More than ever before, dance companies are international microcosms, a fact driven home during the Chutzpah! Festival’s presentation of Noord Nederlandse Dans (NND), a fifteen-year-old group from Groningen, Holland. On the night I attended, several people from the Dutch community were at the Norman Rothstein Theatre in support of cultural offerings from home. As it turned out, there was nothing particularly Dutch about the evening. NND is made up of fourteen strong young dancers in their twenties who come from around the globe (including just one from the Netherlands and one from Canada). As well, the three works presented were choreographed by NND’s American artistic director, Stephen Shropshire, and Israeli Emanuel Gat. American beat poet Derrick C. Brown provided the evening’s highlight.
Brown appeared on stage in Strange Light, choreographed by Shropshire in collaboration with the dancers. His poetry contains vivid phrases such as “the kiss of a drunk dog” and “that bullhorn in the trousers”, which are part of a monologue covering the span of one man’s life. Perched on a high stool at the side of the stage, Brown gave a highly gestural performance that was engrossing on its own. The choreography was so contained by comparison, with the dancers often simply standing or offering illustrative movement (a crotch grab, a peace sign) while Brown rants with full visceral involvement. Judging from the audience’s laughter at all the right moments, Brown was a hit.
The second Chutzpah! dance program featured this year’s artists-in-residence – Edmonton-raised, New York–based Cherice Barton and Tulsa, Oklahoma-born, Ballet British Columbia dancer Donald Sales, who spent six weeks co-choreographing Leaving Grit. This friendly, easy-access piece about cowboys and saloon girls brought together seven very different dancers. Locally, Léon Feizo-Gas is well known for his work with Ballet BC; Cori Caulfield for her dramatic solos as an independent; and Keven Tookey for his work with Joe Ink. Jennifer Welsman is ex-Royal Winnipeg Ballet; Lara Barclay has worked everywhere from Toronto Dance Theatre to Ballet Mannheim; and Davon Rainey is a Juilliard School graduate from Tennessee.
Young Jeffrey Mortensen -– an ex-Shumka dancer and third-place winner from So You Think You Can Dance Canada – is key to the piece. His character –- a hick cowboy in suspenders – is “a little wet behind the ears”, as Caulfield says (one of the few spoken lines). Barton and Sales capitalize on Mortensen’s open-faced enthusiasm in the role. In one scene, they have him enter through the auditorium with a bottle of whisky in hand, stop to teasingly grind his pelvis back and forth with a leer on his face, then get up on stage to bang out impressive flips and handstands. He barfs in a bucket, too.
Mortensen’s stunt-filled routines are exactly the kind of wham-bam performance beloved of the popular SYTYCD TV series. Most of the dance in Leaving Grit is punched out in the same emphatic style: there’s an exclamation point behind every arabesque, spin, strut, fall and plank pose. Also, the dividing line between the men and the women is clearly drawn: designer Kate Burrow’s flouncy lingerie and skirts for the women contrast clearly with the men’s dark cowboy hats, vests and kerchiefs, tied western-style around their necks. The women are temptresses who swish their skirts. The men pose in iconic gunslinger style, fingers lightly touching their hat brims or at the ready beside their hips, itching for a quick draw.
Leaving Grit is set to a lively soundtrack of twangy guitar music and catchy songs such as Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”. There’s as much stage business in it as dance. In one scene, the four men hang about, scratching, chewing, waiting. A fly buzzes loudly on the soundtrack; one of them catches it with his hand, then eats it. In another scene, they bounce on small, wheeled benches, as if riding horses. The work didn’t sustain over the hour or so running time, however; very much a sketch, it needed filling in.
The evening began with a short duet created at the Banff Centre by Aszure Barton (sister to Cherice), choreographed “in collaboration with Cherice Barton and Donald Sales”, who also performed it. Aszure Barton, the more established choreographer of the three, has created works on several major companies, including The National Ballet of Canada and Nederlands Dans Theater.
