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The Three Faces of Jane

By Mary Theresa Kelly
  • Ziyian Kwan in her own work the neck to fall / Photo by Chris Randle
  • Anne Cooper, Vanessa Goodman and Ziyian Kwan / Photo by Chris Randle
  • Ziyian Kwan and Jane Osborne in the long indoors / Photo by Ben Didier

we all know Jane: an evening of new dance

June 21 - 22, 2013

As a dancer, Ziyian Kwan is electric, lightning quick and grounded. Kwan’s work, the neck to fall, opens the evening of three new works by three different Vancouver choreographers. The program notes link the performances to the notion of Jane as “the rapport that we share with people” and the “yearning to connect with others.” As a viewer, this theme, which I interpreted as an inquiry into feminine identity, invited me to observe the work from a particular stance. I enjoyed the presence of a creative thread, and I found myself curious and interested to learn how each choreographer might deal with her “Jane-ness.”

In a solo on herself, Kwan tackles identity and ethnicity, or so it seemed to me, and does so by making a dance structured around the investigation of props: a large cardboard box, a small stool, a small cardboard box, an inflated plastic apparatus of sorts and chopsticks. She sequentially interacts with each object. Although Kwan is deft in her handling of the props – for example, in one scene she feeds herself with the chopsticks – it is the fullness of her dancing in response to these objects that is revelatory.

Dedicated to the work of Amelia Itcush, who is known in Canada for incorporating the principles of Mitzvah Technique into dance, Kwan’s movement quality is testimony to the necessity and beauty of dancing from a place of released and integrated body mechanics. When Kwan leaps vertically from a standing posture, suspends her weight briefly and spirals softly into the floor, she is both a gorgeous mover and an example of the upward rippling spinal movement that Mitzvah training imparts.

At various moments a voiceover by Kana Nemoto commands Kwan to “stand up” or “bend your knees,” a device that confused me after I learned that Nemoto is a kinesiologist, trained by Itcush. During the performance, I perceived the voice to be an inner critic in Kwan’s psyche, an aspect of her cultural identity she could neither fully integrate nor extinguish, primarily because she chose to record the voice with a distinct Asian accent. We instantly feel Kwan’s nervous system fire when she responds to the voice; however, in retrospect, I question the story I told myself about the voiceover and identity. Am I creating storylines not based on the choreographer’s perspective? At any rate, Kwan finds a satisfying ending, carefully packing all the props into the largest box, like a sweeping up of her past, leaving the whole package precipitously balanced on one edge. 

Anne Cooper’s Jane is clearly linked to exploring women’s identities – in the quirkiest way ever. Cooper, an accomplished contact improviser, is also a comic with a talent for near-slapstick humour in the tradition of silent film or vaudeville. That said, like most comedians, Cooper’s commentary is also totally serious, near existential, and between the absurd movement tasks that she assigns herself, I felt the loneliness and desire for connection that motivates this particular Jane-character.

Cooper situates her character with precise dramatic details: high-heel pumps, slightly odd glasses, a skirt and blouse, an apartment furniture set – all screaming single-gal-office-job. Having got our attention, Cooper inhabits her zany character with a thoroughness that is more akin to mediumship – or an episode out of The Office.

Cooper’s sensibility is always subtle, and focused on the subtle inner body. For this reason, some of the contrasting tasks present as so bizarre. For instance, at one point, briefly, she breaks into a Margie Gillis-like move, ironically swinging her thick, full head of red hair in all directions. Elsewhere, with her back to the audience she methodically removes her blouse and camisole, leading the audience to believe the nude segment of the contemporary dance work is about to begin. Turning around in a spiral motion, her long hair drapes down the front of her body like a veil, conjuring up an unexpected and weird image. After contemplating her modesty, the silence is broken by Supertramp’s Take a Look at My Girlfriend hit song from 1979. Take a look at my girlfriend/she’s the only one I got/not much of a girlfriend/I never seem to get a lot…Hmmm. Cooper touches our funny bone in this moment; the dated, catchy tune also comes off as near misogynistic in the twenty-first century, racheting up our empathy for her Jane.

Overall, Cooper purposely under-dances, choosing an actorly frame, drawing on simple movement repetitions, such as leg tosses and arm/torso spirals, as though more physicality might stop her from inhabiting this Jane. It would be interesting to see an iteration of the work that incorporates more of Cooper’s substantial dancing range.  

Vanessa Goodman, co-artistic director of The Contingency Plan directs and collaborates with Jane Osborne and Ziyian Kwan in the long indoors, a duet that completes the program. The 2013 recipient of the Iris Garland Emerging Choreographer award, Goodman lets the movement build in conjunction with her electronic arrangement, such that the dance is propelled by increasing intensity, quicker tempo and a driving beat in the final sections. 

The work opens in semi-darkness with the sound of crunching and grinding that gets louder and louder as Kwan and Osborne slowly shift and transfer their weight from side to side; rising and lowering on their toes; alternating one arm overhead, guided by slow undulations of the spine. Dressed in tank tops and boxer shorts, the costumes are perfect for giving the viewer the opportunity to observe the body in motion without the distraction of fabric or nudity.

Osborne partners easily with Kwan. The pair capture the complexity of relationships and a sense of the inter-subjectivity or interior feeling that characterizes all friendships. The notion of Jane becomes the space between the performers, as well as the conflict and commonality that arises in relationships. In one of many strong moments, the two dancers move horizontally across the stage, their heads locked together, arms intertwined around shoulders and necks, like conjoined twins in motion.

In several places, Osborne simply witnesses Kwan soloing, a generous and effective choice that lets us settle our attention on Kwan’s ease and facility moving in and out of the floor. Then, reversing roles, Osborne performs a series of low backward walks, falling off her centre repeatedly – a device that is strangely interesting. By the final sections, the combined steady rhythm and shadowy lighting produce a powerful trance-like, hypnotic effect. 

One puzzling aspect of the long indoors is the set feature, two matching papier-mâché-like creations hanging downstage at ceiling height. In some way they balance the space, but whether they reference capillaries, body organs or something else is a total mystery.

we all know Jane is a resourceful way to present contemporary dance; I enjoyed seeing how the theme of connectedness and autonomy showed up in each work, linking these diverse performances.

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