What They Said: Dance at the Centre Edited by Kaija Pepper
Contents Introduction 2 The Things They Say: Criticism in Our Egalitarian Age by Kaija Pepper
Five Writers/Five Statements Paula Citron EXpose by Martin Inthamoussú and Alvin Erasga Tolentino
Kevin Griffin Drushka’s Reign by Chick Snipper Twisted by Martha Carter Timber/Timbre by Joe Laughlin
Deborah Meyers Sign Language: A Physical Conversation by Denise Clarke Frank by Nigel Charnock Provincial Essays by Lola MacLaughlin LifeLines by Gioconda Barbuto and Emily Molnar
Kaija Pepper Fire … where there’s smoke by Judith Marcuse Field Notes by Julie Lebel; Outside Out and Inside Outside In by Claire French Gait to the Spirit Festival by Jai Govinda
Janet Smith Scarface by Eddie Ladd Surfacing by Ballet British Columbia Cock-Pit by Wen Wei Wang Taking your experience for mine by Sara Coffin
Afterword by Max Wyman
Introduction What They Said: Dance at the Centre is a small, retrospective window on a few of the critics who contribute to the public record of dance in Vancouver. I am delighted to invite my colleagues to join me in the shared space of this publication: Vancouver’s Kevin Griffin, Deborah Meyers and Janet Smith, along with Toronto’s Paula Citron, who occasionally crosses the country to visit. A statement by each writer provides insight into their background and method, followed by a selection of reviews and, in Kevin’s case, of previews, as well. Both forms of writing are the breadand-butter of a critical practice and, of course, serve very different purposes. With a preview, the writer needs to find a way into a work they will likely only have seen in rehearsal, if at all, in order to write an interesting story that ideally helps sell tickets. The less straightforward rationale behind the act of reviewing is discussed in the introduction. In honour of the ten-year anniversary of Scotiabank Dance Centre, the articles all cover shows that took place in the Faris Family Studio theatre there. We are grateful to the writers and to their respective publications – The Dance Current, Dance International, The Georgia Straight, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Courier and The Vancouver Sun – for giving permission to reprint the articles in this collection. Finally, it is a pleasure to have Max Wyman, who wrote about dance from 1968-1998 in the rough-and-tumble world of daily journalism, join us for an Afterword. Kaija Pepper, Editor September 2011
The Things They Say: Criticism in Our Egalitarian Age By Kaija Pepper
“Moron!” … “Sewer-rat!” … “Cretin!” The insults escalate in an exchange between Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. Finally, when Estragon hurls “Critic!” at him, Vladimir wilts; there is no response. Ours is a brutal profession. Or, “was” a brutal profession – Beckett’s joke was written more than half a century ago and in 2011 criticism has a kinder voice. Typically, arts criticism today, and dance in particular, is no longer about the cut-and-thrust of judgement: there’s been a massive shift toward a gentler descriptive focus. Several big-picture reasons have contributed to this shift. First, there’s the postmodern belief that knowledge is not eternal and universal, but contingent, based in the socially constructed “I” of the individual. Such thought has made its way even to religion, where progressive thinkers allow for an evolving understanding of their own tradition, and for the need to at least respect the traditions of others; it’s also evident in cultural circles, where making room for multiple points of view is now established policy. Long after Freud, we suspect the presence of unconscious agendas and of deep-rooted likes and dislikes that skewer perception. Also, there’s an overall trend to a more egalitarian way of being together in the world: we call teachers and doctors by first names; bank tellers wear jeans to work on casual Fridays; students are given surveys to assess professors at the semester’s end. And critics are no longer put on a pedestal as all-knowing, all-seeing authority figures. Given postmodern contingency, the unconscious and our egalitarian age, the finality of judgemental criticism seems naïve, the descriptive response a more reasonable strategy. Within the dance world, there’s a particular urgency to descriptive criticism: in an art form that disappears the minute the lights go down on stage, reviews create a kind of after-life. So, now, do video and film recordings, but these are notoriously reductive of live performance and are usually made for in-house purposes. The more personal, up-close view of criticism will continue to be an important part of the public record, for good and, of course, ill. Even descriptive criticism is never value-free: not only are descriptions built from what a writer “chooses” to remember, but verbs and adjectives, and the tone of the writing, are never neutral. Negative or just inaccurate description of a choreographic work remains available in the archives long after the dance and dancers are gone. In his field of visual art, James Elkins condemns all descriptive criticism for being “passively destructive” because it isolates criticism “from both judgment and … history … rendering it diplomatic and innocuous.” In What Happened to Art Criticism?, he claims the move to “simply describing art” is “as astonishing as if physicists had declared they would no longer try to understand the universe, but just appreciate it.” Though Elkins overstates the case, it’s true there are losses as well as gains in contemporary criticism. How far can judgement be left behind, and how much can description carry, in a meaningful critical practice? “Liking” and “not liking” are basic terms of engagement with art; as the jazz critic said to the book critic, what readers really want to know is “does it swing or does it suck?” Of course, not every work generates such a passionate response: the critic is often faced with reviewing a work that didn’t strongly move them either way. But the extremes of loving and hating seem to fuel the most energetic, colourful reviews: witness the rave and the pan. Raves provide endless fodder for publicity and an entire book of pans, Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever!, was published a few years ago. Here are two of the witty one-liners featured, both from New York theatre critics: “The scenery was beautiful but the actors got in front of it” (Alexander Woollcott) and “When Mr. Wilbur calls his play Halfway to Hell he underestimates the distance” (Brooks Atkinson). “The ballet La Tempête is a ballet, that is the most favourable remark that can be made about it.” Théophile Gautier’s quip is not in Bad Press, but it could be. Gautier was a confidently opinionated Romantic-era critic who particularly enjoyed raving about ballerinas, as in his description of Marie 3
Taglioni as “a happy angel who scarcely bends the petals of celestial flowers with the tips of her pink toes.” Nor does he shy away from panning those whose “plainness” deserved to be “reprimanded.” Gautier’s passionate comments for and against the women on stage – as much on the basis of their physical appearance as of their dancing – points to the difficulty in distinguishing between the dancer and the person that adds an ethical layer to judgemental dance criticism. Is it the dancers or the women that Arlene Croce is criticizing in her 1974 New Yorker review of American Ballet Theatre’s La Bayadère? “When the famous single-file entrance down the ramp began,” she wrote, “I looked at those unconditioned thighs and jelly waists and thought, They’ll never manage it – their backs won’t hold, their legs won’t keep lifting free.” Such frank judgements of bodies are read very differently today. Toward the end of a long review of The Nutcracker, published in the New York Times in 2010, Alastair Macaulay described ballerina Jenifer Ringer as looking like “she’d eaten one sugar plum too many.” A public outcry resulted. “I am severe,” Macaulay wrote in his defence a few days later, “but ballet, as dancers know, is more so.” Sacrifice, he said, is needed to pursue its “widely accepted ideals of beauty.” Macaulay’s harsh personal assessment of Ringer seems to have arisen from a mission to uphold the high standards of the art form. Croce’s 1995 essay, “Discussing the Undiscussable” – her infamous tirade against Bill T. Jones and his ensemble work Still/Here – is similarly energized by a need to champion the best and to expose those who fail to achieve it. Jones – whose HIV-positive status is noted – researched Still/ Here through community workshops with the terminally ill, and Croce’s fear of the barbarians storming the high-art gates is palpable. “By working dying people into his act,” wrote Croce, “Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable – the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs.” In her view artists should not make their “personal disease and impending death” the subject matter of art, but should transcend both. Like so many nineteenth-century artists did: “Keats wrote no ‘Ode to Consumption,’” she wisecracks. Her non-review of Still/Here – which Croce refused to attend – infuriated the dance and theatre worlds, though she had some champions, too, in a deluge of letters to the editor. (This must be why even ridiculously prejudiced negative criticism gets past editors: it provokes angry letters, which prove the newspaper is being read.) One of Croce’s concerns seemed to be over losing the freedom to be tough and straight-talking, and horror at the thought of taking on board anyone’s feelings: “I can’t review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about,” she wrote. No one wants to write mean things about dying people. Many critics working today are loath to write mean things about anyone. Deborah Jowitt, like Croce a doyenne among dance critics in the United States, chose to be sacked from the Village Voice newspaper last May rather than be forced to write negative reviews. In the American Dance Critics Association newsletter, Jowitt told readers she was unwilling to “change not just the kind of writer I am, but the kind of person I am.” As described by Wendy Perron in “Love and Power Among the Critics,” Jowitt is a nurturer, a mothering kind of critic. Is it a critic’s role to play “mother”? Jowitt’s editor at the Village Voice, Brian Parks, explained in the same newsletter that he’d “become frustrated that Deborah’s dance reviews were almost all generally positive write-ups of the shows she was covering….” Bad or mediocre work, he said, was not being “addressed or challenged” the way it should be as “part of a newspaper’s vigorous critical practice….” A critic, after all, is not a publicist (a more likely candidate for the mother role), and should be focussed on the art, not the artist. In the mothering scenario, it’s as if a critic is writing for a readership of one: the artist. Edwin Denby, from an earlier generation of American critics, positioned his writing more widely, describing reviews as “a sort of conversation between members of the audience on which the artist 4
