Lola Dance delivers visceral movement spliced with intellectual themes that evolve through the use of postmodern techniques: reflexivity, parody, recursive structure (e.g. it’s a loop) and self-referential narrative. In addition, the masterful layering of movement, language, sound and media conspire to convince the viewer that intellectual commentary accompanies the beautifully crafted dance phrases and compelling soundscape. Does “Provincial Essays” ask questions about the development of language and gesture as language; mediated realities and nature; and the relationship of the natural world to the built environment? Or, does MacLaughlin tease and lead the viewer into a labyrinth of indeterminate meaning constructed from this familiar postmodern toolbox? These are the questions I arrive at after seeing the premiere of “Provincial Essays”, choreographed by Lola MacLaughlin of Vancouver’s Lola Dance.
Her most recent work, the dance relies on a curious use of language to communicate her thesis. In the opening scene, the performers roll into place three tall stands with large rectangular lights on top. Caroline Farquhar stands centre-stage in front of a microphone that Ziyian Kwan places there. Kwan then sits down close by, her back to the audience, and whispers words toward Farquhar. Farquhar repeats the phrases into the mic and then performs a representation of the words in movement.
“Number Twenty-One, Seed Pod in the Wind”. In silence, she takes a forward lunge, and extends both arms in a flowing, gathering gesture. As viewers, we accept the interpretation. “Number Nine, Spaghetti Girl”. Farquhar’s body and limbs dissolve into multiple strands of flexibility and the audience laughs in recognition. Kwan keeps the words coming: “The Heron”, “A Branch with Fingers”. There is no larger pattern or category, simply words, and then gestures or brief phrases that refer back to the words.
The same device is further developed in an early scene when Kwan and Susan Kania perform “Noseeum” and “Noseeum on Ice”, twitching every fibre of their torsos and then adding a skating motion to the initial impulse. In the next scene, Kania, with an inflection of irony, informs us that the scene is titled “Tiny”, although the actual program contains no notes, scenes, titles or clues. Farquhar, Kwan and Andrea Keevil respond to words spoken by Kania who patrols the stage, microphone in hand, as though she is parodying a lounge act. She calls out movements and relates micro-stories about the creative process for the dance. “Jazz drop”, “Heartstab”, and the dancers respond in unison, and then reorder, repeat and transform the short phrases they have built from formal, stylized gestures.
This choreographic device of enacting words through gestures and movements is expanded and becomes a structure in the scene known as “The Seascape Collection”. The scene opens with Kwan and Keevil downstage standing in front of one of the light stands which now boasts a square monitor playing a video of waves crashing a rocky shoreline that references the coast of British Columbia. As all five dancers run in a half circle to take their positions, Kwan announces the title of the scene, and Keevil adds, “It’s a loop”. The scene is a loop alright, a series of movement phrases all related to the sea that is performed ensemble, and returns and reorders and repeats. The first time, the dancers name the movements before the quintet performs them. After several loops, we realize the movement is happening without the words, but in our mind the words echo along with the dance: “The Barnacle”, “Sea foam”, Lapping waves”, “Shipwreck”. We experience directly our mind’s reliance on language to construct and interpret meaning.
The use of the tall light stands – with metal bases and square heads at least two feet wide – imparts a sometimes-eerie mood. The light stands remain prominent objects throughout the work and provide reflexive transitions, in that different performers roll the lights into the desired positions at the tops of scenes. As objects, they become a prop with symbolic value, like silent witnesses to the dance. As extreme spotlights, they light up the conceptual references to biological evolution that thread throughout the work in the combination of image, text and gesture.
Ron Stewart’s captivating and slow-motion progress, on a diagonal downstage, is made almost painful by the presence of the harsh spot from a light stand that Kania pushes along behind him. The sounds of crushing rock, grinding sand and scraping boulders – an amazing computer composition by Ben Wilson – accompanies his solo journey, and the score brings alive the historical process of layers of sedimentary rock formation. Throughout the work, Stewart repeats his Sisyphus-like course, arms carving vivid pathways, initially with a geometric form and later with an image of two massive boulders projected on the wall-size scrim behind him. On the final pass, Kania faces him, pulling the light ahead, so that Stewart still moves on the diagonal, but steps into the lit path. MacLaughlin revels in these sorts of precise rearrangements; however, in this instance the meaning seems ambiguous and I am left wondering if the reordered interaction between performers simply creates another visual perspective for the viewer.
Many scenes and moments from this work linger, especially the acoustical design by Brent Belke, and the solos danced by Kwan and Farquhar.
Like impersonal witnesses, three light stands and three performers surround Kwan at the start of her solo, which she dances in a small square of light. A brilliant score of forest and nature sounds, a resounding bird call, and a melancholic piano melody envelope Kwan as she presses out of a curled, fetal position on the floor. She rises to an almost-airborne state, inches off the floor, only to fall again and again, immediately transferring her weight into another part of her body and pressing again, moving into a brief, free-flow suspension. As viewers we empathize with her grief or frustrated sense of longing. Kwan achieves this solely through the sequential patterning of the movement, without any need for dramatic expression because the dance itself becomes that state. When the recursive attempts end and she fails to break through the imaginary ceiling, she accepts gravity and remains in the original curled position within the confines of the light.
Farquhar’s solo is equally convincing and, in it, MacLaughlin retains traces of Kwan’s solo, in mood and movement. Farquhar echoes phrases from Kwan’s vocabulary and adds motifs from earlier scenes — “The Heron” and “The Ape-walk” — but her feet are rooted in place and she too performs most of her dance without travelling, until large torso circles eventually send her into the floor. The reach of an outstretched leg and toe flip her entire body over on the crescendo downbeat of the Romantic Bizet opera that plays throughout her solo.
An unexpected ending to the seventy-minute, one-act work exposes Kwan, crouched like a mute creature under the light from a stand held by Stewart. As I soak up the construction of the image, the slow, inevitable push of evolution comes to mind and provokes a reflection on the development of language as that critical feature that separates humans from the rest of nature.
While sparse, clean choreography in “Provincial Essays” pushes the edge of contemporary dance, some of the scenes and the layering of dance, sound and media images appear to flirt with the promise that the conceptual references will develop into more complex ideas regarding language and representation. The context of nature images in the work can be read as a commentary on how our post-industrial experience of nature now occurs more often through mediated representation. For example, in one scene Kania tells the audience Lola wanted a “real” waterfall not just a photograph of a waterfall. When later a huge image of a waterfall projects onto the back scrim, this hints at questions about nature, humans and mediated realities. Similarly, the performers watch video images of birds before a scene sourced from bird-related movements, and video images of waves introduce the beginning to the “Seascape” dance. Critical ideas unfold in the work, yet for this viewer they remain unclear.
Nonetheless, MacLaughlin mates an abstract vocabulary informed by postmodern convention with broad intellectual ideas, such as biological evolution, which are universal in scope. She manages to integrate a spatially crystal-clear vocabulary with humourous self-referential parody inside the container of dance theatre that embraces intellectual thought. This deliberate union in her choreography tells viewers that Lola Dance may guide us into the postmodern labyrinth but she also holds the compass to construct a playful path out.