Humour, Words and Some All-Out Dance 

By Kaija Pepper

Dancing on the Edge Festival 2003

Dancing on the Edge Festival

July 2003 

The fifteenth annual Dancing on the Edge, presented by the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver from July 3rd through 13th, was a remarkably mature edition. The humour was mostly about the joys and sorrows of middle age, there was maybe one dancer who didnt have a seriously developed technique, and about half of the emerging choreographers were already emerged age-wise, coming to the task after establishing themselves as dancers.

The headliner, Paul-André Fortier’s “Tensions”, was part of this culture of maturity. The duet for Fortier, in his fifties, and Robert Meilleur, in his thirties, revolves around the different states of being engendered by the performers’ ages. But the work, which premiered in Montréal in 2001, goes beyond the basic inspiration by also being a rigorously abstract choreography, with an impeccable setting created by set designer Paf, video artist Patrick Masbourian and lighting designer John Munro. Judging from the applause on the first night, most of the small group of Vancouverites who saw it were as thrilled as this viewer was. I did run into a few doubters, however. “Too much walking about,” complained one. “What was the relationship between the two men?” asked another. I felt both complaints were irrelevant: “Tensions” was exactly what the title stated, full of tension in and between performers, and within the driving score by Alain Thibault, with a brillliant evocation overall of a tense urban environment.

I was the “doubter” over another choreographer: Toronto’s Sarah Chase of Sarah Chase Dance Stories, who presented two works in a slot of her own. Both “Lamont Earth Observatory” and “Muzz” are more storytelling than dance; Chase tells family histories with wry humour and attention to detail. The movement, however, is mostly on the spot, a gentle swaying and weaving that left me desperately impatient for more. “The movement was subtle,” chastised a friend. “The stories reminded me of my own family,” explained another. Admittedly, if an actor had moved with such grace and relaxation, I would probably have been impressed. Storytelling was also evident in “On Earth”, by another Toronto-based choreographer, Claudia Moore of MOonhORsE dance theatre. This hour-long presentation was made up of four solos, each based on the life of its performer: Fiona Drinnan, followed by Miko Sobreira, Bonnie Kim and finally Moore herself. While all of the solos use some amount of storytelling, the first two are mostly dance, evoking rather than detailing lives. Kim and Moore tell their tales more through voice and it’s the story details that drive the work. Kim’s angst over wanting, and not wanting, to leave dance, and Moore’s memories of being a young dancer, were particularly engaging for the Edge’s largely dance audience.

Two full-length shows were remounts seen in Vancouver earlier in the season: Jennifer Mascalls site specific “Housewerk”, presented at Hycroft Manor in the wealthy enclave of Shaughnessy, and Peter Bingham and Tom Strouds “Vuelta”. Stephanie Gilliland from California returned to the Edge with “Fish is a Train of Glass”. The final full-length show was “Salome the Headhuntress” by Victoria’s Constance Cooke. Dancer Jung-Ah Chung, in a short, form-hugging tunic with gold coins attached, is an automaton of a Salome, while Roderick Glanville, the actor playing Herod, the king besotted with his stepdaughter, is a tortured, very human being. Again, the words became the most engaging aspect of the interdisciplinary choreography: Glanvilles warm, round tones and colourful monologue are more alive and commanding than Chung’s cold, forceful movement. Sure he’s the bad guy, displaying real venom toward Salome. “A disturbing woman, with all the impulsive madness of her sex,” he repeats over and over again. Unfortunately, Cooke allows his politically incorrect passion to upstage the empty, supposedly “reinvented” Salome.

The unusual set design by Cooke deserves mention, particularly the two skulls made of ice hanging downstage, one on each side, which drip loudly throughout as they slowly melt into tin containers. The costume design, by Meaghan Smith and Cooke, includes a wonderful pair of platform shoes constructed from a pile of books, which Glanville laboriously clumps about in.

