A View from Here
By Imogen Whyte
This year audiences strayed far and wide at Vancouver’s Dancing on the Edge Festival, where the action drifted beyond the festival’s usual haven, that beloved brick building known as the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. I absorbed the scent of a grove of ancient cedars in Stanley Park, strolled along weed-ridden railway tracks running through a neighborhood of tenacious and troubled souls, and crossed two bridges twice to arrive at the furthest flung venues across Burrard Inlet. Though I risked little in journeying to these places, the bravest work of the festival was buzzing a fair distance from the familiar hearth of the Firehall’s home stage.
The Firehall’s opening mixed bill, Edge 1, — presenting short works by local artists Jennifer Clarke, Caroline Liffman, Rob Kitsos and Montreal’s Namchi Bazar — was astutely programmed, with three of the four works riffing off what seemed to be a memo taken from the desk of Monty Python’s “The Ministry of Silly Walks”. All of them brought flavors of humour into their work, with the exception of Namchi Bazaar’s physically committed solo, “Moon Ghost”, which is enriched instead by an extravagant derivation of bharatanatyam vocabulary, a supple use of the head and neck and shockingly lush wide lunges. Sitting deeply there for minutes at a time she re-asserts the power of open hips, which should re-classify forever the two-dimensional, stick-thin Balanchine posture as a very feeble imitation of femininity. Previously based in Seattle, Vancouver’s Rob Kitsos also brought two powerful female dancers to perform with him. Jane Osbourne and Jocelyn Wong, both graduates of Simon Fraser University, so competently performed his encyclopedic thesis on the behavioral evolution of animal to man that I felt reluctant to complain about the ultimately exhausting density of ideas that were packed into his “Thought For Food”.
Contrasting those valiantly ambitious intentions were a number of shorter pieces throughout the festival that shied away from any complexity at all. Between the two polarities, I identified a craving within myself for some kind of transformative experience, which fleetingly slipped through the hours and hours of dark space we all shared together.
However, there were moments, signifiers in the dancer’s vocabulary, that spoke of something real and electric in the creative process. In Andre Gingras’ “CYP17”, Kenneth Flak dances with a paradoxically grounded nervous expressiveness. The Norwegian dancer’s distinctive training includes Kalaripayatuu, a seldom seen South Asian martial arts form. Although the spine-lashing vocabulary of Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s “Rite of Spring” was created over fifteen years ago, the primordial motor that drives the dancing still looks vibrant and had many dance goers applauding out of their seats during the curtain call at the Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver.
Mascall Dance brought five dancers, two musicians and stunning backdrop images by Chris Randle to the brand new Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver to present the full-length “Bean Bar Zambuka, a delirious series of dance canvasses. Having significant research to draw on, the dancers explored a selection of set phrases within twenty-seven improvised performances of the shape-shifting and character-building “Nijinsky-Gibber Jazz Club”, which has been presented over the last three years in venues ranging from churches to bars, writer’s festivals and cafes. Her dancers embody more than just the knowledge of their individual physicality and phrases. Their character work penetrates you, and is embellished with small costuming details like an empty tool belt, a lone white collar, a mashed-up cowboy hat and a small microphone attached with band-aids to a dancer’s face. Mascall’s fluency with anatomical systems, via her Body-Mind Centering™ training, supports a wide and potent range of expressiveness that is unclassifiable but easily understood. Within this heightened conductivity of ideas and feelings “Bean Bar Zambuka” offers a perfect balance of random narrative, spatial sensitivity and theatrical intrigue.
In Edge 2, the program notes for Jung Ah-Chung’s “Connection” promise an experience of mutual transformation through sharing the “liberating process” of her own journey. In one lovely and startling image from the work she slowly destroys the symmetry of a circle of white vellum writing paper lying on the floor. As she bends over the last four undisturbed sheets and slips into them, we see they are stitched together, forming an envelope long enough to cover her arms. While her dance in these delicate sleeves sweetly transmits the resonance of her experience, the solo falls short of the shamanic potential suggested. Nevertheless, Chung clearly dances from her heart.
Sharing this program, but slightly more faint of heart was “You Are Here”, Susan Elliott’s new work created for a local trio of dancers known as the Tomorrow Collective. A faint scrim, of what I assume was dry ice, introduces a dusty, cinematic kind of seduction into the lighting design. Elliott’s subtle study of cause and effect seems content not to penetrate the tremendous mood created by purple gels, split spotlight shins and a hip, dance-club-like score by Jesse Zubok. Perhaps this effect was intended; however, it prevented me from being able to engage with the physical impulses of this uncharacteristically reserved piece.
