Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg is half man. On her father’s side, going way back. Also, she tells us at the start of “BANGER”, she married a man. Amazing, eh? Who better, then, to explore the contemporary male than Friedenberg? In “BANGER,” which opened the two-part evening titled RIFF, the chameleon comic dancer presents full-bodied portrayals of a few colourful individuals belonging to the male side of Homo sapiens.
The Vancouver-based theatre/dance artist is well known locally for her highly physical comedy routines about life today, ordinary things like getting old and wanting to be beautiful. With her mobile, expressive face, a facility for storytelling and a penchant for looking ridiculous — wrapping herself up in a flesh-coloured nylon stocking in “Lift”, for instance — Friedenberg seems ideally equipped for comedy. In “BANGER”, despite her slight, graceful physique and long hair, she boldly impersonates men to hilarious effect.
The solo opens with Friedenberg in a lace-trimmed slip, on the floor, slinky and sexy and very feminine. Then, before our eyes, the transformation occurs as she puts on dark socks, khaki pants and top, black boots and a moustache, which she wears throughout. “Boy, oh, boy,” she enthuses, “man, oh, man.”
The upbeat music changes to a heavy metal version of “Day is Done” (music and sound by Marc Stewart) as dry ice fills the stage. It took me a few minutes to recognize Friedenberg’s tight little moves and low-slung posturing; then I realized that, one by one, she was impersonating the members of a heavy metal band. This created an apt and quite wonderful choreographic sequence of gesture and body posture that was full of both sense and nonsense.
A series of loosely connected impersonations follow, each one with its own story and physicality, on which the choreographic sequences are built. At one point, Friedenberg is a cross dresser jostled and jeered at in the street; at another, she’s a young male student enthusiastically describing the Battle of Tripoli. Somehow this metamorphoses into a sequence where the student, caught up in playing a video game, performs a surprising arabesque as he reaches out and aims his hands as if they are pistols. Finally, Friedenberg impersonates a British gun collector, an old chap with spastic legs and pompous posture who was shot in the head during the war and barely noticed it. This inspired a slapstick dance of military debilitation and foolishness.
Long-time collaborator Sophie Yendole is credited with “Direction/Creation”, and Friedenberg with choreography and text. Their half-hour “BANGER” is, according to a programme note, in development as part of an artistic residency Friedenberg is involved with at Ruby Slippers Theatre, a Vancouver company committed to socially relevant productions.
Following intermission was Day Helesic’s “RIFF”, after which the evening was titled. The Ontario transplant, and popular freelance dancer, is one of the artistic producers behind MovEnt, the organization that co-produced the performance along with the Shadbolt Centre. Helesic has also been working to develop a presence as a choreographer. In “RIFF”, she shows us three distinct choreographic voices: friendly and lyrical; manic and humorous; and hard, fast and repetitive.
The piece opens with four dancers moving slowly in silhouette in a cool, blue light. Helesic dances along with Karissa Barry, Amber Funk Barton and Daelik, who bravely stepped in as a late replacement for Farley Johansson. The barefoot performers wear black — dresses for the women, pants and shirt for the man. The only costume credit is one for “Costume Finessing” by Reva Quam (I’m guessing this means she made slight alterations to store-bought outfits).
The stage goes to black, and when the lights come up we see Daelik and Helesic facing away from one another, downstage at opposite corners. To the squeaky, scratching sound of tense string music, he punches through fighter-styled moves while she kicks her leg high in front of her face, her arms straight and hard. They move closer and closer, till they are close enough to strike each other.
The next sequence involves Barry and Funk Barton, who look like twins — they seem about the same age, are pretty much the same size and have similar haircuts. Their gentle, flowing duet is set to an equally gentle, flowing guitar. Here, Helesic seems to deliberately employ easy, familiar leaps and spins; it’s as if their dance is meant to lull the audience, to give us something we can relate to in case the angst between Daelik and Helesic was too alienating.
Yet another change of pace comes with a manic square dance of high steps and down-home kicks to the folksy “Mountain Dew” song. This kind of social dancing is not often seen on modern dance stages, and Helesic puts her stamp on it through the determined, over-the-top energy and cheerfulness of the performances. Certainly, the innocence of square dancing, including the possibilities for courtliness, has no place in her interpretation. Modern dance sensibilities can be so smart-ass! Or let’s call it ironic.
“RIFF” progresses through a few rounds of each of these three scenarios. In their segments, Daelik and Helesic get more and more involved and frantic, with Helesic throwing herself at her partner, or on the ground, over and over and over. Speed, effort, repetition — seen it before? It’s not surprising if The Holy Body Tattoo’s signature hard, urban angst appears in Helesic’s choreography, as she was a dancer in their recent ensemble work, “monumental.” Even without first-hand exposure, many Vancouver dance artists are influenced by the company’s style. It is now as much a part of the Vancouver dance psyche as the more organic, flowing style of EDAM’s Peter Bingham.
Helesic’s musical idea of a “riff”, a repeated melodic pattern, is a nice way to imagine choreographic structure. However, the riffs did not add up to a “song” or a whole choreography. The three accompanying musical styles, by Gordon Cobb, Kris Boyd and Erin McSaveny, were similarly distinct (who was responsible for which section is not noted).
Though full of ideas and eager to entertain, Helesic has yet to reveal a distinctive voice and a compelling reason to listen. However, pairing the experienced and very funny Friedenberg with an emerging modern dance choreographer such as Helesic isn’t a bad idea. Modern dance on its own is struggling for audiences and an unusual soloist like Friedenberg could surely help attract a broader demographic than the usual one.
By Kaija Pepper