“A dance in the shape of a rock show.”
Sounds like a good idea, right? It was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to harness the casual collectivity and emotional energy of going to hear a favourite band and applied it to a choreographic concept. In fact, it has been done before, but you rarely see this kind of work in Toronto. That’s a shame because there is something very appealing about the inter-relational dynamics — onstage, offstage and between those two places — engendered by such a format.
Choreographer Ame Henderson’s company, public recordings, has had a brief but bracing history of turning ideas about performance on their heads. She has presented works created in fluid collaboration with a group of dance, theatre and media artists in Montréal, Croatia, The Netherlands and now, Toronto. In 2005, public recordings presented “Manual for Incidence” at Xspace in Kensington Market and later at the Foundrie Darling in Montréal. Henderson also works regularly with Jacob Zimmer’s Small Wooden Shoe theatre company (upcoming with Toronto performances of “Connect the Dots” at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in February and “Dedicated to the Revolutions” at Harbourfront in March).
For “/dance/songs/”, Henderson chose to strip down the theatre space of The Great Hall to bare walls and a “dance floor” ringed with risers and benches on which the audience could perch. No wings. No curtain. No chairs. The space in which the choice seats would have been located, were it a more conventional setting, was occupied by video projection and sound mixing equipment. But with such unobstructed sightlines and casual layout, every seat becomes a choice seat – just pick your preferred angle. I’m not the only person who saw the show more than once, switching my vantage point for a fresh perspective.
And I’m probably not the only person who became involved in a discussion about the work. Mine was via email, with the editor of The Dance Current, Megan Andrews, who was with me the second time I saw the show and who had a similarly good time. Here follows an edited version of that email conversation. We began by confessing to our “expectations” of the show:
MA: You know, I honestly don’t remember if I had expectations. In a way, yes, from what I knew about Ame and public recordings I expected multi-media, I expected improvisation of some sort, and I expected a sort of hip, indie or maybe “new bohemian” kind of vibe. But then, in a way, no, I didn’t have expectations. Perhaps other than expecting something not of the mainstream-western-contemporary-theatrical-dance-presentation ethos. I remember walking into The Theatre Centre and being surprised and strangely pleased — eased — by the informal way the space was set up — stripped back, sort of in the round, with tall workbenches and low risers for the audience, evidence of video and sound technology, the rectangular white floor and three microphones. It felt casual and made me feel comfortable to just hang out.
KS: I figured it would be somewhat informal as was “Manual for Incidence” from last year. But I thought the content would be more abrasive or tense somehow. It’s interesting to me the whole “goodnaturedness” of Ame’s productions — there is an ease and cheerfulness to them that I find completely lacking in most dance performances. I felt less pressure than usual to understand or analyze the work — it seemed perfectly okay to let it wash over me, even while taking notes and contemplating having to write about it. That doesn’t seem fine with much of the dance I see. Just as it isn’t usually all right to see evidence of screw-ups or technical problems, stress etc. — in “/dance/songs/” you get the sense that it would just be part of the action. I keep thinking back to that guy in the audience at our October post-show talk at élémentale: made in canada [who said he found dance alienating because he never felt he was interpreting it correctly — he said it made him feel a bit stupid]. This is partly why I believe Ame and crew are onto something. They have a slightly different take on the role of the audience, I think. This results in different expectations flowing back to the performers. The terms of engagement seem revised.
MA: The brevity of each “song” also allowed us to release our concentration in between and the variety among them didn’t demand the same endurance of focus that a more formal and longer work would. There was a good deal of humour and candid self-awareness on the parts of the performers, which had the effect of letting me in on the “joke” as it were. Perhaps I also felt this because they spoke to the audience in between “songs” and this broke whatever might have been left of any hermetic fourth wall. Finally, they didn’t seem to be taking themselves too seriously, even though I never doubted throughout that the event, as a whole, was a rigorously developed work.
KS: The performers — Claudia Fancello, Matija Ferlin and Chad Dembski — were hugely charismatic. I guess they have to be when the energy field between performer and audience is so unprotected. We’re close enough and open enough to sense fakery and loss of focus. I felt like they held that line perfectly both times I saw the show. I found Ferlin particularly riveting. I just believed every single thing he did — from shaking his hair out of his eyes to convulsing spasmodically between songs. That hardly ever happens to me — there’s usually at least a moment or two where I just don’t buy what a performer is doing.
As for the video component and those projections on the brick back wall — I found it stirring when the performers were pushed right up into it. (There was one scene, I’m sure you remember, when Claudia was shoving Chad into the wall and the video was showing a bit of a close-up of Chad’s face — I found that very beautiful.) Otherwise it was pretty low-key, to the point where I wasn’t sure what the point was. What do you think about this?
MA: I was quite fascinated with the video. It seemed to shake and shimmer and I couldn’t quite figure that out. It intrigued me to the point of distraction, in fact, and I had to take some time to look around the space at the tech equipment to figure it out. I wasn’t sure if it was a live-feed or not. Some of the connections between the projection and the live action were quite incredibly synchronized but others seemed to be delayed, so I wondered. The jittery movement of the projection itself contributed much to the aliveness of the whole piece, creating tension and a destabilization for me as a viewer.
