In-Ward ran from July 11 to 12 at the Firehall Arts Centre Theatre as part of the 2022 Dancing on the Edge festival.
The energy is infectious upon entering the theatre at Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre for In-Ward by Ebnflōh Dance Company presented by Dancing on the Edge festival. The wings have been pulled back, hip hop music is pounding and six white-sweatsuit-wearing dancers are freestyling all over the room.
Members of the Montréal-based company are clearly in their element, just responding to the music – their bodies like liquid, waving and morphing, highlighting accents in the music with gestures, steps and chugs. On the risers directly to my right, Ja James ‘Jigsaw’ Britton Johnson stomps between stairs, arms motioning faster than seems humanly possible. The whole seat section rattles. This opening scene is a wave of energy, it’s all around us and we’re being baptised.
One by one, the dancers get stuck in stillness, starting with Kosisochukwu ‘Kosi’ Eze who freezes under an industrial spotlight downstage. With baffled expression and chests thrust upwards like baby birds, they scuttle to gather upstage, white costumes gleaming in the light. After a long, suspended pause, the bass drops and the dancers launch into a high-energy group sequence where they push, throw and catch each other, punctuated by phrases of unison.
In-Ward, which is enthralling from start to finish, shows individuals relying on each other but seeking to be alone. They desperately try to escape the group, their clothing and even the stage as outside forces affect and perplex them. With choreography grounded in street dance, the work by Quebec hip-hop icon Alexandra ‘Spicey’ Landé points to humanity’s need for each other, but also conveys a sense of claustrophobia and desire for independence.
In a comical moment, all six dancers try to fit on a white bench onstage, pushing back and forth like crowded siblings. They look bizarrely like astronauts with white hoods draw-stringed tightly to cover most of their faces. One after another the dancers pull their hoods down as if struggling to breathe. The sense of tension (and suffocation) builds until Johnson launches into an explosive krumping sequence that forces the rest into stillness – touring the stage and emanating power as the others melt to the ground.
These energetic highs are offset by lows, sometimes involving light-hearted exchanges – laughter, verbal banter and even an amusing game of tag between dancers and audience – and slower, more extended transitions (where the white costumes become versatile props), establishing a sense of rhythm over the hour-long performance.
Once the dancers liberate themselves from their hoodies, the work starts to touch brazenly on social issues. Like white-clad goddesses, Elie-Anne ‘Rawss’ Ross, Eze and Céline Richard Robichon circle the stage with halting steps, arms held wide in ultra-slow voguing. The trio builds into a true celebration of feminine energy (eliciting woops from the audience) until, at the climax, Ross takes centre stage with hands framing her lower abdomen, chin tilted upwards with an expression of disbelief.
In that moment, it’s like all the air is sucked out of the room with the blatant reference to the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade south of the border. After such a stunning display of female power, the concept of women losing autonomy over their bodies is so outlandish that Ross’ stunned face seems like the only apt response (to drive the point home, her expression lasts for the remainder of the show).
Later, when siren-like sounds overlay the music, a playful vignette involving Eze, Johnson, Jaleesa ‘Tealeaf’ Coligny and James-Lee ‘Kiddy’ Joseph drastically dissolves: the Black performers back away in slow-motion towards stage left, arms slowly gathering behind them in mock-handcuffs. This provocative, striking scene under red flashing lights is then superseded by a final sequence that unabashedly celebrates Black culture, involving all the dancers and ending the work on a high.
The performers in In-Wards show exceptional range, and Landé’s work carries enough force to deftly land on real social issues. Needless to say, Vancouver gave a standing ovation.
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