Beautiful British Columbia is in shock at the brutal, recently announced cuts by the provincial government to arts funding, projected to be around ninety percent next year. So it was heartening see the buzz at Scotiabank Dance Centre’s Open House on a sunny September 19th, where a full schedule of performances, open rehearsals and classes celebrated the building’s eight years of existence. When I arrived at 11am for Breakfast Dances, presented by LINK Dance, I was welcomed to the audience-friendly series with green tea and an apple muffin. The Birmingham Studio was packed and, after the first two pieces, people were surprisingly eager to give feedback, despite being asked to speak into a microphone, testament to artistic director Gail Lotenberg’s skill as host. The hour of nature-inspired dance ended with a mostly improvised piece performed by Lotenberg and her team (Amber Funk Barton, Darcy McMurray and Josh Martin) to a soundtrack that featured samples of the comments heard during the discussion, another audience-friendly touch.
The day’s main event was at 8pm in the Faris Studio theatre: the latest edition of Pulse, a contemporary dance series in which The Dance Centre supports a self-presented evening featuring two or three works by a mix of artists, providing practicalities like the studio, and marketing and publicity, while the artists provide a cohesive evening of dance. Claire French and Julie Lebel certainly did just that: the evening felt like a whole, not an eclectic showcase. All three solos had a commitment to the dancer’s interior state that provided the backbone for brave, dreamy works that were bright with integrity.
Lebel’s “Field Notes”, which opened the evening, premiered in Sept-Îles, Québec, in 2006. This quiet and concentrated solo evolved out of Lebel’s Drift-Walks project, where responses by participants on nature walks are used to inform her choreographic process. It was performed with formidable inner strength by dancer Karine Gagné, a 2007 graduate of LADMMI contemporary dance school, whose unmannered stage presence was crucial to Lebel’s naturalistic intentions.
“Field Notes” begins with Gagné, in orange shirt and dark pants, standing at the corner of the stage, watching a film of a country landscape featuring a field of grass and a parked car. Then she faces us, stretching out her arms so her hands are in the light, her fingers gently pulling, kneading, pressing themselves. When she walks and weaves around the stage, the movements are equally deliberate, pushing through space as if the air were thick like water. Gagné lunges, or dips down, and there’s a sense that her body is well supported, at home in the environment of air, with no possibility of an actual fall.
The video projections by Gabriel Rochette that fill the backstage screen and appear at intervals include close-ups of stones or water, sometimes on a screen split into two horizontal images. There is one endless tilt down a view of evergreen trees that was awe-inspiring: here, the screen was divided vertically into five separate images, each one primarily green and, at first glance, abstract, though I soon realized they were of a forest. Crows caw on the low-key soundtrack by Sébastien Cliche and Christian Miron while Gagné crouches on the stage looking small and vulnerable, as if she’s on the forest floor. The intimidating height of the trees, emphasized by the long tilt down, and the small crouching body, are clearly connected: Gagné is in the forest, or the forest is in the theatre; either way, it’s a marvelous bit of staging. Slowly she takes her weight on her hands and curves her body out into space like a growing plant, not like a person at all, while on the soundtrack we hear organic sounds of breath and gentle rumbles.
Just before the end, Gagné extends one arm out to the side, then moves her hand in what looks almost like a wave goodbye, followed immediately on the screen by ocean waves, and a person walking on the beach. Whether Gagné’s wave was a form of human communication or a reflection of nature is uncertain, but that choreographer Lebel dreams of a world where person and place are in perfect sympathy was clear.
After intermission, French’s “Outside Out” was a perky, quirky charmer inspired by Hollywood musicals. Dancer Heather Laura Gray, in white socks and blouse, with tailored grey pants, throws herself with pluck and determination into a bit of tap, a bit of hula, a bit of jazz — it’s like she’s in a nightmare chorus line where the style keeps changing but the content is the same: it’s all showbiz, folks. Gray performs with the aplomb of a seasoned entertainer (she’s worked for Disney Cruise Lines) or a movie star — appropriately so, as Hollywood hoofers Betty Hutton and Eleanor Powell are mentioned in the program as inspirations for the choreography.
James Maxwell and Teresa Connors’ electronic score matches the intentions of the movements beautifully, breaking out into snippets of enthusiastic show tunes, much like the choreography does — just as you recognize it, the sound or movement stops, and either repeats or breaks into something new. At times, Maxwell and Connors incorporated the sound of a projector, with a film that’s reached the end flapping round and round, adding a curiously sad note. Despite its brash exterior, “Outside Out” is poignant: the zaniness is constantly cut short in a cycle of energy and emptiness, the one state a comment on the other, adding up to a fascinating work.
The final piece, another premiere by French, was “Inside Outside In” (I won’t speculate on the title, which confuses me). The solo, danced by Laura Hicks, was an exploration of the relationship between thought and action, especially how the still quality of the former impacts the smooth flow of the latter.
A recorded conversation between the creative team about dance — “I don’t know how you do confusion in dance,” says French — suggests near the beginning that the work is about the art form itself, a query into the nature of dance.
French gives a deliberately questioning, tentative quality to the dancer’s movement, as when Hicks lies on her back and lifts a drooping hand, then foot, as if testing the possibilities for creating the same quality between these two different parts of the body. Nothing lasts too long, and one thing does not necessarily lead to another; rather, Hicks focusses inside herself, seeming to find ideas in her head, not in her body. She’s self-conscious — when she undulates her arm, she looks at the movement as if to see what an arm can do, what an undulation is. That was clearly the intention of the piece and though that indecision made “Inside Outside In” hard to sustain, Hick’s committed performance of this interesting, perhaps too intellectual choreography, almost made it work. French is from England, Lebel from Québec, but both have made Vancouver their home for several years. Let’s hope the arts cuts will not chase them away: these solos were finely crafted, conceived with integrity, and performed with physical precision and dramatic clarity. And you didn’t need the program notes to know what they were about — the intelligence was fully in the dance.