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Review

Multimedia Metamorphosis 

By Garth Von Buchholz
  • Gabriela Rehak-Dovgoselets in "Diving Girl" by Karen Kuzak / Photo by David Henry 
  • Jennifer Essex in "Diving Girl" by Karen Kuzak / Photo by Tony Nardella 
  • Jennifer Essex and Gabriela Rehak-Dovgoselets in "Diving Girl" by Karen Kuzak / Photo by David Henry 

"Diving Girl" 

Karen Kuzak

Winnipeg September 23-25, 2004

What happens when you take 1950s-style, post-modern idealist icons of bathing beauties and synchronized swimmers, then deconstruct them to create a sinewy, subversive dance that transforms the women into something more primal and mythical?

Winnipeg’s TRIP Dance opened their 2004-2005 season on Sept. 23rd with “Diving Girl”, an intriguing new work by choreographer Karen Kuzak that will be performed in Calgary from Sept. 30th through Oct. 1st (presented by Dancers Studio West), and will also hit the stage in Toronto from January 19th through 22nd, 2005 (presented by Dancemakers). 

Winnipeg’s TRIP Dance opened their 2004-2005 season on Sept. 23rd with “Diving Girl”, an intriguing new work by choreographer Karen Kuzak that will be performed in Calgary from Sept. 30th through Oct. 1st (presented by Dancers Studio West), and will also hit the stage in Toronto from January 19th through 22nd, 2005 (presented by Dancemakers).

This multimedia production incorporates an original film by emerging Winnipeg director Caelum Vatnsdal and an original soundscape by another local artist, Christine Fellows. Anne Armit, costume designer for Canadas Royal Winnipeg Ballet, created the neutral-toned but cleverly constructed leotards and caps for the four dancers, Gabriela Rehak-Dovgoselets, Christina Medina, and Jennifer Essex, from Winnipeg, and Calgary-based Alanna K. Jones.

“Diving Girl” is structured in five or six segments, with Vatnsdal’s black and white film scenes set on an overcast day at a (Manitoba?) lakeside providing transitions, as a background and as part of the actual performance, with the dancers appearing in the film. Lighting was designed by Winnipeg’s Hugh Conacher, for my money one of the best lighting designers for dance in Canada.

The costumes have high corseted waists with tops that detach, so for part of the performance the dancers are semi-nude. Dressed alike, only their different physiques and hair distinguish the performers from one another – Jones is a blonde, Essex is a redhead, Rehak-Dovgoselets is a brunette and Medina’s hair is tinted red and black.

The dance opens with two dancers in their matching leotards and caps, facing each other downstage. They gracefully bend forward from the waist, their feet fixed to the floor, in a pantomime of diving swimmers. The tone is formal, even dignified, and the dancers look like conservatively dressed, pre-bikini fad ladies from the 1950s. Even the votive candles arranged carefully on the stage suggest a solemn, ritualistic dance.

As their lower bodies remain motionless, the quickening pace of their diving movements and resting positions soon begins to suggest something less human and more akin to water birds plunging their necks below the surface of the water in search of food. 

The other two dancers soon enter, crossing the floor on all fours, arching and dipping and swaying with aquatic elegance. At the end of the first section, the diminutive Medina collects each of the small votive candles and removes them as she leaves the stage. The Diving Girls have begun diving more deeply, beneath their gender identities, and even beneath the meniscus layer of who they are in human society.

As the four dancers gradually exit, Vatnsdal’s first film scene appears on the scrim upstage. We see an image of a lake with the four dancers on their knees facing towards the shore, their backs to the camera. Fellows’ soundscape enhances the effect, with sound bytes of chirps and squawks suggesting a subtle dialogue between the characters of this dance and their natural environment, and alluding to their transition from formalist society to a kind of romantic Rousseau-ish vision of the natural world.

In subsequent film scenes, a black and white film fills the screen as the dancers leave the stage. The dancers appear in the film, this time on a desolate beach beneath an overcast sky. Their movements are all on land, though, almost never touching the water, as if they are creatures that evolved from, or around, the placid waters of the lake.

By the third segment, Jones appears bare-chested, her intricate, jagged, mime-like movements and gestures suggesting the physicality of a bird rather than a human being. As the others move into the space, also with the tops of their costumes removed, the effect is transformative. Rather than this frontal exposure (a rarity in Kuzak’s repertoire) being distracting for what it is, the look actually makes the dancers appear Pan-like, as if this is part of their devolution (or evolution?) into anthropomorphic creatures. Here’s how it becomes subversive. Kuzak starts with our culture’s idealized and somewhat neutralized images of women (i.e. the 1950s-style icons), then plunges more deeply into the psyche of women and their intimate, yet detached, relationship with symbols of the natural world and its unseen forces. On the stage and in the film, the women are dreaming of water, beside the water, upon the water and around the water but never really in the water. Seeing the Diving Girls deconstructed into creatures of the wild – a part of their environment yet somehow held back from immersing themselves in those waters – the dance becomes a subtle feminist, and humanist, statement about how our primal nature has been replaced by a social artifice. You could extend this metaphor even further, from the Diving Girls to the audience members themselves, who are observers outside the artists’ experience yet long to dive in to the experience.

While Vatnsdal’s film is integral to the dance, it fails to meet its potential within the context of the whole work. There are some captivating shots of the dancers in some scenes, such as one of a dancer upon a floating wood platform, but the film has the low-contrast quality of video shot in poor light. It tends to flatten the images of the dancers in most scenes, and the poorly edited crosscuts and various camera angles tend to call too much attention to the filmmaking instead of the film. Nevertheless, the final frames of the film at the very end of the work, where we see a duck float smoothly past a solitary dancer, leave a strong impression.

Kuzak co-founded TRIP in 1997 with partner Randy Joynt, but began choreographing contemporary dance in 1988 while she was a dancer with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers. She is now one of Winnipeg’s leading choreographers. Her background as a performer with the Contemporary Dancers, Le Groupe de la Place Royale and O Vertigo Danse inform her exploratory choreographic style. Including “Diving Girl”, she has six evening-length works in TRIP’s repertoire – “Lionheart”, “A Cloud in Trousers”, “Dragging the Volga”, “tomber dans les pommes” and last season’s “Blue Roof”. 

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