Response to All Performace Works by Kaija Pepper

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    Scott Martin

    Response to All Performace Works by Kaija Pepper

    Kaija Pepper’s fourth book, the co-edited anthology Renegade Bodies: Canadian Dance in the 1970s, was published in 2012 by Dance Collection Danse. Her criticism and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines and journals, including The Walrus and The Globe and Mail. My Mother, My Dance – her first published memoir – was in Queen’s Quarterly in Fall 2011. As a sessional instructor at Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts, Kaija has taught Critical Writing in the Arts, Dance Aesthetics and Dance History. She also works as an editor, most recently on a series of booklets about criticism and aesthetics for Vancouver’s Dance Centre, and her inaugural issue as editor of Dance International quarterly comes out in Fall 2013. She holds a BA in Communication Arts from Concordia University and a Masters in Liberal Studies from SFU.

    World Dance Alliance – Americas 2013 Conference
    Festival Responses
    by Kaija Pepper

    The following are overnight responses to the passing parade of short works, or excerpts from longer pieces, over five nights at Scotiabank Dance Centre, Vancouver, BC. In the spirit of the WDA Conference, which is one of sharing and collegial connection, they are not so much critical statements as descriptive miniatures evoking the essence of what I saw on stage.

    Given the choreographers’ and dancers’ wide variety of experience and background, I decided to take a sort of anthropological approach. This meant responding to the art as it played out in front of me, trying to experience it freely and to appreciate its uniqueness without being driven by the often compelling bias of “liking” or “not liking.” Clear evaluation – necessary in my mind in a strong critical analysis – didn’t seem relevant in this inclusive festival line-up.

    I saw close to thirty choreographic works over five nights – a marathon of dance! – and my approach also freed me from the daunting task of researching so many choreographers, as providing context and offering comparison is another part of the critical agenda. Nor did I read the program notes, except perhaps briefly, in order to avoid having to enter into another level of discourse: the one between the choreographer’s intentions and what I actually perceived on stage.

    Trying to reach the essence of each offering as it raced by in front of me from my seat in the dark was a challenge, and so was putting that essence down in words within the tight timeframe available. I hope I captured at least a little of each work’s unique truth.


    Tuesday – July 30, 2013

    Kate Corby’s Passing opens with two people lying face down on the ground. Really it’s the back of two shirts you see, one cream coloured, one orange. Sarah Mitchell and Mikey Rioux roll in precise measured fashion on the ground, close by each other but not partners: the relationship is with the supporting floor. Later, an upstage black wall becomes a new partner, one that is primarily an obstacle their bodies bang and bump against. In the final part, Mitchell throws herself against Rioux and now they dance as if the other were a floor, a wall, a support, an obstacle – a partner!

    A body is upended on the floor centre stage, legs high in the air with toes stretched to a fine hard point. Twisting about itself, this body is revealed only slowly as a woman (Ruth Levin, choreographer and performer), who moves with muscular intention around the small territory of a black box theatre’s centre stage. Even once she stands up, the weight of those bones, that flesh, is still grounded; it’s as if this body had never stood up before and is quite unsuited to the task. The dance becomes one of shoulders and knees and little quick steps that dare to move out into the space just for a moment, before returning to the body’s safe core. When Levin sinks back to the floor, it’s like she’s going home, returning to the comforting familiar.

    “a world where alarm clocks ring in the morning”
    A man (Jin-Wen Yu) gracefully lifts a hand to his forehead, an ordinary gesture that becomes layered and emphatic seen on film on the backdrop, where the real-time image is big, grainy and more complex. Danielle Russo’s work plays with this tension between a real person on stage and a not-real/hyper-real person on film. The computer-mediated film image is glamorous, partly because it’s so big, but also because of the delayed-time movement and the way a stage light flares dramatically seen through the camera’s eye. On film, the choreography has more texture, more layers, than in the clear, cutting precision of the real man on stage. Which to watch? The big screen or the (merely) life-size man? Somehow it’s the man who adds context to the screen, not the other way around, as if the screen is the main attraction. Yet when he walks off the stage, the centre to the whole has gone. There’s no piece without him.

    Spirit Transforming
    This excerpt by the Dancers of Damelahamid is quiet and reverent, with Candice Johnson standing upstage, singing in the language of the Gitxsan with her arms gently outstretched like a blessing. Young Nigel Grenier – wearing a carved mask, bare-chested and barefoot – crouches and looks about him as if searching for something on his journey around the stage. Later, Andrew Grenier’s whistle, drum, rattle and chanting bewitch Margaret Grenier, also wearing a carved mask, her hands trembling in sympathy with the rattle. Margaret and Nigel move to the sounds Andrew makes, and are still when he’s silent, as if enchanted by the music.