eavesdrops at his own emotional risk.” It was not having “the right opinions” that concerned Denby, but having “interesting ones.” Kathleen Smith and Philip Szporer, writing together about Édouard Lock’s Untitled for The Dance Current, pull off an engaging conversational review that begins with a negative appraisal of this major new work. Smith states that “in spite of its great beauty and technical virtuosity in all departments, Untitled struck me as being pretty much frigid.” Szporer adds: “I’m still in a state of befuddlement.” To Szporer’s complaint that he was “straining” his eyes, Smith replies that the dim lighting “didn’t bother me as much as the sense that the dancers were panting to keep up with the lighting cues.” She backs up her observation with metaphorical description: “these beautiful performers too often resembled puppets being pulled every which way by technical concerns rather than having time to fully embody their roles.” Lock, it must be said, is such a star choreographer that it’s unlikely his career or his feelings would be hurt even by the fiercest review, which makes writing negatively about his work easier than might otherwise be the case. The Dance Current review on Lock is a richly detailed, insider conversation – dance experts writing for a dance audience. To attract readers outside the field, it helps if the critic-as-goodconversationalist has something interesting to say beyond the dance itself. In 1971, when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet premiered Norbert Vesak’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, colonialism and its tragic effects on First Nations people – the issues that had inspired the ballet – provided an obvious opportunity to engage in relevant social and political commentary, and this in fact generated more newspaper coverage than usual for a ballet. Other times, the writer has to work harder to find connections to ideas and issues. Suzanne Jaeger, writing in the leisurely space of a journal (Queen’s Quarterly), reviewed the National Ballet of Canada’s production of James Kudelka’s Swan Lake by drawing connections to film (Derek Jarman’s Edward II) and art history (Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity), which were both sources she found cited in the program note. Jaeger also worked in thoughts about sexuality, feminism and Kudelka’s then-leadership at the helm of the National Ballet in an engaging, opinionated and well-informed critical essay. The only way the dance itself can be made present in these conversations, since it can’t be quoted directly the way a novel or poem can, is through the writer’s descriptive powers. Susan Sontag, in “Against Interpretation,” championed “really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art” in its own right, calling for writing that reveals “the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” Sontag wrote this in the mid-sixties, at a time when literary critics were interpreting novels to death: she saw description as an antidote to heavy-handed translations explaining how X really means Y. Sontag’s plea for description was also inspired by “the directness of good films,” including those by European auteurs like Truffaut, Godard and Antonioni, who had recently been discovered by North Americans. In front of all those nouvelle vague jump cuts, the giddy camera movement, the attention to light and shadow or the emphatic colour, Sontag was beguiled. Being there with the movement and light and sound of the choreographic moment is similarly beguiling. Description-rich reviews that honour that heady experience and give a choreographic work full presence often carry their own moments of beauty. Sontag’s writing, however, doesn’t rest there: it’s full of opinions, ideas and also judgement. While the intentions of the mothering critic are good ones, the strategy of avoiding negative assessments means that the two-sided coin of liking and not liking always, mysteriously, comes up heads, leaving unresolved the conundrum that a full and honest response to art must surely over time encompass both, and that both fuel strong, energetic writing. Finally, beyond description and judgement, conversational reviews that make connections to ideas and issues create a larger sphere of resonance for the art. They also give the writing itself a chance to connect to readers outside the immediate artistic fold.
The endless space of the web, particularly the deadline-free personal blog, might seem a golden opportunity for long, conversational reviews, which don’t easily find a home in print: they take too much time to write, and eat up more column inches than are readily available on paper. But what is mostly found online are promotional blogs; short, albeit enthusiastic, Facebook exchanges; and minimally edited reviews. The structure that supports serious critical writing is lacking. This includes knowledgeable editors, whose feedback helps emerging writers develop their voice and technique, and pushes established ones to deeper waters. It also includes publishers, who provide a forum that positions writing within their particular readership and house style. Writers’ fees are needed, too. Of course, some editors are heavy-handed; some house styles are restricting. Some fees work out to below minimum wage. If online is the way of the future, it should lead in taking both working conditions and the writing itself forward. Wherever they manage to publish, there will always be that strange breed of thinker called a critic. With or without support, there will always be critics who are drawn to explore choreography – how it moves, how it breathes. The way each one cracks open the beguiling moments on stage expresses their unique relationship with dance, with the act of writing itself and with the everchanging zeitgeist.
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, www.samuel-beckett.net/ James Elkins, What Happened to Art Criticism?, 2003. Unnamed jazz reviewer as quoted in Mary Gannon, “Critics on Reviews,” Poets and Writers, Sept./Oct. 2003. Laura Ward, Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever!, 2002. Théophile Gautier, “Fanny Elssler (1810-1884),” in The Dance Anthology, ed. Cobbett Steinberg, 1980. Also, The Romantic Ballet as Seen by Théophile Gautier, tr. Cyril W. Beaumont, 1932. Arlene Croce, Writing in the Dark, Dancing in The New Yorker, 2000. Alastair Macaulay, “Timeless Alchemy, Even When No One is Dancing,” Nov. 28, 2010 and “Judging the Bodies in Ballet,” Dec. 3, 2010, The New York Times. Deborah Jowitt, Letter to Colleagues, Dance Critics Association News, Spring 2011. Wendy Perron, “Love and Power Among the Critics,” in Dancing Female: Lives and Issues of Women in Contemporary Dance, ed. Sharon E. Friedler, 1997. Brian Parks, “About Deborah Jowitt’s Departure from The Village Voice,” Dance Critics Association News, Spring 2011. Edwin Denby, “Dance Criticism,” in Dance Writings, eds. Robert Cornfield and William MacKay, 1986. Kathleen Smith and Philip Szporer, “Cool Complexity,” May 2011, www.thedancecurrent.com. Suzanne Jaeger, “Swan Lake,” Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 1999. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 1966.
FIVE WRITERS/FIVE STATEMENTS PAULA CITRON
I was a full-time drama teacher at a performing arts high school and a part-time writer on theatre, when dance presented itself to me. One magazine I wrote for was the New Yorkbased After Dark, where I penned a monthly column on cultural activities in Toronto. The executive editor, William Como, was also editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine. He wanted a story on Canadian dance, and asked me to write it. At that time (the early 1970s), you could count the dance writers in Canada on one hand. I was someone, it seems, who could plug a hole. I had studied ballet as a child, and was a long-time devotee of both ballet and contemporary, so I was conversant in dance. From Dance Magazine, it was a logical step to write for various Canadian magazines and newspapers. I am now the senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail and arts reviewer for the New Classical 96.3 FM covering dance, theatre, opera and classical music. Because the Globe is a national newspaper, I deem that my beat should be the entire country. I began my regular visits to Vancouver in 2005 to include Dancing on the Edge and Ballet British Columbia. I fit in other productions if the timing is right. The key to my reviews is the “tabula rasa,” the empty slate. I try to come with no agenda. The choreographer’s intentions are of paramount importance, and the success of the dance rests on how well he/she has rendered that vision into movement. I welcome exposure to all kinds of dance. All I ask is that the work have artistic integrity. I am considered a “fair” reviewer. I’m never cute with words at the expense of an artist. I try to be constructive in my criticism, and encouraging in my support.
