Since 1988, the Dancing on the Edge festival (DOTE) has been presented at the Firehall Arts Centre and a growing number of partner venues throughout Vancouver. As the city’s longest-running contemporary dance festival, DOTE serves the professional dance milieu through an eclectic program consisting of full-length, mixed bill and site-specific dance works. This year a mixture of emerging, established, local and visiting dancers took to the stage and, like previous years, there seemed to be no particular or overarching aesthetic. However, it would be safe to say that innovative, experimental and works-in-progress foregrounded the entire event. I ventured out to view a handful of such works, which left me with the some lasting impressions.
The Contingency Plan’s premiere of what belongs to you @ The Dance Centre
what belongs to you is a full-length show offered by The Contingency Plan, an ambitious undertaking for a relatively young Vancouver-based company. Founded in 2008 by Leigha Wald, Vanessa Goodman and Jane Osborne, the company continues to carve a niche for themselves as collaborators with many of Vancouver’s stalwart companies. The latest work was choreographed by Vanessa Goodman, who recently received the Iris Garland Emerging Choreographer Award, and was jointly supported by the BC Arts Council, the Dance Centre and DOTE.
The creativity and content unfolded in smooth choreographic components, reaching a fair level of success overall. While the idea of dancing with balloons may conjure childlike, even comedic scenarios, the tone of what belongs to you opted for another mode: exploring dark, moody and highly conceptual scenarios. One of the opening scenes has two female dancers move in and among white floating balloons, objects transformed from whimsical, playful props to something more ephemeral and metaphoric. Six large fans push each of the balloons up against the back wall, which eventually fall, only to begin their floating cycle again. I am reminded of my childhood birthday parties; for me, and perhaps for many in the audience, the balloons trigger moments of nostalgia. In a climactic moment, Gabriel Saloman’s sound-score seems to provoke the dancers to embrace, touching lips. The show’s diverse talent had great physical range and velocity, though at times there seemed to be a lack of commensurate and complex emotional expression. I was intrigued when dancer Josh Martin wore a large plastic bag, now filled with those same balloons, atop his head. He became otherworldly with this expansive cranium and his fragmented gestures created a palpable tension. Near the end, all five dancers came together, working in tandem and, by turns, synchronized through a call-and-response sequence. The closing scene fades away, then starts up again, creating a subtle drag, but this qualm aside, what belongs to you is a credible work made by a company set on making their contribution to the contemporary dance scene. If what belongs to you is any indication of The Contingency Plan’s vision, I will keep an eye on their work and eagerly look forward to their next dance creation.
Edge 2 @ Firehall Arts Centre: Featuring Plastic Orchid Factory, Starr Muranko and Ziyian Kwan
The mixed-bill programming, affectionately known as “Edge 1, 2, 3 or 4,” is a recurring staple of the festival. Normally, each “Edge” consists of three separate acts curated and placed one after another. Once in a while, the dance pieces seem to complement each other with similar themes, but more often than not the pieces are radically different, juxtaposing each other in style and theme. This was the case with Edge 2, an evening of three distinct choreographies by early and mid-career dance artists.
When I saw James Gnam perform his “nutcracker solo” at DOTE back in 2009, his wife Natalie LeFebvre Gnam was supposed to dance her companion solo piece, but she had been injured in the studio before that performance had its time in the limelight. Five years later, Natalie premieres, and many diehard Vancouver artists and audience members who frequently attend the festival were treated to the long-awaited event.
The show opened with filtered or computer-generated voiceovers orating correspondence from the City of Vancouver’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Here, a subtle comment is being made about fulfilling reporting requirements (despite injuries), and this is juxtaposed with public expectations and one’s own sense of creativity and integrity. The opening sequence has LeFebvre Gnam dance, leading audiences through her professional dance journey, not only as an artist who administers the affairs of her own company, but as a performer interested in critical self-reflection. One of the most stunning and intimate moments in the show occurs when LeFebvre Gnam gingerly steps across a bridge of hoops. By turns she carries these props over her shoulders, as if ensnared by bureaucratic hoopla. Unfolding circuitously, the hoops are also emblematic of the showmanship often required of dancers when placed in front of audiences. Joined midstream by husband James and young son Finn, LeFebvre Gnam creates a thoughtful homage, familial and communal in tone, gesturing toward the artful presence of an ever-evolving existence.
The second work on the Edge 2 mixed-bill evening, Spine of the Mother, was created by choreographer Starr Muranko/Starrwind Dance Projects, featuring Tasha Faye Evans. Referencing the name given to the mountain ranges that extend from Argentina to the top of Alaska, the “spine” is metaphorically rendered as a continuous legacy of Indigenous presence. The piece is a somatic and emotive investigation into land, spirit and the creative impulse. With long, dark curly hair, a deep red outfit and lithe body, and a certain charisma, Evans brings a deep integrity to the work: her mental focus and physical exactitude are compelling to watch. In elongated passages, the dance work seems concerned with a tension and inner struggle of a people in flux: the pulling of culture, the legacy of time. While the work-in-progress is merely an excerpt, more digging will surely reveal insights that Muranko seems to be searching for.