    Wigioei Bada/Endangered Sea
    An explosion of fabric and texture: soft and hard, flowing and static, shiny and sheer. Only when the hunched figure, who is barely visible underneath the chaos, stands upright is the image resolved: the shiny black patches are a head and tail, and also cover the arms and legs of the figure (Peggy Choy, choreographer and dancer); the bright swirl is a dress; and the flowing tentacles are scarves attached to each hand. Later, more transformation and visual clarification: the creature wears a black, carved mask. This is a dance not of arms and legs, but a dizzying abstract whirl. The creature leaves us with a final gesture of triumph – a toss of the head, chaos taking a bow.

    Casual Conversations
    There are two conversations going on here. One is recorded, a voice over about the need for newcomers to English-speaking countries to learn English not as an academic accomplishment but as a vernacular tool of communication. The other is a physical conversation between choreographers and performers Rob Kitsos and Kim Stevenson. Both conversations are very funny – the ums and ahs, the gottas and gonnas of everyday language, as well as the smooth robotic moves of the dancers who embody a steady stream of untranslatable modern dance vocabulary. At times, the duo become self-conscious, aware of their bodies, of each other, of the audience, standing still and looking about with surprise, or jerking a shoulder or a leg or their whole body with an expression of serious regret. They’re also very personable, Stevenson an earnest foil to the older, slyer Kitsos, who happily plays to the gallery.


    Wednesday – July 31,2013

    A woman (Heather Klopchin) in a red shirt and dark pants stretches luxuriously in long, straight and very firm lines. Her muscles are elastic steel strings – strong and flexible – but there’s caution in her face: she watches us, like we watch her. An unexpected leap straight up in zig-zag lines provides a wonderful exclamation point in Melissa Rolnick’s rigorous choreography. As the speed of the dancer’s movement increases, she becomes more and more centered in herself, no longer watching us, taking us inside the movement. At the end, Klopchin extends a long arm toward us, reaching around and behind herself as the lights dim. In the dark, she stretches back and back and back, as if her movement could go on forever.

    Two chairs, back to back, with two women (Elizabeth Sexe and Sarah Mitchell), also back to back, siting on them. One faces us, the other faces upstage, but though the latter is hard to see, it’s evident both are blonde, both have their hair in buns, both wear dark tops and skirts: twins, sisters, two sides of the same coin? When they begin to move around the space of the chairs, there’s continual connection, whether they’re together or apart. In Marlene Skog’s choreography, legs thrust firmly out into space to the front and to the back; one of the women stands on a chair and développés. Suddenly the two stumble forward – and I want to know what happens next but the excerpt is over.

    Here be Dragons – Non Plus Ultra
    A video documenting a bit of Henry Daniel’s 70-minute piece about west and east and Christopher Columbus. Two favourite sections: one is the opening, when the ensemble is tightly framed, with lots of movement back and forth, and the camera doesn’t pull sensibly back to get a long shot, it stays on their expressive torsos in colourful tops. The other is when a softly focused – it’s actually blurred – portrait of a dancer in blue is cut into a collage once, twice, and then the third time we see the dancer with the same framing, but in sharp focus. Two aesthetic choices – soft and hard – both with their own beauty.

    Straddling Trio
    Three dancers. Three pools of light. Sarah Gamblin, Nina Martin and Andrew Wass hold a slow-moving kaleidoscope of positions that are hard to read though you feel you almost get them, like words in Swedish, where some are eerily similar to English. These poses are sort of pedestrian, sort of formal, kind of twisted but with hints of opened-out ballet pliés and port de bras. The impetus bringing these individuals together isn’t clear, though they seem clearly focused in their own minds. This state of unknowing on my part didn’t make me unhappy; in fact, it was delightful to watch this “spontaneous choreography,” which kept me engaged and guessing.

    Eight women enter balancing something small and dark on their foreheads. Only when the objects fall with a bang to the floor is it clear they’re rocks. Throughout the piece, Teresa Deziel, Arianna Dunmire, Melissa Holland, Taylor Kiesow, Shoshana Moyer, Alison Roberts, Katie Warner and Marissa Watson move lightly about – they skip, jump, enjoy tiny tight jetés, their quality of movement a contrast to the small weighted objects they keep returning to. They toss the rocks to each other, bang them on the floor, hold them in the skirt of their tunics. Jin-Wen Yu’s choreography builds to a surprising moment of lightness to end – the group face each other in a circle, then move a little away, and as the circle opens up, so do their arms, wide and generous, and the women seem to float upwards as the stage goes dark.