Toronto’s Marie-Josée Chartier, an experienced performer who appeared last on the line-up of Edge 3, refers in her program text to: “what we see, witness, live, observe without having control over it — feeling dizzy by images bombarding the mind and soul”. In “Sous nos Yeux / Under our Eyes”, her style is severe, yet lush and watch-able because of her visceral openness. She attains an intensity of focus that fixes us to the pared down severity and truth of her refreshingly “un-pretty” vocabulary. As Chartier herself seems to look unflinchingly at the pendulum of chance and cruelty, she seems to achieve the truly shamanic feat of stopping the world, slowing the pivot point of the pendulum long enough to achieve clarity as her arms sweep in front of her in slow circles. Earlier on the program, Chick Snipper’s “The Return” was less intense but compelling nonetheless. Mystery, sadness and simplicity are beautifully blended through the smaller, more personal articulations of hands and eyes by dancer Holly Bright. “The Return” succeeds with Snipper’s choice of two other strong elements: a beautiful backdrop of silhouetted trees and a superb score by Owen Belton.
UK-based Carolyn Deby’s site-specific work “City Skinned” offers all the ritual, props and opportunity to enter a personal altered state. I join a tiny cluster of spectators outside the Firehall and we are led away, shortly before sunset, to a little chapel in the downtown eastside where we obediently insert the sponge earplugs we are given. Ensconced between two “ushers”, front and back, we follow the colorfully costumed performers through some of the most desperate streets in Vancouver within our very own little mobile “safe house”. Within minutes, deprived of our auditory sense, the city transforms itself before our very eyes. Railway tracks and gracefully decrepit old warehouses become objects of fascination. Many residents of the neighborhood emerge from the woodwork, partly because we are given the freedom to truly look upon them and partly because they come forward to look upon us. At the Chinatown boundary the ushers summons us to board a vintage school bus, and we chug along to an unknown destination. The performers arrive before us, and again we follow their chartreuse wigs and jackets through the dusk, deep into Stanley Park for the finale. After the applause, we remove our earplugs to a sudden intensity of bird song and nocturnal clicks. Senses altered, we float back to the school bus and gaze at the trail of lights that lead us back to our point of origin. When we arrive, the streets — the hardened and most resistant of edges surrounding the Firehall — are similarly altered. “City Skinned” is less a performance than a hypnotic and beautifully functioning work of art. It is art that opens a passage into my own creativity and urges me to use that opening to perceive the world with keener and possibly kinder eyes. Transformation complete.
And a View from Here
By Mary Kelly
Well Imogen, performance in the street, like Carolyn Deby’s Siren’s Crossing, reminds me of an odd thing that happened on my way to the Firehall one night. I was flying through the streets of Vancouver’s downtown eastside on my bike, when I swooshed around the corner at Gore and Keefer to come upon an ambulance blocking the road. I hopped up onto the sidewalk and saw a circle of five or six uniformed policeman standing around a skinny body handcuffed and face down on the grass. One of the officers pressed his boot into the sacrum of the traumatized drug user who screamed long pitiful howls, while the others chatted among each other. As I locked up my bike and retreated into the safety of the theatre cocoon to wait for the performance to officially begin, the cries echoed across Hastings Street. I mused on the boundaries dividing the street and the stage, and how sometimes the boundary blurs where one begins and the other ends.
La Caravan performs on this night when the screams echo in the streets, and due to the creative mind of choreographer Maya Lewandowsky, the screams continue, embodied and amplified on stage by microphones attached to the dancers’ bodies, producing an eerie and surreal reverb effect. “Ha—a-a-a-a-a”, the performers exhale over and over again. Lewandowsky, an Israeli native, injects a steady dose of irony and parody into a dream-like space she achieves with contemporary movement on five female dancers from Calgary, visibly ballet-informed, including herself. The Edward-Scissor-Hands-meets-Metallica costumes feature slick black unitards with huge black scissor fingers that at times glow in the dark. Heavy metal music extends the weirdness of the image. In some respects, the wild imaginings of this zany company might be the edgiest show at this year’s festival; but from a cultural standpoint, La Caravan presents traditional dance bodies: white, ballet-trained, young and female. In terms of performers’ ethnicity, gender, ability, movement vocabulary and artistic liaisons, the Edge offers much cultural diversity this year, and underlines the continuing impact of global cultures on contemporary dance in Canada.
Karen Jamieson and Byron Chief Moon collaborate in the creation and performance of “Elmer and Coyote”, which layers the recorded narration of an aboriginal Plains story spoken by Beverly Hungry Wolf in her own language, over a soundscore by Sandy Scofield. The effect produces a trance-like ambience that provides a cross-cultural container for the Euro-American dance vocabulary. The strong opening to this piece reveals Jamieson wearing braids and a t-shirt that reads “Coyote”, and the voice of Chief-Moon telling a Blood creation story in English. His rich voice pulls us in, and then a spotlight reveals Chief-Moon reclining in a dark suit, downstage centre, his chin tilted to the sky. He delivers the story using only his voice, then carefully adjusts his reclined position, turns his face to us, and transforms his energy into that of an animal spirit. He rises and moves on all fours a few brief steps, before acknowledging the duet that ensues with Jamieson. Maybe my white, anglo butt is projecting some big expectations onto an aboriginal performer, but I remember that I registered the energetic shift when Chief-Moon channeled that spirit energy. I saw it happen.
