The Relevance of Character/s 

By Eury Chang
  • James Gnam and Natalie LeFebvre-Gnam in “James and Natalie: Study #1” by Lee Su-Feh / Photo by Artic Char 
  • James Gnam in “James and Natalie: Study #1” by Lee Su-Feh / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Delia Brett and Daelik in “Vancouver vs Vancouver” by Fabrice Ramalingom in collaboration with MACHiNENOiSY / Photo by Roland Rickus 
  • Delia Brett and Daelik in “Vancouver vs Vancouver” by Fabrice Ramalingom in collaboration with MACHiNENOiSY / Photo by Roland Rickus 

James and Natalie: Study #1, Vancouver vs Vancouver

Plastic Orchid Factory, MACHiNENOiSY

December 8-11, 2010 

Mixed-bill evenings always strike me as ideal opportunities to compare different aesthetics, and that was certainly the case here, with two Vancouver companies – Plastic Orchid Factory and MACHiNENOiSY – presenting what was originally intended to be two duets. However, due to injury, we were instead shown one solo and one duet. 

First up was the Plastic Orchid Factory, a contemporary company directed by James Gnam and Natalie LeFebvre-Gnam. In just the last two years, this husband-and-wife team have garnered some significant accolades from their peers. In 2009, LeFebvre-Gnam was honoured with the Isadora Award for Performance in Dance, and in 2010, Gnam, a former Ballet British Columbia dancer, received the Mayor’s Arts Award for Emerging Artist. Originally a duet for the two of them, “James and Natalie: Study #1” turned out to be a solo showcase for Gnam, who managed to hold his own with the guidance of choreographer Lee Su-Feh.

The house lights in the small theatre remain on before and during the show and the absence of curtains exposes the bare backstage for all to see. Soon enough, Gnam walks out to address the audience, breaking the fourth wall. He directs our attention to his knee, talking about the meniscus and synovial fluid, relating this to the injury sustained by LeFebvre-Gnam during rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. The self-consciousness of the performance is heightened by LeFebvre-Gnam’s presence, sitting in the audience with their son, who provides Dad with squeals of encouragement from the sidelines. The show makes a rather slow start out-of-the-gate, but I almost forgave the pace because I was entranced by Gnam’s charisma and strong technique, which came across as authentic and second nature. 

Material is sourced, in part, from Gnam’s past performances, and apparently over 1,000 appearances in “The Nutcracker” – from supporting cast member to Nutcracker boy to lead role as the Cavalier. As we enter the holiday season, the topic is resonant and timely. In the vignettes that follow, he lays down the full “lingua franca” from the ballet world, literally describing movements as he physically acts them out. My favourite moment is a recollection of a memorable pas de deux. He describes holding a young ballerina’s waist, shifting her over her pointe shoes onto her centre of gravity, illuminating both her pirouettes and crisp arabesques and his partnering.

Gnam is dressed casually in grey pants and a screen-printed tank top, and the whole performance is casual, like watching a rehearsal. Lee yells from the audience, “Louder, James” and “Mind the floor” when he speaks too softly or when his eyes drift. He quickly acknowledges her presence, and his “mistakes”. As the piece closes and the house lights finally dim, Gnam remains in a blue spot, centre stage. Sharing with us the mildly tragic story of how he fell during one of his performances, we get to witness double tour en l’air, repeated again and again with grace and controlled power. Gnam breaks up his speech into choppy sentences that bring us full circle from the beginning of the work: “During one of the rehearsals….that night, I fell…. my name is James.” It’s a touching ending and a generous offering from one of our rising talents. Overall, the performance was a simple yet effective comment on the art of dance, and perhaps on the nebulous process of creation itself. My only regret was that we didn’t get to see Lefebvre-Gnam perform. 

Next up was a creation by the two co-directors of MACHiNENOiSY, a company well-known for their mostly theatrical, sometimes thought-provoking work. Delia Brett and Daelik have worked closely together for many years, and their innate and cultivated chemistry onstage was mighty apparent. “Vancouver vs Vancouver” was conceived and choreographed by French artist Fabrice Ramalingom and provided the dancers (also credited as choreographers) with a perfect outlet for their partnering skills. Reminiscent of – but aesthetically different from – their earlier work entitled “Bamboozled”, “Vancouver vs Vancouver” also saw the two performers engaged in a battle of brawn and brain. As well, the new work was similarly character-driven: though part contact improvisation and part satire, it was all dance-theatre.

Stark white marley floor has been placed on the stage. The walls and backstage are still exposed, so there’s a scenographic continuity with the preceding show. At first, I’m unsure whether I’m witnessing a fashion show or ego competition as Brett and Daelik strut about the stage, dressed in bright red-and-white, Euro-chic uniforms. “Vancouver vs Vancouver” is a kinetic mélange of faux-fighting routines layered with a soundscape of live and recorded voices. The text in the dance is presented as recorded voice-overs, like subconscious thoughts being heard publicly. These voices are sometimes “mouthed and mimicked” by the performers themselves, which draws attention to the show’s fabricated and performative structure. Daelik’s continuous posturing and snide facial expressions, and Brett’s sideways flashing eyes and hopeful innocence, are indicative of the performers’ early theatre training. With these qualities, the whole show emanates a kind of contemporary coolness, further enhanced by Chris Kelly’s rather industrial sound score containing grainy noises that conjured images of scraping metal and working machinery. 

In endlessly changing form and configuration, Brett and Daelik wrestle and fight, twisting and rolling on the ground like Ultimate Fighting Champions. At one point, Brett lifts Daelik’s limp body and tosses him aside, then proceeds to open her arms as if to beckon and receive applause from her many fans and spectators, a wry and absurd reminder about the pitfalls of competition and the cult of personality. The interpretation is trademark spoof, commenting on the prevalence and futility of violence. However, the endless flip-flopping becomes tiresome and cheesy, though the audience chuckled throughout the night I was there.

Then comes the most provocative part of the evening. Brett kneels downstage while a recorded voice tells us the story of a mother who has killed her child, suffocating him while he begs her not to. It’s not an easy passage to listen to, and I praise the company for not shying away from difficult subjects. However, I question the effectiveness of the abrupt ending. A sudden blackout not too long after hearing this disturbing passage leaves us both literally and metaphorically in the dark. This makes me wonder if the performers wanted the show to feel somewhat incomplete or unfinished? Despite the ending, “Vancouver vs Vancouver” is conceptually strong, and I can’t imagine any other two dancers who could have pulled off a show with such gusto and enough satire and commentary to keep us thinking.

This double bill proved that contemporary dancers are joining the ranks of navel-gazers – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whether we’re taking about reality TV or daytime talk shows, or creative non-fiction, it’s as if the lives and personalities of the auteurs are becoming as important as the technique and treatment of the content itself. If the blurring of fantasy with reality is a touchstone for accessibility, then the Plastic Orchid Factory and MACHiNENOiSY can be equally credited for a successful night of deeply personal yet socially relevant dance. 

Edited by Kaija Pepper

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