Self-expression and entertainment: a fine balance 

By Alana Gerecke, Kaija Pepper
  • Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg in her own work “Nick & Juanita – Livin’ in my dreams” / Photo by Marc Stewart 
  • Anik Bissonnette and Mario Radacovsky in James Kudelka's “Fifteen Heterosexual Duets” / Photo by Michael Slobodian 
  • Josh Beamish of MOVE the company in his own work "The Electronic Series" / Photo by Peter Eastwood 
  • Shay Kuebler in his own work “One Constant” / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Amber Funk Barton, Josh Beamish, Shay Kuebler, Cameron McKinaly and Josh Martin in “RISK” by Funk Barton / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Company members of Dancers Dancing in a work by Judith Garay / Photo by Ozgur Culha 
  • Pierre-Paul Savoie of PPS Danse in his own work “CorpoReal” / Photo by Sylvain Légaré 

Dancing on the Edge 2007 

Dancing on the Edge

July 5-14, 2007 

Another conversation-style festival review with some keen insider perspective.

Kaija Pepper (KP): It’s the day after the 19th annual Dancing on the Edge Festival of Contemporary Dance. I saw pretty much everything, which amounts to only ten out of a possible eleven programs, including just four mixed bills. Yet I feel satisfied that I had some sort of immersion into the present incarnation of contemporary dance, with one international work, a number from eastern Canada and most from right here at home.

What I’m left pondering is a split between artists who search for self-expression and deep meaning – sometimes at the expense of relating to their audience – and others who revel in entertaining – strutting their stuff without questioning the political and social reality from which all “stuff” comes.

Occasionally we had meaning and entertainment, and I believe audiences crave both. I suspect that’s part of the present popularity of comedy in dance – jokes don’t work unless the communication is clear and the intention specific. There’s no better example of great comedic dance than Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, whose premiere of “Nick & Juanita – Livin’ in my dreams” was laugh-out-loud funny.

Much of this Vancouver artist’s success comes from her ability to fully transform herself into her characters through costume, movement and words. Here, we know exactly who self-important talk-show host Nick (part one) and gaga babe Juanita (part two) are. This is greatly due to Friedenberg’s monologues, which are subtly written to reveal character – massive foibles and all – over each one’s half-hour on stage (separated by an intermission, which I guess there was no way to avoid). The dance, too, is character-driven: when Juanita flaps about with the most simplistic kind of balletic prettiness, it’s because popular images of “Swan Lake” would be the extent of her understanding of dance as art. We’re seeing Juanita, not Friedenberg, who is undoubtedly more socially and culturally aware than either of her kooky but lovable characters.

An Australian group, Chunky Move, presented a humorous 2004 work for six dancers by artistic director Gideon Obarzanek, but I couldn’t keep track of the five characters – all interesting blokes who tell their stories through voice-overs. The sections of pure dance seemed forced: there was lots of walking around on tiptoe, shoulders hunched with arms stuck out in a craggy circle, and all that sucking in of breath. The cowgirl clogger was fun, and so was some of the physical comedy – like when one of the men uses his face to portray different shows on TV while his partner channel surfs. 

Alana Gerecke (AG): As you point out, Kaija, Fridenberg’s socio-cultural awareness is evident in her composition: the piece manages to strike a balance between accessibility and humour, on one hand, and thoughtful observation, on the other.

My experience of Chunky Move’s “I Want to Dance Better at Parties” was a bit different from yours though. For me, the piece was another example of a sound balance between entertainment and meaning. Although I, too, had difficulty tracking the five different characters, I found that this resulted in a kind of anonymous Everyman feel. This was supported by the reoccurring image of the dotted outline of each character’s silhouette, which was projected on each of the five suspended screens. I appreciated the juxtaposition of anonymity with intimacy that ran through the piece.

