After many years of choreographing for themselves, about three years ago, Good Women Dance Collective began commissioning choreographers to set work on them. It’s a wise choice, as they began as a young Edmonton company of post-university dancers building themselves on their own terms in a city with few role models. But lately we’ve seen them in the work of Peggy Baker of Toronto, Freya Björg Olafson of Winnipeg, Helen Husak of Calgary, Mélanie Demers of Montréal and now Justine Chambers of Vancouver. This has really pushed the potential and experience of the Good Women to a new level.
For this piece, Back Up Front, Chambers explores the dance vocabulary and near-star power of backing vocalists. To do this, she dressed the Good Women (Ainsley Hillyard, Alison Kause, Alida Kendell, Kate Stashko) in loose gold or silver pants. The four women wear suit jackets and different coloured scarves, calling to mind Motown groups such as The Temptations and The Four Tops. The dancers are backlit for the opening sequence, which starts with recorded applause. As the lights come up, we see that they are on a large, flat rotating disk, like a giant turntable. The disk seems to be about eight feet in diameter, and they remain on the disk for the entire piece. The music (composed by Nancy Tam) includes the opening vamp from My Girl by The Temptations, and as the Good Women rotate on the disk, they lightly groove their hips right and left to the beat. Tam extends this riff far longer, drawing it out, and the dancers remain stoic, focused on their job of keeping the beat and looking the same.
The music riff slows humorously, and the dancers disfigure both their groove and their stances, moving the piece into more of a surreal state. As they find the beat again, the dancers move apart, then close together, pointing, turning, grooving, almost always snapping. They snap until you realize how much it must hurt to snap so relentlessly, and they just keep snapping. This pattern continues, a mind-numbing set of bland but highly specific moves, and blank stares from the dancers. The patterns are simple, but coordination and maintaining the sequence is crucial for any backup dancer — real or interpreted. The dancers never sing, but during breaks in the music, they count out beats together. At one point, the music shimmers and becomes sustained and euphoric, and the dancers are backlit and become haloed silhouettes, a tableau common in big arena concerts.
The simple movement itself is made exciting by the fact that the rotating dancers are always coming at us or being turned from us, adding a perspective rarely seen of backup dancers’ choreography. It was disconcerting, however, to see a stagehand pushing the bar to rotate the turntable. It comes off like a horse-drawn pug mill. If it’s meant to be uncomfortable, it is successful in that. But if the black-clad stagehand is considered invisible, then it’s possible to enjoy the rotating stoic pageantry. If it’s intended as an extra layer of meaning, perhaps alluding to the soul-crushing music business machine, it suddenly becomes a much darker piece.
Backup choreography is meant to be decorative — never upstaging the star and always supporting the virtuosity of the singing without distorting the voice. The work calls to mind a recent documentary entitled 20 Feet From Stardom about the careers of backup singers, people who are never the stars and always in support of others. Regardless, over twenty minutes or so, the overall effect of watching the repetition and spinning in Back Up Front induces a nearly hypnotic state in the audience and is wholly entertaining to watch.
This piece was highly unusual for the Good Women, who often employ many entrances and exits, female-on-female aggression, fast charges and falls and psychological distress. Chambers’ work is fluid and integrated, yet very specific in regard to gesture. There was some visible effort on behalf of the Good Women to embody this fluidity in the groove and also find the genuine initiation and execution present in the quotidian gestures of a Chambers work. It was gratifying to see this change in approach to both content and technique for these artists.
Convergence is an annual Good Women production and always opens with a piece by a guest choreographer. This year the guest was Stéphanie Morin-Robert with Within | Between. Danced by Bridget Jessome to music and spoken word by Ian Ferrier, the piece presents an eerie dreamscape of thresholds and space. The dancer and poet are projected and lit differently onto a long stretch of vertical blinds, at times revealing and obscuring, as Jessome moves behind, through and with the blinds in varied states of discomfort and disorientation. Ferrier speaks in a low sustained voice, almost whispered at times, recalling dreams that blur into almost intangible memories. Jessome and her light, fluid movement and full, supple falls seem to represent a young woman who still haunts him.
Both pieces in Convergence made use of a huge central stage piece, with extensive lighting design, and both engaged in hypnotic repetition, making for a subdued and unsettling, yet engaging, evening.