What is the soul of a man? It’s the kind of philosophical question that can lead a choreographer into clichéd high-mindedness: Dance as a way to Greater Spiritual Understanding (important words are often capitalized in these circumstances) is such an easy trap to fall into, maybe because dancing itself sets off complex chemical reactions that tend to leave us feeling so high. When Sheri Somerville and Brian Webb ask the question in “Nine Points to Navigate” — Webb opens the piece by asking, “Can somebody out there tell me, what is the soul of a man?” — the answer is more meaningfully grounded in their particular world, growing up in post-World-War-II Alberta.
Webb is on stage as we enter, relaxed but clearly in control. He wears a dark suit and tie, his shoes polished to a high gloss, looking every inch the distinguished and mature dance artist (he’s fifty-seven, with a significant body of highly conceptual choreographic works behind him). When Webb asks that opening question, it’s with the clipped, precise enunciation familiar to anyone who’s heard him speak — maybe when he’s on stage in Ottawa to introduce a show in his role as artistic producer of the Canada Dance Festival. Webb’s partner in this work, fellow Edmontonian Somerville, is a thirty-year veteran of theatre and music who looks even more relaxed: she’s barefoot and in a simple black tunic and tights. Her opening words are to tell us, in her deliciously dusky voice, that the work is about remembering their fathers.
The two artists are brave in their revelations — Webb’s father once called him “nothing but a pansy” and Somerville describes her last awkward visit to her dying dad, who wanted to be left alone. The distance and difficult love between them and their fathers is the poignant subtext of “Nine Points to Navigate”, but despite such personal subject matter, they’re not soft in their storytelling: the script feels well worked and carefully crafted between them. It’s hard to believe this is their first collaboration — both move seamlessly between dance (his specialty) and music (hers), though it’s clear who is the professional dancer and who the singer.
Think of it as everyone chipping in to help out. The singer dances, the dancer sings, and the four-person band — besides contributing a fabulous assortment of music — help clear the floor of chairs at one point (a chair is brought out for each of nine sections in the work, and towards the end the stage is somewhat crowded). How’s that for unpretentious art-making?
Somerville’s first song about “all the sad young men” growing old is a beautiful lament, to which Webb dances a lonely solo, taking a few steps with his hand in his pocket, thrusting his leg forward and back, hard. Throughout the work, his line is simple, unadorned — but then he’ll raise an arm in an elegant port de bras, his arms and hands delicately curved. There are little of the eccentricities contemporary dance often falls into; Webb avoids over-embellishing, choosing instead to dance in a more straightforward way. He dances like he talks: somewhat bluntly, but with thought behind the force, and room for pause. The boundary Webb pushes in his choreography is the one that says dancing is for the young and energetic, and certainly not for serious-minded older men. Webb shows us it can be.
Somerville has a looser, enthusiastic physicality — she’s the kind of singer who knows how to slouch around a stage or throw herself physically into a song. Clearly game to push herself a little more here, Somerville pulls off a light, bouncy duet with Webb, and climbs about on the chairs with aplomb. And Webb sings — not trying too hard to sound like a pro, but not dumbing down his voice either. He belts out a little ditty with the refrain: “Oh, she ripped and she tore and she shit on the floor …” (it’s one his dad used to sing) and he also dares a Leonard Cohen song, “Dance Me to the End of Love”. Sensibly, he doesn’t try to sustain the whole thing on his own, which really takes off when Somerville and then the whole gang join in.
The gang is the band, led by guitarist Howard Fix and pianist Haley Simon, with Thom Bennett and Marc Beaudin in the rhythm section. Fix, from Rochester, Alberta, is a burly guy with a voice full of nails who does hard-out rock and soft strumming equally well. His take on the Trent Reznor song “Hurt” was magnificent. The event turned into a real party — a night at the legion, say — when a strobe light twinkled and the audience was invited on stage to dance to the band’s rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”.
The audience participation felt like the end of the evening, but somehow the stage was cleared, followed by final words from Somerville and Webb, when “Nine Points to Navigate” teetered on the sentimental as they tried too hard to tie things up. Relationships are always works in progress — even though Somerville’s father died years ago, does anyone ever finally resolve their feelings to mum and dad?
“Nine Points to Navigate” was one of the most entertaining yet emotionally complex evenings of this year’s Dancing on the Edge festival, the only one presented at Scotiabank Dance Centre and one of just three full-length shows. The other two were Vancouver’s Kokoro Dance in “Ghosts”, a butoh-styled ensemble that took place outside in a grungy downtown eastside parking lot, and Montreal’s Solid State in “Take it Back”, a breakdance/swing-based romp about couple dancing presented at the Firehall Arts Centre, the festival’s headquarters [Its Montréal premiere was previously reviewed on thedancecurrent.com]. Five mixed bills included commissions for Serge Bennathan, Peter Bingham, Joe Laughlin, Lola MacLaughlin and Chick Snipper, who were at the very first Dancing on the Edge twenty years ago.
“Take it Back” was great fun to watch, which is probably why it was an honorable mention for this year’s People’s Choice award, which Amber Funk Barton and Shay Kuebler won for their equally fun hip hop-styled quartet, “Status Quo”. As for me, I lost my heart to “Nine Points to Navigate”, with its wonderful combination of hard, hurtin’ songs, honest dance and straight-shootin’ storytelling.
By Kaija Pepper