Animal interpretations, contemporary assortments, and No Fun: Dancing on the Edge 2017

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Dancing on the Edge Festival of Contemporary Dance | Various venues, including Firehall Arts Centre | July 6 – 15, 2017  

Oath-Midnight Rain | Beijing Modern Dance Company

A bird, a fish, a mosquito, a blade of grass, and a flower make their way into the audience. One woman is in tears; she has been so moved by their performance. The mosquito gives her a long hug. Beijing Modern Dance Company presented their philosophical work of reincarnation and liminal midnight transition to a rapt audience. Choreographer Gao Yanjinzi explained that the show was about what happens after death, where we go, and how we could be reborn.

Through the various plant and animal characters, Yanjinzi explores what it would be like to be reincarnated as one of those creatures. A sixth character, a bride dressed in an elaborate red dress, represented the thread of life or the soul that was present in all the other characters. She appeared at the beginning and end of each segment, and was an integral part of the finale that had all the dancers connected by a long, red rope signifying the interconnectedness of all life.

Without the explanation in the program and from the choreographer before the show, it would not have been obvious what this show was about, and even once I knew the five characters that were going to be represented in the solos, it was difficult to determine which was which until after seeing all five and piecing it together.

Aside from that, this was a stunning show that gave Vancouverites a chance to see modern dance from afar — the Beijing Modern Dance Company’s work is a fusion of traditional Chinese forms and contemporary dance, with elaborate costumes and make-up that we are not accustomed to seeing in a contemporary dance piece. I particularly enjoyed the flower as he opened and closed his petals (a full tulle skirt) to a slow mournful song. The mosquito was also captivating as he swung on a long bar just above the stage. Whether or not I could tell which dancer represented each reincarnated being, the ending was a clear indication of the continuum of life that wrapped up the piece in a wonderfully peaceful, reassuring way.

No Fun | Helen Simard

You know it’s going to be an interesting show when you’re given earplugs before you enter the theatre. Inspired by Iggy Pop in all his loud, larger-than-life punk glory, this show is a hard-hitting, loud mess of noise and aggressive movement. The stage was set with giant “No Fun” marquee lights, a three-piece band, amplifiers, and an assortment of objects scattered around the dancers.

As one dancer repeated “come on” into a microphone, yelling louder and louder until his voice became distorted, the others flung themselves around in their ripped jeans and knee pads. The bright lights and harsh sounds were often unpleasant, and when one dancer crawled into the audience I was glad to be seated elsewhere, but some of the synchronized choreography was captivating and performed with a mixture of apathy and determination.

Simard sat in the audience, waving a flashlight around. On stage, a dancer held a disco ball and used a flashlight to create reflections. The dancers took many opportunities to come into the crowd or come up to the front row and stare menacingly. There were many moments, though, that seemed to be as it says in the description “about nothing.” Dancers wandered aimlessly around the stage, put a lampshade on their head, or changed clothes and put lipstick on each other with seemingly no purpose or forethought.

Perhaps that was the whole idea, but for the most part it was a flurry of random activities that ended suddenly and unexpectedly as the lights went out and one dancer yelled, “yeah, clap!” I must commend the musicians — they gave it their all and I could tell they were doing the music justice. The dancers also gave it their all, but it was unclear as to what “it” was supposed to be.    

EDGE Films: Best of F-O-R-M | Best of Dances on Screen

This compilation of short films from the 2016 and 2017 Festival of Recorded Movement showcased dance in the broader sense of the body in motion. Some of the films featured dance in a more traditional way, but most of them were studies on a particular scene or theme, a moment in life that is heightened by a study of the way bodies are moving in those moments.

The highlight of this program by far was the final film, Hell You Talmbout, by Denzel Boyd, Tyler Rabinowitz, and Joseph Webb, and featuring students of Northwest Tap Connection. As they shout the names of the victims of police brutality in the United States, these dancers pounded their tap shoes in protest and as a reminder of their history of resistance and resilience. Not only was this work emotionally powerful, it’s full of impressive tap dancing and filmed beautifully.

Similarly, Body Rites by Naomi Berrio-Allen is said to be a response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, although that wasn’t obvious in the film. A group of dancers moved around a bare concrete parking garage, using the light from the evening sun to highlight their movements. This was a beautiful piece of choreography enhanced through film. 

