Calgary’s Fluid Movement Arts Festival, presented by Springboard Dance, included New York’s Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and emerging Calgary-based and Western Canadian choreographers. The festival encompassed physical performance in contemporary dance, as well as within other modes of expression. Perhaps the most significant show was Cedar Lake’s Canadian premiere of three exquisite works – Jo Strømgren’s “Sunday, Again”, Crystal Pite’s “Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue”, and Didy Veldman’s “frame of view” at Theatre Junction’s GRAND. That stated, Fluid’s Prairie Dance Circuit (presented at Dancers’ Studio West and featuring works from four emerging Western Canadian choreographers) and Physical Therapy Cabaret (featuring Calgary artists at the Auburn Saloon) added a grassroots element to the nine-day event. (By way of disclosure, I participated as a blogger for the festival’s website).
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Theatre Junction GRAND Jo Strømgren’s “Sunday, Again” (performed by Cedar Lake) is a series of duets to J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Meine Freude”, Motet No. 3 in E Minor, and Sonatas 2 and 3. In it, Strømgren references the game of badminton, mostly through the costumes and props — there are birdies, a black net, short white skirts, folding chairs (akin to those for spectators at some sporting events), and a bent racket. The choreography occasionally alludes to the light swinging arm movements and other motions familiar in badminton; however, the narrative in this work is more about the constructed relationships between the dancers. The poised balletic postures one dancer takes suddenly seem cruelly manipulated by the others: several men toss a woman into a perfect arabesque penchée, after surrounding her and limiting her movement onstage. In a duet, a lift turns into one dancer crumpling the other, almost violently, into a chair. In fact, an unpleasant undercurrent lurks in the character dynamics offered by “Sunday, Again”.
In the program notes, Strømgren states that the dance “thematically treats the domestic jungle of luxury problems and gender frictions”, and his choreography is gorgeous, fierce, lyrical, and bordering on violent. Even the props have connotations — notably the birdies. The first birdie appears humourously; the prop slowly emerges from a dancer’s mouth, as though it is something she is shyly hiding away from the others. In another vignette, one performer steals a birdie from another’s hands by way of trickery, as though it were part of a pleasant game. Here, the performers smile as they pirouette around each other in a playful way. Then, a sullen dancer is seemingly forced to stand still while she endures another performer reaching into her pants for some time. The effect evokes an unpleasant sense of sexual violation, which is only broken when the infringing party pulls out and reveals another birdie to the audience. At one point, many birdies appear onstage, falling from a dancer’s dress; the expression in both the dancer’s face and body language is one of remorse. She hangs her head as she stares at the props near her feet. The birdies function in visual metaphors that convey the sense of shame and conquest apparent in the relationships between dancers.
Crystal Pite’s “Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue” is set on a dark stage; the lighting suggests we are watching different vignettes under the illumination of street lights at night. The music is a selection from Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack to the film Solaris. Near the start of “Ten Duets”, a dancer controls one of the lights, illuminating the other performers onstage, creating a narrative in the ever-changing dimension of shadows. The shadows and silhouettes of the dancers become integral to the atmosphere of “Ten Duets”. At one point, the choreography suggests one dancer is drowning, and is rescued by another, as he is literally dragged by his leg across the stage. Moments of stillness (i.e. one performer standing calmly, hand extending behind her) contrast with quick rhythmic movements (i.e. a dancer running behind the former in a desperate attempt to hold the extended hand.) The movement, the mood lighting and the performances combined into a mesmerizing and haunting tableau of an underground world where the rescuer and the rescued blurred together.
Didy Veldman’s “frame of view” is described in the program as “an investigation of physical movement and how that movement might manifest itself in the human body”. Onstage, three doors open and close on a range of characters with different physicalities and colourful costumes. This series of vignettes transpires to songs by Jacques Offenbach, Nina Simone and Dean Martin (to name but a few). A particularly notable section is danced to the song “Ne me quitte pas”, in which the dancer moves (and is seemingly moved by) a table and a chair, in all possible ways. The weight of her head is supported by her hand, elbow upon the table; then her weight shifts to her arm on the table; then to her back on the table; and again; and then the table itself shifts in quick transitions. “frame of view” also includes a party scene in which a man is both literally and metaphorically locked out. A group interacts (as though they are mingling) on the other side of the door, trailing behind the curtain and off the stage, as he desperately tries to open the door numerous times. Despite leaning all his weight on the door, sprinting towards it, it remains closed to him. Later a slow motion “brawl”, danced as a humorous duet between an ill-fated couple, is highlighted by the locked-out character’s awkwardly timed showering of confetti over them. “frame of view” holds dark moments and funny moments, as well as a particularly sinister image in which the impression of a face and hands appears in what turns out to be a door made from a pliable substance. Arguably the most compelling and accessible program in the festival, this performance from Cedar Lake certainly helped raise Fluid’s profile as a showcase of Canadian and international talent.
