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Review

Interior Worlds 

By Pamela Anthony
  • Brian Webb in his own work "I'm Standing Here Before You" / Photo by Chris Randal 
  • Brian Webb in his own work "I'm Standing Here Before You" / Photo by Chris Randal 
  • Brian Webb / Photo by Chris Randal 

"I'm Standing Here Before You", "Still"

Brian Webb, Tania Alvarado

Edmonton January 21, 2005  

It’s characteristic of Brian Webb to offer the complex contradictions of his work with extreme simplicity. This quality is particularly evident in his latest performance, “I’m standing here before you”, a modern and highly theatrical event that involves spoken text, extensive video art, five on-stage musicians and a very tall red ladder. Dancing among these elements is Webb, who acts as a kind of bespectacled ringmaster, an intent but modest guide in this oddly beautiful world he has discovered, and re-created for his audience’s view. That is the nature of his work, which he calls self-portrait, and it reveals his intriguing duality as an artist, at once passionate and coolly intellectual, notoriously candid and yet clearly reserved.

Webb offers us poems that spring from vivid memories of childhood or sky-gazing with a loved one, but these intimacies are revealed from a great distance. Webb is sitting high atop the ladder, nearly hidden in the darkness of the proscenium, his back turned to the audience, his voice without dramatic inflection, the pages of text dropping like leaves to the ground far below.

By contrast, his dancing, done in bright light centre stage (in front of a broad backdrop of video projections by Tim Folkmann), is warmly physical, open and bold, full of robust energy, animated by moments of powerful physical drama and quiet flashes of humour. In this latest piece, Webb literally manifests being both up in the air and down to earth.

Now in his early fifties, Webb is dancing with a calm assurance and strength. In this performance his distinctive physicality is there – the head leading the body, the rounded arms carving space, the shapes stretched out on the floor and the intermittent gestural movements of his arms and hands – but it has a newly organic quality, a mature vitality. His characteristic self-awareness in performance is also there, but there is less posturing, and the more relaxed flow of movement makes this dance quite satisfying to watch. 

Webb has often said in recent years that while he no longer dances like a young man, he is happy dancing in his middle age and, in fact, does not plan retirement as a dance artist as long as he can keep moving. This performance shows him resolving the challenges that face mature performers. He is frank about his limitations, yet confident in his physical abilities, as shown in a daring series of diving somersaults to the floor.

Although self-reflection is the source of Webb’s artistic practice, his work is just as sharply defined by his deep love of collaboration. Webb is an artist who surrounds himself with art, and in every performance I’ve seen, he embraces – and showcases – other artists in music, theatre, text, visual art, media, performance and design. In this show, the contributors are once again exceptional. In truth, this show is a collage more than collaboration.

The music, Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, is exquisite, and beautifully played live on stage, led by Haley Simons on piano and Dianne New on first violin. The five movements of the music are like chapters in a story, and form the structural frame around which Webb translates his impressions of self and memory. Dorriie Deutschendorf’s lighting design is made up of alternately open, bright areas, and dark glossy patches of light, and does much to define the shifting atmosphere of the piece.

Given prominent place in the production, Tim Folkmann’s gorgeous video art provides a resonant base line for the entire enterprise. Projected on a large screen set at a slight angle mid-stage, his images are unhurried and powerful – a deep blue image of a boat slowly drifting away on a gentle, yet inexorable tide, a dark figure glimpsed through the blur of traffic across a busy street, the action framing a mysterious stillness. These haunting narratives speak of loss, distance and longing, and they fill the stage with an emotional coherence that anchors Webb’s more disparate psychological and physical investigations. 

Dancing in this hyper-enriched atmosphere, Webb makes no demands that we accept any of this, no efforts to nudge us into agreement with his point of view. This is not an attempt to win our acceptance, as so much self-revelatory works seems to be, or even an artful exhibition of his good taste. It is only Webb as he is: dancing, frankly reflecting his intimate and aesthetic concerns, surrounding himself with artists that he finds meaningful. These things are offered simply – and with considerable generosity. We are left free to encounter them as we will, and make up our own minds about their value and their meaning for us.

Webb has been active for twenty-five years as choreographer, creator, dance educator and presenter in Edmonton, and it would be hard to overestimate his impact in developing modern dance and contemporary performance art in the city. One of the most compelling artists to emerge from the sphere of Webb’s considerable influence is Tania Alvarado, a dancer/choreographer whose work formed the second half of this program. A former student of Webb’s at the Grant MacEwan College dance program, Alvarado’s talents were quickly recognized by Webb, and fostered during a three-year professional mentorship with his company. She has since gone on to numerous successful national and international presentations of her work, but she and Webb continue to share an artistic affinity that has drawn them together for a choreographic collaboration, and shared programs such as this. 

Alvarado is a serious artist, and a dancer of unusual dramatic intensity, both deeply vulnerable and wildly charismatic. “Still”, which premiered last year in Regina, shows a young woman at a point of loss and change – painful, lonely, manic, searching and uncertain, yet strong, and just glimpsing the possibility of emerging from the darkness into something new.

In “Still”, there is a submerged urgency to Alvarado’s almost idiosyncratic choreography, a questioning quality in the alternating sections of quiet reflective moments, and the bursts of whiplash head movement, twirling and rhythmic flicking of the legs. Her work is grounded through the feet, and the tensile strength and energy of her body finds voice in the intricate articulation of her arms and hands.

The power of her presence, and the remarkable appeal of her dancing are wonderfully complimented by her also excellent collaborators. The spare dynamic of David Wall’s live electric/acoustic score and the haunting images of nature and the body projected again by video artist Tim Folkmann are important companions in this brief, difficult journey she dances. The overall feeling is one of both struggle and wonder, and is deeply affecting. 

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