EXpose by Martin Inthamoussú and Alvin Erasga Tolentino Global Dance Connections is an important series presented by Vancouver’s Dance Centre. The object is to bring artists of diverse cultures together as a stimulant to creativity. The twinning of Vancouver’s Alvin Erasga Tolentino and Uruguay’s Martin Inthamoussú is a match made in heaven. The men both choreographed and perform the delightful EXpose. The piece is a coming out celebration of both homosexuality and gender politics. In fact, the men are exposed from the very start because they are both on stage as the audience comes in. The audience is also exposed, as it were, because the space has been configured with seats down both sides and the dance taking place in the middle. There are also three other characters in the work – Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, who appear via film clips from their movies, All About Eve, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Some Like It Hot respectively. Dialogue from these iconic movies is purloined by Tolentino and Inthamoussú as part of their text to expose their feminine side. The Tolentino character seems to be more comfortable in his gay skin, as opposed to Inthamoussú, who comes out by defiantly announcing his gayness at the very beginning of the piece. Inthamoussú then relates what happened when he told his mother and his best female friend that he was gay. One laugh-out-loud section is a video that re-enacts these stories with Tolentino playing both mother and friend in suitable wigs and dresses. Tolentino’s female role-playing is a key to EXpose’s message that it is perfectly acceptable for men to show their feminine side. The physical metaphor is stiletto heels, which play a prominent role in the piece.
The choreography itself is filled with sexual images. The two men initially perform as individuals, and both choreographies, while very different, convey urges and longings. For Tolentino, it’s through gestures, such as caressing his face and body. The movement for Inthamoussú is not so overtly sexual, but his slow spins and muscle isolations radiate tension. The latter part of the piece has the two men coming together. They embrace and they fight. They are in competition and they are supportive. The finale is absolutely stunning, as the dancers ritually dress themselves in formal male attire – suits and ties – and then put on their bright red stilettos. Priceless. Marc Stewart’s original electronica score is suitably evocative of an emotional rollercoaster, but the use of perfectly timed, well-known songs – Moon River, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Non, je ne regrette rien – gilds the lily. The piece is being shown in Uruguay and Germany in the fall. Let’s hope EXpose also crosses Canada. –The Globe and Mail, April 18, 2011
My first dance assignment for The Vancouver Sun was in October 2003 to talk to Wen Wei Wang to write a preview about his work, Tao. For the previous 16 years, before moving into arts and entertainment, I’d been a general assignment news reporter and wrote a column on cycling. I was fairly nervous before interviewing Wang because I knew so little about contemporary dance. At the University of British Columbia, I’d studied political theory and general arts, including theatre. Later, as a freelance journalist, I reviewed theatre for the Westender. But my dance experience was limited to a few performances by groups such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and La La La Human Steps. I learned from that first interview that a dance story could be a narrative about a choreographer or the origins of a dance work. I continued writing previews, and also profiles of dancers and choreographers. During the past eight years I’ve taught myself about dance. I’ve interviewed numerous choreographers and dancers, read lots of books and articles, and gone to dozens and dozens of local and touring dance performances in a variety of genres. A couple of years ago, I even took a basic modern dance course at a downtown Vancouver studio. Having put in the time learning about dance, I now feel comfortable writing reviews. My first one was about Alvin Erasga Tolentino’s OrienTik/Portrait in 2007. I don’t see myself as a critic in the old-fashioned sense of the word as someone who looks down from above in order to pass judgment. I write about dance from the point of view of an appreciative advanced beginner. What I’m looking for is an emotional connection to what I see on stage and for dance that breaks boundaries and surprises me.
Drushka’s Reign by Chick Snipper Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-Il and Saddam Hussein are the kinds of names that populate history books and the front pages of newspapers. They’re tyrants and despots who provoke immediate and visceral reactions for their ruthlessness in gaining and keeping power. They usually exist “out there,” beyond the physical and psychological boundaries of the dance floor. But not to choreographer Chick Snipper. She’s been studying these powerful figures from the past and present and believes she’s found similarities in their stories that vary only according to their location along the continuum of psychopathy. “Some are very visionary and charismatic,” she said, “and tend to be highly skilled, either as military rulers or political plotters. Many of them, including ones that are around today, are charming. They share some very similar qualities that help them rise to the top. One of the most important is their willingness to brutalize, torture and kill massive numbers of people to get what they want.” Women aren’t exempt from Snipper’s family of despots. Elizabeth I of England, for example, may have been reluctant to kill Mary Queen of Scots but she still okayed lopping off her cousin’s head to save her own skin. Snipper doesn’t shy away from controversial choices either. She includes elected leaders, such as U.S. President George W. Bush, who do despotic things that include launching invasions of foreign countries that lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. One of the big differences between the violence today and in the past, Snipper points out, is the way power hides behind euphemism, obfuscation and misdirection. 9
“It’s not an easy thing to rise to the top. There’s a very complex series of events that needs to take place that requires plotting and allegiances. You can’t be dumb. You have to be very, very clever – and wily and brutal. You also have to have a massive ego.” Prompted to act by what was happening in U.S. politics, Snipper has created a new 42-minute dance called Drushka’s Reign that looks at how despots seek and gain power. The name Drushka doesn’t refer to any specific historical figure but is instead meant to be a composite, mythological character representing all tyrants. Snipper, a faculty member with Studio 58, said Drushka’s Reign is the most narrative choreography she’s yet created. The central storyline of her dance of the despots is the battle among five dancers for dominance. They’re either seeking power or making alliances to support the person who eventually comes to power. “I’m just a choreographer who creates dance steps,” Snipper said. “I’m not out to change the world, but I thought I had responsibility to reflect on some of these issues.” The dancers are Andrea Gunnlaugson, Daelik, Kathleen McDonagh, Laura Hicks and Barbara Murray. Drushka’s Reign is being performed tonight to Saturday at Scotiabank Dance Centre at 8pm. It will be preceded by a new solo by choreographer-performer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. Drushka’s Reign is Snipper’s first full-length new work since SLAB in 2003, for which she was awarded the inaugural Isadora Award for Excellence in Choreography. Drushka’s Reign will be Snipper’s last work as artistic director for her company DSB, which she created 21 years ago. Friedenberg will be taking over from Snipper who will continue to work as an independent choreographer. –The Vancouver Sun, December 7, 2006
Twisted by Martha Carter When Martha Carter was a teenager she wanted more than anything in the world to be a dancer. She lived, breathed and dreamed dancing. Yet in ballet class, she was never, ever the student picked to show off a grand jeté or pirouette. Of course, there was a reason Carter wasn’t asked to audition for roles, a reason that had nothing to do with desire or talent. It had to do with the way she looked. Her back was crooked. Carter had scoliosis, a descriptive term that refers to an abnormally curved spine. For Carter, as with about 80 percent of people diagnosed with scoliosis, there is no known cause. “I was putting myself in a torture chamber by even thinking I would ever be chosen or be recognized,” she said. “I should have known better because I looked all wrong.” Like many adolescent girls who dream of a career as a ballet dancer, Carter came to the painful realization that her body would never perform at the level expected of a professional dancer. Instead, she went behind the scenes and immersed herself in the dance world as a teacher and choreographer. Although she tried to forget, her body wouldn’t let her. Both the physical and psychological pain of scoliosis remained locked inside waiting to be released. But getting there proved to be a complicated, difficult process, one as twisted as her body. She did it by going inside and finding her pain. The result is a new work called Twisted that combines her own personal narrative with Carter’s unique brand of dance, music and visuals. Carter has not only created Twisted but she’ll be dancing in it along with Katy Harris-McLeod, Jennifer McLeish-Lewis, Jennifer Oleksiuk and Alisoun Payne. Twisted, the final presentation of the Vancouver International Dance Festival, continues this evening to Saturday.