Prairie Dance Circuit
Dancers’ Studio West According to Springboard Dance, the concept behind Prairie Dance Circuit was to create a forum for the presentation of and exchange among prairie dance artists, which would include a four-city tour (the cities of each of the participants). These prairie-based choreographers included Calgarians Jason Stroh and Hilary Maxwell, Edmonton’s Raena Waddell and Winnipeg’s Andrew Milne. (Maxwell’s addition as a choreographer was impressively last minute, as Regina’s Joelle Arnusch and Robert Regala had to cancel their Calgary appearance.)
Maxwell’s “Thessalonike” — danced at Fluid by Jennifer Jaspar – was a maelstrom of simple yet powerful phrases. While the work drew inspiration from the character in the legend, who throws herself into the Aegean sea and becomes an immortal creature – the dance stands on its own as a potent work. Jasper’s stage presence complemented Maxwell’s reflective choreography. At one moment, Jaspar curls into a foetal position on the floor; the image conjured from her spine’s contour and pulse could well allude to a sea creature, as the mythology suggests. Maxwell described the piece as an exploration of “the subject of memory, reflection, and self transformation.” The choreographic journey evokes a sense of metamorphosis, as the audience witnesses a dance in which vulnerable images slowly evolve into powerful movements.
Raena Waddell’s “The Surrender Method”, performed by Waddell and Vincent Forcier, includes a sweeping duet in which the performers’ movement seems to be in opposition, as though the dancers are coming toward each other with a different motivation for each interaction. There is audience participation in the piece as well, with three members lighting the dancers with flashlights, casting interesting shadows that in turn become part of the performance. Waddell and Forcier execute difficult lifts and create interesting images with their bodies as they hit different positions together, and then flow apart. Yet the piece itself, which is described in the program notes as “a series of body landscapes”, seemed unresolved. The narrative reference at the end of “The Surrender Method” — in which one dancer kisses the other — seemed forced.
Andrew Milne’s “Map” includes an interesting movement concept, with dancers Johanna Riley and Sarah Roche having casual conversations between choreographed sections (I recall one of their exchanges was about sharks giving birth). The stage floor is partially mapped out with masking tape in rectangles to mark the parameters of a performance area. Riley and Roche change the tape — or “map” — throughout the performance, thereby changing their performance area. They occasionally add commentary about the awkwardness of the tape, as they slowly begin to stick some of the tape onto their own bodies. They also verbally call out their dance moves to each other; Roche tells Riley to “begin a phrase”, and they go back and forth naming tasks to do onstage. The effect is that the dancers themselves are choreographing the piece on the spot.
Jason Stroh’s “bang/crunch”, performed by Hilary Maxwell, includes a great deal of jolted and isolated movements, as if the dancer was just learning how to walk. Maxwell starts the piece lying on her back. Every movement – as she kicks, rolls over, blinks and flails her arms about — seems to take an exhausting amount of effort. When Maxwell stands onstage, it is as though her centre of gravity is impossible to pinpoint. She moves, with her knees facing inwards, her arms curve as though she is an awkward ballerina. Maxwell’s performance illuminated Stroh’s movement, which was in simple and pulsing phrases.
Physical Therapy Cabaret
The concept of giving dancers limited space in a bar and seeing what they do with it added variety to Fluid. As a venue, Calgary’s Auburn Saloon presents an interesting challenge to performers with its non-traditional theatre space, the tables and booths that surround the stage, and the ambience, which includes the sound of clinking glasses, servers, bartenders and bar regulars talking through performances.
The Cabaret included an eclectic mix of performers. Calgary’s Danny Nielson performed a laid-back tap dance in a piece called “Spanish Joint”. Calgary contemporary dance artist Helen Husak presented a lyrical, elegant and fluttering work, “Bloom”, set to Bach’s “Bist Du Bei Mir”. A robust red wine would have complimented this gorgeous and haunting work that seemed to be a performance from a past era. Husak starts her work in the audience, clutching the rather large fur collar on her hooded costume and looking about with distant eyes, in a manner not unlike the silent film performances of screen star Greta Garbo. During her performance, she gently takes the heavy-looking fur hood off, revealing another texture underneath: a light silk dress. The choreography starts off as though she is a character shrouded in secrecy. Then her movement becomes more exposed, her arms become extended and vulnerable. Performance artist Istvan Kantor presented a fairly sophisticated multimedia presentation with an edited film that included clips of disturbing footage from Hollywood movies and newscasts. This, combined with a song and relatively amateur dance movement onstage, as well as a team of performers dressed up to look like neo-Nazis, made up his presentation of “Song of the Anti-Hero”.
