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Review

A Month of Dance in Vancouver 

By Rob Kitsos, Kaija Pepper
  • María Juncal in her own work / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Pichet Klunchun and Jérôme Bel in their own work “Pichet Klunchun and myself” / Photo courtesy of association RB 
  • Yoshito Ohno and Lucie Gregoire in Ohno’s “Flower” / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Barbara Bourget and Tanya Tagaq in their performance “Two Night Stand” / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Jay Hirabayashi, Wallace Halladay, Holly Holt and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in Hirabayashi’s “Babbitt – Concerto for Saxophone(s)” / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Desirée Dunbar, Bevin Poole, Vanessa Goodman, Christopher Duban and Kiri Figueiredo of Dancers Dancing in Judith Garay’s -----“A Geography of Bliss” / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Ken Roy and Sarah Williams in Louise Bédard’s “Enfin vous zestes (Finally, You Are” / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Liz Casebolt and Joel Smith in their own work “After Words” / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Deanna Peters, Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi in Bourget’s “F” / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Tiffany Tregarthen and David Raymond in their own work “Three with Two” / Photo by Chris Randle 

Vancouver International Dance Festival 

Vancouver International Dance Festival 

March 3-April 4, 2009 

Kaija Pepper: Looking back over the month-long Vancouver International Dance Festival (VIDF), produced by Kokoro Dance Artistic Directors Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, my strongest memory is of having a lot of fun. Houses for both the free shows at 7:15pm and the main events at 8pm were generally good and very often enthusiastic, so several evenings had a celebratory and even a party atmosphere. That’s a radical change from some earlier festivals, where I felt like a member of an exclusive, or just plain unpopular, club.

For the ninth annual VIDF, there was also a good mix between local, national and international work, with all three levels containing worthy offerings. My one complaint about programming was that the last two shows at locations away from the festival’s Roundhouse Community Centre home base dragged the fest out into early April and diffused the ending. Presented “in association with” the VIDF, they seemed to be offered more as marketing opportunities to local artists rather than as curatorial choices by the festival programmers. My point has nothing to do with the shows’ artistic worth but with trying to throw everything but the kitchen sink – i.e., everything that happens to take place around the same time – into one VIDF.

But back to the parties. The biggest bash happened mid-way through the festival at two packed houses for Spain’s María Juncal who presented “La hora de los milagros (The Hour of Miracles)”, well worth the drive to North Vancouver’s Centennial Theatre. The aptly titled work provided just over an hour’s worth of tightly rehearsed dance (by Juncal and Eduardo) and music (guitarist Carlos, flutist Juan Parrilla, cellist Alba, and singers David and Tañe). Juncal, the group’s leader, is technically brilliant, whether imperiously kicking into place the train of her red satin “bata de cola” dress that trailed like a live reptile behind her or, in high-waisted white trousers and short jacket, giving herself over to footwork that flutters and trills, then pounds like thunder. Toward the end of this section, Juncal created such a powerful series of beats that her shoelaces came undone and she impatiently pulled them out and tossed them aside.

The only disappointment was that Juncal’s choreographed duets with tall, slender Eduardo were too slick and sentimental. Getting her airborne through lifts was a progressive idea for flamenco but it didn’t help that they were basic hoists under her arms that just left Juncal hanging prettily. Also, the portentous way they backed away from each other after their kiss felt like a soap opera moment. In unison work, though, I liked the easy way the duo swung their arms and hips from side to side or shook their hands as if shaking off water, all to a jazzy blast of sound from the musicians.

On her own, Juncal created a more real and voluptuous tension. She devoted herself then to responding in the moment to various combinations of instrumentals, palmas and voice, both the actual “cante” and lovingly shouted encouragements, simple words like “María” and “Señora” that sounded like the most sensual seductions. But enough – over to you, Rob, to move our festival review forward. 

