Nanaimo, BC — about an hour-and-a-half’s drive north from Victoria on Vancouver Island — is not anybody’s idea of a chic, urban centre. It doesn’t even have a downtown Starbucks. What it does have is raw logs and pulp mills to the south and a string of suburban shopping malls to the west and north. The city core can be more than a little scary once the tourists, who come for a brief waterfront walk, have decamped on the last ferry to Vancouver. Yet here tenaciously clings a contemporary dance festival, when other, much larger and ostensibly more dance-friendly cities have lost theirs.
The sixth annual Nanaimo Infringing Dance Festival, produced by the Crimson Coast Dance Society and held September 15th through 18th, drew small but well-mixed audiences (not all young and not all dancers). The assortment of live and filmed performances took place in a range of venues across the town — from the local library, to a nightclub, a bookstore, a church and the stage of Malaspina University Theatre. Linking the performances was this year’s theme: reading dance. All the pieces, said Holly Bright, Crimson Coast’s artistic director, were “literally literal dance, based on literary ideas, or simply words.”
The opening night featured local dancers improvising movement to the work of local writers. Other events included the Chinese story “The Monkey King”, performed by Flam Chen, an Arizona-based fire, stilt and dance troupe; “Shadow Pleasures”, a film, by Veronica Tennant, of dances based on writings by Michael Ondaatje; and a late-night performance (running to 1:00am) of “Nijinsky Gibber Jazz Club” by Vancouver’s Mascall Dance Company with dj Jacob Cino.
I attended the Saturday night performances at Malaspina University-College Theatre, which started with Victoria choreographer Constance Cooke’s hour-long “Salome, The Headhuntress”. Following a rather delicious, catered intermission (who knew cheesecake was finger food?), the program ended with two half-hour pieces by Vancouver artists: “bANGER”, created and performed by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg and directed by Sophie Yendole, and “Bean Bar Zambuca”, choreographed by Jennifer Mascall for her Mascall Dance Company. I also saw three of the Mascall dancers at St. Paul’s Anglican Church the next morning.
The bare bones elements of the Salome story are fairly well-known: in ancient Israel, a young woman demands that her step-father, King Herod, give her the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the sexually-charged Dance of the Seven Veils. However, none of that basic story was in evidence on Saturday night. In Cooke’s version, there are no veils, just a lot of heads – a pile of them to the right, a single head on a bungee cord in the centre, a couple more on the left for the sole dancer, Jung-Ah Chung, to walk upon, and even two ice heads that dripped loudly onto metal plates throughout the performance. The show ended with one head attached to Salome’s stomach or crotch, I’m not sure which, and I haven’t a clue what any of it meant.
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to know what a dance means to enjoy it. However, when a dance is tied to such a well-known story — Titian painted it, Oscar Wilde turned it into a play, Richard Strauss wrote an opera and U2 recorded a rock song (“Even Better Than The Real Thing”) — you do expect some sort of narrative similarity. Instead, we had some beautiful movement from Chung, who is a powerful and powerfully expressive dancer who draws your eye and stirs your emotions, even when you’re not quite sure why. However, there was far too much of everything else, including an actor, Roderick Glanville, who has a lovely voice and diction, offering snippets from the bible and from Wilde, interspersed with Shaw Cable announcements and the irritatingly repeated cry of “break!” to signal a change in thought or direction. Not a veil in sight, but plenty of other props in addition to the heads, including a Plexiglas box with words scribbled on each side, including “shoes,” “fame” and “God” that Chung periodically climbed into; a metal plate full of double A batteries; and a pile of learned-looking books that turned into platform shoes for Glanville to walk on. Though there were lots and lots of symbols, there was not much meaning.
Jennifer Mascall’s contribution, “Bean Bar Zambuca”, was called a “structured improvisation” but looked remarkably unspontaneous. Five dancers (Catherine Anderson, Susan Kania, Ziyian Kwan, Alisoun Payne, Olivia Thorovaldson) gathered inside a semi-circular frame of PVC pipes to interpret brief stories read by author Nick Bantock of “Griffin and Sabine” fame (his books combine art and text and have sold over three million copies worldwide). Violinist Calvin Dyck and vocalist Daeva N. Guest provided live music. Individual, one-after-the-other interpretations of Bantock’s tales of oddly sweet women — including an expert on mummification and a collector of nothing special, like hats and glasses and buckets – were compelling. The dancers captured the quirkiness of these women, and their seeming sadness, and yet the piece as a whole seemed distant and even detached.
The dancers rarely interacted with each other, and never with the other figures on the stage. Bantock, Guest and Dyck sat behind the PVC frame, as far away from each other as they could get – each in his or her own solitude. The dancers stayed in front, and appeared as closely choreographed as a Broadway chorus line, but without the high spirits. It was a subdued performance, made to feel even more so after the out-and-out brilliance of Tara Friedenberg’s “bANGER”.
This piece was reviewed for “The Dance Current” by Kaija Pepper after Friedenberg debuted it in Vancouver last May. In it, the dancer walks on stage as a girly-girl, dressed in lingerie with lovely long hair. She’s strongly attracted, though, by the army surplus gear left lying on the stage, and soon she’s no longer a girl. She’s a teenaged head-banger, with his first somewhat sketchy moustache and goatee, permanent slouch, graceless stomp of a walk and fascination with air guitar — and exactly the same long hair. Friedenberg is uncanny: her whole body, even her voice, is transformed to the most callow of callow male, one we can see everyday just about anywhere in North America. She’s funny and poignant all at the same time.
Three of the Mascall Dance Company dancers performed as one part of the very long (over ninety minutes on un-cushioned pews) regular Sunday morning service at St. Paul’s Anglican Church. This is something the dancers have been doing regularly at a church of the same name in Vancouver. Over the past year, they’ve interpreted the liturgy at four different services, including the First Sunday in Advent, the Third Sunday in Lent and Pentecost. These are special days in the Christian church, and the scripture readings may have provided more inspiration than the psalm recited by an elderly cantor in Nanaimo. The monotone chanting actually took away from the text — which speaks of singing praise, playing music and rejoicing — flattening it out and making it difficult for the dancers to tie their movement to the words and images. Arms raised heavenward seemed clichéd rather than spontaneously joyful. Having one dancer exactly follow the movements of the one in front of her, but a beat behind, made the dancing feel ill rehearsed. The third dancer moved laterally across the church in front of the altar, but behind the other two, and the overall effect gave the eye far too much time to focus on the unfortunate costumes.
The dancers were dressed in sleeveless, floor-length tunics amateurly painted in what looked like bad, imitation camouflage. Underneath, two of the dancers wore casual pants and un-ironed t-shirts, while the third, closest to the congregation, wore very short shorts — a bit shocking in that context, and more than a little distracting. Adding dance to something as viscerally important to so many people as their religion has to be very carefully done, or it can unwittingly offend.
Well. So what I saw of Nanaimo Infringing this year was not uniformly wonderful, but it was involving and it was interesting. By moving dance into a church, into a bookstore, into a library, Crimson Coast’s Holly Bright attempted to work this year’s festival into the fabric of everyday life, to make it simply part of what happens around town. Further, by tying dance to the written word, she also gave solid signposts to people who may not be comfortable with non-narrative dance, inching the door open for even more adventurous programming next year.