“The only way to tell my story was to dance again,” Carter said. “The only way I could be ready to dance again was to tell the story.” At 11 years of age, Carter was diagnosed with a C curve in her spine. Left untreated, C curves can continue curving so that the spine ends up crushing the lungs, heart and other internal organs. The spine can also twist the ribs to create a hump. During our interview in the Dance Centre, Carter got up, turned around and showed me what she called “my hump” on the right side of her back. At 14, the curve had become so pronounced Carter had to have an operation. The surgeon opened her body, added hooks at the top and bottom of the curve, and inserted rods to straighten her spine. He added little bits of bone from her hip to her vertebrae so that they fused into one bone. She had to lie flat in a body cast for six months. By the time she was finished with traction and a walking cast, she had missed a year of school. For the next 21 years, she did her best to pretend she didn’t have a hump on her back or titanium rods in her body about the size of ballpoint pens. If anyone brushed against her hump, she jumped like she’d received an electric shock. “I couldn’t ignore it any more,” she said. “I was unhappy. I was physically drained. I had been holding onto this secret. I kind of had an emotional breakdown and had to face it.” In Twisted, she tells a story of going to a reiki therapist but initially downplaying to the woman what was wrong with her. “She made the rods vibrate with the energy from her fingers. I couldn’t not feel them any more. It was like they were talking to me,” Carter said. “They were so uncomfortable, I had to get them out of me. That was the beginning of what brought me to making this show.” 11
Part of her Twisted process was realizing her story was worth telling. For the first year of the two-and-a-half year creative process, she would get teary and emotional every time she talked about her personal journey with scoliosis. “I’m going to come out of the scoliosis closet and just say it,” she said. “I’m going to do it and get it off my back.” Locally, Carter is known for creating memorable contemporary dance works such as iDUB – Interactive Digital Urban Ballet – which have mixed urban, self-expressive dancers with more traditionally trained dancers. At first glance, Carter’s previous works may seem far removed from Twisted. Carter, however, has discovered that what she’s doing now isn’t all that different. What’s changed is that she’s no longer looking outside of herself for inspiration. In Twisted, she’s found it within her own body, which knows all the dance rules but seeks to ignore them. –The Vancouver Sun, April 2, 2009
Timber/Timbre by Joe Laughlin Choreographer Joe Laughlin has returned to the origins of ballet, the western world’s most refined dance form, in his latest creation Timber/Timbre. Being performed during the Vancouver International Dance Festival, Laughlin’s new work goes back for inspiration to Louis XIV, who in the 17th century founded the Royal Academy of Dance in France, which laid the groundwork for the modern conventions of ballet. Laughlin sees the formalized dance world as a microcosm of royalty, the court and the state. Baroque dance and costumes presented individuals in public space in an elaborate ritual of performance. In Timber, the courtliness of the performance starts with the simple set design. The floor is marked with white tape that creates a grid much like you might find on a tennis court with four big squares surrounded by a rectangular margin. The choreography is divided into 11 sections that include Equestrian Ballet, The Ballet Dance, Reverie and finally Pas de Deux. The extremely versatile soft-sculpture costumes created by visual artist Alice Mansell are an integral part of the choreography. One is made up of white material that duplicates the bottom half of a physically impressive baroque dress that’s kept aloft with string held by the dancer’s outstretched hands. Another is a bustle that eventually unwraps and turns into a crown and the outline of a royal tent. The dance starts out in a mannered, courtly style but then changes into more contemporary movement as the dancers shed their sculptural costumes. As Laughlin said in the program notes describing his work: “It’s chamber ballet disrupted.” At times during Friday’s opening night, the dancers held themselves and looked at the audience in a way that made everyone aware that they were performing just as dancers at the court of Louis XIV must have been aware that they were putting on a public performance for the king. One of the most beautiful pieces of contemporary choreography comes when all three dancers – Tara Dyberg, Simone Kingman and Chengxin Wei – dance together holding hands. They step over and under one another in a complicated set of fluid, interlocking movements that they perform in a way that looks effortless. Music includes works by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel, as well as contemporary composer Gyorgi Ligeti. –The Vancouver Sun, March 15, 2008
I’ve been writing about dance for a long time. I guess you could say I’m a formal watcher of dance. Form is important to me as a critic: the practice of crafting a piece of writing. Some of the things I bring to the task of reviewing dance are deep research, a deliberate and heightened attentiveness, and a belief in the engaged reader. While as a critic I recognize my various functions as a chronicler, educator and promoter, there is also a dimension to criticism, which I will venture to call a poetic dimension, that informs the dance reviews I most like to read and try to write. How does someone come to do such an unlikely thing? There have always been remarkable dance teachers in Vancouver and I studied with two of them: Dorothy Hunter and Josephine Slater. I also had the good fortune to grow up here during the years that impresario David Y.H. Lui was bringing great companies to town. The first ballet I saw on stage as a teenager was American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. But the tipping point came in 1985, when I attended the American Dance Festival’s Dance Critics Conference at Duke University in North Carolina. This experience re-positioned dance writing for me as a field of critical discourse worth a lifetime of devotion. Over the years I have written about dance in a number of ways. I’ve been an editor of a local dance magazine, contributed to dance periodicals and encyclopedias, done radio reviewing, undertaken dance research projects and for a good part of the last decade written regular freelance dance criticism for The Vancouver Sun. Did I mention that I have always had a day job?
Sign Language: A Physical Conversation by Denise Clarke A “salon performance” is what Denise Clarke calls her Sign Language: A Physical Conversation, in which she appeared for two nights only at the Scotiabank Dance Centre as part of the PuSh International Performance Series. Clarke had said that she was going to dance, and to talk about it afterwards, and while that is what happened it doesn’t begin to describe the deeply strange, profoundly affecting interplay of words and gestures and steps that were at play here. Clarke is, after all, an actor as much as she is a dancer, a permanent member of Calgary’s much acclaimed One Yellow Rabbit theatre company for the past 18 years. You only have to watch her for about a minute to know that she understands in an intimate way about the body’s power to speak through movement, and it only takes a few minutes more to realize that she is harnessing this power in ways that are seriously, unusually authentic. She built Sign Language using a method she calls “50 repetitions.” This means that since 2001 she has repeated the 65-minute improvisational process on 50 occasions, each time with an invited viewer in the studio and ultimately an audience in the theatre. (In fact, her Vancouver performances were the 50-something repetitions of the work.) She gave the piece a set of signposts – an opening monologue inspired by Radiohead’s Fitter Happier (from the band’s seminal 1997 OK Computer album), a sacred sounding score by Arvo Pärt, some costumes (including a satin circle skirt the colour of butterscotch syrup that descends from the heavens for her to step into) – and then let her trained dancer’s body take over and make its choices. It was a way, she says, of getting away from herself and closer to God. When Clarke tells you something like that, you believe her, and you believe her because she is as naked (sometimes literally, always figuratively) and generous a performer as there is. “What I’m, like, really worried about, is angels and devils, and where I fit in,” she confesses during the monologue 13
that begins the work, and while her hands are signing the words her face and body are frequently contradicting them. She announces that she is less anxious these days, and signs the words for this into the air, all the while scrabbling at her stomach as if tiny bugs were crawling there. Sign Language is a brilliant physical essay on fear and desire. It is full of contradictory things that make perfect sense. A lyrical passage Clarke performs in a blush satin nightgown is composed of beautifully rendered ballet steps which do not parody the form, but exalt it; the frailty and humour of the body is celebrated in what must be one of the most adorable, artless strips ever performed on stage; and near the end of the piece, Clarke sets an invisible globe spinning on its axis on her finger. She cradles it, a round treasure, and then offers it to a member of the audience. It is wordlessly, lovingly passed, without any of the awkwardness that often accompanies such theatrical conceits, from hand to hand along the front row. After the dancing is over Clarke talks about what she just did, with sign language interpretation by Carmelle Cachero. But this is not your usual post-performance chat, with its clear boundaries and conventions: this is the magician telling us how she did the tricks. So we find out why she and every other contemporary dancemaker loves Arvo Pärt (“the bells, the spaces he makes in the music, the meditative quality”), how she employs One Yellow Rabbit’s disciplinary touchstones of precision, relaxation and economy in her solo work, that she considers Sign Language to be a liturgical dance even though she is “not noted for being the liturgical type,” and how fabulous it is, how like a modern form of worship, that so many dancer/choreographers are working in high heels these days. What can I add? You get a lot from an evening with Denise Clarke. Her fearlessness might even be catching. –The Vancouver Sun, February 4, 2004