The mixed bills were, as always, a mixed bag. What stood out was the amount of humour and the interest in a kind of dance-till-you-drop, all-out attack. First, the humour. Edge 1 opened the festival with Hiromoto Idas “Please Dad”, in which the Nelson, B.C.-based, Japanese-born actor/dancer pushes a buggy to a Van Morrison song. While the movement is somewhat overwhelmed by the music and the comedy – he gobbles a chocolate bar, investigates his paunch – the single burst of fast, angular dance-on-the-spot is wonderful. Edmond Kilpatrick, on the same bill, offered “Crime Scene”. I enjoyed this light piece by Ballet British Columbia dancer Kilpatrick, who slouches around in a trenchcoat, turning his fingers into a gun like a little boy playing cops and robbers.

On a different bill, Montréal-based Katie Ward, in “Latanie Bedzie Dobre (the dance will be A1)”, presented a humorous autobiographical look at working in a Polish restaurant. Yet again at this year’s Edge, the story definitely upstages the dance: the video of behind-the-scenes chat from the staff is much more interesting than the bits of dancing-with-a-kitchen-spoon Ward manages to include within her busy staging. This includes a couple from the audience who are enticed on stage to sit at a table for two, with Ward serving them soup and bread.

Anne Cooper presented “apostrophe”, a convincing use of words and movement, with touches of humour that were all the more effective juxtaposed with passionate open-chested swoops and falls. Swagger and ecstasy somersault together in Cooper’s presentation of a variety of characters, most memorably a cowboy. Her spoken stream of consciousness is from text by Anne Hébert, Robert Frost and Cooper herself.

“Xenevelene” from Calgary’s Colour for Industry offers a compelling kind of kooky universe, with Conroy Nachtigall and Krista Minken swathed in odd bunches of tulle and with shiny plastic vests. With their heads down much of the time, and long brown hair hiding their faces, the movement is mysterious and quite perplexing. I could never quite make out what they were doing, with their odd posture, bits of tulle, jutting pieces of plastic vest and flying limbs creating wonderful, textured shapes.

As for the all-out dance, some choreographers pushed dancers so hard they had to offer “time out”. David Pressault from Montréal created “A Chimerical Hand” for a new Vancouver collective, E.A.T. (Emerging Artists Trio), comprised of Jennifer McLeish-Lewis, Katy Harris-McLeod and Sarah Wendt. These three recent graduates of the MainDance Bridging Program, dressed to kill in slinky black gowns, gave impressive performances in this clever, whimsical piece that transforms the dancers into playing cards. Pressault stacks and shuffles the “cards”, and arranges and rearranges them in various trick combinations (as described by a voice over), in a really original work. But then he gives each one a solo – of course, to be fair – and the pacing becomes predictable as each takes her turn. First, Harris-McLeod follows a set of manically paced directions: stand up, lift your leg, jump etc. She’s bathed in sweat afterwards, as is Wendt after her solo (in which she tells a love story) and McLeish-Lewis after hers (which is frantic, earthbound and full of moans). While the solos go on, the other two dancers have gentle “time out” upstage.

Crystal Pite’s “Cruelties Like These”, for Day Helesic, also had intense sections, with some raw, energetic movement that is nonetheless perfectly formed, and that results at one point in Helesic lying flat on her back, breathing deeply, recovering. The set design is an intriguing set of little wooden blocks that look like houses, or maybe a picket fence, arranged upstage. Helesic dances the first section with a ridge of the small blocks attached down her back, reminding me of a stegosaurus. Reading the program notes afterwards, I realized the monster was not an animal but the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The solo struck me as a work-in-progress, with a great set and costume, but broken down into distinct sections that don’t quite make a whole.

Karine Denault’s “Échine Barricade (I’m mobile)” is also pretty frantic but it doesn’t require actual recovery time. I found this young Montréal choreographer both challenging and fully absorbing. In jeans and t-shirt, Denault creates a clear formal line through oddly extended limbs, which are often flung, but never in reckless abandon – she is not reaching for the romantic or spiritual “other”. The dancer’s centre is maintained – in fact, her incredibly strong core lends an almost narcissistic aura to much of her movement. Despite the driving mixed sound score, Denault avoids dancing to the music although she does dance in a spirit affected by it, which I found intriguing. Much of her movement is on the spot, as if in a crowded disco, or perhaps in front of a mirror or a camera.

