Diverse Expertise

Vancouver International Dance Festival By Andrea Rabinovitch
  • Molly McDermott in the work Kai Kairos, by Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi / Photo by Peter Eastwood
  • Dairakudakan in the work Paradise by Akaji Maro / Photo by Hiroyuki Kawashima
  • Karen Jamieson and Margaret Grenier in their work light breaking broken / Photo courtesy of the presenter

Vancouver International Dance Festival 2017

Vancouver March 1-25, 2017

This year’s Vancouver International Dance Festival (VIDF), true to its mission to grow appreciation and audiences for culturally diverse dance, presented an exciting program anchored by two exceptional international companies: Dairakudakan, a butoh company from Japan, and Alonzo King LINES Ballet, a contemporary ballet company based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The large event, lasting more than three weeks, was spread across seven different venues and included auxiliary events: an art and photography exhibition, workshops and classes, life drawing sessions and the general schmooze that happens at dance gatherings. 

There is nothing so satisfying as seeing as a dance artist who has worked within a company for years. The style and intention of the work are clearly reflected in the dance, while the performer interprets the world of the choreographer’s movement invention and vocabulary. Layering the performer’s own unique vision with the creator’s inner world makes for a visceral experience.

Such is the case with Molly McDermott in Kai Kairos, a work that showcases a dancer in her prime, choreographed by Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, artistic directors of Kokoro Dance and producers of VIDF. An integral part of Kokoro for the last decade, McDermott is a glorious dance artist whose intensity and fierceness shone.

McDermott performed a journey of vulnerability and strength inspired by her own life story, morphing from profoundly “feminine” movements, with hips rolling and subtle hand gestures, into strongly grounded transitioning shapes that spoke to the human condition more than to a specific gender. Her storytelling abilities and technical expertise created a joyful performance experience. 

Two moments remain particularly embedded in memory. 

The first is a slowly performed contraction that, thanks to McDermott’s amazingly supple strength, curved the spine in ways connoting conception, birth and death. It is a good example of the grace, beauty and meaning in this work. In a simple but charged movement, she embodies women’s strength, the physical efforts contained in continuing the human race and the struggles that duty entails. The work was so beautifully executed and filled with the essence of giving over to the pain/joy of a life well lived. 

The second sequence is the conclusion of the work, in which the fourth wall of the performance, maintained until that moment, is broken. McDermott, covered in the white chalk and body-revealing costume of the butoh tradition, moves through the audience like a marble ghost looking for its plinth. It was visually stunning.

While she was onstage, her performance was so complete and filled with intention that it felt as if the energy of an entire room of people was focused in on this one solo performer. By stepping into the audience with a floating quality to her shifts of weight and her eyes searching for the next place to rest, her walk was juxtaposed with the audience dressed in Vancouver rainy-weather clothes. Her otherworldly walk out of the theatre left a tantalizing and lingering question mark at the end of the work, like she was a changeling off to perform the whole thing again somewhere else.

Admittance to Kai Kairo was very affordable – free with the purchase of a two-dollar VIDF button.

Paradise, from Japanese company Dairakudakan, founded and led by Japanese butoh legend Akaji Maro, delivered a satisfying evening of physical theatre, performance art and dance. It was entertaining, physically confounding and filled with metaphor and allusions to numerous art forms and cultures.

This epic evening, performed for a sold-out crowd at the Playhouse Theatre, began with twenty dancers in the whitened skin, bald heads and G-strings of butoh, surrounding Maro, who was dressed in a fantastical costume intended to represent Mother Earth. The hapless humans are chained to Maro and struggle to free themselves. Once they accomplish their release, the rest of the work travels through a visual kaleidoscope of Maro’s often grotesque vision of heaven and hell, drawing from a variety of cultural references

Judeo-Christian and pagan imagery of moral judgment and the afterlife abound, with Grim Reapers, a woman eating the apple and the appearance of serpents who observe and direct the action.

