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Review

Absorbing All Boundaries 

By Marilyn R. Wilson

The 15th Annual Festival of New Dance 

Festival of New Dance

St. John's June 21-26, 2005 

Two premieres, both of Newfoundland works; a six-day schedule of three repeating programs in venues throughout downtown St. John’s; and fourteen free shows, in such unexpected/found spaces as churchyard trees and high-end clothing boutiques. The Festival of New Dance’s fifteenth anniversary spread also incorporated “Momenta”, which ran throughout the festival at LSPU Hall. A three-hander exhibition of works-in-motion, inspired by the festival, “Momenta” evolved as the week moved, and included photos and montages from Justin Hall, paintings from Elayne Greeley, and graphite gesture drawings from Tara Bryan.

“Stink” (Toronto) June 20th at 2pm & 6pm, choreographed and performed by Jenn Goodwin and Sarah Doucet; music and vocals by Blake Howard; additional choreography Nicola Pantin

“Stink” was staged at the Anglican Cathedral grounds on St. John’s Day, a semi-holiday and, more importantly, the first sunny and warm afternoon and evening St. John’s has had in approximately one zillion years.

The two dancers wear black leggings, shirts and gloves, and green vests. They stand, fitted with elastics and harnesses attached to trees. Accompanied by drum, cymbal and vocals, they move together or follow each other in an enhanced, lifted vocabulary of running, reaching, spinning and falling, sometimes dreamlike, sometimes frantic. The elastic cords extend their physicality, exaggerating it, even when they are simply, limply hanging. The duet builds to a crescendo of struggle, and attempted escape into flight, then collapse. It’s unusual and fun.

“Sneaker” (Toronto) June 21st, choreographed and performed by Jenn Goodwin and Sarah Doucet, music by Luke Doucet

It’s an age-old story: two small-town girls attend their prom and then decide to hitchhike out of Dodge. “Sneaker” took place at the War Memorial near the St. John’s waterfront, with a backdrop of the Southside Hills, and Oceanex tankers sailing out of harbour.

The dancers enter, one tying a plaid shirt over a yellow full-skirted dress, the other pulling a white sleeveless t-shirt with front logo over her orange flowing gown. Both wear boots. The Ry-Cooder-a-la-Paris-Texas music starts, and they entice and beseech for a ride, holding out their thumbs, engaging in some step-dancey-type steppin’, giving up and lying down, reviving and giving it their all, working as a duet in synchronized slow, slow movements interspersed with jerky bends and waves. Traffic passes between the audience and the dancers and becomes inherent in the piece, as some drivers slow down and others ignore the scene. A truck driver adds an enthusiastic air horn.

“Inhabitant” (St. John’s: Festival Commission) June 21st & 22nd, LSPU Hall, directed by Anne Troake, created and performed by Darcy Bartlett, Meghan Beresford, Neil Butler, Alison Carter, Deborah Collingwood, Deborah Jackman (contributor), Susan Kent, Ruth Lawrence, Steve Lush, Meghan McCabe, Mikiki, Caroline Niklas-Gordon, Glenn Nuotio, Gary Palen, Nancy Sandercock, Anne Troake, Kim Winsor; including the music of Archers of Loaf, Samuel Barber, David Byrne, Ether and Theory of Achievement

The festival’s first premiere begins with the sixteen dancers already on stage. They wear, variously, dresses, overalls, sleeveless shirts, vests, loose trousers, and are barefoot. They talk, stretch and mingle. Four sheets of aluminum hang along the sides. Four sets of red boxing gloves, a white dress, and a tall stepladder wait. Then one young man starts speaking, “This work began with a walk around St. John’s harbour …” He continues a tour de force verbal introduction, touching on fetishes, feminism and the sound of jackhammers outside the Delta hotel, as his hands move, as if tracing points on a graph.

The lights fade. The other dancers take their places. Gestures resonate through parallel lines, travelling like a message. Their expressions are vulnerable and engaged. From the start we have the pattern of a crowd. They move en masse, like a school of fish, making the same movements, but with individual scale and pacing. Then Troake dons boxing gloves as the others form a syncopating line upstage, their backs turned. She scurries, then flattens protectively, then stands with her gloves shivering.

A vocabulary is established, of shimmering silver-quick motion, undulations, shielding. The red-gloved performers look otherworldly; their movement appears aquatic, crustacean. Three dancers join Troake. The chorus moves to line three quarters of a square while one gloved performer repeats a slow-motion swinging runway walk. The music turns futuristic as the group of three moves through repeated “robotic” cycles.

