The Festival of New Dance ran from October 8 – 13 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Now in its 23rd year, this east coast gem isn’t your average dance festival. The standard stuff applied of course: shows, workshops, talkbacks, etc. As a first-time participant at the festival, I felt welcomed and taken care of by the local team, but this is not so out of the ordinary either. Where it really became apparent that we were involved in something special was on the last night, post show at The Ship – a.k.a. the festival watering hole. By then, the week was a wrap, the last act had played. And all of a sudden I realized it: everyone was dancing. Everyone. Volunteers, organizers, the tech crew, the tech director, the Toronto artists, the Newfoundland artists, the German artists, George Stamos, a local doctor … everyone. This is not unheard of, but it sure isn’t the norm. It’s indicative of where we were and the kind of people who call Newfoundland home. It is a snapshot of the spirit that greets you from the moment you step off the plane. It is pretty strong evidence that the Festival of New Dance couldn’t be just another festival if it tried.
Cow One, Cow Two by Catherine Wright
There is nothing quite like a good story. Radio programs such as The Vinyl Cafe and This American Life are built on this premise and the enduring appeal of a great tale is apparent in their immense popularity. The key ingredients are compelling subject matter and dynamic delivery, but the delivery is what makes or breaks it every time. Watch the movie The Aristocrats if you don’t believe me. This was all on my mind as I watched Catherine Wright perform in the first half of a mixed program on the fourth night of the festival. A St. John’s resident, Wright is known for combining story with movement, creating narrative from a personal point of view. It was my first time encountering her work, but from the reaction of the audience, she clearly has a devoted following here in Newfoundland.
Cow One, Cow Two begins with the tale of Wright’s beloved bovine slippers, but quickly diverges into reflections on pets past and present. The thirty-minute work is divided into chapters through which we are introduced to Sophie, Oscar and Rufus – Wright’s canine companions starting from the age of thirteen. What begins as a simple story remains so –- there are no great reveals here. The bulk of the action is driven by the characteristics pertaining to each pup and is fleshed out with an overlay of sweeping gestures and basic shifts in space. The climax of the work is reached in the final moment and, despite the even tempo of the tale, is satisfying in its thoughtful simplicity.
Wright is confident and consumes the space with comfort and ease. Employing scampers, snarls, and panting to bring her characters to life, the story relies heavily on Wright’s physical interpretations for dramatic impact. Rarely does she relay the tale without the assistance of these and a host of other mainly literal movement motifs. Though Wright herself is an affable presence onstage, I was distracted by the frenetic canine posturing and turned off by the easy physical punchlines utilized throughout. My desire was for the storytelling to live on its own, to be augmented and developed by the movement, not oversold, as I felt it to be. The strongest moments for me were the quiet ones, where the narrative actually trailed off and softer abstracted images and words were allowed to emerge. These moments brought depth to what was otherwise a fairly two-dimensional work and they were a welcome shift in tone and energy.
In short, Wright kept my attention but never fully engaged me. Did she fail as a storyteller? Not really – from the first moment, Wright had a solid portion of the audience in the palm of her hand and she kept them there (and in hysterics) throughout. Her appeal was not universal, but was undeniable to many and this should be noted. As for me, I wished for a more substantial subject to sink my teeth into and a more nuanced delivery to invite me in. I hope that my next encounter with this well-regarded artist will yield more satisfying results.
Trio for Musician, Dancer and Double Bass by Sasha Ivanochko
Ivanochko is an otherworldly force. When I see her in action, I still feel the impact of my first experience watching her perform. In Christopher House’s Severe Clear, she was some kind of supernova, obliterating the space with a duality of determination and ease. Many things about this artist have changed shape and evolved since that performance thirteen years ago, but she remains an effortless master of the stage.
In Trio for Musician, Dancer and Double Bass, Ivanochko pairs with musician (and partner) Aaron Lumley to create a layered work that ignites a simple premise with intimacy, humour and kinetic energy. Avoiding the typical — and now traditional — dancer and musician-with-instrument scenario, the space is shaped and shifted by the three players over the course of the thirty-minute work. Scenes dissolve seamlessly from one to the next, and movement runs the gamut from minimal and utilitarian to full-bodied chaos, as evidenced in one very effective section where Ivanochko responds physically to a thrashing score created by Lumley and the bass. There are very much three personalities in the work and the elegant presence of the bass is used thoughtfully throughout. A pleasing sonic landscape emerges through the efforts of both artists.
If there is one recurring theme that stands out, it is sex. From the opening scene, in which the pair take turns delicately striking a tuning fork off the prominent (and less so) bones of the other’s body, to a tender and seductive ménage à trois with the bass, to a literal climax involving a writhing Ivanochko beneath the body of the instrument, the work is loaded with sexual overtones. This is not unfamiliar ground for Ivanochko and she continues to dig deep into the provocative material. There is something about this particular avenue, however, that leaves me feeling unsatisfied. I take more pleasure in the moments of tender intimacy between Lumley and Ivanochko and what is inferred within, than I do the blatantly erotic. One such moment involves little more than a warm embrace, with Ivanochko tenderly placing her feet and weight onto those of her partner. Perhaps it was the comparatively explicit action that led up to it that allowed this to resonate; it had all the sweet relief of an exhale after a deeply held breath.
Overall, I leaned more toward the scenes of accord and equality than I did to those of conflict and competition. Blame it on my current world-view, but the intense calm of watching Lumley and Ivanochko work together instead of in opposition allowed for my greatest connection to the work. I felt there was an unfortunate tendency to explore the latter, though some great rewards came from the struggle, i.e., when the diminutive Ivanochko finally finds herself in sole possession of the bass. The all-at-once sly and demure smile she casts upon the audience is killer, and the initiative she then takes with the bass makes for a supremely satisfying scene.
I think the most frustrating aspect of this work, for me, was what I felt to be the disparity between Ivanochko and Lumley. He was dressed in a simple T-shirt and jeans, she in a tightly fitting tank and neon leggings. While I was happily surprised by the bright pink on Ivanochko, the look created a divide between the two performers, a sense of athlete and pedestrian. Further adding to this division was the feeling that Ivanochko had to work a lot harder than Lumley — in getting his attention, keeping his attention, demonstrating her femininity and demonstrating her strength. This may have been the intent, but I find Ivanochko so unequivocally engaging, feminine and strong that these choreographic machinations seemed unnecessary to me. As formidable as Ivanochko is (and she is), Lumley matches her beautifully and the highlights of this work for me happened in that equal meeting of two worlds, with the bass a binding and motivational element.
See also Newfoundland Rocks – Part Two by George Stamos, additional reviews of shows by Tina Fushell, Manuel Roque and more.