Frank by Nigel Charnock “I like being a man, but I don’t see myself as a man. For a few minutes, I will try to explain what it’s like to be a man…” That, in his own elliptical words, is probably as close as you’re going to get to what Nigel Charnock is all about. To call this British solo diva a performance artist does not begin to describe the singing, dancing, acting monster he sets before us in Frank, at the Scotiabank Dance Centre as part of the 2005 PuSh festival. Commissioned by the Venice Biennale, and premiered there in the summer of 2002, Frank comes out of one stream of this prolific artist’s working life – his primarily solo output for his own Nigel Charnock & Company. He is at the same time artistic director of the Helsinki City Theatre Dance Company, and a writer and director who regularly stages work for both theatre and dance. His roots are in the audacious, acclaimed English performance collective, DV8, of which he was a founding member. But his biography doesn’t really prepare you for what you get from him in the theatre. There are other artists who are as frankly confessional, as obsessively confrontational. And there are many
who work within a thinly structured, at times teeteringly chaotic framework, filling in the blanks with extended improvisational riffs. But there are few who do this who can dance like angels. And even fewer who dare not to care whether we love them or not. Under all that bluster is a message, of course: love is the only thing. That said, Charnock’s argument is not linear. He takes on polite Canadians, low carb diets, same sex marriage, the fashion sense of Buddhists, contemporary dance and suicide (to name a few of his subjects), all the while talking while he’s moving and moving while he’s talking. He sings a song or two, and tells a story about a diamond as big as your heart, that you search for only to find it was in your pocket the whole time. It’s a kind of free form rant that seems to be driven alternately by rage and rapture. From time to time, he lunges into the audience, clumping around over chairs and people, a reminder that the safety we feel in our seats in the dark is only an illusion. The piece balances just this side of collapse, which gives it a dizzy dynamic tension. It is rescued again and again by the fact that Charnock is an incandescent mover: he appears to dance out from some true, deep, personal place. He has integrity as a harmonica-playing, quick-stepping ghost, and so too when he performs a final dance of great strength, fragility and beauty, laying down steps in a gold light on a blue floor. The piece finishes with the exhilarating blast of a baroque fountain, which in the end is just one slight dancer in black trunks with a water bottle. Frank is either a theatrical tour de force or a piece of the most grotesque indulgence. And whether he wants to be loved or not, one of the most endearing things about Nigel Charnock is that he seems to be saying: you decide. –The Vancouver Sun, January 29, 2005
Provincial Essays by Lola MacLaughlin One way or another, the concept of place has been choreographer Lola MacLaughlin’s subject for a long time. She came at it head-on in her acclaimed Four Cities: Four Solos, which painted quirkily accurate dance pictures of Berlin, Vienna, Venice and Brussels. But she’s treated it obliquely throughout her career, devising singular theatrical environments built on her precise dance syntax and unerring eye in dressing the stage. Provincial Essays, MacLaughlin’s much anticipated new work and her first in some time, is a set of vignettes about the natural world. Distinct sections follow each other: the dry twig section, the rain forest section, the bare trees against blue sky section. The opening sequence leads off with words paired with gestures, beginning with “seed pod in the wind,” and the various moves are given names too: the star-struck wiggle, the neck grab, the under the knee touch. MacLaughlin used this convention to effect in an earlier work, fuse, but in that case the dancers were showing us what a washing machine, or salt and pepper shakers, or other everyday objects in motion really look like. This time she takes us outdoors, but the outcome is the same: she names it, we look without worrying, and the lack of worry frees up our seeing. She creates a safe space. This device is used most emphatically in “the seascape collection,” the first of two ensemble dances for the sublime cast of five dancers: Ron Stewart, Caroline Farquhar, Susan Kania, Andrea Keevil and Ziyian Kwan. They dance us a sequence with named parts: sea foam, ship wreck, the westerlies, whitecaps. Then they repeat it, without the words. And then Stewart does it all over again, by himself. It’s a quietly mesmerizing unravelling that takes you straight to the core of the thing. Not all of Provincial Essays is as transparent, and at 70 minutes it’s a compendium that’s a tad too long. But danced on a white drop cloth against a floor to ceiling white scrim, and framed by three mobile lighting units with large geometric heads, this new work is spare and pure in the MacLaughlin tradition. James Proudfoot’s lighting plots flood the performing space, laying down lime green and hot pink stripes of colour, imprinting the stage floor with graph paper squares.
Brent Belke has devised a soundscape that ranges from birds and breaking rock to Bizet, and Andreas Kahre provides the film and photographic stills of sheeting water, planar rock faces and grassy hills that loom huge behind the dancers. –The Vancouver Sun, May 5, 2007
LifeLines by Gioconda Barbuto and Emily Molnar In palmistry there are lines that denote fate, head and heart. But the life line trumps them: it reveals the quality of a life. LifeLines, an hour-long duet created and performed by Canadian dancers Gioconda Barbuto and Emily Molnar, goes to that essential place in dance terms. There is no artifice in the dancers’ black jeans and simple T-shirts, and none in their movement either. This is deep, authentic dancing, two genuine dance voices conversing, rarer than rare. The piece is structured as a set of solos and duets, with improvised parentheses. Sometimes they jam, in call and response fashion, or play a kind of frozen tag, suspending the movement at its apex. But it’s all quiet, without hurry or chase. It’s dance at its most spare, pointed and revelatory. It takes special movers to pull off this level of exposure, and both 51-year-old Barbuto and 36-year-old Molnar, who last worked together in Margie Gillis’ production of M.Body.7, are up to the task. Barbuto is small and deeply intentional. There is geometry and logic in everything she does, a lifetime of choices encoded in every move. Molnar is, in interesting ways, her polar opposite. Monumental in size and shape, her lines bristle with energy and extend far away. She takes up space, carves into it, sculpts the air around her. Alone on a white floor against a white scrim, you can’t take your eyes off of her. Their dance is a conversation between two individuals who inhabit their bodies to an extreme degree. All dancers do, of course: in dance, the body is the instrument, and it has to be tuned. But these two notch it up many levels. This is dancing so pure it hurts.
That’s partly because it’s about hard truths. As Molnar explains in a real-time sequence, in which she reads a letter from Barbuto, the performance was originally scheduled for February of this year, but was delayed when Molnar sprained an ankle. Thus a piece originally supposed to be about the history of the body ended up being about “the sense of grace in a changing body” and more finally, “the ways the body says good-bye.” The collaborators on the project are Michael Slobodian, whose video showing the dancers’ faces in profile, connected by gestures that superimpose one another, pulling each other in, pushing each other away, is a small truth in itself; Pierre Lavoie, who lights the piece with precise elegance; and composer Michel Drapeau, who contributes a faintly celestial, multi-sourced soundscape. They provide a framework for some of the most singularly fine dancing seen on our stages in awhile. When the piece ends, as it started, with another round of the stop/start game we saw earlier, Molnar’s voice is so soft you can hardly hear it. It’s as if they’re giving each other, and us, courage to go on. –The Vancouver Sun, November 15, 2008
It was 1984, and I’d recently moved to England, where I started teaching dance almost on arrival, lugging my boombox on double-decker buses all around Bristol. I ushered at the Arnolfini, too, whenever there was a dance show. Browsing in the gallery’s gift shop, I came across New Dance – “the magazine by, for and about today’s dancers” – and sent in what would be my first published review, of a BBC TV series featuring choreography from around the world. I kept on writing, but it wasn’t until returning to Vancouver in 1991 that it became a serious pursuit. I’ve since contributed to several magazines (including boulderpavement. com, thedancecurrent.com and my column in Dance International), newspapers (the neighbourhood Courier for a while, then The Globe and Mail) and journals (Queen’s Quarterly). As well, I’ve had three books on Vancouver’s dance history published and am presently co-editing Renegade Bodies: Canadian Dance in the 1970s (for Dance Collection Danse Press, 2012). Though I do yoga these days, I still feel close to the little girl who took ballet lessons and to the teenager who discovered Graham-based modern dance at Linda Rubin’s Synergy studio (we also improvised and did body massages). I continued dancing while earning a degree in Communication Arts at Concordia University, where I studied film criticism with Marc Gervais. When I did my Masters in Liberal Studies in the 1990s at Simon Fraser University, it was to broaden the frame of reference I brought to my arts writing. It all contributes to my critical perspective: knowing the hard slog of ballet technique, remembering ecstatic Graham releases, Marc nagging me to keep connected to the details of the cinematic moment. Always, my goal is to make the dance present and also to reflect the deeper experience – the emotions and ideas evoked – that is the whole point of art.