A young man puts on the dress. The chorus resets itself with verbal incantations, sits, and develops individual hand movements. “Running from the Bolsheviks with my grandmother’s pearls in my hand. Not a lived experience,” the be-gowned one says, and flees, the dress’s huge train spreading over everyone. One gloved creature is caught in it and he reels her in, the material like liquid.

The chorus dons halogen headlights. The young man climbs the stepladder. The dress becomes a tent inside which a dancer, lit from inside, croons a song against the fantastic interplay of shape and shadow on fabric.

The lighting remains halogen focussed, as another dancer performs within an enclosing circle, the earlier “robotic” movements now organic and graceful. Then, everyone’s raised hands are lit, there is more murmured talking, snatches of which are clearly heard. Soon, everyone begins walking up and down the stage, singing, gradually coming together in muted harmony, the sound of their bare feet like laps of water.

So, was this piece an exploration of the biological male and female? Certainly, four girls wore boxing gloves and it was a guy in the wedding dress. But it has a broader gist, with its repeated references to community and individual. Step by step, detail by detail, element by element, Troake creates an aquatic, detailed, surreal world. There was an incredible distinction among the movements, like the creatures’ shaking red claws, the hands of the chorus (a brushing away here, a view through the fingers there), the flickering liquid light. The audience was bought into a sphere of depth and power and delicacy, filled with gentle susurrations. “Inhabitant” is stunning and generous, and wonderfully realized.

“Don’t” (Vancouver) June 21st & 22nd, LSPU Hall, choreographed by Day Helesic and performed by Helesic and Daelik

Beginning with discordant guitar, the two performers (she in a black sleeveless dress, he in black shirt and trousers) stand back in a strip of light. The pas de deux that follows is often about not connecting, their brief solos buttressed by movements of pushing each other away. Their aggressive actions culminate in a fight of kicking and hitting. Even when they do touch or reach for each other, they display a marriage of anxiety and collapse.

“Waking En-Dessous” (Toronto) June 21nd & 22nd, LSPU Hall, choreographed by Susanna Hood and co-composed and performed by Hood and Nilan Perera

The set is composed of two chairs in a square of light, a bottle of water downstage, and an assortment of sound equipment. She wears a red sleeveless jumpsuit; he’s all in black. At the start, their feet are tapping, and they exchange a dialogue of the words “Here”, “Not Here”, repeated with gestures to the heart and away. Then he moves to sit Zen-like at a sound board while she moves in and out of the square (now enlarged, now outlined) upsetting and resetting the chairs, increasingly serpent-like and demonic, talking, lamenting, wracked.

The work includes lines and melodies from Cole Porter’s “Every time We Say Goodbye”, and T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”, as Hood forms and reforms “rooms” and, thus, relationships. At times, she moves strobe light fast. It’s impossible to believe this is a person, not a filmstrip running back and forth. Then she leaps from her chair and seemingly pauses in mid-air. Her physical command was mesmerizing, even as the tone was disquieting.

“Stringart” (St. John’s) June 23rd-26th, Lois Brown

These installations of crochet cotton in white and beige were spun and woven over the course of forty-five minutes throughout various downtown sites. Brown invented the pieces as a kind of joke, she says, “I heard on the radio that William Wordsworth said it was important for an artist to create an audience for his or her work. And I asked, what is important to me? Art allows you to play. That’s good for you. Art makes you look at things in a slightly different way. And to look at things in a slightly different way is mentally healthy for you.” These works were intricate, messy, the cause of at least one visit from the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, and crowd-pleasers.

“Aechylos” (Montréal) June 23rd & 24th, in the two shop windows of August and Lotta on Water St., choreographed and performed by Emmanuel Jouthe (Danse Carpe Diem), music by Laurent Masle Eight headphones, shared by the spectators, emit pulsing, crackling, industrial sounds.

Some clothing is suspended in each window. The solo dancer slowly emerges from a plastic wrap, appearing now as an embryo, now a winged figure. He moves between windows, donning pants, a hat with a hanging cloth mask sewn into the brim, and one of two shirts. His movements are very slow, at times suggesting struggle, even torture, other times forming “stills” or resembling “footage run backward”. The street plays its own role, like when the #10 Metrobus stops right in front of the stores, the driver and passengers craning their necks: what the heck …?

