Strong Albertan ties: the common denominator for the ten choreographers selected by Dancers’ Studio West to present work as part of the recently held Annual Alberta Dance Festival.
Bold moments in time: the broad thematic glue binding their works into a couple of distinct programs, each performed over their own weekend of the two-week-long event.
Primarily intended to showcase the work of entry-level artists, the festival, now on its thirty-fifth iteration, broadened its scope of presentation this fall. This year included the choreographic offerings of mid-career and established artists, such as nationally celebrated performer Linnea Swan and School of Alberta Ballet Contemporary Dance Stream director Graham McKelvie.
If Weekend One offered a mathematically balanced program of four duets and one quartet — each created and performed by women — the works’ order of appearance was established on a steeply ascending slope of calibre.
Calgary-born Sophia Wright, currently living in France in the wake of a recently completed dance degree started at Concordia and finished at Université Paris 7, was first up. Adrienne, her self-choreographed solo performance, lacked the energetic modulations necessary to support her premise. Inspired by early-twentieth-century female aviator Adrienne Bolland’s strength of character, Wright’s dance, although at times ingeniously coordinated with its accompanying video projection, was generally executed with restraint and could have used more hardiness in the movement.
Arriving at the End, the second solo of the evening — created and performed by Decidedly Jazz Danceworks graduate, now Halifax-based, Kathleen Doherty — was also thematically tied to a famous female pilot, in this case, Amelia Earhart — more specifically, her inherent sense of self-trust. Movement-based and reliant on music imaging, the piece was performed with noticeable embodiment. While the conceptual research behind the work was not overtly apparent in its presentation, watching Doherty’s physicality was a pleasant experience.
University of Calgary’s recent dance graduate Meghann Michalsky presented Smoke Screen, the quartet on the program, next. Exploring ideas related to propaganda, Michalsky’s activist agenda and stylized text integration to movement demonstrated clear creative influences from Melanie Kloetzel’s own recent body of choreography — Kloetzel having taught Michalsky at U of C. Reciting text in perfect sync and moving angularly in robotic fashion, her dancers acted as though undergoing mind-moulding, à la Big Brother. Smoke Screen subscribed to what has become the default narrative in robotics: too predictably, Michalsky’s characters’ behavioural engineering broke down in confusion, leaving originality in denouement to be desired. Undoubtedly attributable to inexperience, Michalsky’s choice was compensated by her obviously excellent directorial work — her dancers communicated her intention with clarity and confidence.
Next came Calgarian Melissa Tuplin’s Accidental Euphoria, a solo performed with notable virtuosity. Through a series of tension-laden, contorted positions, Tuplin gave off the impression of riding a euphoric-depressive roller coaster. Reference to the medically induced hypertensive crises resultant of Iproniazid usage, a strong antidepressant prescribed in the 1950s that caused intracranial hemorrhages, was Tuplin’s creative seed for the work, according to her program notes. Sensations at extremes of the pain-pleasure continuum were embodied with kinesthetic efficiency, which generated empathy.
Linnea Swan’s Yes was presented last, in apt course order (to make a culinary analogy). Indeed, Weekend One’s dessert and, incontestably, the festival’s gem, Yes was as sweet as it was brilliant. (For the sake of transparency: while I maintain a collaborative and friendly relationship with Swan, I believe that, in this case, I am making, if not an entirely objective, a representative assessment: the buzz that Yes generated was loud and reverberant in the Calgarian dance community; since its presentation, colleagues of mine have brought it up positively multiple times, and I overheard students of mine raving about it). Unapologetically addressing Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 No Manifesto’s legacy on the current state of contemporary dance, Swan calls us out on our audience-alienating tendencies with wit and mastery. Relevant, entertaining and skilfully executed, Yes is a solo that must be seen far and wide.
A week later, the festival’s Weekend Two program also featured the work of five choreographers, whose works this time offered grouping variations in number and gender.
Ryerson graduate and Decidedly Jazz Danceworks–trained choreographer Sylvie Moquin’s piece for twelve performers Zödiakos was first on the bill. The Calgary-based artist presented a work uncannily reminiscent of Danny Grossman’s early 1980s choreography in the dancers’ extreme emoting, the consistency of their intentional and muscular tension and in the animalism behind their impulses. Somewhat epic, the work would have lent itself to the proscenium stage better than to the Pumphouse’s black box.
Gombe, the only solo of the evening, choreographed and performed by mid-career Calgary artist Natalka Lewis, came following. With primatologist Jane Goodall’s aloneness during her time spent in Gombe Stream National Park as an underlying theme, Lewis took advantage of her long limbs to create sharp yet graceful movement, predominantly in the vertical plane and often borrowing from ballet syllabi. Direct references to aloneness remained obscure until the very last moment in the piece, when Lewis strikingly acknowledged her clearly defined body-sized shadow on the upstage wall.
Third up was Chantal Wall’s Bagism. Introduced without accompanying notes in the program guide, her duet, which developed with a large sheet-like mass of white fabric that simultaneously concealed both dancers’ faces, was hard to contextualize within the festival’s Bold Moments in Time thematic. While the work effectively conjured strong imagery — at times, images of fetuses in utero could be conjured when the dancers’ bodies were entirely trapped in the fabric; at others, the anonymity of their faces were reminiscent of Halloween ghosts — it overall lacked a sense of purpose.
Next came another duet, this time by a recent University of Calgary graduate, Brandon Maturino. His work for the platform was intended to explore the potential consequences of repeated indulgence in the flight response. His playful, reptile-like vocabulary was executed with compelling physicality, and much credit goes to his dancers, Brynn Williams and Maryn Bjorndal, for sustaining Maturino’s athletic demands.
The Malady of Parting, a recent work of Graham McKelvie’s for the grade ten to twelve Contemporary Division School of Alberta Ballet students, closed the program. Informed by McKelvie’s impressions of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, the contemporary ballet was based on repeated movement phrases performed in passing, easily relatable to the German monument’s monolithic rows and the corridors that separate them. Similarly to Moquin’s piece, McKelvie’s work’s grandeur begged for a bigger space and more distant audience perspective. Given that The Malady of Parting was originally presented last spring as part of the ballet school’s year-end concert in the Wright Theatre, its seeming displacement is understandable.
What is slightly less so is the fact that a work performed by teenaged student dancers, albeit impressively skilfully, was programmed as the closing constituent of a festival generally intended for emerging professionals. Much like with Swan’s, McKelvie’s piece highlighted how jarring a difference years of experience can make on creative and performative impact, and it is questionable whether the comparison advantaged the remaining presenting artists at all.