Fire … where there’s smoke by Judith Marcuse Since September 11, violence on a global scale has become a frightening concern. But there are countless smaller ways in which we hurt one another and it’s those more common acts of violence that fuel FIRE…where there’s smoke. This multimedia production, based on workshops held across B.C. with 400 teenagers aged 15 to 18, focuses on the tragic proportions of young lives caught up in family and peer violence. Using theatre, dance, song and video in a tour de force of theatrical integration, FIRE is a compelling, non-stop 70 minutes of life as seen through the eyes of victims, victimizers and bystanders. The show – produced, directed and choreographed by Judith Marcuse, artistic director of DanceArts Vancouver – begins as the cast of nine races onto the stage. They trade insults, then take turns showcasing hot, hip hop moves. Throughout, the powerful energy of the gang is set next to solos expressing the individual. One of the most exciting dances comes from World Tap gold medallist David Cox, who stomps through an angry solo full of groans and grimaces – this is tap with a purpose. More than formal dance, however, it’s direct body language that brings an overwhelming physicality to FIRE. The script is build around episodes that include street violence, peer pressure and an abusive father. One character ends his monologue by reclaiming the world “gay” so that it stands for something positive; another finds the courage to say “rape” out loud. There’s a good dose of humour in the script by Kathleen Oliver (of Swollen Tongues fame) and Kevin Kerr (co-artistic director of the Electric Company), and only a pinch of preaching. 18
The young performers are trained in theatre and/or dance. They bring their characters to life with generosity, skill, insight and attitude to spare. A strong portrayal comes from Erin Matthews, a graduate of Studio 58, who plays a character called Nothing. Despite her blue hair and colourful clothes, she is the invisible girl who knows only one thing: “Nothing makes a difference anyway.” The main set piece is a trio of large screens at the back of the stage, on which Val Nelson’s stylish video images are projected. Empty streets and schools provide evocative backdrops for running, hiding or just plain physical release, as when dancer Chanti throws herself against the metal lockers and hard floor in a school hallway. Though FIRE is inspired by the intense emotions of youth, the work speaks to us all: the underlying feelings of loss, betrayal, bewilderment and anger are part of the human condition. I felt a direct assault on my own particular “condition,” as a mom with a 13-year-old daughter, in a video segment where a mother’s seemingly innocent fussing over her daughter’s appearance escalates into a painful bout of wrestling. FIRE is the second of a projected quartet of productions for young people by DanceArts Vancouver. Like the first, ICE: beyond cool, which premiered at Pacific Centre Mall in 1997, FIRE is fast and furious. The music by Hal Foxton Beckett pounds and lights flash: FIRE burns brightly with the rush of youth. Their expressions of violence and despair are shown to be rooted in real pain brought on by a world they are just beginning to shape. –The Vancouver Courier, October 24, 2001
Field Notes by Julie Lebel; Outside Out and Inside Outside In by Claire French 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. 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 publicity, while the artists provide a cohesive evening of dance. Claire French and Julie Lebel did just that: all three solos had a commitment to the dancer’s interior state that provided the backbone for brave, dreamy works. Lebel’s Field Notes, which opened, premiered in Sept-Îles, Québec in 2006. This quiet, concentrated solo evolved out of Lebel’s Drift-Walks project, where responses by participants on nature walks 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, awe-inspiring tilt down a view of evergreen trees: here, the screen was divided vertically into five green and, at first glance, abstract, images. 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 her 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 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 (Hollywood hoofers Betty Hutton and Eleanor Powell are mentioned in the program as inspirations for the choreography). James Maxwell and Teresa Connors’ electronic score beautifully matches the intentions of the movements, breaking out into snippets of enthusiastic show tunes, much like the choreography does – just as you recognize it, the tune stops, and either repeats or breaks into something new. At 20
times, the sound of a projector is incorporated, 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, explored how the still quality of thought impacts the smooth flow of action. A recorded conversation between the creative team – “I don’t know how you do confusion in dance,” says French – suggests the work is about the art form itself, a query into the nature of dance. French gives the movement a questioning, tentative quality: when Hicks lies on her back and lifts a drooping hand, then foot, it’s as if she’s testing the possibilities for creating the same quality between them. Nothing lasts too long, and one thing does not necessarily lead to another; Hicks focusses inside herself, seeming to find ideas at random in her head, not through the logic of 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, bright with integrity, and performed with physical precision and dramatic clarity. –www.thedancecurrent.com, September 2009
Gait to the Spirit Festival by Jai Govinda Gait to the Spirit, the city’s first Festival of Classical Dance of India, brightened up a quiet fall. Modest in scope, it was big in promise and creative relevance: South Asian dance forms have been slowly entering more widely into public consciousness until now, in Vancouver, the extreme poses of bharata natyam seem almost as familiar as those of ballet. Audiences are interested in and engaged by the form, and so are artists: a recent high-tech and very contemporary work by Simon Fraser University professor Henry Daniel, T2, included choreography by Odissi dancer Scheherazaad Cooper, who was also part of the present event. That the festival took place at all was due to the passion and resourcefulness of producer Jai Govinda: through his organization, Mandala Arts and Culture, the three days of performances and events were mounted on a shoestring. The support of the Vancouver Dance Centre, where it took place, was crucial. As guest artist Lata Pada noted, it meant the festival was held at a mainstream venue in the downtown core. “Indian dance in Canada,” Pada said, “has come a long way.” Pada’s comments were made on the last day, during a presentation about the South Asian Dance Alliance of Canada, or SADAC, formed in 2008 (sadac.ca). Pada, the artistic director of Sampradaya Dance Creations in Ontario, spoke of her own efforts to make bharata natyam relevant to the Canadian community, where she first lived over forty years ago. “Then, Indian dance was seen as ethno-specific, as exotic and as the other, and was relegated to community settings,” she recalled. Though grounding her work in the principles and aesthetic of her traditional form, Pada’s intention was never to “preserve and pickle.” She and her colleagues “were busy being contemporary in our own context, infusing the art form with the new reality of Canada.” Pada recognized the increased support of government funders, specifically the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Arts Training Fund. Changes made in 2002 to eligibility criteria, including waiving the need for some training organizations to have a national competitive admission process in both official languages (English and French), have helped make the Fund’s client base more culturally diverse.