Rob Kitsos: Thinking back over all the varied performances I flash right away to the French choreographer Jérôme Bel lip-syncing to Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” with a deadpan expression as he slowly lowered himself to the floor and eventually stopped moving. I still laugh out loud when I think about it. This conversation, between Bel and acclaimed khon artist (a traditional Thai dance form) Pichet Klunchun, has been performed over 100 times worldwide. This makes the work even more intriguing because the very casual conversation these two very different artists have in the hour-long performance seems completely fresh. There are great pauses of contemplation and curiosity, particularly from Bel, who looks and acts like he just woke up from a good nap.

The interaction between Bel and Klunchun was based on the true events of their first meeting over four years ago when they shared ideas about the traditions and techniques behind their very different forms of performance. With both men sitting across from each other in simple chairs, Bel starts by asking Klunchun a few very basic questions: name, age, where do you live … Eventually we learn that the traditional art form of khon is a highly stylized ancient dance form that has now become a form of entertainment for tourists in Thailand, and Klunchun wants to bring the dances back to the Thai culture. He demonstrates several of the dances, taking on characters from the late-eighteenth-century Ramakien epic stories. The articulation in his fingers and feet – even in a simple slow walk depicting a funeral procession – was virtuosic and beautiful in its simplicity.

The conversation eventually shifts to Klunchun interviewing Bel about his work as a minimalist director. He asks why Bel doesn’t give money back to an audience when they don’t like the work he produces. Bel’s answer is priceless. He says that the government gives a little money to the contemporary artists not knowing what they will create; the artists take the little money and begin to create without knowing what the outcome will be; and finally, the audience pays for a ticket without knowing what their experience will be. So, in the business of contemporary art, it’s a gamble: no money back. It made me feel better about the piles of bad dances I’ve made over the years … 

KP: Yes, Bel and Klunchun were wonderful. The night I went, people were snorting with laughter at Bel’s portrayal of the intellectual roundabouts of contemporary dance, and then oohing and aahing at Klunchun’s virtuosity. Me too!

All three international shows were great fun. The third one was actually a Canada/Japan collaboration between Montréal’s Lucie Grégoire and Yoshito Ohno, whom she brought over from Yokohama. This was classic butoh in the playful tradition that combines serious white-painted bodies moving in slow motion with colourful hi-jinks to a lively soundtrack that here included Pink Floyd, Gloria Gaynor and Handel.

Grégoire has been at VIDF on her own and it was good to see her return with Yoshito Ohno, the son of legendary butoh artist Kazuo Ohno. Yoshito, who was born in 1938, danced in work by butoh’s founder Tatsumi Hijikata from 1959, so his credentials are impressive. He was such a quaint figure with his compact old man’s body, clad in a beige suit or, later, bare-chested with flowing white pants. Audaciously, he refused to act his age, like when he came out in bunny ears, holding a pinwheel, piping: “Spring come, spring come!” It sounds ridiculous but such was Ohno’s theatrical presence that it made perfect sense. And what a shift in mood at the end. The two gently sway close together, then he kneels and she stands next to him, both of them gently bowed over, and suddenly we are presented with a sublime expression of mother and child. It’s to Grégoire’s credit that she held her own throughout next to this eccentric master, despite her almost exclusive commitment to slow, somber movement and an introspective stage presence. 

RK: Not having much exposure to this classic form of butoh, I was surprised by the moments of high and low art. Pink Floyd was the last thing I expected to hear. I liked that contrast. Another example was the image of Grégoire barely moving in one square of light to Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. Ohno was amazing to watch. Each joint in his body was floating, searching for something.

My reference for butoh before moving to Vancouver was Japan’s Sankai Juku, whose work takes on a serious, almost ritualistic tone throughout each visually stunning work. I expected the same gravity from Ohno and Grégoire and, while there were moments of this quality, the playfulness was a pleasant surprise.

