Canada Dance Festival: The 2008 Collection 

By Bridget Cauthery

Canada Dance Festival 

Canada Dance Festival 

Ottawa  June 7-15, 2008 

Author’s Note: At the CDF 2008, I had the pleasure to be working in a number of different capacities. In addition to reviewing the festival for this publication, I was also one of the post-show moderators for the Dance Dialogues program, as a representative for the Society for Canadian Dance Studies in their collaboration with the festival and The Dance Current. Readers may also know me in my capacity as company manager for Toronto Dance Theatre.


It began with a lot of red tape…

Kenneth Emig (Ottawa), June 7th-14th, NAC Terraces Red arrows fixed to the sidewalk led the audience from Elgin Street to the terraces atop the National Arts Centre (NAC) for the premiere of Ottawa-based performance artist Kenneth Emig’s site-specific work at the Canada Dance Festival 2008. In the scorching heat, accompanied by a live sound artist, Emig performed on all the vertical and horizontal surfaces of the delineated site. At once tactile and elemental, Emig’s thorough exploration made this reviewer appreciate the architecture of the space – the building is a continuous mosaic of round-edged triangular tiles. Three of these tiles had been removed and filled with sand, gravel or metal. Each was mic’d and provided some wonderful sonic material for the sound technician to manipulate. The twenty-minute work was simultaneously filmed from multiple angles and projected onto the walls surrounding the fountain one floor below in the foyer of the NAC, offering audiences another means to view Emig’s work. Emig’s choreography centred on an inventive use of space – leaving no stone unturned.

Aszure Barton for bjm_danse (Montréal), June 7th, NAC Theatre Saturday evening’s mainstage program included the premiere of two works by Canadian contemporary choreographer Aszure Barton for bjm_danse. Originally from Alberta and trained at the National Ballet School, Barton is quickly becoming a household name in the United States. She is artist-in-residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City and the Resident Choreographer for bjm_danse in Montréal. Both works on the program, “Jack in the Box” and “les Chambres de Jacques” are ensemble pieces created for the company, demanding much of bjm’s powerful, athletic dancers. Both pieces also share an eclectic mix of music drawn from multiple genres and time periods. “Jack in the Box” mixes Baroque composer Gottfried Reiche with Gregorian chant and Colombian-influenced La Rubias del Norte, while the score for “Les Chambres de Jacques” juxtaposes Antonio Vivaldi with the Cracow Klesmer Band. The strong flavours of the music appeared to direct the movement of both works, with, in particular, the sultry tones of salsas and cha cha chas in “Jack in the Box” steering the largely heterosexual encounters where the women play seductress and the men their willing slaves. In the final section of “Jack in the Box”, the dancers perform a dense rhythmical series of gestures and counter-gestures while seated at a long table facing the audience. The riveting ending made this reviewer wish that more of the piece had explored this abstract territory and had delivered less of a hip-swivelling, sexy, cruise-ship vibe. Nevertheless, both works exhibit Barton’s talent for succinct choreography and satisfying punch. 

Louise Lecavalier (Montréal), June 8th & 9th, NAC Studio On June 8th and 9th, audiences had the honour and pleasure of watching the incomparable Louise Lecavalier. In three contrasting short works by Canadian choreographers Crystal Pite, Tedd Robinson and Benoît Lachambre, the La La La Human Steps veteran demonstrated her facility as a consummate interpreter. In each piece Lecavalier shows a different facet of her artistry, delivering, in all three instances, unbelievably nuanced, virtuosic performances. Pite’s quirky opener “Lone Epic” provided a bittersweet introduction, casting Lecavalier as the quintessential nutty professor who gradually strips down to an undershirt and trousers as the story of her quest for meaning unfolds. The piece is rife with clever set manipulations such as when the thirty music stands arrayed across the stage collapse and are drawn off by invisible wires. Lecavalier’s sequence of repeated gestures in the closing seconds conveyed tremendous melancholy and longing.

“Lula and the Sailor”, a duet for Lecavalier and Robert Abubo, showcases Robinson’s signature bird-like, staccato movements and darting eye motion. The piece evolves in concentric patterns with the dancers flitting in and out of a square of light on the floor, all tics and twitches. In comparison to other duets of Robinson’s I have seen – such as his 1999 work “Zuleika Oblique” – I missed the substance of a connection between the two performers. They seemed very much caught up in their own worlds, though in retrospect, Abubo was orbiting Lecavalier’s.

The final work on the program, Lachambre’s “‘I’ is Memory” is excruciating slow but immensely rich in detail. At the beginning of the piece Lecavalier takes on a lifeless b-boy form in a chair – oversized sneakers, track suit bottoms, and hoodie – and with haunting precision dissolves from one protracted movement to the next. Lecavalier seemingly defies the laws of gravity with the masterful control of her body.

Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata (Montréal), June 8th, CMC Theatre Also on June 8th, Zab Maboungou and Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata from Montréal took the stage of the Canadian Museum of Civilization with her 2007 work “Décompte”. Meaning “count down” or “taking stock”, the piece is a trio for Artistic Director and principal performer Zab Maboungou, drummer Marc Keyevuh and cellist Eric Duval. Using a theme from J.S. Bach’s “Prelude from Suite no. 2 in D minor” as a starting point, the work builds on the spaces between European and African rhythms. The piece opens in silence with Maboungou just sitting, digesting and distilling the action that is to come. Maboungou is terrific with stillnesses, unafraid to leave her audience hanging and the work revolves around these breaks, as integral to the piece as the rhythm-laden sections. The in-between-ness that is created by the triangulation of Maboungou, Keyevuh and Duval remains teasingly unresolved, a clever geometry of music, space, rhythm and movement. 

Peggy Baker Dance Projects (Toronto) & One Yellow Rabbit/Denise Clarke (Calgary), June 8th & 9th, Nouvelle Scène “Radio Play”, Peggy Baker Dance Project’s collaboration with One Yellow Rabbit’s Denise Clarke, featuring performances by Baker and Larry Hahn, is a dance-theatre piece loosely based on Baker’s life. Clarke built the action of the play around Baker’s character’s interaction with a potential employer (Hahn) where the artist’s single-minded dedication to her craft has left her few career choices in the “real world”. Like an installment of the long-running syndicated “Cathy” comic strip, the work was, in turns, heart-warming and saccharine, awkward and predictable. Clarke’s “Radio Play” did no justice to Baker’s capacity as a performer.

Cas Public (Montréal), June 9th, NAC Theatre Cas Public’s “Suites Cruelles” opens with the nine dancers strutting across the stage to Nancy Sinatra’s female empowerment anthem “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”. Hélène Blackburn’s multimedia work evolves episodically, playing on themes of sexual arousal, pleasure and pain, involving numerous couplings and changes of footwear including stilettos and pointe shoes. Despite being somewhat derivative – echoes of Marie Chouinard, Édouard Locke – the piece maintains a pleasing pace and sense of humour. A duet between pianist Matthieu Fortin and one female dancer – in which the two performers argue the semantics of timing and the correct amount of music – is a gem. Cas Public’s dancers showed tremendous stamina, if less than perfect technique.

Lola Dance (Vancouver), June 10th, NAC Studio Lola Dance’s “Provincial Essays” was a pleasant contrast to the previous evening’s gothic darkness. Soft, breezy and light, Lola MacLaughlin’s most recent work comprises a series of scene studies based on movements inspired by the natural environment. A possible antithesis to her urban explorations in “Four Solos/Four Cities” (1999), movements in “Provincial Essays” are named after the wind, the tide and seabirds – reminding me of an afternoon spent walking along the BC coast near Tsawwassen. With an interesting ensemble of dancers – including Ron Stewart, Caroline Farquhar, Alison Denham and the very capable Amber Funk Barton – the work unfolds organically as a collage of film, spoken text and movement. Each study develops as a series of phrases that then form the shared vernacular of each section, where movements are broken down and then reconstructed as a sequence. While long, the work was refreshingly soothing and unpretentious. 

Sampradaya Dance Creations & Ballet Jörgen Canada (Toronto), June 10th, NAC Theatre Toronto-based Indian dance company Sampradaya Dance Creations presented two works in the main theatre – “Shunya” choreographed by Artistic Director Lata Pada and “B2”, a collaboration with Bengt Jörgen of Ballet Jörgen Canada, choreographed by the UK-based Mavin Khoo. “Shunya”, as a concept, refers to a Vedic paradox of nothingness and infinity. Pada used this notion as a basis from which to explore the relationship between point and counterpoint through bharatanatyam and kathak vocabulary and music. Convening a gifted supporting cast including composer Praveen D. Rao, lighting designer Arun Srinivasan and video artist Jeremy Mimnaugh the work was sonically and visually provocative, demonstrating Pada’s ability to successfully pair innovation with tradition.

The second work, Khoo’s “B2”, was more ambitious than Pada’s offering but ultimately less successful. The work appeared more as a vehicle for Khoo himself – who performed multiple solos throughout the work – and less as an ensemble piece for the dancers of Sampradaya and Ballet Jörgen who seemed very game to help Khoo realize his vision. It was clear that the work was conceived and rehearsed for a much smaller stage and the dancers struggled to traverse the space – especially during the numerous blackouts. Khoo, trained in both ballet and classical Indian dance, did succeed in creating a harmonious showcase for ballet and bharatanatyam technique with little of the disconcerting blending and inevitable diluting that similar cross-disciplinary ventures have produced. Both groups of dancers were fluent and assured but costuming choices (Jörgen’s female dancers in eye-popping bustiers while Pada’s dancers were modestly covered) were not only odd but also rather alarming. (I was concerned not only that the dancers might fall out of their tops but for the colonialist connotations.) The final pas de deux between Khoo en pointe and Ballet Jörgen’s Preston McBain was intriguing but the staging and too-dark lighting left this reviewer cold.