I was a little worried at first that the only movement in the piece would be tongue-in-cheek snippets of various forms of social dance – cowgirl clogging, sexually charged clubbing, sultry ballroom dancing, and country line-dancing, for example – and so I was relieved when the more innovative and, as you identify, breath-bound movement exploration started to emerge. I admit that the tip-toes and hunched shoulders wore a little thin after a while, but I was drawn in by the athletic duet, danced by the two female members of the cast, in which audible inhalation and exhalation both drove the rhythm of the movement and complimented the voice-over sound score.

Beyond the content of the piece itself, the mere fact of Chunky Move’s presence, as the only international company presented at Edge 2007, broadened the scope of the festival in an important way. Another program that contributed to the prestige of the festival was Montréal-based Colman Lemieux & Compagnie’s “The Kudelka Project”. Performed by some of Canada’s most accomplished dancers and featuring the choreography of celebrated Canadian choreographer, James Kudelka, this evening of dance was a highlight of the festival. 

KP: The Kudelka Project was a highlight for me, too – even though I already saw a version of it last year in Ottawa. Kudelka’s socio-cultural awareness, though not overtly expressed, is keen: the title of the 1991 remount – “Fifteen Heterosexual Duets” – itself carries a hefty statement. This is done simply in the way he uses the word “heterosexual” as an adjective, like the number “fifteen”, instead of taking male-female partners for granted. As for 1987’s “Soudain, l’hiver dernier”, the atmosphere of impending doom, emotional need and vast human kindness makes this grappling, stumbling male duet, set to an old man singing “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet”, a great human document.

“See #1”, the new solo Kudelka created for Laurence Lemieux, was somewhat obscure, though I liked the relationship between Lemieux and violinist Mark Ferris: he stood centre stage and concentrated on playing Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s “Passacaglia Sonata” while she concentrated on her alternately crabbed and flowing steps – both performers were marvellous. The eyes have it in this piece, which is part of a planned series of twelve dances. Ferris wore sunglasses, masking his, while Lemieux often stands facing the audience, and stares and stares. José Navas’ 2007 solo for Anik Bissonnette, “Limpido Amor”, seemed like the choreographer’s investigation of the ballerina’s ability to endlessly balance on point, to stretch her feet and torso with minute precision, to step and turn with clarity and grace – but she executed these basics sublimely.

How did you feel about the meaning and entertainment equation in the trio of hip hop-styled works from Vancouver artists that were presented on two of the mixed bills, Edge One and Edge Three? The dancers’ showmanship was ultra-cool and great fun – but the pieces left me squirming in terms of content. Although at times everyone is on board doing the same funky thing – and the power of tight unison movement is a strength of all three pieces – the works perpetuated a real gender divide.

First came Edge One and Josh Beamish’s “The Electronic Series”, which at one point has three young women in pink and white doing basic ballet arabesques and other pretty poses, while three young men in blue blast through energetic pop culture moves. Edge Three began with the premiere of Shay Kuebler’s “One Constant”, featuring a number of well-staged scenes. In one, a trio of men jostling for power around a table are momentarily distracted by a trio of women standing around with books and coffee; the women soon exit so the men can concentrate on the piece’s athletic finale. This was followed by Amber Funk Barton’s “Risk” – a hugely ambitious work-in-progress running forty-five minutes in which Barton’s character is a needy and emotional young woman competing with four brashly competent men (Kuebler and Beamish among them), although she briefly discovers the power of her female hips and struts triumphantly, full of MTV attitude.

There’s so much stylish movement and punchy staging in these works but I felt betrayed by the retro presentation of gender roles. I’m interested in your reactions as a much younger woman than me … 

AG: I had a similar reaction to the gender presentation in Beamish’s and Kuebler’s pieces. I was blown away by the technical ability and athleticism of the performers and by the choreographic attention to detail, but I found it troubling that contact between men and women was almost always sexual, contact between men was hostile, and contact between women was conspicuously absent.

While I very much appreciated the skill involved in both pieces, I felt like the precision, control and even aggression requisite of the choreography blocked me from investing in the works in an emotional way: both pieces were so tight and so literal that, beyond marvelling at the sheer physical ability of the performers, I couldn’t find a way in. On the other hand, I appreciated Barton’s effort to balance virtuosity with stillness and aggression with vulnerability.