Henri Rousseau’s The Dream, projected onto the white set, periodically acts as a backdrop – an image portraying a lush paradise and a woman lounging on a settee serenaded by a slave with lions circling his legs, suggesting that danger is always lurking. Projected behind white-chalked performers, who, with highly controlled movements, interact with the two serpent men who are leading them, the image gave the scene a sense of place. Visually, it also made for an affecting contrast: pale performers stood out against a hyper-coloured backdrop.

It’s not often that an audience marvels at the technical tricks of a dance piece. In one of the most movement-based sequences, rectangular white boxes of varying heights, six to eleven feet tall, were lined up onstage. From the top of the boxes, female dancers performed precise and precarious movements, seemingly defying weight and gravity. As was revealed when the boxes were deconstructed, male dancers were standing within the boxes, bracing the women, who balanced on their hips with their legs and arms suspended in the air. Unseen, from inside the boxes, this partnering gave the women’s movements a sculptural and magical effect, created not by optical illusion but the strength of the performers. 

Maro brightens up the second half of the work with a disco-daze roller skating mania. Moving away from creation stories and into the seventies, the theme of paradise continued. For those of us old enough to have experienced it, it was a time of underground fun and freedom that seemed like paradise indeed. To the sound of loud thumping music, the performers wheel around making excited sounds with hyper, jubilant expressions. The scene evokes a drug-induced fantasy set in the era of roller skating halls and disco inferno music. 

That sense of freedom, however, was checked by the presence of death, particularly the appearance of the AIDS epidemic. Butoh is informed by such juxtapositions, between playfulness and vitality on one hand and the inevitability of death on the other. 

Out of this tension, death is portrayed as something potentially beautiful. The performers used ethereal feathers and imagery, some drawn from the Mexican Day of the Dead with skeletons and oferendas of food, drink and flowers. Holding red oferenda flowers in their mouths, the dancers linked the death process to life, a reflection of the cycle of life emerging out of and back into the soil. 

There is nothing extraneous or of questionable value in Paradise. All of its elements seem to work in tandem; the content and pacing were clear and well-edited; the costume, lighting and set designers supported the vision; and the performers enacted the controlled energy and creative power of butoh. The result is a work richly layered with meaning that made for an almost perfect evening of dance and physical theatre and deserved the standing ovation it received during an elaborately long sequence of bows. 

The curtain call lasted what felt like ten minutes. Maro circled in a dramatic fashion, bowing like God after creating the world and bringing out the company for their own highly stylized bow. This final act of performance acknowledged how great the work was but also provided a tongue-in-cheek observation on our need to congratulate and the creators’ need for adulation. Pointing to human foibles by making fun of a theatre tradition ended the highly entertaining evening on the right note.

Vancouver’s newest performance space, KW Basement Production Studio, situated off of the Woodward’s Atrium, is an exciting new black box with excellent lighting and projection capabilities. Karen Jamieson and Margaret Grenier’s piece light breaking broken was presented there in the last weekend of the festival.

Jamieson and Grenier are long-time collaborators and associates, and the work follows the mandate of Karen Jamieson Dance to engage communities and different cultural groups in artmaking.

In light breaking broken, Jamieson and Grenier use the projections by Josh Hite and the lighting by James Proudfoot to denote space where the performers play with being either trapped by the changing circles on the floor, avoiding the bar of light slashing the stage, or being drawn to the bubbles on the wall. 

Repetition of these phrases grows into the fifty-minute piece with movement themes like a vibrating hand and arm, a floor sequence by Jamieson that teeters and rolls, a beating of the breast and Grenier’s steady walking in slow motion.

Jamieson remains an absolutely gorgeous dancer with her lovely fall and recovery and use of weighted flow throughout the space. Both dancers were entirely committed to the story they created through the work. Despite those admirable values, the challenge was that the movement lacked a variety in dynamics or a climax and so, with the repetition and the lulling music by John Korsrud, the piece was difficult to focus on.

We were told at the beginning that this work is about reconciliation. It is a noble and timely theme for sure, and the performers were feeling the feels, but greater sharing of those emotions, through the movement, would have left the audience with something more tangible and more constructive from which to consider painful pasts and current efforts to rebuild relationships.


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