All shows at Govinda’s festival were sold out, despite the fact he had no money for publicity. I saw three soloists, including the powerful Janaki Rangarajan, who started studying bharata natyam at age four in India, and now runs a school in the United Sates. The beautiful curves of her dance were entrancing – that long, dangling arm; the rounded hips, exaggerated both through the off-balance demi-plié pose and by the traditional costume, with its cinched waist; and her slender red-stained feet, which tended to nestle together when she stood upright. Rangarajan’s style is highly influenced by her teacher, Padma Subrahmaniam, whose research into temple sculptures in South India has led her to theorize that the poses they depict were not static, as previously thought, but are part of complete movements. Subrahmaniam has compiled over a hundred transitions of how these poses (or karanas) can be constructed as part of a moving dance. While this innovation qualifies Rangarajan’s style as contemporary, the content was very traditional: most of the dances were based on mythical tales, and I confess to becoming weary of stories of gods and demons over the course of her long program. Rangarajan explained the details of plot and mime before each piece, which did lend insight into the representational element of the movement but felt “educational,” and interrupted the inspiration of the dance itself. Still, the precision of Rangarajan’s movement was stunning, as was the awesome power of her assertive, upright thumb and the high, strong elbows of her port de bras; the rare, light jump; and her extremely mobile face, for which she is known. South Asian classical dance is rooted in the ritual and mythology of Hinduism, but both Govinda and Pada have experimented with introducing a wider content. Govinda has himself performed storyless dance, using traditional bharata natyam movement but without the ornate, traditional costume or make-up, and Pada has created an ensemble work based on the game of cricket. This kind of experimentation seems to me essential if bharata natyam is to take its place as a vital contemporary art with relevance to a wide audience. –View from Vancouver, Dance International, Spring 2011
I think of myself as a journalist who also happens to be a dance fan. That’s heavily influenced how I write about Vancouver’s scene, which I’ve covered for 20 years, first for the Westender and then for The Georgia Straight. Though my love of the arts started in childhood with ballet and piano, things really began at journalism school, at Ottawa’s Carleton University, where I was one of only a handful of people specializing in arts reporting and reviewing. I combined writing courses with everything from film theory to performing arts. My journalism teachers’ old-school approach heavily influenced my own: my first duty as a reviewer is to my readers, to put them in the seats of the theatre and create pictures of what they might have missed, or to remind them of what they saw. The review should always stand alone, to be of interest to anyone who might pick up the paper. And while the writer needs a solid technical grounding in dance vocabulary, a critique should never stray into academic discourse or what we call “artspeak” in our newsroom. I always lead with what I would tell a friend about a show – the moment that most stood out. Over the past 12 years, I’ve written arts profiles and critiques for The Georgia Straight, and for the last 10 I’ve edited the arts section. During that time, two other roles for a review have emerged. One is to give context – to explain where a work sits in a person’s career, in the local scene or on the world stage. The other is to pass on my own enthusiasm for dance, even when I may be tempering it with criticism. I don’t consider myself to be above or even part of the scene; I admire it from a distance and always see dance as part of a larger cultural landscape.
Scarface by Eddie Ladd How big a follower of Brian De Palma’s cult-trash epic Scarface do you have to be to get Welsh performer Eddie Ladd’s wildly abstracted take on the movie? Well, a passing familiarity with CubanAmerican coke kingpin Tony Montana and an ability to quote lines like “Say hello to my leetle frien’” and “We bury those cock-a-roaches” are a start. But if you know who supporting character Frank Lopez is, can easily recall the scene in which he pleads for his life, and can then make the leap from him doing so in a gaudy ’80s-Miami office to a sedate Welsh country house, you’ll understand all the dimensions of her extended inside joke. Thanks to a renewed interest in the film driven by endless homages by everyone from G-Unit to Xbox, there were plenty who got it at Ladd’s genre-busting PuSh International Performing Arts Festival appearance. That knowledge is crucial because Ladd so thoroughly deconstructs the story, moving all the settings to Wales. The stage is split into two spheres of performance. On one side is the petite, pixie-haired artist, dancing and mugging in front of a camera, with a blue screen as her backdrop. On her right are the projected video images of her antics, where she’s chroma-keyed into scenes of the serene Welsh countryside and her elderly parents’ rural house, a mishmash of chintz wallpaper, floral carpets and porcelain figurines that looks straight out of the hit Brit home show How Not to Decorate. The messages are multitudinous. For a start, the split stage emphasizes how an actor performs for the camera, the way she jumps in and out of the frame and moves in for an extreme, cropped close-up. With the Welsh setting, Ladd loosely connects the cultural imperialism her homeland faces from the British with that faced by Cubans in America. What’s refreshing is that Ladd never resorts to literal re-enactments of the film. Key plot points are explained in untranslated Welsh or choreographed through action: she dances the chaos of the infamous chainsaw-torture scene in front of incongruous footage of her parents’ kitschy 23
china cabinet; the end’s extended shootout is a frenzy of airborne leaps and dives Ladd performs suspended on a harness with pulleys. Postmodern as it all is, Y Tystion’s thumping electronic score adds a hip, clubby feel that keeps Scarface from sailing too far into the avant-garde. Ladd’s grooving, kicking choreography, punctuated by her arms and legs slicing the air, owes much more to the Irvine Welsh-era rave scene than the technique of contemporary dance. The bizarre blend of elements helps make Scarface just the kind of warped, uncategorizable gem you hope to find at PuSh. As Tony Montana himself might say, “She got da stuff!” – The Georgia Straight, January 25, 2007
Surfacing by Ballet British Columbia Ballet British Columbia could not have signalled it’s shaking things up more loudly and clearly. The final number in Surfacing, a new choreographic series, found the corps thrashing around the stage to crunching, hardcore-metal guitars. The beleaguered organization clearly has to reinvent itself, but tossing away the pink slippers and gauzy getups for tank tops and jeans in choreographer Rob Kitsos’ audacious explosion of head-banging chaos? The angular, athletic movement was about as far from the flowing grace of contemporary ballet as you could get. The troupe’s more traditional fans may have wondered what had just hit them. To some, it might have even been something akin to sacrilege. But I say, “Bring it on.” This is not to suggest our regional ballet company should now find its salvation in the sounds of Slipknot and Sepultura. But whatever it was doing before was not working anymore. This time last year, it looked like the financially strapped troupe was taking its last gasps. Interim artistic director Emily Molnar is on the right track with her new series: take the ballet corps, blend it with upstart dancers from Arts Umbrella, throw them into the hands of four fresh choreographers, then toss them into an intimate setting like the Scotiabank Dance Centre. She managed to pack the place and stir things up. In the first two works – both en pointe – there was a wobble, a near-collision and slight synchronization lapses. But those flaws were not as important as they might have been in a fully 24
realized production on the Queen Elizabeth Theatre stage. Before the show, Molnar, whose ties to both the contemporary-dance scene here and Arts Umbrella run deep, explained that she’d given the choreographers just two weeks to make these 15-to-20-minute pieces. They were about experimentation – the adrenaline of a creative hothouse. Surprisingly, Joe Laughlin’s On Wings was the most “traditional,” with dancers twirling on their toes in skintight black, zippered body suits. He played subtly with classical partnering, undercutting it with contemporary attitude, both in gesture and ideas about the fleeting torments of love. Makaila Wallace, who’s always striking, cut an even larger swath in a small space. With Doppeling, Ballet B.C. veteran dancer and new artist-in-residence Simone Orlando got more subversive with the art form. Moving to the baroque sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, the performers all sported skin-tone leotards and matching bobbed wigs of different hues – even the men. Cleverly mixed into the contrapuntal play and classical pointe-shoe vocabulary were touches of voguing and club dancing. A gender-bending vision of doppelgänger ballerinas breaking loose, it was more fun than a drag queen’s dress-up trunk. But the highlight of the program was company dancer Donald Sales’ effervescent Long Story Short. Set to Amélie composer Yann Tiersen’s sweeping accordions, xylophones, strings and keyboards, it was cinematic and rife with the nostalgia and romance of ’50s Paris. Sales conjured a dream world of swirling skirts and laughing girls, mixing balletic dance and quirky gesture. A boy might stop to haul on a handheld ventilator; guys would give their sweethearts necklaces. Moving as lightly as a petal in the wind, Maggie Forgeron hit just the right notes of naiveté and hidden melancholy. Next to Long Story Short, Kitsos’ shocking Regression Line could have come off as crass overstatement. But fed by the aggro guitars of hardcore fusionists Dub Trio, the troupe nailed the complexly chaotic patterning, axed the air with their legs and arms, and committed to the piece’s tortured passions. In all, Surfacing lived up to its name and gave Ballet B.C. new life. With 32 dancers in all hitting the stage, it took big risks, but – and this is the key – in a low-stakes environment. The performers connected with the audience in ways they might never be able to at the formal Q.E. (where we won’t see them again until April). Under former artistic director John Alleyne, the company members always had a polished, coolly elegant sophistication. These pieces were all about letting their hair down – or at least tucking it under an Anna Wintour-worthy pageboy. –The Georgia Straight, November 16, 2009
