Intended by New Dance Horizons as a companion event that will run every second year in place of its more expansive Stream of Dance Festival, this Biennale featured performances by two guest artists: Guatamalan-born, Edmonton-based Tania Alvarado (“Still”); and Thomas Lehmen (“mono subjects”) whose touring company hails from Berlin. As originally commissioned, this review was to focus on “Still”. But as I organized my thoughts in preparation for writing, I was struck by both the parallels and disjunctions between Alvarado and Lehmen’s works.
The impetus for “mono subjects”, Lehmen recounted during a telephone interview in Montréal prior to his Regina appearance, came when he was performing in Tokyo a few years back and aggravated an existing knee injury: It was incredibly painful, and I told the audience, This is not part of the show.’ They didn’t know what to do. Lehmen went backstage to receive medical attention and was eventually able to continue, but the experience called into question the degree of artifice that accompanies a performance, especially when it’s staged repeatedly. It’s funny what people take for real right now, he said. Maybe people have always done it, but we’re starting to realize it more. People are believing in the image of something much more than the real incident.
Similar to Lehmen, Alvarado, in Still, also seemed interested in exploring the contrived nature of contemporary existence, where people lead largely pre-programmed lives devoid of spontaneity. I wanted to create a piece without a huge concept behind it, she said in a telephone interview. I just wanted to be. In order to facilitate that, she did research into the disorder of somnambulism. Better known as sleepwalking, it occurs during the non-dreaming stage of sleep, usually shortly after a person goes to bed. People who sleepwalk are not awake per se, but can perform complex behaviours. It wasn’t her intention to recreate the experience of sleepwalking on-stage, she added. Rather, it was just a method of creating movement to get at something different than what I’d been doing. Alvarado’s working method recalls the Automatistes — a group of Québec artists, including dancer and visual artist Françoise Sullivan, as well as visual artists Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle, who in the 1940s sought to tap into their subconscious while painting. What attracted me to that was being unaware, as in un-posed, Alvarado said. I didn’t want to be self-conscious on-stage.
Eschewing costumes and elaborate sets, “mono subjects” functioned very much as an anti-performance in which different dance conventions were deconstructed and parodied. Vegas-style jazz dancing received an especially vicious (and hilarious) pummelling when Maria Clara Villa-Lobos put Lehmen and Gaetan Bulourde through their paces in faux rehearsal for a swank production number. Also provocative was a segment where Lehmen, with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, recounted different salutes the German Nazi party contemplated using before settling on the infamous upraised arm. Other segments saw the trio confront societal inhibitions about the main instrument through which dancers express themselves — the human body. Such inhibitions, which stem from a variety of sources — sophisticated marketing campaigns designed to sell personal hygiene products by making us feel self-conscious about our physiological processes, commercial exploitation of beauty and sexuality, virtual technology — alienate people from their bodies, and presumably make it more difficult for them to embrace dance as an artistic medium. While “mono subjects” was certainly thought-provoking and entertaining, some segments, like the one where the performers crouched behind amplifiers at the back of the stage and mimicked a static-laced CB radio conversation, were tedious, and overall the performance conveyed a decided aura of Old World ennui.
Conversely, Alvarado’s “Still” was much less coy. The piece began with an extended solo by guitarist David Fraser, which, with the assistance of electronically generated drumbeats and other sounds, evoked a range of emotions in viewers, from tranquility and anxiety to exuberance and wistfulness. Fraser was positioned downstage left. Upstage right, a video by Tim Folkman was projected on three vertical, hanging scrims. The video, which included such images as wind-blown grass, a close-up of Alvarado shaking her head violently and another of her falling backwards, was designed, she said, to offer a closer look at what’s going on inside the person. It’s almost like a dream video that, in an abstract way, represents the real emotion inside the character on stage.
The challenge for artists who strive to create while in an altered mental state is that it is virtually impossible, when so engaged, to disregard the dictates of the conscious mind. Thus, Alvarado’s choreographic premise had a high degree of artifice attached to it. When she took the stage outfitted in an elegant black dress with red shoes, she hesitated, as if uncertain where to position herself. She did this several times during the performance, seeming to make up her mind at the last moment about which part of the stage to occupy while executing her next choreographic segment. Elements of tango, and even flamenco, were evident in the segments she danced while standing upright. Perhaps I was too heavily influenced by Alvarado’s “modus operandi”, but the segments she executed on the floor in particular did evoke the notion of sleep and — in instances where she gyrated her upraised hips languidly — an erotic dream. These notions were reinforced by video images of a full moon, and the red shoes (The colour red, within Western culture anyway, has traditionally been a symbol of brazen female sexuality.)
With its emphasis on garish spectacle and crass profitability, performance, as it is practiced in the entertainment industry (American and otherwise), is certainly ripe for satire of the type Lehmen and his cohorts mounted in “mono subjects”. But as Alvarado so eloquently reminded us, not all performance is like that. When it truly is an artist-driven process, as opposed to dollar or ratings-driven, then it is worthy not of satire, but of celebration, as we marvel at the strength, beauty and grace of the human body and spirit.