Tuesday, February 24, 2009

So You Think You Can GAGA

I arrived in a fairly fragile state. Difficulties with family and friends, lack of sleep, work anxiety, hormones... who knows. But encountering protesters outside the theatre was almost more than I could handle. I waited in the will call line while they chanted slogans like “freedom for Palestine” and “dead children can’t dance”, uncertain whether my political leanings were being compromised by attending Israel’s Batsheva Dance. But I have a problem with the idea of boycotting cultural events to make political statements. My cynical self doesn’t believe the right people will get the right message. I moved into the theatre to get away from the racket.

Inside, I was surrounded by an unmistakably dancey crowd. Different from a theatre crowd, these patrons were somehow both sharp and flowing, with long necks, bright eyes, and extra limbs. The house opened very late and the sensory overload intensified as I read my program in the crowded lobby. When I took my seat, I felt overwhelmed, as my neighbour reminded me sadly of both a relative and a friend. Her earnest enjoyment of the lone dancer’s improvised comic curtain raiser brought tears to my eyes. And as I pulled myself together, I was enveloped by an unusual scent I could only identify as vanilla mothballs.

The opening number was electrifying. An androgynous half-circle of dancers crouched on chairs, leapt to their feet, threw off their hats, chanted in a strange language. The movement travelled from one edge to the other, like a sophisticated, mesmerizing version of “the wave”. Each dancer echoed the actions of the one before, with rapid fire precision and passionate commitment. When the movement reached the final dancer at the end of each sequence, he flew forward onto the floor as if he'd been shot, the only one still fully clothed and therefore clearly different. Memories of the protesters filtered my judgement.

Nothing after the first number quite lived up. There were other lovely pieces, like the male duet near the end of the show, but much of the work seemed self-consciously provocative. An extended segment of solo show-and-tell had a playground bravado that was alternately intriguing and irritating, its creativity marred by a need to surprise in a way that was both unsurprising and juvenile.

Batsheva is famous for inventing a style of dance known as GAGA, a sort of experts’ improvisation which requires more uninhibited spontaneity than refined technique. While several of the evening’s pieces had elements of GAGA, the method was most evident when each member of the company brought someone from the audience to the stage to dance as the spirit moved them. With so many dancers in the audience this exercise was less embarrassing than it could have been but the result seemed equal parts dance event and social experiment.

As a daily regimen of movement training, GAGA has much to teach dancers and actors about listening to their bodies. But in a world where everyone thinks they can dance, the professionals distinguish themselves by meticulous choreography and synchronicity of gesture. And for my $70 ticket I expect more than an evening spent watching people follow their impulses.

I’ll never know how much my state of mind coloured my perception of the performance. I do know that I was excited to see the show, eager to be entertained, expecting to be enthralled. And it was an enjoyable performance, one that improved my mood and enriched my understanding of contemporary dance. Maybe I got my money’s worth after all.

Monday, February 23, 2009

That's PuShing It

I am beginning to think that I simply cannot call myself a blogger. Or say I have a blog. The infrequency of my entries is too humiliating. But I will venture in again, after a long absence, to record my thoughts on shows I saw a few weeks ago.

February is PuSh Festival time in Vancouver, an annual extravaganza of performance for which the sole unifying element is the effort to be unusual. Maybe that’s not quite accurate but it often feels that “conventional” and “traditional” must be the dirtiest of dirty words to the Festival’s producers.

Not that I’m complaining. The opportunity to see a wide variety of theatrical productions, performed by companies and individuals from near and far, makes this my favourite festival. Two of my Top Ten of All Time were brought to town by Norman Armour and PuSh and I am eternally grateful. But sometimes my love of PuSh is met in almost equal measure by hate. (A couple of my never-to-be-published Bottom Ten have also been PuSh productions.) I think that’s evidence that PuSh is producing exactly the sort of provocative work that makes theatre worth doing. And seeing.

This year, I saw four PuSh shows: Ronnie Burkett’s Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy; Nanay: A Testimonial Play from Urban Crawl and Neworld Theatre;Theatre Replacement’s production of That Night Follows Day, and Marie Brassard’s The Invisible.

I had never seen Ronnie Burkett; never quite been able to cough up the price of a ticket, despite the rave reviews that precede and follow him wherever he goes. Billy Twinkle requires agile, transformational acting for Burkett to play all of the characters who live in his remarkable marionettes, and his abilities were stretched by the effort. But the charming show is ultimately a tale of forgiveness and redemption, surprisingly brought about by a conservative evangelical whose ridiculous puppet show is one of the funniest scenes in the play. Burkett manages to invest her simple faith with a level of self-awareness and genuine love that cannot be mocked as easily as her Jesus-puppet Sunday school rap. Somewhere in Burkett’s past, he’s been to Sunday school and he knows that “believing in tomorrow” is a good thing.

Nanay is more treatise than theatre, an earnest attempt to make us care about the plight of those caught in the bureaucratic web of Canada’s Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). In cooperation with the Philippine Women Centre, the story is told entirely in the words of those who have been affected by the LCP – employers, caregivers and children left behind. Their testimonies are stirring and the presentation is informative. But in the end, it is entirely one-sided and so politically correct that it hurts. The direction underlines this flaw in the script-making, rendering the Canadian employers insensitive, neurotic alcoholics, completely oblivious to the value of money, childcare, or compassion. The imbalance made me suspicious of the truth of the one side we did see, so it accomplished the opposite of its good intentions.

The actors in That Night Follows Day are children between the ages of eight and 14 delivering a script that promised to be “smart and bittersweet”, a chronicle of the ways in which adults shape the lives of children. Presented with simple, reader’s theatre directness, the words often lack rootedness and the show relies on the charm of the children to deliver its impact. Thankfully, the casting for the Vancouver production is brilliant; the kids are a virtual mosaic of variation in size, shape, colour, style, and attitude. With that much fascinating diversity, I could have watched them speak anything – or nothing at all – for a very long time.

Whenever a show has a single writer, director, and performer, a red flag pops up directly in my line of vision. But every rule has its exception and PuSh is all about breaking the rules so I chose to ignore the internal warning I saw when reading the website description of The Invisible. After all, Brassard is a frequent collaborator with another solo performer, the incomparable Robert LePage. This misleading fact proved doubly ironic. Not only was LePage’s innovative vision entirely absent, the evening seemed designed as an argument for the necessity of collaboration. Brassard was in desperate need of another voice – an editor, director, friend, who would help her to focus and clarify her work. There were some beautiful moments but they were too fleeting – or conversely, too repetitive – to redeem a disappointing performance.

Nothing I saw at PuSh this year made it onto my top ten but every show generated plenty of food for thought and conversation. That means the Festival itself retains its position as the best part of February in Vancouver.