Shifting Ground, Growing Concepts

Idea-Based Dances at Tangente By Philip Szporer
  • Lise Vachon in her own work Bliss / Photo by Kurt Deruyter
  • Dinozord in Solid Gold by Ula Sickle and Dinozord / Photo by Vincent Pinckaers
  • Tawny Andersen in her own work Uncanny Valley / Photo by waty
  • Andrew Turner, Simon-Xavier Lefebvre and Manuel Shink in Now I got to Worry by Andrew Turner / Photo by Warren Zellman Photography

Montréal: February 25-28, March 4-7 and 11-14, 2010

Tangente’s three-week-long event, Idea-Based Dances (in French the title was Idéodanses), heralds the choreographic methods and tools used during the postmodern Judson Dance Theater movement in New York, as well as by the French non-dance movement from the mid-1990s, both associated with breaking codes of representation, leaving aside movement, and integrating other disciplines into performance. At the start of each performance, the venue’s artistic team of Dena Davida and Stéphane Labbé call attention to these important junctures, but the contextualization ends there. An accompanying explanatory booklet incorporates an introductory essay by Concordia University professor k.g. Guttman, signaling the shift in the understanding of the term “conceptual” then and now. Lectures and roundtable discussions with the artists were featured ancillary activities (which I could not attend).

The way the Judson artists, in particular, focused on the immediacy of human interaction and the response to everyday movement reflected a rebellious time, and the nature of their thought and work is clearly linked to that period in New York of the early 1960s -– the group’s foundational elements were democratic in nature, and work was stripped-down (no set, no ornamentation), often highly conceptual, self-referential, and exhibiting a fusion of various influences and styles/aesthetics.

In the Tangente series, the use of physical space, sound, and time reverberated with distant echoes of those earlier decisive creative precedents, though the new dances diverged in key ways. Most works by the all-Canadian roster of dance artists, living in this country or in Europe, contained significant sections of danced material.

Timmins-born Lise Vachon, who now operates in Brussels, opened the series with “Bliss”, a well-calibrated performance constructed as a non-narrative voyage into her imagination and memories, building sensations using music as a trigger (an electronic-driven score shifts to a more atmospheric, meditative sound). Vachon changes directions, circling the space, freezing, falling, the white light bathing her, seemingly energizing her, as she goes from suspended animation to expansive movement.

In “Corps.Relations”, Montréal-based Maria Kefirova’s superb interplay of dance, video, objects, and text is a fascinating investigation of how the body is perceived in a concrete manner, i.e., what’s visible or what’s explained, and what is not (internal activations, internal dynamics/functions of bone and sinew, or pure functionality). A television in the centre of the stage is turned on, and a head-and-shoulders image of Kefirova, sitting in an apartment space, appears on screen. A live performer (Kefirova again) then enters the performance area. Soon, the talking head dictates a series of movements, which the live performer enacts without emotion, though with a vigorous utilitarian engagement.

It’s not all serious – in fact, Kefirova’s deadpan delivery and execution of movement is ironic and often laugh-out-loud funny. Mundane actions and tasks are performed by both Maria Kefirovas – a cup of tea is prepared, potatoes are chopped (and are thrown at the screen, where the TV Maria awaits with mouth agape – hilarious). Or stage Maria submerges her head in a large, clear glass bowl, and we watch as she holds her breath.

Later, Kefirova asks an audience member, “Can you tie me, please?” The fellow dutifully wraps her ankles and wrists in blue duct tape. In part, this action evokes bondage, but it’s the immobility and her play with this idea of movement and lack of movement that becomes intriguing. Kefirova grooves while a cacophony of music bombards our senses. This rich piece ends as she pours water from the bowl over her body.

Week 2

Ula Sickle, from Toronto, currently in residence at the Studio national des arts contemporains Le Fresnoy, in Toucoing, France, presented a spare “Solid Gold”, a solo created in collaboration with Congo-born dance artist Dinozord. On an empty stage, Dinozord stands in the centre on the wood floor, dressed in T-shirt, sweats, and gold sneakers, his back to the audience. A beat box is on the floor. Little trembles of movement course through his body. Through the speakers we hear static or scratching, which turn out to be the sounds emanating from a microphone attached to his body. His breath becomes audible. Infinitesimal gestures of the arms and hands initiate the body to sway. The young man turns to the audience. The trembling movements then get bigger. The beat of his feet increases (also captured sonically). Dinozord eventually enacts a range of dance styles – Charleston and other social dances, Broadway virtuosity, Krumping, etc., without any musical accompaniment.

“Solid Gold” feels voyeuristic: we stare out at this black body going through the motions. What you see is what you get, but perhaps there’s a reading of his history and his collective past, and how African movement has influenced the dances we consume so readily today without having any sense of their roots. His jumps get bigger, his breathing quickens, he sweats, then stops and sits at the side of the stage.