Having only seen clips of Kokoro’s work before this festival, it was good to see several full performances. Barbara and Jay were working overtime! The highlight of these intense performances for me was watching Jay Hirabayashi embody the character of Frankenstein in F. There is a quality to him as a performer, darkness mixed with a vulnerable innocence, which seemed to capture the essence of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was the inclusion of the live text dramatically performed by actors and giving context to the Kokoro style of butoh and improvisation that engaged me. Yet there were moments in this work and in “Two Night Stand”, with acclaimed Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, when this kind of context was missing. I often thought the simple addition of an abstract device, like an isolation of light in the space, could have given more shape and focus to the world these powerful performers were manifesting. Nevertheless, the intensity of Bourget and Hirabayashi on stage (also joined by Deanna Peters in “F”) is undeniable.

The live musicians in both “Two Night Stand” and “F” were excellent, as were the video projections. Cellist Cris Derksen, pianist Lee Pui Ming, guitarist Tony Wilson and percussionist Dylan Van Der Schyff played beautifully in “Two Night Stand”. Improvising along with the intense Tagaq, who bellowed out growls and high-pitched tones, the group would build to a full wall of sound and then slope into subtle space. 

KP: Bourget and Hirabayashi were busy (helps to know the producers!). They also appeared with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Evan Mitchell, to a packed theatre both nights thanks to a successful cross-pollination of audiences: the symphony and the dance crowds.

There were three pieces, all titled after the music. Bourget performed in the first, “Pagan Prayer”, New Zealand composer Gareth Farr’s high-energy work for percussion, trombones and soprano. She invited four b-boys from the Now or Never crew to join her, and their acutely angled poses and spins added urban cool next to her own butoh-styled theatricality.

Next up was Hirabayashi’s choreography for “Babbitt – Concerto for Saxophone(s)” by Toronto’s Scott Good. Hirabayashi’s duet for himself and Holly Holt – simultaneous solos and some partnering in the strip of floor in front of the orchestra – seemed just a gloss on the score’s hustle and bustle. But in one section, when Holt really responded to the music, the rhythmic subtlety and dreamy intensity of her grounded, sultry sway was exciting.

For Arvo Pärt’s shimmering “Tabula Rasa”, over a dozen string players and one piano were placed extreme stage right, leaving the floor clear for Bourget’s choreography for nine women. The dance, which premiered at the 2007 VIDF to a recording, features muscular shapes, writhing, stillness and, to end, Deanna Peters’s shaking head and hands, which continue after the music stopped so the piece finishes with the sound of her breath. I was, I admit, particularly riveted by the music, perhaps because I sat directly opposite the orchestra. Live, I could really hear the supporting piano and cello, and watching the various combinations of string players enriched my experience of a favourite score.

Maybe I’m just starved for live music. I know I swooned over the Vancouver Cantata Singers in their collaboration with Judith Garay’s company, Dancers Dancing, another evening of mixed programming with good houses and a crossover audience. The twenty-two choir members were on stage throughout, singing five very different scores for five very different choreographers. Dancers Christopher Duban, Desirée Dunbar, Kiri Figueiredo, Vanessa Goodman, Bevin Poole and Peter Starr got quite a workout as each piece demanded all-out energy, and there were lots of jumps. Garay’s “A Geography of Bliss” was the one piece set to a commissioned score, “Happiness Index” by Peter Hannan, whose wonderful libretto features the real life story of an East Vancouver grocery store cashier named Carmen, famous for having memorized her hundreds of customers’ names. Serge Bennathan chose Francis Poulenc’s “Mass in G”; Simone Orlando, Bach’s “Komm, Jesu, Komm”; Anthony Morgan, Veljo Tormis’s “Helletused (Childhood Memory – herding calls)”; and you, Rob, Erik Bergman’s absurdist “Four Gallows Songs”, which opened the evening. What prompted your choice? 

RK: Judith had decided what music I was to use for the commission. I think because she knows my sense of humor, she chose a piece that had crazy characters and different meters flying in and out. It was a great challenge. This was an exciting production for Dancers Dancing’s ten-year anniversary. I thought the dancers did an excellent job interpreting several very different styles. Bennathan’s last image is stunning with shadows, cast on the brick walls behind, of bodies popping up from rolls across the floor.

