It’s dark, full of whispers and loss. It’s also muscular and aggressive, pervaded by a sense of danger. Crystal Pite’s “Lost Action”, which premiered at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre as the closing show of the Vancouver International Dance Festival, makes a serious and emotionally gripping statement about conflict. It does so through brilliant dancing — an array of solos, duets and, particularly, ensembles that carry both the literal weight of bodies and, abstractly speaking, Pite’s theme.
A quartet of men — Éric Beauchesne, Malcolm Low, Yannick Matthon and Victor Quijada — is the key to the seventy-five-minute “Lost Action”. Their powerful bodies jostle closely together throughout, moving through a repeating cycle of support and collapse, creating the work’s major thread of a community in crisis. The women — Francine Liboiron, Anne Plamondon and Pite herself — do not share the same intense bonding, and remain more separate.
The action takes place on a blood-red floor, although Jonathan Ryder’s lighting design often shrouds everything in darkness. The piece opens in a dark and mysterious space, with all seven dancers hidden in bulky parkas as they move together in heavy synchronicity, arms swinging out to the sides like weighted clubs. There’s a sense of threat, supported by Owen Belton’s commissioned score, which here features a deep rumble, gunfire and the distant voices of men in what sounds like a drinking song. The camaraderie of their singing is at odds with the scene, seeming to come from a happier past. Once a harsh strobe light begins flashing, the dancers’ earlier looping unison step deteriorates and they run urgently about, low to the ground, finally falling into a heap of oddly angled legs and arms.
Physical dislocation is crucial to Pite’s vocabulary in “Lost Action”. Rhythms are broken and uneasy, and bodies erupt into unexpected motion — a foot ends a phrase with its own quick spasms, limbs extend in odd angles that suggest injury, hips thrust out with hard determination rather than with sensual release. The movement combines the kind of intellectual decision-making that results in startling changes of direction (think William Forsythe, for whom Pite danced) with a hip hop-styled coolness (it’s probably no coincidence that one of the dancers, Quijada, is a choreographer known for his hip hop-influenced aesthetic). At times, there is a robotic look, which is when the movement becomes less interesting and merely mechanical. When the choreography retains a quality of warmth, of movement instigated by the emotional impetus of human beings in crisis, the effect is stunning.
The cause of the crisis is not clearly stated. “Lost Action” is abstract, not narrative, and it makes its case through suggestion rather than pronouncement — but there are clues. The hip hop influence in the movement, along with Linda Chow’s costume design of street clothes, including runners and sometimes parkas, suggest an urban location and hence urban violence. On the other hand, Belton’s score, with its gunfire and high wind, evokes a more distant battleground. Words, both recorded and spoken live, could be interpreted either way. “We couldn’t have known”, “An isolated event”, “It happens over and over”, “So much darkness”, “We’re going to start again, okay?”: the phrases are enigmatic.
Usually so inventive with design elements, in this work Pite allows herself only one specially designed prop, which provides a clear indication of a war theme. At one point, she enters with a backpack. When she pulls it over her head, it transforms into a large, grotesque mask with a Remembrance Day poppy for an eye. While it’s entirely possible that both street violence and the larger arena of war are meant to exist side-by-side, this could be clarified.
A small booklet handed out before the performance, although too long to read beforehand, offers further thoughts about the work’s themes. It’s part of a series called Dance Documenta — an initiative of Eponymous Productions and Arts Society, who manage Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot. Written by Nancy Shaw, “Lost and Found: Kidd Pivot” quotes Pite as saying that the title of the present work “brings to mind that tragic phrase of war: lost in action”. However, adding to the possibilities, “Lost and Found” opens with a quote from Pite that begins: “Dance disappears almost at the moment of its manifestation”, which evidences her interest in the dancing body and its lost actions. Oddly, neither Pite nor Shaw say anything about the hard urban world the work evokes so strongly.
What is certain is the sorrowful aura of disaster and even death that fills “Lost Action”. In the blink of an eye, the strong supporter changes into the needy supported. Suddenly, a body lies on the floor as if dead, or is carried as if heavy and lifeless. Sometimes death doesn’t sneak up but occurs more violently, as in Pite’s duet with Low. It begins with her enclosed in his strong arms, frantically struggling, but it’s unclear whether he is the threat or a protector. Friend and foe are not clearly separated in this piece. While Low supports her as she arches her torso precariously back, Pite’s open and vulnerable chest violently convulses in unison with a series of shots heard on the soundtrack, until she collapses.
“Lost Action”, however it is understood or experienced by the crowds that filled the theatre (the last four performances were sold out), is a major work of art. It makes for another splendid success for the Alcan Performing Arts Award, with Pite the third recipient in the category of dance (the first was Holy Body Tattoo, whose “Circa” later travelled the world; the second was Battery Opera and their less successful “Cyclops”). The $60,000 that came with the award allowed Pite to bring her six Canadian and American dancers to Vancouver, where Kidd Pivot is based. There’s a Montréal connection with the casting in that Pite met four of the performers at [bjm_danse] when she was choreographing there, and two are from Montréal’s Rubberbandance Group.
Always, Pite’s strength is how she works her ideas physically, exploring them in kinetic terms to make thrilling choreography. At the physical level alone — for the dancers’ virtuosity and the choreographer’s mastery of time and space, exits and entrances — “Lost Action” is impressive because so much is revealed in the movement.
By Kaija Pepper