The duet between Barton and the one sensitive male character in “Risk” was a highlight of her piece. In this duet, the male dancer attempts to comfort the upset Barton with soothing touch. Because she resists his consoling, the duet becomes simultaneously about touch and the aversion of it. Although I did want to see Barton, a strong woman, shake up the gender roles by doing some of the lifting, the duet was a fresh exploration of physical contact and one that deftly incorporated vulnerability into technique.

The relationship between the heavily hip-hop influenced work and more experimental contemporary dance was most clear in the Edge One program. Unlike most of the other mixed bills in the festival, this one offered a satisfying set of contrasts: Beamish’s “The Electronic Series” was followed by Chengxin Wei’s “Lumina II”, and the evening closed with Anatomica’s contribution, “Je, Tu, Il ou Elle”, choreographed by Serge Bennathan, formerly the artistic director of Toronto’s Dancemakers.

Following on Beamish’s piece, Wei’s work had a nearly meditative quality. The tight focus and thoughtful composition of Wei’s piece, combined with the clear and committed development of one idea – the relationship of the body to light – was refreshing. Meaning grew organically out of the movement: the reoccurring choice to light one part of the body while leaving the rest in darkness set up tension between the visible and the invisible. This well-crafted and beautifully performed solo operated on many levels to call attention to that which we do not see.

The theme of vision was also present in Bennathan’s piece, where, at times, the dancers move around the stage with their eyes closed, using the sounds of each other’s movement and breath to orient themselves in the space. Performed by some of Vancouver’s most established dance artists, this piece was one of the high points of the festival for me. I felt trust and ease when watching these seasoned performers dance, even as they undertook real and raw physical risks with a sense of personal openness. Given that you’ve been watching these dancers throughout their careers, Kaija, I wonder what your impressions of this piece were? 

KP: Again I must agree – Bennathan’s Je, Tu, Il ou Elle was also a highlight for me. I loved the scope of the piece, which felt epic, though there were only five dancers. As you note, four are Vancouver stalwarts: Anne Cooper, Susan Elliott (Anatomica’s artistic director), Kathleen McDonagh and Ron Stewart, with SFU faculty member, Rob Kitsos, joining them.

Bennathan uses broad strokes, creating waves of group movement and flurries of individual meandering. I adored Elliott’s mad staccato twirl on one foot, like a little witch making herself dizzy, black hair flying, and Cooper and Stewart’s almost-too-big-to-handle whirling embrace, which left them stumbling in grand ambition. Mostly, I felt Bennathan brought out these dancers’ mature presence and huge capacity for expressive movement, and only occasionally indulged the cute idiosyncratic things (the whistling had me worried, but it was brief) that have been known to derail much modern dance work.

I couldn’t get a handle on what Je, Tu, Il ou Elle was specifically trying to portray (if anything), but it didn’t matter: the work swept me along through its mood and clear intention in the moment. By contrast, Alvin Erasga Tolentino’s collaboration with multidisciplinary artist Peter Chin, BODYglass, left me mystified and feeling I needed to decode things in that “but what does it mean?” kind of way.

I loved the space itself – a circular wooden platform in the middle of Centre A, a high-ceilinged art gallery in the downtown eastside. Tolentino, Chengxin Wei, Deanna Peters and Billy Marchenski were in the first half (choreographed by Vancouver’s Tolentino) as well as the second part (choreographed by Toronto’s Chin), with Chin joining them in performance only for the second half. There’s no break in the eighty-minute, co-directed work but I’m guessing Chin’s half begins when he appears outside on the street, looking in the large window, and then later drifting about in the shadows of the gallery itself. I liked this use of the space, which drew our attention outward to the mean streets surrounding us.