    Thursday – August 1, 2013

    The power fists the dancers raise into the air make a definite warrior statement. With a recorded voice-over castigating the Canadian government for its treatment of First Nation’s people, the reason for the anger by the Git Hayetsk who created the piece is clear. The second half is introduced as featuring a song about how “we’re still laughing, and taunting our enemies.” Overall, a dramatic piece performed by thirteen singers, drummers and dancers in traditional dress, some of it lightly updated, just enough to make their presence very contemporary, very much of this day.

    Key Notes
    A woman in a backless, red satin dress plays the piano. Or seems to, because when she takes her hands off the keys, the music plays on. This sets up the intimate relationship between Erin Scheiwe Rockwell (performer and choreographer) and the recorded percussive piano piece by George Winston. Throughout, Rockwell continues to “play” the piano with her hands, her feet, her whole body, curving and spinning into the sounds, the skirt of her dress flashing when she turns. The final compelling image is of the woman perched, legs gracefully crossed, on top of the piano. Slender feet hover just above the keyboard as the last clear note sounds.

    A man and a woman (from The Seldoms Dance Company, no names are given in the program) and the soles of their feet: this is the subtle place where this excerpt begins. The premise is simple, it’s about touch and the body, but of course the connection between ourselves and others is rich territory, and the dancers bring real presence to the scenario. The momentum slowly builds until their touch is no longer so gentle or exploratory: it’s about action now, about moving the other, even tossing the other. When she’s alone and struggling on tiptoe, and flings her arms back behind her, he feels the impact of the imaginary toss: touch leaves traces, memories. He walks off carrying her on his back, and that they are physically connected feels significant.

    A woman who is not at home in her body or mind: this is the dramatic proposition at the heart of choreographer and performer Ashima Suri’s solo. The woman’s hands tremble or beat in distress against her chest. Her face opens in a convulsive gasp of anguish. She does an awkward little waltz on tiptoe. It’s hard to go to such dark places with Suri, because the “where” and “why” are not apparent in this excerpt, and the set pieces are enigmatic: two chairs side by side, an empty picture frame, a white sheet of plastic on the ground from which the woman emerges at the start.

    Flight Dreams and Hailey’s Albedo
    These two aerial excerpts from a longer piece by Bala Sarasvati (aka Shelly Shepherd) were performed by two iron-armed sylphs in shiny black pants and halter-tops: HyeYoung Borden and Emi Murata. They flowed with gymnastic ease through a typical aerial hoop vocabulary, casually upending themselves, legs split wide open, or hanging suspended by one arm. The graceful flow lulled me a little, until the flash of a body falling mid-air set my heart racing. The rings were not hung high, but still the fall was a shock. I hope the dancer didn’t hurt herself; she took her bow with aplomb.


    Friday – August 2, 2013

    Riot of Spring
    A dance of colours: a woman in a red dress, with a splash of red tulle at her feet, to start; everyone in red to end. In between, the ensemble in pale sarong skirts, then in pants and tops, first all white, then black and white, then red and white. The pants and tops, though matched through colour, are uniquely styled: this is a dance of individuals within the group. Li Chiao-Ping’s contemporary take on Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring was fittingly presented during this 100th-anniversary year of the seminal work. The power of the Stravinsky music clearly drove the dancers (Teresa Deziel, Allison Espeseth, Melissa Holland, Tori Jannuzzi, Rachel Krinsky, Shoshana Moyer, Alison Roberts, Liz Sexe and Christina Briggs Winslow) as they tore through Chiao-Ping’s stamping, tumbling, hieratic choreography.

    Five women in dark tops and skirts move like, well, clockwork: precisely, steadily, sometimes stop-and-go like wind-up toys. They follow their own trajectories until the momentous occasion when one woman puts a hand to her cheek, and rubs. A human gesture or just a random robotic tic? The clockwork widens out and the women-as-gears connect. Until another momentous occasion when one lies face down on the floor and the others walk past her, unthinking gears in the inhuman machine, providing a thought-provoking ending. Choreography was by Michelle Beard, who performed with Allison Badar, Lindsay Cole, Megan Morgan and Lexy Silva.