The third dance work showcased as part of Edge 2 was called a slow awkward, created and performed by Ziyian Kwan and James Gnam. This choreography is a gentle and intuitive blending of spontaneously structured movement, strong character relationships and witty use of props. At first, as if finding their way into courtship, two characters come to each other with personal baggage, rendered as actual suitcases: one red, one blue. Together, they sit on the floor, creating entry points and divisions between personal space and a shared life. The erotic charge is present but never taken for granted: a quirky sense of humour penetrates the air. Later, both dancers share, literally, the same grey jumpsuit. Writhing in and out of the clothing allows them to slow dance; this moment visually evokes the title of the show, both in terms of tempo and the awkwardness that often accompanies early courtship. Eventually, both performers wear nothing except for their undergarments. Kwan and Gnam are fearless, dedicated and courageous performers, now revealed almost bare naked in both the physical and emotional sense. I see the vulnerability of lovers in too deep, having shared their souls. At the end, the man sits in the same position where the duet sat before, holding his arm out. He is alone. Where is she now: a parting, betrayal or death? We don’t know what will happen next, but the image is burned in the mind’s eye.
The Three Cornered Hat by Mascall Dance @ Chapel Arts
Mascall Dance was founded in 1982. Since its inception, the company has produced the work of dance artist, pedagogue and choreographer Jennifer Mascall, one of the first graduates of the York University dance program. Mascall is well-known in Vancouver, and nationally, for her avant-garde spirit and experimental and improvisational approach to choreography. The Three Cornered Hat builds upon the choreographer’s decades of embodied exploration in dance. With music by Stefan Smulovitz, video by Candelario Andrade, lighting by John Macfarlane and the participation of writer and slam poet Barbara Adler the show is an interdisciplinary investigation.
Before the dance actually begins, choreographer Mascall speaks directly to the audience, offering a bit of insight into the piece: “It’s like being part of a book club where you can write your own story,” she says. Mascall also acknowledges the many public and private sponsors who made the show possible. When the dance begins, the six eager performers animate the white room of Chapel Arts, having prepared themselves for this moment, not only by practising, but also by improvising, being, seeing and listening. Like an experimental film, the show moves cinematically from scene to scene and without any apparent logic.
The tone is serious and comical in turns. Accompanied by hundreds of red notebooks begging for meaning, the dancers use their props every which way: creating a tower that is toppled, an item to be thrown and a place to examine one’s own thoughts and the world around them. The performers whisper a tidbit of secrecy into our ears, or ask questions, seeking some audience engagement. At one point, a daring man is brought from the audience and made to step across the stage by walking across imaginary “rocks” created by the red notebooks. As he crosses, the dancers create a flutter of energy around him, letting him know all will be safe “If you stay on the books.” In the last scene, dancer Billy Marchenski uses his fishing rod to make a red notebook literally fly around the room. He spins around: fly fishing while whirling and the book comes close to the audience — a risky close to a colourful and dynamic dance by one of Canada’s most senior dance-makers.
Crumbling produced by Omnivore Performance/Barbara Bourget @ Firehall Arts CentreCourtyard
Matthew Romantini gave himself a great challenge by commissioning longstanding neo-butoh choreographer Barbara Bourget of Kokoro Dance to create a solo that tested his mettle. Audiences got a good sense of Romantini’s strengths as a performer, and the expanding vision and possibilities for such collaboration.
Painted in the standard white-rice powder of butoh, the dancer wears black pants. His bare chest and bare feet are also painted, giving him this pure, otherworldly quality. At once, he gestures toward a place or person beyond the immediate stage space, making us look and feel beyond the courtyard in which the action takes place. In another scene, perhaps the most visceral, the character seems to be holding a small figure: a baby or animal of some kind. He caresses it, at first in a nurturing way, and then, he mimics “taking a bite” out of this very life. The image may seem gruesome, but is somehow reconciled by the fact that it reminds us of the tragic reality that unfolds every day in the human and natural worlds. Soon after, the dancer pulls string, flesh and bone from his mouth. The power of the work is that it gives us enough to spur the imagination into new territory, and is simple enough to hold our attention. In another scene, Romantini seems to pull something from his back, creating a miniature universe just beyond our very eyes. His closing steps are thoughtful, methodical and intimate: his eyes acknowledge mine, and I see him see me. Bourget brings out the most compelling and natural moments, coaching her dancer to reveal mundane moments in a lively, attentive manner. Romantini has studied and performed with Bourget and her husband, Jay Hirabayashi, in other Kokoro Dance productions, and their butoh aesthetic is well known to West Coast audiences. With this work, there seems to be a hopeful future in this unique theatrical dance form: hopefully it won’t be the last solo Romantini offers to dance audiences.
As with previous editions of the Dancing on the Edge festival, I go away with a renewed belief in the endless possibilities of contemporary dance. The shows mentioned above are but a few of the gems offered in 2014: together they represent the voices of dance artists who contribute to an embodied culture full of passion and kinetic awareness.