I liked Denault’s piece because it was such developed dance. However interdisciplinary a choreography is, I still expect that level of commitment in a work with a choreographer at the helm. Too often, though, words became dominant, whether on a recorded score or spoken live by the performers. Another work I liked because of its commitment to physical exploration was John Ottmann’s Untitled Tangle, a duet for himself and Ziyian Kwan. Kwan dances very much from a pure physical presence, and choreographer Ottmann clearly appreciates this. The work is enigmatic – the two connect as if without seeing each other, and emotions are muted, but the dancing was clear and concise. Oddly, Kwan is much more carefully costumed than her partner, wearing a gorgeous fitted top and trousers, while Ottmann’s t-shirt and pants look as if they are from his own, well-worn wardrobe. Maybe that’s meant to suggest elements of character that aren’t, however, developed in the choreography. There was no costume design credit in the program.

Hanna Kiel, another MainDance graduate, also explores human connection and disconnection in her solo, “Painfully Lovely”. While the use of scattered, red rose petals could have been overkill, the gentle Kiel is already such a rigorous choreographer I felt she got away with it. With the music, too, she verges on sentimentality by using Franz Liszt, but because she is always in control of her response she manages to assert something stronger. Kiel does not let the music lead her; she choreographs as a thinker as well as an emoter.

Judith Marcuse’s “Scenes from a Shared Life” also contains great dance, more emotionally carved out in space than Ottmann’s work, and clearer in intent than Kiel’s. Gioconda Barbuto and Graham McKelvie dance a long, lived relationship, with sensuality even in sorrow. The world music score doesn’t contribute any sense of place to their lives, however, though it often provides a clear pulse for the choreography.

There are always a few pieces with their own unique space in the festival. Helen Walkley’s “And it flew” is one of those. Set to a spare score for viola by James Maxwell, the work follows its own mysterious inspiration; it looks like a game of chance, with each player perfectly understanding what appears to be constantly changing rules. Emerging dancers Ira Hardy, Caroline Fitzner, Caroline Liffmann, Jennifer McLeish-Lewis and Espirito Santo dance exactly who they are on stage, fulfilling themselves through the gentle steps and calm reaches of the choreography. The work is apparently grounded in the mathematical Fibonacci series, for those who know what that is.

Simone Orlando’s “Cart”, like Walkley’s piece, boasted what seemed a large cast in comparison to the solos, duets and trios of the other mixed bill contributions. It was also unique, in terms of bringing pointe shoes to the Edge. What I enjoyed about this Ballet British Columbia dancer’s choreography for nine Ballet BC Mentor Program students was its relaxed ensemble and comfortable use of pointe shoes. To Scott Bishop’s gently fractured score, Orlando has created a straightforward dance of strength and energy, well performed by Jenny Cummer, Caroline Fitzner, Megan Gartrell, Rachel Mark, Darcy McItrick, Mayumi Nagaoka, Susie Newson, Jeannie Vanderkerkhove and Nicole Zingle. The set piece – a shopping cart – adds a touch of urban whimsy.

Overall, Edge 2003 was the quietest one I can remember. Houses for the thirty-nine choreographers presented were decent, but not full; instead of the expected two headliners, there was only one; and the five-day workshop offered by master artist Fortier attracted only a handful of participants. Certainly, a major factor for poor attendance at both the shows and the workshop must have been the late scheduling. I received a press release only on June 11th, with full details well after that, for a festival which ran at the beginning of July. There was no lead-up, no sense of anticipation. People made other plans, perhaps blowing their money on the pricey Cirque du Soleil’s “Alegria” which arrived in town on July 10th – which is a pity, because there wont be much more dance in Vancouver until the fall. 

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