    Classical dance of any kind always comes as a surprise within an otherwise contemporary evening, yet choreographer Bageshree Vaze won me over with her fresh performance of kathak. It was the spins that did it: in her traditional purple dress, the gold band around the skirt’s hem rippling brightly, Vaze made it look so much fun. She let the spins lead the choreography as if challenging herself to see just how long she could turn and turn and turn.

    Remnant Hit/fix
    Amy Chavasse’s solo had an edge of menace and craziness right from the start: she dances with an axe in one hand that swings wildly as she windmills her arms. I wasn’t quite with Chavasse in the wordplay: “Hi, Jack” becomes “hijack” and she tells disjointed stories about a love shack and about being confused and falling down stairs. But when she dances in the upstage right corner – evoking a warrior, a streetwalker, a boxer, a stoner – a dance as disjointed as her stories, full of feints, head down, and little corkscrew turns, I kind of fell for the crazy lady.

    Organ Stories
    In these excerpts from Susan Kendal’s full-length choreography, we learn about the heart and the brain through the shenanigans of Krista Posyniak. With sweet comic timing, her po-faced account of the facts is enlivened with the occasional headstand, floor work or twitch of the mouth (yes, it’s all in the details). There is dance value even in the way she puts on her glasses, stick-handling them in under the tightly fitted, knit “brain cap” she has tied demurely under her chin.


    Saturday – August 3, 2013

    Exit from the Blue Room
    Live piano music from Bennie Maupin creates a thoughtful ambiance for dancer Kaleila Jordan to exist within. So does the choreography by Seónagh Odhiambo, which begins with Jordan on the floor, rolling across the vast and empty stage from one end to another. It’s a solemn world, a solemn performance, as if Jordan lives alone deep within the music (later, woodwinds). But every time she turns, hands clasped high above her head, fast and sure, lightness lifts her body and this viewer’s spirit.

    Stand Up
    Two women in long evening gowns dance different stories to Etta James’ broken-hearted love songs. One (Erinn Liebhard) perhaps gives us the early stages of a relationship, her sultry lunges and open arms performed with lightness and easy smiles. The other (Heather Klopchin) brings heartbreak and despair to the same choreography. A second excerpt from Jeffrey Peterson’s Stand Up (shown later in the evening) is set to stand-up comedy routines about marriage, babies and abortion, and once again the two women provide evocative, disparate and compelling commentaries.

    Man Alone
    A barefoot, bare-chested man (Guy Thorne) in cut-off jeans checks out the stage territory like the urban hunted: alert, ready for anything. A Jamaican voice-over blasting racial discrimination provides context for the alertness of the man, who is black. His dance of cautious crouches continually explodes up into the air or across the stage – and then stops, loses momentum. At first this continually dying energy is confusing, because Thorne is a powerful performer who brings dramatic tension to Chris Walker’s choreography, but then it becomes clear that this sense of incompleteness, of constant attempts to do something, to get somewhere, is the proposition fuelling the movement.

    In Waiting
    A man dances alone to “The Man I Love,” very solemn, very straight-backed, a contained male energy. A woman dances alone to Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man,” perky and feisty, tossing off a thumbs-up at the end. Alas, they dance together only to the very un-romantic sounds of an early music vocal ensemble (did I hear the word “miserere”?). Cody Wilbourn and Jackie Nii give droll performances of Robin Conrad’s entertaining study of our yearning to yearn.

    Inside In
    A voice-over conversation between three people on whether or not it’s possible to do confusion and doubt in dance sets up Claire French’s study of indeterminate physical states. Dancer Brenna McLaud not only makes a (deliberately) sort-of-there-but-not-quite fifth position plié look aesthetically convincing, but when she stands on one leg, her arms and other leg extended to the front, with cupped hands and uncertain toes trembling between pointing and flexing, doubt does take the stage.

    South Facing Window
    Another piece by Chris Walker, performed by Germaul Barnes, who enters slowly, bowed over, responding to the solemn recorded piano with a shrug of a shoulder, a flurry of runs or by slowly lifting an arm. As his movement gets bigger, more connected, the man stands straight, no longer heavy and tired but charged, excited. By the end Barnes is fully engaged with his split-leg leaps, playing with the rhythm of the music (still piano, but with percussive accompaniment), enjoying his body in action, letting the sweat fly. It’s like he’s saved by the music and the dance, as are so many of us.

    • This topic was modified 5 years, 5 months ago by  Scott Martin.
    • This topic was modified 5 years, 5 months ago by  Scott Martin.

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