Cock-Pit by Wen Wei Wang Five-foot-long pheasant feathers become everything from weapons to phalluses in Wen Wei Dance’s endlessly inventive new Cock-Pit. Supple and slender, they jut from dancers’ heads, shoulders, and, of course, groins, bobbing and undulating with every move. At one point, they snake up from dancer Edmond Kilpatrick’s knees, caressing and crisscrossing like serpents in a mating ritual. Another plume stands out like a giant erection from Alison Denham’s pelvis, dancing with every slight flick of her hip. In the piece’s culminating “cock fight,” David Raymond and Scott Augustine battle to knock the feathers out from under each other’s arms. Sometimes the plumes even splay out like giant headdresses or wings. Like the foot-binding slippers he fetishized in 2006’s Unbound, choreographer Wen Wei Wang has taken another symbolic item from his Chinese heritage and put it into contemporary use. In Chinese opera, the ling (feather) is used as a hair adornment on warrior characters. Here, Wang is reflecting – in the most expressionistic and nonliteral way – on his experiences as a young man sent to live at Langzhou Regional Dance Company. What’s compelling is all the eroticism he can unleash from a repressive experience: rooming with four other boys for five years, he was cut off from contact with girls at the very time he was discovering his sexuality. In Cock-Pit,
the sole female dancer (Denham) among four men (the topnotch Kilpatrick, Josh Martin, Augustine and Raymond) becomes a sort of dream figure – a siren who might slide her toes seductively along one of the men’s feathers one minute, then dance away the next. Often, the vocabulary is animalistic, whether it’s Denham fluttering like some uncatchable bird or Kilpatrick and Raymond crawling along the floor like lizards about to attack each other. But there is also rich technique, from deep, Asian-inflected lunges to balletic turns. And there is humour too: just watch the men morph into the mannered warriors of old-style Chinese opera. Adding to the fever-dream feel is a constant veil of smoke-machine haze, James Proudfoot’s gorgeous shattered light, and the clangs and whirs of Giorgio Magnanensi’s discombobulating score. Wang’s choreographic innovation is matched – and strongly influenced – by the dancers he has: whether it’s Martin’s fractured loops of movement or Kilpatrick bringing passion to a sexually charged lift, his team is faultless. Here, Wang has created countless imaginative experiments with the feathers, and you feel like he could have conjured dozens more. It could have verged on gimmickry, but the piece is too full of memorable images and breathtaking moments. All it really lacks is an arc. It still feels like a large group of studies, but what stunning studies they are. Wang has reconfirmed himself as one of the city’s most exciting choreographic talents, and Cock-Pit is definitely another feather – a very long, exquisite one – in his cap. –The Georgia Straight, February 27, 2009
taking your experience for mine by Sara Coffin There is a moment in Sara Coffin’s clever, multimedia new work when two dancers move with one hand cupped out stiffly in front of them, each with her eyes fixated on her palm. In one simple gesture, the young Vancouver choreographer has captured the body language of a world wired to smartphones. And it’s a perfect example of the way she’s somehow able to communicate virtual ideas through the visceral. The piece is at its best when it’s least literal. The opening finds two dancers pretending to be live bloggers talking into webcams; at other moments, dancers pose for instantly-projected photos of each other and performer Jacinte Armstrong races to describe a frenzied series of YouTube clips. But most of taking your experience for mine inhabits a more intense, kinetic territory where the multiple screen imagery (designed by Andrew Hawryshkewich) enhances and deepens the themes of technology’s effect on our existence. At one point, the four female dancers (Armstrong, Julia Carr, Meghan Goodman and Amanda Sheather) race around the stage to Phil Thomson’s trippy electro-beats. They are tapping, reaching, pulling and moving the invisible – like cursors flickering frantically around the stage, never interacting, in a physical metaphor for the way technology has amped up the pace of life. In one of Coffin’s characteristically witty touches, the frenzy ends suddenly with the hanging monitors jamming up in system overload. In another more sublime sequence that comments on our diminishing ability to connect directly, one dancer interacts with the projected image of another performer instead of her real self. It’s hauntingly gorgeous when she cups the projected apparition’s moving head as it lolls back onscreen. But the piece has no stronger moment than its ending, in which the arresting Armstrong dances in the dark with live video projections of three ghostly, Norman McLaren-esque images of herself onscreen. It’s rare to see video this well integrated into a dance work: Armstrong is literally partnering with her own moving form. But it’s also a poignant sequence about the traces we leave behind us in a wired world. Will our digital remnants outlive us? Can we have any meaningful identity these days without some kind of virtual presence? It was something to think about as you raced home to check your Facebook – and a sign Coffin is capable of going deep behind the shallow surfaces of social networking. –The Georgia Straight, April 30, 2011
AFTERWORD By Max Wyman
We locate ourselves in the worlds we live in by looking around us, taking stock, fitting what we see and hear and feel into what we know. In the drastically changed and changing world of dance and dance criticism that Kaija Pepper describes in her introduction, taking stock requires serious looking. Attention must be paid. Unfortunately, not all of us, in this speeded-up new world, have as much time as we might wish to devote to the task of paying attention. Of bearing witness. Historically, that gap has been filled, in part at least, by paid observers of the passing scene – critics and commentators who offer informed and enlightened (and enlightening, one hopes) discussion of the things that interest us. This volume chronicles some of the various ways that five concerned and informed dance enthusiasts in a particular place in a particular time went about looking at and responding to the events before them. The shows under discussion represent only a tiny fragment of the dance that occurred in Vancouver in the first decade of the new century – a dozen small events, all in a single small place. Even so, the writerly techniques vary widely, and so do the critical approaches, and it is fascinating to read the brief introductions in which each writer situates herself or himself in the milieu. Of course, it is an eternal challenge. To modify the famous quip about music criticism, writing about dance is like dancing about architecture (though, as we are reminded by Deborah Meyers’ piece on Lola MacLaughlin, people do that too). Good writers, the writers we remember, show us things, nudge us in directions we might have missed, suggest possibilities we might have neglected. When I was writing regularly about dance, I tried to be someone on whom nothing was lost. Perversely, at a time when the experiences multiply and the need for thoughtful and informed commentary becomes acute, such opportunities to connect are dwindling. The new media that drive our speeded-up world enable everyone to be a critic, instantly. This democratization may not be a bad thing, but it offers a different kind of discourse. Writing of the range and kind that this collection displays is in itself an act of bearing witness – a time-capsule, if you like, of where we stand, how far we have come and how far we could still go. I was never fully satisfied with anything I wrote about dance, and I am not sure any of the writers featured here would claim that what they wrote in the heat of the moment and under the pressure of the deadline could not have been improved with more reflection. But that is the nature of the working critic: we do what we can to better ourselves in order to better serve the art form that consumes us. It is a steady progression of self-challenge that will never end. There are worse ways for a writer, and a dance-lover, to spend a life. Max Wyman has spent more than four decades writing about dance, as a critic, commentator, biographer and historian. He has been a consultant on cultural policy at both federal and provincial levels, and in 2003 was made an Officer of the Order of Canada for his services to the arts.
Photos: page 2 Joe Ink Timber/Timbre by Chris Randle; page 8 Alvin Erasga Tolentino & Martin Inthamoussú EXpose by Chris Randle; page 11 mmHoP Twisted by Steven Lemay; page 14 Nigel Charnock Frank by Mattias Ek; page 16 Lola Dance Provincial Essays by David Cooper; page 17 Emily Molnar & Gioconda Barbuto LifeLines by Michael Slobodian; page 19 DanceArts Vancouver FIRE… where there’s smoke by David Cooper; page 22 Janaki Rangarajan by M. Srinivasan; page 24 Eddie Ladd Scarface by Dave Daggers; page 26 Wen Wei Dance Cock-Pit by Chris Randle; page 27 Sara Coffin taking your experience for mine by Chris Randle. 28
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Published on Oct 25, 2011
What They Said is a selection of writing about some of the dance performances that were seen at Scotiabank Dance Centre over the last ten ye...