Climbing a mountain and dancing in a theatre — both are highly physical endeavors that challenge the body and mind. The first, however, is about climbers getting physically from one place to another, while the second involves performers taking an audience on an imaginative journey. When a love of both climbing and dancing collide, aerial or vertical dance is born — and what is the journey then? After seeing Julia Taffe’s “STONE:Drift”, an aerial dance work that premiered in the Faris Family Studio, a black-box theatre at Scotiabank Dance Centre, that was the question I was left pondering.
Previously in Vancouver, we have seen Taffe’s company, Aeriosa, dangling inside and out of high buildings like Scotiabank Dance Centre and the main branch of the public library. These weren’t performances so much as special events, with onlookers milling around way, way below and gazing up in wonder at the fearless dancers. It didn’t matter that the movement was repetitive because the story was simply that of height and daring. It was straightforward and informal enough that you could stay for the whole event or just watch for a few minutes, and even drink your coffee, open noisy candy wrappers and chat without being a nuisance. There were no demands for quiet and concentration in what was an entertaining public event.
This time, there were such demands because “STONE:Drift” took place in a theatre. The audience was quiet throughout; we concentrated, as we’re expected to in front of art. But though Taffe and fellow performers Chandra Krown and Julie Lebel moved with real grace and strength, the work was not compelling enough to sustain such close interest. It didn’t help that the approximately one-hour running time was divided in half by an intermission. The break came abruptly — it seemed we had only just sat down when the lights came up and we were on our feet once more — and seemed arbitrary.
Still, “STONE:Drift” featured some beautiful moments supported by gorgeous black and white film of mountains projected on the full width of the back wall, and by colour film of rocks and water, magically sparkling on the theatre’s floor, and into which the dancers “dipped” their feet. Mostly, though, the action took place on a bare stage, serviceably lit by Jason Dubois, with the choreography restricted to what the body can do while strapped in a harness and dangling from a rope. Given such limitations, Taffe did a marvelous job in the variety of shapes she presented. But, in terms of choreography, I could not see the benefits of those limitations or, at least, not in terms of their use for a full evening of work. They are a steep price to pay for the freedom of swinging through space, which, of course, the ropes also represent.
Choreographically, Taffe lays out the possibilities exhaustively, with numerous small sections divided by blackouts as members of the trio get in and out of their harnesses to exit the stage or take new positions. Attached to ropes, the dancers lie horizontally in space, their bodies stiff as boards; they hang upside down, arms extended like wings. They scrabble up the rope or slide smoothly down. They swing back and forth in every direction, and also in circles. In duets, they hold each other’s hands or feet, or whole bodies, curled sweetly together. They spin. They unwind. There are only a few moments without the harnesses, when the performers stand firmly on the floor and, clearly subject to gravity, stretch an arm, a leg or a long flat torso forward in space.
One of the most delightful sections involved a lizard-like crawl up the back wall, with the dancer scrambling straight up and then straight down with ease. The fact that her journey was under the control of her two colleagues through a pulley system made it a mechanical wonder as much as an imaginative one, and I watched all three performers equally.
Throughout “STONE:Drift”, there is a feeling of distance, although much of the work occurs midway down the ropes or even close to the floor. Even so, individual dancers are difficult to distinguish, and it’s not just that all three are dark-haired and clad in similar dark shorts and spaghetti-strapped tops designed by Kate Burrows. It has something to do with the fact that when they work in close proximity in duets, they’re often clumped together, forming an undifferentiated mass. When they face the upstage wall in order to climb it, the light picks out the tops of their feet, not their faces. Even when they turn toward us, the light somehow doesn’t distinguish their faces — perhaps it has to do with the unusual angles at which they work.
The sound score is an attractive mix of rumbles, breathy woodwind instruments and squeaking and clanging noises, assembled by sound designer François Houle. I took the recorded voices heard near the start as a clue to understanding the work but although the word “story” was whispered more than once, no story was revealed. Not that one is necessarily needed, of course, but some kind of through line is.
People love seeing dancers flocking and lofting high above the ground, whether it’s a mountain adventure they’re watching on film or urban derring-do on the exterior of a tall building, which they have to crane their necks to see. However, the minute a work is set formally in a theatre, expectations change. In “STONE:Drift”, Taffe presented an efficiently scored set of interesting and graceful moves, but the imaginative journey was a curiously static series of effects.
By Kaija Pepper