The title of the duet, Ch. 3: Collaboration, was perhaps a reflection of their process of creation; it’s not particularly helpful in situating the viewer in the piece itself. In any case, Aszure Barton’s choreography tends to be open-ended and the ride was the usual fun, stylish and enigmatic one, whether to gypsy violins or Italian opera.
Ch. 3: Collaboration begins with a loud ticking sound. When the lights come up, Sales is lying on a table centre stage, in black trousers and shirt. Cherice Barton, in a low-cut black dress, glides back and forth on tiptoe, legs stiff and straight, shoulders, arms and hands wobbling like jelly -– part Barbie Doll, part Raggedy Ann. Out of this image the work develops, centred around the table. It’s upended or turned upside down, a place of refuge for one or the other, a door on which she knocks, a wall against which she leans her head. Cherice Barton’s high and articulated demi-pointe as she glides past the table was beautiful; Sales’ nimble leaps on and off the table top happened like magic.
The final evening of dance was a double bill of full-length works: MONGER by Barak Marshall and Thank You, You’re Not Welcome by Noam Gagnon “with” James Fagan Tait. The opening work, MONGER, was perfect for Chutzpah!, a festival designed to feature Jewish performing arts. The connection to Jewish culture was clear in this piece (it isn’t always; the festival is generous in its programming): California-born Marshall works in Israel and MONGER features a score rich with klezmer music. Performed by BODYTRAFFIC, a Los Angeles repertory dance company, the piece featured powerful gestural poses and movement, and several humorous skits. My favourite had two men sitting next to each other sharing a dress and a pair of high heels: one shoe and half the dress on one man, the other shoe and the other half of the dress on the other, creating a third female character who sits between them, her wayward hands tickling and slapping the men.
Gagnon and Tait’s Thank You, You’re Not Welcome is a reworking of their 10 Things You’ll Hate About Me from 2010. Choreography and performance is courtesy of Gagnon, artistic director of Compagnie Vision Selective in Vancouver; script and dramaturgy comes from director and playwright Tait “with Gagnon”. The script should also contain the credit “with Oscar Wilde” because his fairy tale, The Happy Prince -– about a beautiful statue who gives his jewels and gold to the poor –- is interwoven with Gagnon’s own life history from birth to young adulthood.
The script is mostly recorded. Christopher Gaze provides a delightfully arch voice-over in plummy English tones for much of Gagnon’s biography, beginning: “Once upon a time there was a child born to two individuals somewhere in the Frencher parts of Canada.” We also hear Gagnon’s French-accented voice, recorded and live. Finally, Laara Sadiq’s recorded voice keeps bringing us back to Wilde’s The Happy Prince, which was young Gagnon’s “favourite story”. Of course, that’s if the biographical material is to be believed; after all, it’s told in fairy tale terms, though there are markers that make it appear true: the boy Daniel changes his name to Noam, for instance, so it appears to be Noam Gagnon’s life story. But you never know with creative non-fiction!
By interweaving Wilde’s fairy tale with Gagnon’s biography, the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, providing a magical atmosphere for Gagnon’s solo dance. Much of the movement is focussed on his torso: Gagnon is mostly bare-chested, sometimes facing upstage, working his back with muscular intensity. At other times, he turns and turns, surrounded by a cloud of white made from the billowing skirt he wears or clutches beside him.
Several times, Gagnon just runs around the stage – once circling close to a dozen times. While there wasn’t much happening choreographically here, this did allow time to contemplate the upstage set by costume and set designer Marina Szijarto -– white cut-outs of a house, a cloud, a butterfly and a bottle (probably referencing the alcoholic parents from Gagnon’s story). This set also contributed to the work’s magical atmosphere, situating the piece in a child’s view of the world. Stefan Smulovitz’s chaotic score of music, voice and noise made the difficult reality behind the pristine images clear.
Chutzpah! 2012 provided quite a mixed bag of dance in a mere trio of bills. Kudos to festival director Mary-Louise Albert for informing and entertaining us with dance and dancers from both near and far.