One of the most innovative uses of projections I have seen on stage was in “Enfin vous zestes” by Montréal’s Louise Bédard Danse. Dozens of blank canvases are arranged randomly against the back of the space. Several projections were designed to appear on single canvases, and their differently shaped surfaces gave the images different textures. The one I liked most was a large-scale image of a man lying down, which is projected over the entire collection of canvases. It was so simple and visceral.

The six dancers (Tom Casey, Jean-François Déziel, Marie-Claire Forté, Victoria May, Ken Roy and Sarah Williams) were strong performers and had great moments of character in their relationships to each other and to props (one with a teddy bear that was fun). I found the structure of the work challenging at times. Sometimes there is a split-focus on stage: for example an intimate duet happening while a man walks around distractingly. Late in the work, when I needed to feel some momentum build, there is a very slow duet on a box that was hard to stay with. The tempo set up at the beginning of the work didn’t shift much at all in the one-hour-and-twenty-minute work. 

KP: I, too, was in awe of Geneviève Lizotte’s set design. Along with Bruno Rafie’s lights, David Fafard’s video projections, and Lizotte’s and George Krump’s photos, about a million different visual effects were created, each one anchoring Bédard’s cryptic scenarios.

That just about does it for the 8pm full-length shows, except for those final two, off-site ones I mentioned at the top. I’m going to discuss the last one first – Martha Carter’s “Twisted” at Scotiabank Dance Centre. That’s because, like Bédard’s piece, the visual environment was engaging.

Carter turned in a friendly performance as the show’s centre point, sharing with the audience her story of being treated for scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, by the insertion of metal rods when she was a teenager. Four younger women – Katy Harris-McLeod, Jennifer McLeish-Lewis, Jennifer Oleksiuk and Alisoun Payne – were her foils, listening attentively and providing most of the dance. A key sequence that captures the intentions of the piece, which is about overcoming adversity and trusting in yourself, began with Carter telling us how she nailed pirouettes in ballet class through visualization. Then she encourages her dancers to do the same thing in a series of pirouettes across the stage while dancing spines are projected behind them. Don’t be fooled by the pirouettes: most of the movement is less formal, with the dancers veering from hyper-stretches up or forward to super-flexible undulations and curves, all featuring the dancers’ backs – as do Lindsay Keegan’s costumes: short, backless dresses.

jamie griffiths was responsible for the visual projection design and, with Carter, its content, which included an array of animated human spines, as well as a film of Carter out in the real world dragging behind her a plaster cast of a torso (used in scoliosis treatment). Stefan Smulovitz, vocal effects software designer, provided a section where Carter’s hums, laughs, sighs and wails are projected on screen as a series of colourful rectangles. It was a neat effect but it meant Carter had to sit and vocalize for some time, which worked against her otherwise informal presence.

And now to “The Cell”, at Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby, directed by MOVE: the company’s artistic director, Josh Beamish, and choreographed by im and six collaborators, from the experienced Simone Orlando to the emerging Amber Funk Barton and Alison Denham, through to three whom I only know as dancers: Heather Dotto, Rachael Poirier and Crystal Wills. The project was inspired by the 2000 film of the same name, a psychological thriller starring Jennifer Lopez, which I haven’t seen. Maybe if I had, the show’s concept would have been less goofy and mysterious (a man on a bungee cord ravishing a woman lying on a table, for example). From my point of view, the evening was about highly charged young dancers full of great sexual energy – no more, no less. The dancers – seven young professionals including Beamish and Dotto, and five apprentices – were strong and fit, with technical pizzazz, and eager to enjoy their moment on stage. 