Transformation is also the theme of Jung-Ah Chung’s “Connection”, a solo work that displays the richness of cultural fusion. Drawing on dance training and ideals informed by Korean culture, Chung’s image-based choreography and outstanding use of props alludes to the notion of the soul’s struggle for liberation. Dressed in white, she tackles these Big Ideas, executing clean movement pathways that borrow from Asian-based forms and allow her to assume the characters of warrior, goddess, seeker and mortal woman. The low-level movement she performs covered in fluttering paper suggests the metaphor of the mind cluttered with unwanted thoughts. Namchi Bazar’s “Moon Ghost” on the Edge One program also speaks to the role of Asian influences in contemporary dance. Her blended training in kathak, bharatanatyam and Western dance technique pours from her body in a sinewy, finely-nuanced performance that employs video montage, but which for me only detracted from her own captivating movement style.
Wen Wei Wang opened the festival with “Unbound”, a full-length work on three women and three men that understandably earned four encore-standing ovations. The work draws on the choreographer’s Chinese heritage of binding women’s feet as sexual fetish and cultural practice. A multitude of duos and trios structures the work and shows off the virtuosity of all six dancers in a choreographic style that demands athletic rigour, contact dance skills and ballet technique. Wang obtains authentic three inch lotus shoes from the Chinese Opera that mimic the illusion of bound feet and the lotus shoes becomes integral to the choreography, as we watch women and men perform complex movement in the elevated heels. The work provides the opportunity to reflect on a brutal and gendered practice and yet I found myself strangely unmoved and unsure of Wang’s attitude. In one moment, however, the musical score by Giorgi Magnanensi triggers the experience of horror as we witness a female dancer effect a wobble in the tiny shoe, grasping for support and unable to walk on her own.
Diversity also emerges in this festival in terms of performer ability. Helen Walkley’s “no leg to stand on” challenges the issue of just who gets to dance, in a mixed-ability piece with three performers living with different physical disabilities and three able-bodied performers. Directed as a structured improvisation, Walkley presents duets between able-bodied and disabled performers in many sections, and this sensitive pairing creates a definitive empathy in the viewer. The work exposes the vulnerability of the body itself, and uses the unexpected strategy whereby able-bodied dancers move using crutches and a wheel chair. The piece closes with the able-bodied Anne Cooper moving into a wheel chair. The movement references the opening phrase by Joy Cabilete, who dances without the use of her legs, and reveals for us how she moves in and out of the chair. Cooper embodies symbolically the experience of being confined to a wheel chair, but her gentle repetition serves to dissolve the category of disability as “otherness” and provokes a wider sense of community.
The international work presented by Kinesis choreographer Paras Terezakis and Korzo Productions choreographer André Gingras, draws on movement more grounded in physical theatre than any of the solely Canadian performances. Gingras’ CYP17, socio-political commentary on futuristic outcomes of genetic engineering, confronts the audience with a performer confined to a blazing white psychiatric room or hospital ward. Kenneth Flak maintains a feverish state of agitation as the gene-manipulated prisoner throughout this one-man show. Terezakis’ …and Speaking of Orestes showcases the talents of five gifted dancers in a dramatic postmodern reference to the famous Greek tragedy about Orestes, the son who kills his mother, Clytemnestra, to bring justice for his father’s death. The audience need not be familiar with the historical web of revenge and murder to appreciate this sombre, yet beautiful movement work. These two performances stand in contrast to the rest of the Edge in terms of their inclusion and influence of a dramaturge to create integrated movement-based theatre thematically less abstract than most West Coast dance. Gingras’ work is a Dutch production and Terezakis’ a Greece-Canada co-production; however, both choreographers have assembled truly international companies; program biographies include artists an musicians from multiple European, American and Canadian cities.
Here, Imogen and I have offered our distinct perspectives on this year’s Dancing on the Edge festival: hers, a close attentive micro-view of movement and creativity; mine, a broad macro-sweep of the dance landscape. We all look at dance performance from the perspective and confines of our own cultural and subjective lens, and through layers of meaning constructed by being in a body inscribed by race and gender and by living in a social group inscribed with collective values. When we sit down in the theatre to see a performance we choose to construct a view through one of many different lenses, and we can appreciate that different dance forms privilege different collective expressions — artistic, spiritual, emancipatory, political or entertaining. In our global society, the choice of dance views broadens horizontally, while the depth of expression in existing forms deepens vertically. These are just two of the views from Dancing on the Edge this summer — from our personal and cultural perspective on the Left Coast of Canada!