He turns on a radio broadcast reporting on natural resources in African markets and industry. The recording plays for a time; nothing else happens. When Dinozord does return to dancing centre-stage, it has a different texture; this terrific performer lets himself go with the movement, but he stops soon after starting this second round and walks off. The entire dance is reminiscent of, and unfortunately pales in comparison to, the more incisive, caustic Heddy Maalem dance film, “Black Spring” (2000), in which the French-Algerian choreographer effectively questions the voyeuristic imbalance in the Western appreciation of African dance. (In this short film, a male African dancer stares into the camera, and asks, “You want to watch African dance?” He pauses, then questions more insistently, “Do you want to see more of African dance? If you want more, you have to pay for it. Because African dance is too expensive.”)

“Ne pas se reduire à des expériences d’admiration”, a duet by rising Montréal choreographer Caroline Dubois, performed with Jody Hegel, is marked by skilled partnering and a thrilling use of a loud, often sputtering, mechanical-industrial noise-scape (by Belinda Campbell). Dubois explores the idea of personal space, the territory that we occupy, and questions what is presentational and what is not. The women move in a progressively intimate fashion. One sequence has them sliding on their bellies alongside one another. Later, the women balance upon one another, and their bodies press and pull away: Hegel first places her hands on a prone Dubois’ face as she mounts on top, a move that feels like a violation, but there’s no thrashing or resistance; the sequence shifts with Dubois balancing on Hegel, chin on the ground, legs in the air, straight up. They play with intimacy and tenderness, limitations and acceptance, but it never seems like a sexual connection. The women each look into the audience, passively, and then shift their gaze, and go back to their world on stage, their actions circulating around the other.

Week 3

Tawny Andersen, also Brussels-based, starts her piece, “Uncanny Valley”, by entering into the spotlight and calmly and quietly providing the audience with a definition of performance as gleaned from Wikipedia (sending up mundane, pedestrian research?). The intimate blackened stage is then defined by a blazing square of light. For a time, Andersen stands stock still in a corner of this defined space, looking into the distance. Dressed in a white jersey and blue jeans, she begins to move her hands slightly. The soundscape (created by Alexandre Le Petit) of urban apartment and street ambience develops with a woman singing an aria, and ultimately incorporates fragments of film dialogue. As the volume increases, the light in the square amplifies. Andersen entwines a purely stripped-back quality with the barest of movement in a section where she aspires to work on inner states (closing her eyes, limited movement) and then veers precariously in the opposite direction, lip-synching to the score’s film dialogue. In the final tableau, she breaks out in a terrific lyrical, virtuosic dance.

Andrew Turner is a Montréal-based dancer-choreographer who proclaims upfront that he is not particularly interested in hard-to-understand conceptual ideas in dance. Conceptual dance, it seems, makes his eyes roll, and “turgid, slow dance”, as he calls it, just bogs him down. In his new work, “Now I Got Worry”, he’s countering that yawn factor, unafraid to frame his ideas for the public, which he views as an essential, intelligible connection in making art. For instance, he happily uses PowerPoint presentations to analyze power structures within dance – the relationships of the choreographer and dancer, but also the performers and dancemakers vis-à-vis the audience – to make the work relevant and potent.

The multi-layered, slightly absurd piece features the explosive trio of Turner, Simon-Xavier Lefebvre, and Manuel Shink, but quite apart from the dancing it’s the text that’s particularly winning. Turner tells the crowd that he’s “fascinated right now by the present moment”, shared by the audience and performer. He says he approaches “Now I Got Worry” as a scientific enquiry of sorts “on faith and belief.” He is “distracted by dual possibilities or spontaneity and inevitability.” Chance and happenstance dictate the content of the piece. “Everything is an accident, but there’s a reason everything comes to this.”

The piece degenerates in a playful, combustible, over-the-top section, when the three dancers enact the Big Bang using Styrofoam cutouts and appliqués, or in an equally raucous sequence introducing Homo sapiens discovering fire. It’s all extreme in execution, but the grinning guys have a ball. The movement itself is of the rough-and-tumble variety, with some testosterone-driven duets and solo turns, dynamic lifts, spins, and tumbles, but with little identifiable choreographic language or signature. A gifted wordsmith, Turner plays with ambiguity, and he’s successfully got the script and the patter down to a T. He leavens everything with humour, getting the audience on board with ease. The dance sections don’t measure up to the writing in the piece, and that’s Turner’s next task. But he’s certainly one to watch.

Tangente’s Idea-Based Dances made for a challenging and rich event. I don’t think it necessarily reflected much of the Judson preoccupations and it wasn’t non-dance either. Nor should it have been. Why must dance artists well into this new century be replicating concerns from forty or fifty years ago? Curators may want that frame, but as this series shows, artists will resist constraints.

Edited by Kaija Pepper

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