RK: Flashing back to Martha Carter’s “Twisted” for a moment (and I should mention that I am on her board of directors), I was struck by how personal this work was. For Carter, who has made a name for herself as an artist who combines urban styles mixed with classical vocabulary as well as freestyle community dance events, this was a major departure. Carter shared these remarkable and emotionally painful experiences very candidly – like the details of being in a body cast, barely movable for months on end. This work reminded me that it is often personal works like this that are the most universal – and as one of the audience members said in the talk back after the show, “Everyone loves a good story.”

The cabaret environment of the free show venue was just as busy and varied as the main stage. These events were fun to watch, partly because of the informal atmosphere, being able to have a glass of wine, take in the art and move around. First up was “Three with Two” by Out Innerspace, the duet team of David Raymond and Tiffany Tregarthen. This was a whimsical duet full of odd rhythms and subtle shifts of weight, as if the performers were awkwardly flirting. Raymond and Tregarthen are theatrically engaging performers and beautiful movers. Raymond played the straight man to the wiry, rag doll Tregarthen. Midway into the duet, after partnering, awkward pauses and gesture motifs of concealing privates, Raymond exits and Tregarthen proceeds to go nuts. He returns to find her on the floor, tries to revive her and finally holds her deadweight body up to the audience with a crooked smile. With so much dark and heavy work on the contemporary dance stages, it is always a pleasure to see light-hearted work that is well crafted.

In a similar way, casebolt and smith from Los Angeles had the audience cracking up at their self-reflective commentary. As if they were in rehearsal, Liz Casebolt and Joel Smith bantered back and forth about every movement choice as they made their way through a duet rich with sexual overtones and cliché dance references. Their comic timing was impeccable. For me it was very reminiscent of the acclaimed duet team David Dorfman and Dan Froot, who have created several popular works since the mid-nineties. Nonetheless, casebolt and smith have a great chemistry and clever ideas.

Other artists showing work in the free slot were Karen Rose, The Source Dance Company, The Story of Force and Motion, Floating Seed (did you see this group Kaija?), Mozaico Flamenco, Harbour Dance Centre’s Intensive Training Program and yours truly, Rob Kitsos and Dancers. 

KP: The free shows were fun to watch (yours too, with its cool architectural construction). I did see Floating Seed, which I think you missed, and which featured an aerial-cum-butoh aesthetic that might have brought Sankai Juku to your mind again. “Chrysalis” was a quiet, intense duet strongly performed by artistic directors Andrea Legg and Gabrielle Martin, lasting about twenty minutes like the other free shows. I had to stand as the tables were full, so I didn’t take any notes, but I recall white-costumed bodies on long white silks, slowly emerging out into the space around them.

There were also two 10pm shows on the cabaret stage, Toronto’s Nova Bhattacharya in a solo mixed bill featuring five of her own short works and Ron Stewart in “WhaT,?”, a solo created for him by Jennifer Mascall (which I reviewed for “The Dance Current” at its November premiere). Plus, as usual, several classes by visiting artists, which I always think must be such a treat for the city’s dancers.

And that’s it from me, Rob; I’ll let you wrap up. Thanks for the conversation, both at the festival and here, in writing. We’ve been busy, but it’s been fun! 

RK: It was a luxury for me to be at so many performances this past month; I felt like a regular at the Roundhouse. I also felt there was a great sense of celebration and community at the shows. I was impressed by how many supporters came out to both the free and main stage events. The design of the festival brought together many different communities within Vancouver dance, which is always a good thing. As a participant in the festival, I was also impressed by how well oiled the machine was. The technical staff were always available and proficient, the space was generously made available to the performers to rehearse, the timing of events was punctual, flat screen TVs featured great images and video by Chris Randle, and complimentary wine and food (love that) were on offer as we walked out of shows.

This was an exciting and full run of performances. VIDF continues to be a driving force in bridging different communities of dance within Vancouver, expanding the audience base for theatre dance, and keeping Vancouver connected to the international field of contemporary performance. I look forward to next year! Thanks Kaija.

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