The real gems from the Cabaret, however, resonated because they were autobiographical, raw, and held both humour and heartbreak. Neah Kalcounis’ “Ifegenia’s Dance” is part monologue, part dance; one minute she’s humorously describing how to wear the perfect postmodern tutu (basically by anchoring a large piece of tulle netting into her pants), and in the next she’s describing her relationship to both dance and her now-departed grandmother (for whom the piece is partially named; the piece is also a self-portrait). Her footstool prop transforms into a walker for her aging dancer’s body; Kalcounis describes herself as arthritic after thousands of steps as a dancer and choreographer. It is an autobiographical sketch of the choreographer in the present moment and, witnessing this work, one is struck by the sheer truth of it. Rather than putting on a performance or presenting an onstage version of her personality, Kalcounis presents herself as she is: at one moment she breaks the flow, murmuring that she is nervous about sharing her personal story in a bar. When Kalcounis flies into her choreography, it is magical: her arms and legs flow seamlessly, as though she is a marionette. In the end, her postmodern tutu turns into a cryptic veil in this dedication to her grandmother and herself.
Calgary performance artist and writer Mark Hopkin’s “Muskoka” starts both as a rather funny homage to his family vacations and as an awkward blind date (he encouraged audience participation by inviting a member of the audience to sit onstage with him and his laptop). A slideshow includes intimate and awkward family pictures from his childhood. One shot shows his grandfather, dressed as Santa Claus, in a canoe with a Christmas tree. Other photographs show people in chairs at family gatherings: one in particular features Hopkins and his sister, dressed up as royalty, sitting in two chairs decorated in paint and tinsel. At this point in the slideshow, Hopkins amusingly speculates that his interest in performance art started with his quirky family. Yet “Muskoka” quickly turns into a profound portrait of people he loved who are no longer here. Hopkins’ piece ends with pictures taken in Muskoka in the present time; instead of portraying his grandparents, the slideshow now only reveals one empty chair — an image of a place that used to be inhabited.
Jamie Tognazzini’s “Barring an Act of Gawd” must be mentioned for the sheer delight of watching it. Tognazzini plays a beguilingly misguided character facing down volcanic lava for the love of her deity. Her props include a stuffed toy, a bracelet with the Virgin Mary, and a miniature church her character has “built”, made out of cardboard and coloured plastic. “Barring an Act of Gawd” includes one of the greatest costume changes and transitions one could imagine for cabaret theatre: the lights dim, so that we can only see Tognazzini’s shadow (this is in the moment the lava is said to hit the stage). We then hear a monologue from the “deity” (which Tognazzini has pre-recorded), who turns out to be a devilishly sardonic character. “Just look at yourself!” her deity quips, after complaining about being interrupted on her smoke break. “Save yourself,” she commands, after dressing down the heroine onstage. When the lights come up, Tognazzini has donned a flamboyant lava-red dress that only partially covers her body, with a headpiece almost as tall as she is.
Hattori and Walsh
Two dance artists involved in Calgary’s major dance companies — Decidedly Jazz Danceworks and Alberta Ballet — showcased their own works at Fluid. “upon black earth” by Deanne Walsh and “Solo?” By Yukichi Hattori both included live musicians during their performances.
Walsh’s “upon black earth” consisted of a series of smaller vignettes. This performance was its most engaging when Walsh, as the performer, directly interacted with the musicians onstage. When her movements drew from the African and Cuban dances Walsh has studied, the performance came alive, but the piece lacked this root of energy throughout. At the start of the dance, Walsh is posing and slowly moving by the side of the stage more than she is involved in the music. At a certain point, the dancer joins the musicians onstage, and they all take drum sticks and pound out a rhythmic jam on the black stage. This was interesting, but lasted too long.
Hattori’s work “Solo?” took inspiration from a film by Santiago Grasso, which purportedly examines humans functioning as machines, according to the program notes. Though he is small in stature, Hattori’s snapping movement was at times nearly gravity defying. His positions flip back and forth, reminding one of a series of quick photographs or movie stills. There was definitely a mechanical sense to Solo?. Hattori has studied movement from street dance in both Tokyo and New York, and this background seemed to seep into this partly improvised work. A two-man music group, The Dystopians, provided the multi-layered soundscape for Solo?. There was also a colourful surprise to draw the audience in: balloons were passed out at the start of the show.
The Fluid Festival also included Spark, an event that marked the results of a two-week collaboration between dance and visual artists. This was the one event in which I felt disappointed. The visual artists and dancers themselves were obviously talented, and many of the performances had interesting ideas, yet they seemed incomplete. Part of the problem was that it felt impossible for the audience to appreciate the journey of process that the artists had engaged in, at least when the final product was shown after such a short amount of time.
Overall, Calgary’s Fluid Movement Arts Festival was mostly successful in bringing engaging works to Calgary audiences. I imagine the event will gain even more prominence after the strong showing this year.