Everybody likes a good story. The world of dance continues to be drawn to narrative, with some amount of onstage text, recorded or spoken live, almost becoming a fixture of the art form. In the twenty-first century dancers speak, and we’re all quite used to it by now. In these interdisciplinary times, it seems a perfectly reasonable move, figuratively speaking.
Take The TCP Show: tripping. closely. perception., a double bill at the Firehall Arts Centre. In Las Tres Marías by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, fragments of live text and song were key to sketching in different religious practices and the people who follow them. In Adhere, by The Contingency Plan, three monologues suggested autobiographical elements, whether real (the performers’ own) or imagined (the characters’). The Contingency Plan credit belongs to co-artistic directors Vanessa Goodman and Jane Osborne, joined here by Lina Fitzner. (Absent was Leigha Wald, the collective’s third founding member in 2008, who recently had a baby.)
Las Tres Marías is set in the religious world as viewed by the always supercharged queen of comedy, Friedenberg. The Vancouver artist’s own performances in her solos — two major successes were bANGER: The Power Hour (2006) and Goggles (2009) – are poignant character studies of a heavy metal music–loving teenage boy (the first one) and a geeky kid detective (the second) that unfold over an hour. Las Tres Marías for Goodman, Osborne and Fitzner was a mere eighteen minutes, and while it was lively and kooky and certainly gives the finger to religious ritual, it didn’t have the dramatic arc or deeply etched details of other Friedenberg pieces.
The performers do get a good workout, dashing from one sketch to another clad in runners, pants, shirts and vests with Catholic religious images on the back. (Alice Mansell is credited with costume construction; there is no design credit.) Some scenes are pure movement: jitters and jerks, or efficient contemporary dance set to disco-type music by longtime collaborator Marc Stewart; elsewhere, the trio takes iconic poses, such as the gentle, outstretched arms of a classic Virgin Mary. Other scenes involve voice: the low-slung hips and funky steps danced to gospel rhythms are accompanied by a few drawn-out “Amens”, shouted with a true believer’s enthusiasm. Goodman has a go at a Jewish song, Osborne recites a liturgy that devolves into “To be or not to be”, and “I’m sorry” is repeated while one dancer compulsively slaps another. There is also text during audience interaction, when each member of the trio takes a seat next to a patron in the front row. I overheard a bit of Goodman’s story — something about a subway ride and later being caught by her parents — but not much.
If I’m not tying things together, it’s because they didn’t tie together for me. Friedenberg’s comedy is most biting, most engaging, when it’s grounded in a character — absurd, exaggerated, but with a real person at the centre — that provides a constant to which her kaleidoscopic rantings and ravings can return. Las Tres Marías had the kaleidoscope but instead of character it had fleeting stereotypes. The piece felt like a work-in-progress, but the group handled the material fearlessly.
Adhere, which followed after intermission, began with a strong example of how text can add context to movement, grounding it in something specific that adds resonance. Osborne’s low-key monologue, delivered standing downstage right, ends with the story of how she (or her character) danced in her living room as a child to Buddy Holly and Kylie Minogue. Then she begins to turn, on the spot, arms extended straight out to the sides, turning and turning and turning, the memories of childhood dancing contained for her, and for us, within the repetition of the simple, though virtuosic, move.
Fitzner’s monologue is a black humour tale about how she “lost” three childhood friends, told most engagingly when her body language evolves naturally out of the story, just slightly exaggerated. Goodman’s description of a childhood escape route to get her home safely is shared while standing inside a clear plastic rectangle, against which she plasters different parts of her face and body. Given the pedestrian story, coupling it with equally pedestrian movement made the segment a little flat. Elsewhere, the barefoot trio uses the smaller, more intimate space of the rectangles — there are three altogether — to effectively frame actual movement as they stretch, curl up and gesture.
Adhere also felt in-progress, and the single verb of the title didn’t help focus the forty-minute work thematically. The program note, which I read later at home, provided some assistance. It explains that the collective was interested in exploring what it’s like to be alone, both for them personally and also for others. They apparently did some research, though no details are provided, and I didn’t pick up any literary or other references on stage. Two sections of recorded text by Samantha Mehra were possibly important to establishing the world of Adhere, but I couldn’t distinguish the words under the rumbles of Gabriel Mindel Saloman’s score.
There are many isolated moments of satisfying dance in Adhere — the great expanse of space that Osborne opens up in her body as she stretches high and wide; Goodman’s light, spidery leaps; Fitzner’s creamy flow — but there was no larger choreographic structure to contain them. Much like Las Tres Marías, the work is a kaleidoscope that keeps on turning, which might sound very trippy, and I suppose it is. And maybe that’s enough, as long as you don’t look too closely, or try to perceive too much.