Others were more abstract such as La Version De Nadie in which Pablo Arturo Paz stands under a stream of gold glitter wearing an ornate face mask covered in golden sequins. Or Heather Lamoureux’s Mother’s Map that was a series of pastoral scenes of women sitting on a riverbank, walking through a field, or suddenly falling on the grass. The meaning of all of this was not clear. 

I enjoyed Faux Solo by Ralph Escamillan and Nancy Lee, a straight up solo dance that was augmented with film cuts and editing to become even more captivating. The cuts were placed as he changed clothes with no break in the fast-paced, expansive choreography. In It Tastes Like You by Joseph Lee, a woman stands at a cutting board and as she chops other dancers stand behind her, as if they are other versions of herself brought to mind through her repetitive, meditative actions.  

Edge 1 | Logarian Rhapsody - Alexandra Elliott Dance/Choreography by Tedd Robinson | Weave…part one - Yvonne Ng/tiger princess dance projects | Phasmida & Scorpiones - Chick Snipper

Holding a granny smith apple, Alexandra Elliott and Ian Mozdzen whispered urgently about desire, freedom, and temptation in Logarian Rhapsody. It’s as if they are in an other-worldly Garden of Eden as they struggle to resist taking a bite out of the apple. Their intense performance had them constantly shaking, viscerally speaking to us as if to save us from a similar fate. It was difficult to hear what they were saying at times as there were other recorded whispering voices also surrounding them — perhaps other voices in their heads. It was satisfying in the end to see them finally take a bit out of the apple.

Yvonne Ng’s solo about her mother’s life was a personal narrative told through a mixture of words and movement. As Ng told her story, she interpreted it with her slow, careful poses. Many long pauses and a sense of humour gave this piece colour as Ng said things like “It’s interesting how much fodder you can get from your parents’ lives.”

If the program notes didn’t describe Chick Snipper’s Phasmida & Scorpiones as being an interpretation of a stick insect and a scorpion and their predatorial habits, I would never have guessed that’s what it was. Nevertheless, Jess Ames, Julianne Chapple were fiercely committed to their animal alter-egos as they came together with equal and opposing force and showed the juxtaposition of these very different creatures.

Edge 2 | Blessed Unrest - Monica Shah/Choreography by Natasha Bakht | Zhōng Xīn - Yvonne Ng/tiger princess dance projects | Quartet - MascallDance/Jennifer Mascall

Monica Shah was full of joy as she danced Natasha Bakht’s piece fusing Indian classical dance and contemporary sensibilities. The piece fluctuated between sequences of slow, controlled movement and frenzied activity. During those frenzied moments Shah was like a butterfly, happily flitting around the stage. Her control and balance were impressive in the slower moments as she slowly rose up onto her demi-pointe with extreme grace and calm.

Yvonne Ng’s Zhōng Xīn was a strange piece for three dancers (Irvin Chow, Mairéad Filgate, Luke Garwood). I didn’t understand what the meaning was behind it, it wasn’t particularly appealing to watch, and I wasn’t left with any strong impressions. Maybe I was just missing something.

Jennifer Mascall sat on a stool at downstage right as three dancers vocalized and cavorted in this excerpt from Quartet. Mascall said dryly, “This is a lecture.” A few minutes later she said, “This is a lecture demo,” and then a while later “This is a lecture demo about the process of researching something we know and something we don’t know.” The dancers spoke in a made-up language of short words like “hey,” “oh,” and “yeah.” Their in-depth conversations and arguments using only these words were quite entertaining. In the end, Mascall said, “This was a lecture demo about the process of researching something we know and something we don’t know revealing something we understand and something we don’t understand.”

Edge 3 | Messages to an Audience - Naomi Brand | It Was/Wasn't All Worth It: This Piece Contains Violence - It Burns Hot & Fast/Diego Romero & Ileanna Cheladyn

Naomi Brand’s Message to an Audience is a clever commentary on the nature of communication. Using a two-way radio to talk to the audience — one receiver was placed at the front of the stage aimed at us while Brand spoke into the other walkie talkie. After a sequence of calm, deliberate movement, Brand let a pile of sand fall out of her sleeve and knelt down to write a message to us, one word at a time: “Are you with me?”

Later, she tells us one of her favourite quotes, from William H. Whyte: “The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it.” Then she said “I don’t really know what that means.” These ironic statements filled her piece with a subtle wit that was a joy for anyone who studies communication or is interested in how humans interact. Sometimes, meaning can be lost between sender and receiver.

