Although Peter Bingham has never been spotted changing disguise in a telephone booth, the mild-mannered choreographer of the mixed bill titled Life Sentences continues to fight for the truth of contact dance, creating work that is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, with dancers who appear able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound. Bingham is known for his unwavering dedication to contact dance, ever since the form first emerged in the 1970s. The title Life Sentences, however, conveys some ambivalence — a tribute to a lifetime of cultivating and codifying this dance form, and perhaps a reference to the idea of serving time for the Muse of contact. Bingham opened this year’s Vancouver International Dance Festival, three weeks of contemporary dance and workshops presented at the Roundhouse by Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi.
“Right in Front of You”, the first of five pieces, opens with a grey, misty image of an expanse of ocean and coastal mountains projected on the backdrop. We hear the sound of an airplane approaching; a jet plane crosses the screen. Planes repeatedly cross the horizon throughout this dance, which is structured like a movement call and response between performers James Gnam and Farley Johansson. The two men steadily best each other by increasing the degree of risk and daring, while proving the aerodynamic capacity of the human body. There are so many wonderful means by which Gnam and Johansson take flight or softly land: cradling body weight at the back of the head to tilt and lower the other in a plank-straight line; long arches that reach into the back space finding an open curved pathway into a backbend on all fours; and delightfully peculiar knee bends that fold onto the lower leg, leading the pelvis and hips gently into the floor. Gnam and Johansson also sport big movements like tours en l’air, jumps from both feet with a full rotation of the body, and running tackles that morph smoothly into high lifts, as the men take turns receiving the weight of the other’s speeding body.
“It’s dangerous,” says Gnam at one point, and by the looks of the Superman move that follows, it is. Johansson and Gnam spread apart across the stage; one runs fast, and springing out of the floor, lifts off, soaring through horizontal space, arms outstretched, the body sustained in space, trusting the catcher to be there. With a relaxed stance, the catcher extends forearms to receive and support the flying torso as it passes alongside, the flyer miraculously able to find his landing feet. Bingham shows us Superman several times, and in a final display of masculine risk-taking, Gnam trots alongside his flying partner smiling confidently, pulling a fraction more suspension out of Johannson before helping him land.
In “Before his eyes could see – with Ahmed in mind”, Delia Brett takes centre stage under a bright spotlight and dances rooted to the ground, responding to the flavour of eastern drum rhythms by following movement impulses throughout her body. The dance is a memoir in honour of Ahmed Hassan, one of the EDAM co-founders from 1982. Bingham’s program notes state that Hassan was “a friend, collaborator and the original ‘M’ in EDAM,” a reference that may have perplexed audience members outside the dance community. (The ‘M’ stands for ‘Music’ in the acronym so well-grooved that the full name, Experimental Dance and Music, is rarely heard anymore.) The dance ends with a black and white photograph projected onto the upstage screen: a man in a wheelchair, who I later discovered was Hassan, engaging in movement with a younger Bingham. I found this Chris Randle photo in Kaija Pepper’s biography of Bingham, “The Man Next Door Dances”, and the book divulges that the photo was taken in performance at Vancouver’s Firehall Theatre in the early 1990s. From a Google search, I learned that Hassan, a celebrated composer/musician of Egyptian descent, passed away on January 12, 2011 in Toronto due to progressive multiple sclerosis, information Bingham could have included in the program notes or on the screen.
“Twilight” and “The Geometry of Time” are both danced by four women, Anne Cooper, Alana Gerecke, Stacey Murchison and Monica Strehlke, along with Gnam and Johansson. The two works evoke a sense of lingering, a reflection on passing time, especially “Twilight”, which opens with a close-up video of Bingham’s father and closes with the video image of an infant rebounding in and out of the floor. The quiet wrist, hand and arm gestures Bingham gives his six performers create a tender quality. “The Geometry of Time” appears to honour the years of daily practice in the EDAM studio, shaped by the “round robin”, a practice in which individuals take turns improvising in a circle of dancers. Strehlke solos in the middle of this symbolic circle of spotlights, smoothly connecting pathways in and out of the floor, body rolls and handstands all fluid and strong. In partnering sections, Cooper generously supports each duet she enters, always bringing clarity and subtle presence to the movement.
The final piece, “Release Me”, is danced by Gerecke, Murchison, Gnam and Johansson. During the earlier ensemble pieces, Gerecke and Murchison had been almost like polite guests at a banquet, invited but reserved, but when their turn comes, the two women seize the moment, confident, relaxed and responsive in transferring the weight of their bodies through space, and in and out of the ground. This work, like the entire program, achieves a feeling of spaciousness that may be due to the staging and/or the bodymind state that the form demands. The four dancers mix and match duets, continually shifting into new variations. The close is memorable: both women run in tandem towards their male partner jumping high into the air. The men catch and lift them at the hip bones, and the forward moving speed sends the women soaring high, the movement directionality traveling through their bodies into a gorgeous high released back arc.
The evening as a whole showcases the contribution contact dance has brought to contemporary dance. Bingham’s Life Sentences is also a script for a revised masculinity that blends strength and competitiveness with mutuality and cooperation.
Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, co-directors of Kokoro Dance and also co-founders of EDAM “back in the day”, closed the VIDF this year with an evening of three works. The premiere of “I Sing — The Body”, the third piece on the program, is choreographed by Bourget and inspired by Walt Whitman’s 1855 long-form poem, I Sing the Body Electric. The work is a collaboration between Kokoro Dance and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence Scott Good and his four-member band Waterhole, who contributed a seven-suite score for the project.
The standing ovation at the March 18th show is testimony to the ecstatic presence in this work. Whitman’s poem has been called an “anatomical hymn” to the body, and the conjoined creative efforts of Kokoro and Waterhole resonate with a sense of immanence, the divine in the physical, as well as the transcendent, the divine in soul and spirit. Good’s VSO band, which includes piano, trombone, electric guitars, drum set, moog, sampling, voice and chant, sets up a charged mood with sound inspired by rock, classical and global genres. The arrangement places the poetry text behind the instrumentation.
Hirabayashi’s mesmerizing performance matches the music from the first note, as he opens his suit jacket exposing a bare chest and open heart to a focused spotlight. Bourget wisely contrasts Hirabayashi’s capacity for transmitting interior states of being with six women dancers, including herself, who perform marathon-like repetitions of full-body phrases, traversing the stage with total commitment: low asymmetrical crouches, off-centre tilts and high, sustained balances. In one arresting section, Hirayabashi and Bourget take centre stage in a still embrace; are they simply physical lovers or do they transform themselves to become for seconds Shiva and Shakti? At other moments, Hirayabashi observes the women dancers like a silent Witness to creation. “I Sing – The Body”, the dance and the music, gives us what we always hope for in dance performance: a gateway to transformation.
Equally transformative is the first piece, Hirayabashi’s post-butoh solo “Essence”, performed to the music of Michael Hynes and led by VSO conductor Pierre Simard. Hirayabashi transfigures himself through slow micro-movements, as though trapped or contained, becoming the Hanged Man of the Tarot, reminding us of the impermanence of physical existence and our connection to a subtle, inner reality. Bourget’s “Music of Amber” is a dance for six women set to a composition by Joseph Schwantner of the same name. Bourget, Carolyn Chan, Ellen Luchkow, Molly McDermott, Jennifer McKinley and Kristine Richmond capture the music’s intimate mood: a secret garden, the scent of cedar, the shadowy light in a forest.
Three solo choreographies also take up meaningful, universal themes. Based in Montreal, Marc Boivin fully inhabits the theatre in “Impact”, long limbs sculpting and massaging the space, his presence defining the delicate boundaries where body meets the floor and self meets other. Boivin constructs a bifurcated performance area, like the left and right hemispheres of the brain, by setting up an unusual visual media environment on one side of the stage and leaving the other side empty. Boivin shares conceptual questions about the development of the self by projecting images onto his own body, displaying video clips of himself with family, and at times speaking and making requests of the audience. “Take a deep breathe in, and then tell me what you really think of me, just one word that describes me.” And later, “I’m almost finished this dance … I want to hear you all speaking my name — someone, please say my name out loud.” Moving back and forth between these spaces, he ultimately finds release in the media-free space, his dancing self embodying a rare kind of masculine beauty.
Hiromoto Ida’s expressiveness travels between comedic impishness and soulful rendering of loss and desire in the theatrical work, “The Gift”. This work was also presented in Nelson, BC last year where Ida now lives. Dedicated to his sister who lost her child, Ida performed during the week of the Japan tsunami, and within that social context the work also operates as a witnessing and honouring of that massive human suffering. Like the Kokoro dancers, Ida’s skilful exploration of internal states, brought alive on a stage with minimalist props and without media, reminds us of the capacity for dance to go beyond referencing only the body itself and to offer deeper meaning about our existence.
Deborah Dunn, also a Montrealer, fashions a brave choreographic rendering of the literary masterpiece “Four Quartets” by modernist poet T.S. Eliot, giving her dance the same name. Premiering in 2009, her work is set to Eliot’s four long poems, and as a whole weaves a melancholic reflection on the nature of time, suffering, the body and the earth’s four elements. Dunn is brave on two accounts: like Bourget she aligns herself with genius in selecting a master poet to guide her dance, and she tackles universal ideas about the mystery of life inherent in the poems without apology. Dunn thoughtfully finds a way through the heaviness of Eliot’s meditation on time relative and time eternal, her body becoming one with the poetry, her phrases, gestures and use of stillness extending the beauty of the language.
The VIDF presented these mainstage Canadian works alongside contemporary international dance (Yvonne Pouget from Germany, T42 from Switzerland), as well as offering shorter, free dance performances every night in advance of the main presentation. This eleventh edition of the VIDF also featured a thirty-year retrospective of dance photography by Chris Randle who has created a stunning visual record of contemporary dance in Vancouver. The diversity in VIDF programming underscores the depth and breadth of expression in contemporary dance across Canada and around the world.
And who knows, next year maybe dance artists will change the course of mighty rivers, or bend steel in their bare hands!
Edited by Kaija Pepper