KS: I asked Ame about the video and she said: “Real time, live feed. Daniel Arcé was sitting in the front row with a video camera. Trevor Schwellnus at the tech booth closed/opened the douser for the projector at the moments when video was to be seen. No delay, no treatment.”
Speaking of video, "/dance/songs/" seems to me to be the equivalent of non-linear editing. Meaning accumulates in layers. This seems to promote a sense of immersion or experience that is harder to resist than with more linear, more traditional shows. But I guess that’s not new. And I guess contemporary dance, generally speaking, has always tried to use this template of accretion to convey meaning. Do you think that’s true? But because in shows like Ame’s, it’s so un-fascistic, so casual, so take it or leave it, you end up submitting. That’s just basic human psychology, right?
MA: I agree, contemporary dance doesn’t tend to use linear structure; there are often many layers that overlap and circle around. I’m not sure that’s what created the sense of immersion and the easy seductive effect of the work though. I feel like it had more to do with the environment that Ame created, particularly using the “music concert” structure in which the boundary between the performers and the audience is more blurred than in conventional theatrical dance settings. We were surrounded by sound at this show (the music was composed by Eric Craven in close collaboration with the group); the speakers were behind the audience and all around. This created an aural space in which we were all submerged together. Because the performers were on the floor and so were we, the experience had the quality of being at a club. We were made to feel (at least I did) as though we were participating in some way, that our presence was necessary for the show even to take place. I don’t often feel like that at conventional shows where I sit safely and anonymously “buckled” into my seat, fixed in place in a highly organized and stratified space.
The performers were completely invested in their expressive performances and yet between “songs” they let go of that intense focus and spoke to us, became self-conscious and created a kind of entry point for us to experience our own presence. These aspects conspired to make me feel immersed, involved, engaged, part of it. And one more thing: the music concert structure is a very familiar structure that allows for autonomy on the part of the audience members. Generally speaking, it’s okay to talk, walk around, get a drink, or come and go during a show and so this also made me feel relaxed and casual — leading to submission as you say. I was more than halfway there by the second “song”.
KS: So, content. (For some reason, I don’t really feel like going there. “If you missed it, tough luck”, I’m thinking. You kind of had to be there. But also, something else — I feel a reluctance to analyze. Not sure what that’s about. Laziness? Fear? Not really.) I felt the song “lyrics” were banal snippets from everyday life for the most part but with sudden hiccups into surreality — kind of like the movement. At times they seemed to move with the un-self-conscious inventiveness of children (where Matija is head-butting Claudia’s tummy for example) or in the Australia sequence, where an impressionistic travel memoir becomes something rather more pointed and vigorous, somewhat despairing, a commentary on alienation maybe. But in the end using poetry to describe movement — jump! — rather than using that movement itself. What do you think?
MA: I agree with you about the flux between banal and surreal. I felt that, at times they were presenting/performing and then, at others, they would slide into vulnerable/personal reveals. The one part that keeps coming back to me is Claudia’s screaming/ranting/writhing on the floor. She started out somewhat composed, and then progressed to the point of agony/frustration – despair, as you say. And she did seem very alone here. It made me feel empty somehow. Screaming in a room alone. Yes, alienation, but parsed with real moments of tender connection too, and attempts at that. I also felt the innocence of play, that child-like quality, and yet how quickly that energy can — and did — transform or escalate into something very different — deep, dark, despairing. Hope and despair? The overall work was a bit of a rollercoaster ride in this way, moving between composure, humour even, and a dead-end frenzy of frustration. Was it about attempts to connect that fail? It’s interesting to me how that theme was present in the structure too, as we’ve already talked about in terms of the performer/audience relationship and sense of connectedness or implication.
KS: Everyone I know loved this show — and I was kind of surprised but also delighted by that. It’s just nice to see rigour that promotes pleasure, rather than just more anxiety. And it’s equally a relief to experience pleasure that isn’t just about frivolous things. It’s the perfect solution for the fun-seeking-yet-still-thinking dance fan. I know the relational aesthetics thing (an aesthetic theory consisting of judging artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt) is very trendy right now and that’s one way of looking at it. But I thought that this piece also referenced (consciously or unconsciously) ideas that were once part of the dance codebook but that have been forgotten by many contemporary choreographers. More please.
MA: I also wonder, is what happened here truly unique to this work, in this context, by these performers and this choreographer? I don’t know if that’s a fair question. However, there’s something — in my experience and our discussions of this performance event — that reminds me of descriptions I’ve read and photos/videos I’ve seen of Judson Church performances, and of late 60s or early 70s contact improvisation performance events. Audiences as “almost-participants”, low-key atmosphere, moments of recuperation (actual, real downtime) within the work itself — for everyone involved. It promotes a sense of connectedness, give-and-take, and community that is a kind of relief in today’s context of so many over-presented/over-performed/over-produced “package-dances”.
Response to this review
Kathleen and Megan:
The article is great. Thank you so much for taking the time to really think about the work, and to expose your thoughts and questions in such an articulate and open way. I think this is the kind of criticism that we desperately need, and I am truly honoured to have been your subject.