It’s surprising how many times I’ve stumbled into a theatre, ready to relax in the dark, only to discover there are no seats, no stage, just an egalitarian space the audience shares with the dancers. Often, I know one or more of the performers, but they all have looks of deep concentration on their faces and so even if I find myself standing beside a dancer I consider a friend, we both act as if we don’t know, or see, each other. For the duration of the show, her role is A Dancer Dancing and I am A Member of the Audience.
This familiar scenario developed a little differently when I entered the Vancouver East Cultural Centre’s theatre space for Ame Henderson’s “relay” and found myself in a bright, medium-sized, all-white room – ceiling, floor, walls. There were a few people milling about, and I spotted one of the performers, Marie Claire Forté, who I know: she’s the French translator for The Dance Current. I was prepared to not know her tonight, to avoid any personal response that might intrude on either of our roles. But then she came over to greet me and we chatted a little, and I knew something radical was up.
In “relay”, which premiered in Toronto in April 2010, Henderson breaks down the formal structure of the performing space, and also teases and tweaks the rigid separation between performer and audience member, both in the opening and in the later, more formal sections of the work.
A few chairs are placed at the edges of the room and I head over to nab one, passing a long table filled with various items such as drinking glasses, a stainless steel bowl and several vintage Honeytone speakers with enamel casings. It looks like a garage sale, and several people browse round. It’s fairly easy to spot the performers in the crowd – besides Forté, there’s Claudia Fancello, Tomislav Feller, Matija Ferlin, Mairéad Filgate, Brendan Jensen and Bee Pallomina – because they don’t have coats or purses. Otherwise, they hardly stand out in their street clothes: Cathia Pagotto costumed them in skirts, dresses or pants, mostly soft colours, with a few unifying accents of red and mustard yellow found in a headband, a belt or a pair of boots.
After several minutes, I notice one dancer standing still with her eyes shut, and suddenly they all are. In the same way, first one, and then everyone, sways gently, and then moves slowly, blindly, through the room.
Although I didn’t want to make myself obvious by pulling out my notebook and pen, I was becoming drawn in and felt compelled to start tracking the action. I scribble a note about how fascinating the eyes are: the shut ones of the performers and the open ones of the audience. People are shuffling their feet and smiling, their eyes wide and roving, while the dancers move cautiously, with quiet intention and great trust, among us. At one point, I spot a person with eyes shut, who isn’t moving, and it takes me a second to figure out if she is an audience member or a performer. (She was, of course, a performer.)
Fifteen or so minutes in, one of the white scrims rises and the auditorium is revealed. We meander to our seats along with the seven dancers, who, almost imperceptibly, are herding us to the new location.
Some slow, very pretty, very distant music begins and, one by one, the dancers return to the room that has now become the stage. They stand loosely flocked together, and begin a series of slow reaches, their hands wide, as if holding something – the air or an idea. I actually jotted down that image in my notes and it sounds a little crazy now, to have imagined an idea held in their hands, but something about the lively energy behind the gesture suggested an interior motivation, as if it came from some inner necessity: from an idea.
Over the next hour, the group continues to flock together in various loose formations, one or two or three stepping out to watch or take photos. The dancers lunge, turn floppily in circles, point a finger, lay stretched out on the floor. They galumph like monster fairies. Clearly there is a game going on where one person starts a movement and the others follow, only instead of being concerned to slavishly copy, they seem to be interpreting the idea behind the movement. This means each dancer does things a little differently, retaining his or her individuality while fulfilling the need to be an ensemble.
It was impressive how well the individual-within-the-group theme was pulled off over the course of “relay”. There was real clarity of intention, something that was backed up afterwards when I read the program note and also the dramaturge’s statement by Jacob Zimmer, finding no claims beyond what was actually presented on stage. This suggests to me that Henderson and her team knew exactly what they were doing. One sentence from Zimmer sums up the work well: “It might seem simple to be together, but the dancers are working on being together without outside control, simple copying or knowing what’s going to happen next.”
The fluidity of roles and of what it means to be an ensemble is further explored when, well into the piece, a new performer ambles on stage and briefly joins in the action, his posture suggesting he may be an actor rather than a dancer. The program revealed he was stage manager Chad Dembski, who is also the artistic director of “an experimental performance company”.
The music is “made and performed” by Eric Craven, who sits in front of the first row of seats fiddling with the knobs on some technical equipment, presumably cueing the recorded sound, and Eric Chenaux, who wanders about the performing area creating sound sculptures from the items on the table. At the end, there is one quite magnificent assemblage on each side of the stage emitting weird and wonderful breath sounds.
The stage manager and the musicians make contributions above and beyond the norm, and so does the audience, though from the safety of our seats. This audience participation begins with the dancers shouting: it’s hard to hear them with the noise from the sound sculptures and Craven’s melodic fragments, but they appear to be begging us to jump. This goes on and on and it seems that if we don’t start jumping we’ll be there all night. Finally, following directions, a few people sitting on the left side jump, then several on the right, and then quite a few of us in the middle (having gained courage from the others) stand up and launch our bodies a small but triumphant distance up into the air. “We call this the victory jump,” one of the performers says.
Henderson, who is from Vancouver Island and now runs her company, Public Recordings, in Toronto, has a similar friendly, non-pretentious approach to presentation that was considered so radical in the seventies in work by improvisers such as Vancouver’s Peter Bingham. She also shares some of the same concerns as Jérôme Bel in his 2001 blockbuster The Show Must Go On, though “relay” has a lighter touch than the French choreographer’s ironic joke-fest about the nature of performance. In the end, though, “relay” is very much itself, striking a thoughtful, deeply investigative tone and carefully constructing a lively game we were all gently encouraged to play.