To me, the first half felt forced in terms of comparing the body to glass: the choreography seemed like a secret language, with peculiar shapes (like the arms pushed behind the body with the wrists perched on the back of the waist) and strange vocalizations from the dancers. The mysterious props, from glass artist Jeina Morosoff, included glass globes that the dancers rearrange on the floor, pairs of long gloves with one finger ending in a glass shard, and a clear glass dome covering one of Peters’ breasts.

I know you enjoyed apprenticing in the work, Alana, so I feel churlish commenting like this. 

AG: I feel a little too close to BODYGlass to comment very extensively or critically on the work. Having spent so much time on the project, and having the benefit of the creation process informing my reading of the piece, I adore just about every aspect of the work. Elements that stay with me are Tolentino’s skill at filling the stage with fast and physical movement before quickly quieting the stage into near stillness, Chin’s masterful integration of text and movement, and the versatility and strength of the cast. I admire the way Tolentino and Chin balance qualities of abstraction with the humour and gesture of the corporeal. I found it fascinating to work with each of these choreographers, and I am intrigued by the way their two respective choreographic voices riff off each other throughout the piece.

Edge Four, a mixed bill that featured the local Tomorrow Collective’s Close Encounters (The Rules) and Pierre-Paul Savoie’s CorpoReal, was another program in which the differences and similarities between each choreographer’s choices drew my interest.

Spinning off from their successful interdisciplinary performance series, Brief Encounters – in which ten artists from different disciplines are paired and given two weeks to create a short piece – Mara Branscombe, Katy Harris-McLeod and Jennifer McLeish-Lewis put together a sequence of three independent solos that were composed according to a common set of choreographic “rules” or structural elements. A copy of these “rules” was distributed to each audience member before the show began: for example, each solo included a confession center-stage, an interaction with the audience, and a floor sequence travelling on a diagonal.

The result was a set of three ten-minute solos that shared a common thru-line and quality, even as their content and aesthetic differed. McLeish-Lewis’ nostalgic and humorous piece found contrast in Harris-McLeod’s dark and reflective one, and Branscombe’s well-crafted solo offered a middle ground. Although each solo was perhaps slightly heavy with ideas, I found Close Encounters to be thoughtful, engaging and satisfying.

Savoie, the Montréal-based artistic director of PPS Dance, presented a twenty-five minute solo that had a reflective quality similar to the Tomorrow Collective’s triptych. The wooden dollhouse, which he carries on with his first entrance, sets a retrospective tone and calls up the theme of belonging that the three previous solos had each touched upon. However, Savoie seems to be primarily concerned with the creation of a sound score in his CorpoReal. Throughout the piece he makes sounds with his body – he knocks on his own chest, shins and head repe tedly, creating a clearly audible and kind of grotesque rapping sound.

The exploration of sound continues to develop as Savoie opens the top of the wooden dollhouse and experiments with the sounds picked up by the microphone nestled inside the house. I felt that the actual movement exploration became overshadowed by the creation of a sound score, but the concept was interesting. 

KP: Alana, I’m interested in your comment that Tolentino and Chin’s choreographic voices riffed off each other throughout “BODYGlass”. In your next comment, could you elaborate, particularly since I understood them to have separately choreographed their respective parts?

In the meantime, I’ll continue my thoughts. Like you, I enjoyed “Close Encounters” – it didn’t all come off, but I felt the trio worked rigorously together to make something substantial. And yes, “CorpoReal” (a work-in-progress) was too focussed on those sound effects, but I did enjoy Savoie’s tragicomic character.

One show I’d like to just mention is Judith Garay’s “Extra Extra”, which was performed by a quartet instead of a quintet when one of the dancers injured himself at the last moment. Despite the disaster of having no understudy, it looked beautifully rehearsed, though because I had read the program and noted the performers beforehand, I kept wondering where the fifth dancer was!