Sarah Chase (Vancouver) for Montréal Danse, June 11th, Maison de la culture de Gatineau Montréal Danse’s Artistic Director Kathy Casey commissioned BC’s Sarah Chase to work with the company’s seven mature, gifted dancers in the creation of a piece featuring Chase’s special blend of biography, story telling and movement. Performed mostly in French by the company’s mainly francophone cast, “Sur les glaces du Labrador” (“On the ice of Labrador”) was supremely moving, conveying both languor and immediacy as in a dream. The stage of the Maison de la culture de Gatineau did not lend itself well to the work – the dancers seemed too high and far away from the audience, detracting from the intimacy of the dancers’ personal narratives. Chase’s work always seems to have a quality of hand-craftedness, each aspect lovingly created, painstakingly sculpted and then allowed to soften and breathe. 

Wen Wei Dance (Vancouver), June 12th, NAC Studio Vancouver’s Wen Wei Dance presented the contemplative 2005 solo “One Man’s…” in the NAC Studio Theatre. This amazing work, which began with Wei sculpting a causeway of sand around three sides of the stage, was beautifully timed and executed. A captivating dancer, Wei gave an understated performance. Based on a legend about a monk in the mountains, “One Man’s…” unfolds as a story within a story stretching towards infinity. Looped black and white film sequences – showing Wei getting up in the morning and coming to grips with his own mortality – were effective in their capacity to time-shift the narrative and to provide an existential quality to the work. With a striking lighting design by James Proudfoot, “One Man’s…” was by turns pastoral and sinister, with lots of dramatic changes in lighting, mood and movement to balance its more meditative qualities.

Crystal Pite, Kidd Pivot (Vancouver), June 12th, NAC Theatre BC’s Crystal Pite brought three extraordinary works to the NAC Theatre with her company Kidd Pivot. The mixed program began with “A Picture of You Falling”, a duet for Peter Chu and Anne Plamondon that, for me, was the highlight of the festival. Pite conceived the piece as a narrative told in the third person. The voice of the narrator – a sound-a-like for actress Cate Blanchett – describes the action of the piece as though it were happening to each member of the audience – we are the “you” in “a picture of you falling”. Like puppets, surrounded by towering floodlights, the irresistibly articulate dancers performed visceral, fragmented, street-dance inspired movement as dictated by the narration. Though devoid of place and time, the combination of a minimalist story about the search for connection and the deconstructed yet authoritative movement was amazingly poignant. Precisely edited and performed, “A Picture of You Falling” progressed like a film, with Plamondon and Chu earning a well-deserved standing ovation.

The second work on the program, “Decembering” (2001), presented a masked and bewitched Pite as a white forest fairy or demon. Cold, haunting and otherworldly – reminiscent of an M. Night Shyamalan movie – Pite, in an exquisite hairy, white laced bodice and tailored trousers, magicks bare white branches across the stage to add to a looming pile upstage left. While there was some degree of disconnection between scenes where Pite danced as the demon and then as “herself” without her pointy-eared mask, “Decembering” was spine-tinglingly brilliant dance theatre.

The last work, “Fault”, was big on impact but short on substance. Based on the damage inflicted by earthquakes, the piece was inventive but incomplete. Plamondon, dressed like a super-hero or roller derby girl with a spine of pointed spikes, emerges Godzilla-like from a diorama of milk-carton houses, her movements simulating the effects of an earthquake. Menacing figures clothed in black – the earthquake’s power personified? – manipulate and eventually destroy the set. Audience members shrieked when the theatre appeared to break apart with set pieces crashing down and lighting booms falling and swinging precariously above the stage. Plamondon performed an incredible popping routine highlighted by strobe effects but it was unclear what commentary this provided to the rest of the work. Near the end, a voiceover listing dates of earthquakes worldwide plays as Plamondon inspects the damage and pulls a lifeless body from the wreckage.

Andrea Nann, Dreamwalker Dance Company (Toronto), June 13th, NAC Theatre Friday evening saw the presentation of three works by Toronto’s Andrea Nann Dreamwalker Dance Company. The first, a curtain warmer of sorts, was the end result of CDF’s Youth Project commission involving four Ontario secondary schools and performed by the dance students of Ottawa’s Canterbury High School. “Mercurial” began with a promising premise as dancers interacted with a collection of footwear suggesting the idea of walking a mile in some else’s shoes or playing grown-up, but a cohesive piece never fully materialized.

