a ridiculously long fabric, snake-like tube, they stand awkwardly downstage for a moment and then disappear without satisfaction.
When the young people finally do arrive on the scene in earnest they are lovely and entertaining and at times unpredictable with some wild movements from the particularly small ones, and considerable cooperation and clarity from taller ones. In the only real full-cast section, the world transforms dramatically into a bright, open, clear stage. Together the cast builds a unison movement phrase in an apparent “add-on, pyramid” structure. It was the most formal and “dancey” part of the piece. They verbally named the person who created the move as they dance in unison and in that section it is possible to imagine the rehearsal process the group underwent and the scene behind the making of Time Machine. In its final section, the piece concludes with a beautifully creepy family portrait that sums up this whimsical work with a pleasing combination of overstimulation, play and performance.