Diego Romero & Ileanna Cheladyn’s piece, It Was/Wasn't All Worth It was a refreshing work of lighthearted, casual contemporary dance. With beers and confidence these two impressed us with their athletic partner work and energized us with their song choices. They interacted with a mixture of love and tough love, pretending to fight with each other as if they were siblings. They were having so much fun dancing like nobody was watching that we couldn’t take our eyes off of them.

Edge 4 | SQUIN - Ralph Escamillan/FakeKnot | The Poets - Cori Caulfield/coriograph theatre | Compass - Olivia C. Davies

Ralph Escamillan stood on a small square riser as if he was a street performer. Dressed in a full body suit of bright blue sequins with black clothes overtop, he moved with extreme fluidity and precision, the soundscape echoing his movements. He was like a superhero manipulating space and time as the epic sound effects amplified his movements. After a while he ends up in a new place with a new soundscape and reacts to this new environment with apprehension. As the sounds became distorted, so did his movements, both breaking down until they were no more. This was an innovative, captivating concept coupled with an exceptional performance.

Cori Caulfield’s The Poets was a series of three works exploring the poetry in the music of David Bowie, The Tragically Hip, and Leonard Cohen. The first was a stylish, sharp tap solo set to Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” A group of young dancers in yellow outfits followed with a polished jazz/contemporary number set to “Grace, Too” by The Tragically Hip. Their serious facial expressions matched the tone of the song. Finally, Caulfield’s solo was a beautiful, melancholic study of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” 

Olivia C. Davies’s Compass began with a storyteller telling a tale of friendship and loss. Davies sat on a park bench wearing a bright red shawl. Very slowly she began to tremble, letting the shawl fall off. This introspective work was slow to build and was engaging only when Davies had a burst of energy and we could see the story written in her facial expression.

Edge 5 | Self Portrait - Julianne Chapple | Sara does a Solo - Sara Porter

Julianne Chapple, Maxine Chadburn, and Francesca Frewer presented a slow-moving series of acrobatic handstands moving along the back wall of the stage. In black shorts and white bars, the three performers then spend some time slowly climbing on each other in various configurations, with impressive strength and control. They seemed to be three versions of one identity, constantly shifting and re-configuring while still remaining the same person.

In Sara Does a Solo, Sara Porter gives us a glimpse into her personal life, sharing her fears, struggles, and dreams with us. She begins with a monologue about how she “used to be a dancer” and goes through every verb tense until she lands on “I am a dancer.” I’m sure many people can relate to that dialogue with the self and grappling with how to define one’s identity. “I am a verb tense,” she says, “I am a tense verb.”

In chunky red boots and wide black pants she dances around props strategically placed around the stage. “I promised myself I wouldn’t do that thing where you talk and dance at the same time,” she says with a smirk as she dances while telling us about her life. She then plays dress-up, plays a ukulele, and wears one red tap shoe while loping around the stage. Her piece is full of worthy quotes such as her dance teacher that told her to only do what’s necessary. “Is this necessary?” she asked as she flung her leg in the air. Full of clever observations about life and poignant moments of highly personal reflection, this was a thought-provoking work.

Edge 7 | Untitled Distance - Emmalena Fredriksson/Arash Khakpour | Contes Cruels (Cruel Tales) - Les Productions Figlio/Serge Bennathan

Emmalena Fredriksson and Arash Khakpour come together in this fun, uninhibited piece about their identities as immigrants, dancers, and how those pieces of themselves intersect. Through games and storytelling they shared their pasts, talked about their futures, and laughed at their present actions. Sometimes utterly silly, and sometimes extremely serious, they studied each other through questions such as “Would you kill a cat with your bare hands for one million dollars?” and “What do you live in denial about.” With no single theme, they were able to somehow pull together all these elements into a work that left us feeling inspired and a part of a shared humanity.

Serge Bennathan’s Contes Cruels was an excerpt of a full length piece set to premiere at the Firehall this fall. As Bennathan recited poetry, Hilary Maxwell, Karissa Barry, Molly McDermott, and Josh Martin moved as a group around the stage with power and determination. Interpreting the poetry, they made us feel the words even more intensely as Bennathan talked about what divides the living and the dead. This was a very moving excerpt, and I look forward to seeing the full work this fall.

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