“Conte de Poussieres” (Québec) June 23rd & 24th, LSPU Hall, choreographed by Marie-Julie Asselin, with dancers Isabelle Chevrier and Caroline Gravel, and puppeteer Isabelle Veilleux, music composed by Nicolas Dube

On a set strewn with clothes, the dancers discard and embrace each other, accompanied at times by an eerie puppet, female, of indeterminate age, with white dress, white hair and elongated legs. Their movements are erotic and agile; duets and trios are sensual, aggressive, suggestive, gymnastic. The athleticism of their movements is reinforced by their costumes of white kneepads, vests, and underpants. The lighting casts giant shadows. This world is both back-alley urban and subterranean. The dynamics are paced. Moments of silence are studded with breath. Many sequences are almost frantic with action, a blend of motion from simian to sumo to striptease.

“Non Existent Dances” (Toronto) June 25th & 26th, City Hall, choreographed by Jessica Runge for dancer Barbara Pallomina, music by Stephen Parkinson and played by pianist Eve Egoyan

A large room at the St. John’s City Hall ends in a series of rounded windows, split with sunlight and full of greenery. The dancer, in black, enters through a line of chairs. Accompanied by piano, she moves through a series of graceful sequences reminiscent of Tai Chi, often keeping her arms extended and moving not just parts but entire planes of her body. Then, she stands looking out at the audience, her hands and feet braced, a single piano note sounding as she raises her left hand to shield her eyes. Then comes a quicker ballet, danced by a slightly stiff and broken marionette, repeating a lovely arcing gesture with her arm. She ends with the same physical opening gestures.

“Longest Day/Longest Night” and “Ka’Ligne” (New Brunswick) June 25th & 26th, City Hall, choreographed and performed by Lee Saunders, guitar by Mark Carmody

These “experiments in Dance/Opera” were staged in the atrium of City Hall. The two pieces are almost black-and-white takes on the same figure, an ancient, ritualistic storyteller. In the first, Saunders enters swathed in black, vocal, crouching, her hands always moving, gradually rising, unwrapping, moving into a bilingual dialogue (“my heart is a beautiful beast”) pacing, turning, howling. In the second, she is caked with white clay, a startling shaman/creature, moving through a series of tribal poses, always very still and balanced, with powerful pauses building to a winged screech.

“Abundance” (St. John’s, Toronto) June 25th & 26th, LSPU Hall, choreographed and performed by Tina Fushell, music by Christine Bougie

Fushell, in a brown coat and green wrapped dress, forms a series of tableaus with four suitcases. Then, against a soundtrack of bass guitar, she manoeuvers them – now baggage, now a barrier – a clenched, burdened figure, unfolding herself into dramatic body language and expression.

“Le Bordel” (St. John’s) June 25th & 26th, LSPU Hall, created and performed by Sarah Joy Stoker and Steve Lush

The second of the festival’s premieres is a multi-media work that opens with two slumped figures in armchairs watching TV. Lush wears an undershirt and trousers; Stoker wears a plaid shirt and khakis. It’s a montage of the news, intense and anxious, moving into rapid-fire soundscape. They rise, Stoker salutes, and both riff on sequences of military form and custom. Stoker begins to toss out coins and bills. There’s a backdrop of stars from the American flag. Lush gets a hat and a gun and Stoker stages a wicked striptease, using suggestive pointed fingers to repeatedly reference guns. The motifs repeat: tormenting cacophonies, burlesques, the jarring scale of human-to-human aggression. The piece ends with more audio montage, the news jingle inlaid with an unbearable pitched siren, and both figures back in their chairs. This work is embedded with anxiety, edge and energy.

“sQins” (Halifax) June 25th & 26th, co-created and performed by Dani Oore and Matthew de Gumbia

The work begins with the two dancers preset, Oore upstage with pieces of silver tape on his torso and arms, de Gumbia seated at the back. Both are bare-chested, in trousers. A diagonal lit line links them and divides the stage. Upstage, a film framed with a torn-edged screen plays medical, skeletal imagery; white feathers drifting down; and red feathers falling up and down. Some audio adds voices of parents describing a child’s illness or aberration. The dancers play (the word becomes charmingly appropriate) opposites, Oore at first observing as de Gumbia … morphs … becomes stuck in a position with his legs locked together, transforms to a motorcycle, takes flight as a resilient cherub. The two performers reject, attract, engage each other, finally finding a union that transcends the dividing line. The whole scene takes place against a soundtrack that includes pipes, de Gumbia creating percussion on a microphone, and the performers playing the harmonica and clarinet.

The Festival of New Dance is known for its high calibre pieces that often bridge (or jauntily ignore) the definitions of dance, installation and performance art. This year I was struck by how many works resonated cinema – the lustre and scope of “Inhabitant”, Hood’s speed/stop tempo, Fushell’s tableaus. New Dance knows no (or perhaps absorbs all) boundaries. 

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