The second work, “Cato and Alice” (2003), is one of the fruits of Nann’s on-going collaboration with Canadian writer and poet Michael Ondaatje. Drawn from a sub-plot in Ondaatje’s “In the Skin of a Lion”, the work is composed of sepia-toned vignettes telling the tale of Cato and Alice’s doomed lov affair. With clumsy transitions, too long pauses, and a performance space too large for such an intimate work, the piece just didn’t translate, losing meaning and coherence. Even the palpable tenderness between dancers Nann and Michael Sean Marye couldn’t rescue the work.

After a reading by Ondaatje from “In the Skin of a Lion” as well as his latest novel “Divisadero”, the final dance work, “Meditation #5, On loss and desire”, was Nann’s moment to shine. Though she danced beautifully, her output was once again dwarfed by the stage. A wonderfully chilling image occurs when Nann runs forward into a suspended shroud, which she tosses before her; in that moment she becomes Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. 

Christopher House (Toronto) in work by Deborah Hay, June 10th-14th, ArtsCourt, Le Groupe Dance Lab, Studio A All week long at Le Groupe Dance Lab’s home studio, Toronto Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Christopher House performed “NEWS”, a solo choreographed by American post-modern choreographer Deborah Hay and adapted by House. Though never far from the spotlight, House has preferred in recent years to leave the dancing to his dancers. However, since working with Hay, House has rediscovered himself as a performer and Hay’s obscure, task-oriented process seems to very much suit his personality and desire for intellectual stimulation. Part performance, part lecture demonstration, House’s performances generated quite a buzz and his afternoon performances were standing room only.

Lucie Grégoire (Montréal) & Yoshito Ohno (Japan), June 13th & 14th, Nouvelle Scène Montréal’s Lucie Grégoire Danse brought a duet for Artistic Director Grégoire herself and eighty-year-old Japanese butoh master Yoshito Ohno. With gorgeous lighting by Marc Parent, this beautiful, painstaking work was dedicated to Ohno’s father, butoh founder Kazuo Ohno. The performers’ relationship evolves like a couple married for sixty years waltzing before gathered family members, still very much in love, untouched but also made by all the years they have spent together and the life they have lived. Ohno is a natural comedian and, like a naughty little boy, he entertains the grown-ups with his alter ego, a child’s hand puppet. Grégoire is delicate, respectful. Their combined energies and interaction on stage were charming.

PPS Danse (Montréal) June 14th, NAC Studio PPS Danse presented two works on June 14th in the NAC Studio, both commissions from the company’s Artistic Director Pierre-Paul Savoie. As part of his Diasporama project, Savoie has invited four Canadian choreographers living abroad to create new works that evoke displacement, exile and integration. The two pieces by former Montréalers Luc Dunberry and André Gingras were very dissimilar in both tone and quality of movement. The first, Dunberry’s “1/2 One Nor To”, a duet for Savoie and Marc Boivin, included projections of the earth, weather patterns and clouds on the floor and cyc, and centred on the dichotomy of push and pull, with the dancers searching for equilibrium. While tentative, Savoie and Boivin worked harmoniously to bring the piece’s imagery to fruition.

The second work, Gingras’ discourse on the roots of human rage, featured Savoie and up-and-comer Vincent Morelle in a contest of wills. Drawing on the work of writers William S. Burroughs and David Wojnarowicz, this nihilistic, dark portrait of male posturing and violence was tempered with humour and glimpses of frailty. The set – a junkyard of old computers, broken furniture and graffiti – provided the ideal setting for this exploration of angst and ire. Though one might have suspected that pairing the young, physical Morelle with the sinewed Savoie would place the older dancer at a disadvantage – punching above his weight so to speak – the result was surprisingly effective and not at all incongruous. Gingras’ impeccably timed and controlled choreography built momentum and tension without sacrificing form, reining the dancers in before goading them on again.

Fatigue and schedule conflicts prevented this reviewer from seeing (and therefore reviewing) performances by blackandblue dance projects, Ruth Cansfield Dance, Kawa:hi Dance Theatre, Compagnie de la Tourmente and Compagnie Marie Chouinard. Nonetheless, from what I did witness, it was clear that artists with more international experience and exposure produced and performed works that would qualify for the world stage. Others may have been better served by informal showings in their own studios, on their own turf. Based on the works in this particular CDF collection, one might be inclined to suggest that Canadians are better dancers than they are dancemakers. That said, while not without its lowlights, 2008’s Canada Dance Festival succeeded in bringing an impressive and largely entertaining range of contemporary work to the nation’s capital. 

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