Object Lessons

By Sarah Todd
  • _post by James Gnam / Photo by Robin Toma
  • Karissa Barry andJessica Wilkie in the last part of the beginning, starting at the End / Photo by Robin Toma
  • Daelik in but some of us are looking at the stars / Photo by Robin Toma
  • Dayna Szyndrowski and harpist Elisa Thorn in open to somebody else / Photo by Robin Toma

Dances for a Small Stage 29

September 12-14, 2013

If I had known there would be perogies I wouldn’t have gone for dinner before the show. That said, I probably could have anticipated Ukrainian food, given that Dances for a Small Stage took place at Vancouver’s Ukrainian Centre  this year. What I truly wasn’t expecting was how social the atmosphere was pre-show. People were seated at round tables, talking, drinking, eating, loudly – it was not the usual filing into seats with tickets clutched in hands, jackets and bags carefully stowed. Dances for a Small Stage 29 was downright festive.

For its eleventh year and twenty-ninth iteration, the popular series moved venues from the Grandview Legion to the Ukrainian Centre on Main Street. It makes sense to have a series like this taking place in the Mt. Pleasant neighbourhood. It’s a hub of experimental culture, with EDAM Dance, VIVO Media Arts Centre and Western Front just down the street. But not everything has changed, as Dances for a Small Stage Artistic Producer Julie-anne Saroyan asserted in her introduction – critically, the stage is still small. The ten-by-thirteen-foot performance surface is the primary unifying conceit of the evening and its simplicity and strictness makes it an effective one – the longevity and popularity of Dances for a Small Stage can attest to that. Art often benefits from a set of tight parameters within which to function and the small stage seemed to be more a relief than a challenge for the performers I saw.

Usually, Dances for a Small Stage has a second level of unification, a thematic concept that choreographers respond to with their works. Thankfully, that was missing this year, allowing the choreographers to work things out for themselves. Relieving the works of an overarching curatorial thematic seems necessary for an event that is meant to privilege experimentation and ingenuity. It is a fairly brave choice to forgo a prescribed theme, especially in the performing arts where those kinds of things can be important promotional fodder, but it is far more interesting to pick out the resonances in the resultant work than have it outlined in a press release.

Dances for a Small Stage 29 was preoccupied with the life of objects. It opened memorably with Laura Barclay performing one of two excerpts from plastic orchid factory’s evening-length work _post in which she negotiates a massive, body-obscuring pile of white tulle. The material is free from any balletic connotations here, becoming both ominous and undeniably beautiful. It is hard to know if the fabric is consuming her body or expelling it, until Barclay ultimately frees herself right before the stage goes black.

Daelik of MACHiNENOiSY employs a similarly evocative material prop in but some of us are looking at the stars ­– foil emergency blankets, the kind you see on marathon runners at the end of a race or people who were lost in the woods. On an otherwise empty stage, Daelik interacts with the metallic material in such way that reflecting, sculptural mountains spring up around him, eventually obscuring his body completely. The accumulation of this ephemeral, seductive material is slow, as you witness it transcending its normal form to become nearly magical. This is especially true during the penultimate moment of the performance, in which Daelik merges with his foil mountain range to become a spinning silver dervish. This stage of experimentation with the material was enough for me – Daelik’s closing sequence, sans prop, seemed unnecessary and anticlimactic.          

Costumes, objects that one wears played an important role in much of the work presented, which I found refreshing as I only ever seem to see people performing contemporary dance in skinny jeans and T-shirts these days. Karissa Barry (who co-curated the evening) and Jessica Wilkie’s the last part of the beginning, starting at the End was a skittish but athletic jump into technology-induced paranoia, using huge black steampunk goggles and dark hoodies to full effect. James Gnam/plastic orchid factory’s second offering of the evening from _post gave us an automaton corps de ballet, whose strict movements were further restricted by incredible plastic modernist tutus. This work, I assume, was adapted to the small stage from the large, but one would never know it, in fact, never once during the program did any work look outsized or cramped on the tiny stage. When I first entered the venue I was concerned about sightlines, because the cabaret-style seating wasn’t raked and I was sitting closer to the back. But once the show started, the work was so well suited to the stage and the venue that it was easy to forget the stage was any smaller than average. Dance artists are nothing if not endlessly adaptable.

That said, the works throughout the evening were fairly wildly uneven in terms of conceptual and technical rigour. This could be seen as one of the pitfalls of flying without a thematic net, but watching works struggle and fail meant that real risk-taking and experimentation was happening. The short duration of each work was an important structural element for keeping them provisional and many of the works seemed like they were the first step in a larger choreographic process, movement research or prototype. Though it doesn’t always feel like it, experiencing work in an emergent state is a privilege. And often enough, preliminary sketches can be far more dynamic than the finished painting. With that in mind, tap dancer Dayna Szyndrowski and harpist Elisa Thorn’s genuinely strange improvisational duet open to somebody else stands out as a highly experimental work with immense potential. I was actually awestruck at the potential technical and conceptual implications of tap, the ubiquitous childhood foray into dance. This kind of experimentation makes a strong case of Dances for a Small Stage’s continued relevance.

While Dances for a Small Stage warrants serious attention as an important incubator for Vancouver’s contemporary dance scene, it would be sad if it became over-determined – it is after all, entertainment. I do not say this disparagingly. With a plastic cup of beer in hand, surrounded by perogies and sausage, it becomes clear that Dances for a Small Stage has managed to achieve something quite unique within Vancouver’s cultural scene: it is a lot of fun. 

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