Neighbourhood Dance Works (NDW) has developed an audience for contemporary dance in St John’s, Newfoundland, fostering community projects and bringing local, national and international works to the stage over the past twenty-three years.
On October 9, as part of NDW’s Festival of New Dance mainstage presentation at the recently renovated LSPU Hall, the show opened with Chain Link Again choreographed by Halifax’s Jacinte Armstrong. This stark quintet, built mostly of ascending and descending diagonals to the floor, showcased the talented teenagers of Let’s Dance, a community dance program in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. The festival’s inclusion of Let’s Dance, as well as the Kittiwake Dance Theatre (a local young company whose performance brought some audience members to tears), reinforces the importance of keeping young bodies and minds engaged.
Following the curtain raiser, St. John’s own Sarah Joy Stoker, accompanied by composer Boyd Chubbs on guitar, appeared in a short, dynamic piece titled Electric City. The radiant Stoker — often in close proximity to Chubbs who sat centre stage — framed spaces around him, circling, creating patterns in arcs toward and away from the virtuosic guitarist. Something mysteriously strong is at play … and then it dissolves as quickly as it began.
Enter choreographer Amber Funk Barton and her dance partner Josh Martin with their thirty-minute duet Hero & Heroine. Barton’s use of tight rhythmic unison and elaborate partnering is easy on the eyes. This rising choreographer from Vancouver manages to portray a romantic duo without falling into overly dramatic traps or stereotypes. Barton also successfully employs humour, a deceptively easy element that is one of the most difficult to integrate into dance. Much of the humour centred around the nocturnal reflexes of lovers as they unconsciously hog the sheets or punch each other while yawning. While the dancing and choreography is successful on many levels, the music composed by Jacob Cino is simplistic and diminishes the work as a result.
The following evening at the LSPU Hall featured Berlin-based choreographer Maya M. Carroll and dancer Sandra Lolax in the North American premiere of their sixty-minute work Magic Valley. Live sound by Roy Carroll and an effective installation evoking strange desert-like landscapes by Sarah Marguier frame this intimate duet. The performers’ slowly melting bodies progress like slugs across the floor at a heavy, nearly dormant pace. Spooning, entwining, softly folding movement was punctuated occasionally by abrupt micro-gestures. After a significant period of time the two squat, then eventually, stand. The hair masking their faces evokes images from horror movies and the piece takes a turn toward the shadows. What are intended to be gestures are thrown out of their bodies with such a frantic energy that the piece loses its footing. Compared to the hand gestures of world dance, Carroll’s shivering and shuddering finger movements seem unfinished, lacking the technique and rigour of a communicative gesture. As a result, the piece falls short of its aspirations to evolve a gestural language and lacks the depth of its proposition.
On October 11, choreographer Tina Fushell — originally from St John’s and now living in Toronto — brought a kitsch aesthetic to the stage with her playful work Waving is Funny, performed by Molly Johnson, Fushell and Luke Garwood. Amongst these strong performers, costumed in pastels and bright colours, Fushell showed the most command over the rhythmic stepping sections in her work. One of the more successful sections involved bringing the audience to their feet as we are coaxed into participating in a sequential crowd wave. Another outstanding moment arrives with a solo performed by Garwood. The dynamics of his performance go beyond the kitsch personas portrayed for the majority of the piece and the generosity of his open-torso movements and well-planted feet is superb. The trio instilled a warm mood in the hall and the piece was delivered by great performers, but it could benefit from some reworking.
St. John’s Liz Solo’s performance Dance Me was a definite highlight of the festival. Solo creates vivid illusions with props and video images projected across the floor and onto the wall. Comforting a baby while she walks through the galaxy, becoming a giant on a small island with waves washing her feet and a fairy frolicking in the brush are a few of the splendid images she creates. Her use of video and simple props is extraordinarily sophisticated and well calculated. Solo is a master of the physical gesture, projecting them in space and responding to their echo with sensitive timing. The variations of her tactile interactions with props harmonize well with the elaborate video environments projected around her. Solo takes on the qualities of light and magically transforms the space entirely.
There is no doubt about Montréal choreographer Manuel Roque’s fortitude and immense talent as a dancer. His command of every moment and his precise execution of technically difficult material is impressive. In this final show at the hall, Roque’s forty-minute solo RAW-me, illustrates states of unrest mixed with tragic clown teasing. Roque’s representations of psychological dysfunction are troubling as they hang in the air without context or direction. He seems to be manifesting traumatic body memories and discomfort with his own power. As he also seems to revel in it, the transmission is disconcerting. Perhaps this is his intention? I’m left feeling curious about what direction he will take in his next piece.
After a short pause, the audience was whisked down to the Ship, a bar with a long-standing place in the local arts community. This cornerstone of St. John’s nightlife was the perfect venue for Jenn Goodwin and Camilla Singh’s rock-inspired extravaganza MORTIFIED. Starting behind two full drum kits crammed onto a small stage and dressed as some kind of Mexican wrestler/cheerleader hybrid, these women clearly understand rhythm and are in control of the power they conjure. With beats and bodies they take us on an enthralling celebration of female power throughout the forty-five minute duet, harnessing the militant energy of the marching band. The work resonates incredibly well in this bar in this community and the result is elevating. The duo is a totally fresh, unusual and spunky delight from start to finish. It’s a great way to end the festival.