My last comments on this year’s Edge will be to give a thumbs up to the site-specific works, which took dance to the streets: Denise Fujiwara’s “Conference of the Birds” (which I didn’t see) and Karen Jamieson’s “Stand Your Ground”. The Firehall Arts Centre, the festival’s headquarters, is situated right in the middle of the downtown eastside and “Stand Your Ground” was created a few blocks west at the Carnegie Community Centre with approximately nineteen participants. Of these, maybe two or three were trained dancers (including Mirae Rosner), while the rest were downtown eastside residents or involved in community groups in the area and had participated in free workshops offered by Jamieson as part of a three-year community project. Some were whimsically costumed in bits of tulle, and as we left the Firehall Courtyard to parade down the street, a young man with silver wings on his head quietly told me how big the trees on these streets used to be. While the musicians gave a rendition of Teddy Bear’s Picnic, we briefly stopped off outside the First United Church, the Ovaltine Café, The Listening Post and other local haunts, to hear a bit of history or be offered a drink of water. The final section, inside at the Carnegie Community Centre with Jamieson leading the group through expressive improvised movement, was too much like a dance therapy session and it felt odd to be sitting there staring, but “Stand Your Ground” is a work-in-progress from a dance artist committed to and experienced in community-based cultural work, so we’ll see what develops.

It’s been several days since we started this exchange, Alana, and I think I’ve said all I have to say, so I’ll sign off and leave you to finish. I feel satisfied that together we’ve had a good crack at contemplating this summer’s wide-ranging festival. The critical voice is usually one-sided but this makes it a little more like real life, where we enjoy conversation instead of pronouncement (don’t you hate it when people either really love or really hate something and don’t seem to realize you may not feel the same?).

Thanks for chatting so thoughtfully. It was a treat to get your messages in my inbox. 

AG: Thanks, Kaija – I’ve really enjoyed the conversation too. Before I sign off, in response to your question I’ll give a bit more attention to “BODYGlass”. You’re right, my comment does require an explanation.

Although Chin and Tolentino did choreograph their sections separately, the timeframe of creation overlapped. The two portions developed kind of concurrently during Chin’s brief visits to Vancouver in the fall and in the spring, and then over a longer period throughout the summer. So although the sections were choreographed separately, each choreographer saw the other’s work in development – it seems to me that the staggered process of creation shaped each choreographer’s work, at least indirectly.

Also, the two choreographic approaches came together in a couple of sections in the piece, which were developed collaboratively. For example, Chin and Tolentino worked together to shape the transition between their two respective sections. Here, the dancers congregate in front of the onstage mirror and slowly, with a slightly dazed quality, remove the dramatic glass costume items that they wore for Tolentino’s portion. Once they have changed into more casual costumes, Marchenski and Wei leave the group to open the blinds, revealing Chin at the window and the goings-on of the streets around him – and signaling the switch into Chin’s choreography. For me, this shared segue crystallizes the interchange between the two voices: the general air of mystery and abstraction that is created in Tolentino’s portion of the piece is harnessed to the corporeal by Chin’s insistence on the body as a functional thing in the world.

I want to mention Edge Two, though I feel a little bit hesitant to do so because I saw the show after a long day. Although Denise Fujiwara’s solo “Water” and Sasha Ivanochko’s solo “Is this Love?” were both well-developed and expertly performed, the combination of pieces in this mixed bill – which also included Rhizome Production’s “Nights of Dreams” – did each work a disservice. All three pieces were dark and heavy, and the result was an overall sense of gloom. I ended up leaving the theatre feeling grouchy.

Like you, Kaija, I appreciated the site-specific works in the festival. I admire this effort to make contemporary dance accessible to a wide range of people.

I just want to return to your earlier comment about the negotiation between entertainment and meaning throughout the festival. I think you’ve hit on a key point for the continued development of contemporary dance. As you suggested, the pieces that managed to strike this balance are the ones that came off the strongest.

With that, I think I’ll wrap up this conversation. I very much enjoyed taking in the wide array shows at Dancing on the Edge 2007, and I feel privileged to have been able to discuss the works with you, Kaija. As an emerging dancer and writer, it was a pleasure to experience this festival alongside such a seasoned writer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights. 

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