Vancouver’s Dancing on the Edge Festival 2021 kicked off with a welcome return to live performance on the West Coast. Mama, do we die when we sleep? by Rachel Meyer was not the only sold-out show on the program, but it did sell out remarkably fast, even when extra tickets were added last-minute.
The energy of the Russian Hall in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood was palpable as the audience, high up in risers, waited for the anticipated July 14 premiere (three shows ran from July 14 to 16). Meyer, a former member of Ballet BC, showed the beginnings of the work at last year’s festival with a short film, Excerpts from a Work in Progress. A studio showing produced by The Dance Centre in June further whet the appetite for the full stage version.
Onstage, there are scattered wooden ladders, pieces of clothing and a huge heap of wooden chairs upstage left. The work softly eases into performance as Josh Martin pushes a broom around the space to gentle piano music. Calder White sits on a chair with his back to the audience. With small jerks and twitches, he seems to be battling an internal force as light narrows around him. Falling suddenly off the chair, he begins a tormented solo where he seems to be losing a battle with gravity — lifting one arm and then the other before they smack down behind him.
As White dances, Meyer moves around the edges, folding pieces of fabric and rearranging chairs. This sets up a theme for the work — where technical expressive movement is framed by peripheral action at the sides of the stage. It’s a choreographic choice that seems to relate to the work’s subject, exploring imagination and wonder and where they exist in an adult world of responsibility and reality.
The festival’s website explains that Mama, do we die when we sleep? was inspired by the question posed by Meyer’s two-year-old daughter. It explores how our capacity for wonder shrinks as we define our world. In the work, practical actions like rearranging the set occur beside fully formed theatrical vignettes and phrases, showing how the two pursuits occur around (and perhaps in spite of) each other.
Inside of this strong and relatable theme, White, Martin, Meyer and Stéphanie Cyr are confident, virtuosic movers. Relationships and characters emerge along the way. Martin’s suit jacket gives him an air of responsibility, and as he balances on one leg of a chair or hoists Cyr in the air, he seems like a parent trying his best to hold things together. Clothing becomes a metaphor, later, when Martin tries to dress White as he resists, dancing around playfully. As the soundscape by James Maxwell (which weaves Chopin into a contemporary synthesized score) builds tension, Martin finally succeeds in dressing White in “adult” clothing, and White’s formerly carefree movement is stifled into a tortured stillness that recalls the work’s beginning. Watching him struggle to stay still, frustration mounting as if to explode, is moving.
Huge pieces of sheer blue fabric and tall ladders create a world rich with interpretive possibility, and the dancers use objects in surprising ways. But in the most exciting moments, the movement is the central focus. During a meticulously choreographed floorwork section involving all four dancers, complex canons make each dancer seem like an echo of the others. Partner work and group contact phrases stretch and pull the space, with dancers showing impressive physical stamina.
A memorable vignette just after intermission repeats over and over like Groundhog Day. It is Martin who shines in this section, with a solo that deconstructs as the music gets faster and the set closes in around him. The effort to make something beautiful amidst distractions and interruptions is a poignant encapsulation of the theme.
As a performer, Meyer stays out of the spotlight until near the end, when she emerges wearing a sheer dress. The music becomes emotive in this last part, and it is a pleasure to witness maskless dancing as Meyer performs a final solo (even as the other dancers move set pieces around the stage), her face communicating some kind of breakthrough or resolution.