Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Cool Encounter with DANCEMAKERS: "AROUND"

DANCEMAKERS is celebrating their 40th anniversary this season.  AROUND is a new work built especially for this gala occasion.

The Distillery was just opening up when I left town for half a decade and I had never been in DANCEMAKERS new and incredibly beautiful space. Finding it was a bit of a challenge, even with the map. When I got there, I discovered a fabulous hidden venue.

For the performance, they had transformed one of their studios into a lobby/box office/bar with tunes, red carpets over the marley, vintage furniture and brocade upholstered benches that functioned as cocktail tables.  They put out little snacks and offered people a free place to leave their coats. It's an intimate space with a cool yet friendly vibe, a portent of things to come.  We were invited to drink in theatre during the performance.

The house opened and we were escorted into a white curtained studio/performance space in the round with a black marley on the floor and two mikes, one suspended and one on the floor, both corded.  Two rows of chairs inside the white curtained area, tall ones at the back and low ones at the front meant we could see each other as well as we could see the performers. This device integrated and implicated the spectators in a different kind of complicity with the performance than the one provided by the more usual private sanctuary of a seat in the dark.

AROUND is devised, created through a process of improvising on the theme of encounters. The choreographer worked with five company members and five EDAP (emerging dance artist project) dancers to co-create this performance. Designers (sound, lights and costume) and a dramaturge were also involved heavily in the construction.

Everyone is in white.  The curtains that contain the audience gets moved around so the parameters of the container are in flux.  The work is visually, textually and aurally fairly austere.  There's more movement than dance in any conventional sense. It is a cool show: edgy, self-consciously stylish and game.

Devised work is always a little loose.  If you like rigour this isn't going to be your cup of tea.  I thought there was an interesting mash-up of ideas playfully and provocatively executed.   I liked that it demanded that I come half-way to meet the piece and the performers but I didn't always feel I was met in the middle.

I particularly liked a staring contest between two male dancers and the audience near the top of the show. The deconstruction of the nature of the gaze is an interesting thing to play with.   A piece where sound score creator Christopher Willes joins the company onstage to play a white electric guitar with his head literally left blood on the floor. Coupled with the microphones stuffed into two of the male dancers' pants, it gave "cock rock" a whole new meaning.

This is dance walking on the edge of performance art.  My encounter with AROUND was thought-provoking and blackly amusing but spoke more to more to my head than my heart.  It certainly elicited some interesting conversations afterward outside the theatre.

DANCEMAKERS' AROUND continues until April 6th in their studio on the third floor of 9 TRINITY in the Distillery.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dance, Dance Evolution: EUGENE ONEGIN at The National Ballet & EUNOIA at WorldStage

I saw two very  different nights of dance this past weekend:  EUGENE ONEGIN, performed by THE NATIONAL BALLET OF CANADA at the Four Seasons Centre for The Performing Arts on Friday and EUNIOA by FUJIWARA DANCE INVENTIONS at WorldStage Theatre Festival in the EnWave Theatre at Harbourfront on Saturday night.

I've seen the opera based on the poem by Alexander Puskin a few times.  It's a sentimental favourite as it was the first opera I ever saw performed live. I knew the ballet was performed using a different score than the opera, although still a score of music by Tchaikovsky.

Like Tatiana in Act III,  I'm now much older than I was when my relationship with ONEGIN began. It has lost none of its power but now seems much less romantic to me and more tragic.

In Act I, Tatiana is a young, romantic girl, reading novels.  What she knows of love and the world outside her country home comes from books.  Her sister Olga, danced by a charming and vivacious Jillian Vanstone  is engaged to a poet, Lensky danced by Naoya Ebe in a very promising debut.  Lensky brings home a friend a sophisticated, urbane and trouble-making Onegin.

Onegin was wonderfully performed by Guillaume Cote on Friday night and he was marvelously matched by a spectacularly good Greta Hodgkinson as Tatiana.  Both performances displayed stunningly good marriages of technique and emotion.

We all know someone like Onegin.  He has a rich dad, he's a bit of a dandy, he's spoiled and too handsome for his own good.  He loves sensation but is too shallow for complex emotion. He causes trouble because he can't stand not being the centre of attention and a hurricane with him at the vortex is a good way to hold the room. He trifles with girls' affections because he can.

He pays attention to Tatiana and Tatiana mistakes their shared interests in a larger world she's only experienced in books, for love.  She throws herself at him the night before her birthday, writing him an impassioned letter.

Onegin not only spurns her, he flirts with her sister Olga shamelessly at Tatiana's birthday. He is bored at her party and rude to her widowed mother's guests, who are unaffected country people.

Lensky is so affronted by his friend's behaviour that he challenges Onegin to a duel.  The girls beg Onegin to call it off.  Lensky is killed and both Olga and Tatiana are left heartbroken.  Onegin flees abroad.

Tatiana grows up, marries Prince Gremin, an older, distant cousin (elegantly executed by Etienne Lavinge) and lives happily in his palace with a man with whom she shares respect and love.

Many years later, Onegin returns from his exile abroad.  The Prince receives him.  Onegin is astonished to find Tatiana has become a beautiful and powerful woman.  Finally overcome with sorrow and remorse, he declares his love to Tatiana in an impassioned letter and impatiently presses her to reciprocate.  It is far too late.  The grown Tatiana tells Onegin the truth:  she loves him but she knows that love will only bring her misery.  She sends him away, he goes and when he does she weeps painfully, fully and freely for everything they both lost.

The orchestra, chorus and design were as good as the principals, supporting and enhancing the story.

I loved the restrained palette of the design, especially the way the colors of the costumes were used to underscore the mood and emotions of the characters wearing them. Tatiana wears a white dress for her birthday and a brown one, sombre and autumnal, the day she sends Onegin packing.

The story in the beautiful poem was brought fully to life without a word being spoken.  It is the great power of dance to be able to convey with the body, all the emotions underlying what is never said and felt by us all.

When Tatiana cried, so did I.  Bravo to the National Ballet for a beautiful and moving performing.

Then Saturday night, I headed off to the Enwave Theatre for EUNOIA.

EUNOIA is a stage adaptation of a "univocal lipogram" (not univoweled?). Whatever: the well-known piece of literary cleverness by Governor General award-winning poet and language manipulator Christian Bok received a spirited and very charming stage production this weekend as part of WorldStage at Harbourfront.

The program contains very interesting notes from creator/choreographer Denise Fujiwara about her meticulous process with the dancers and designers. The result of the four-year collaboration was arch, delicate, droll and endearing.

I loved video designer Justin Stephenson's evocative manipulations and deconstructions of the text in projections.

The colour choices of costume designer Andjelija Djuric amplified the emotional tone of the five sections: A/E/I/O/U.

The dancers were some of the most highly regarded contemporary dance artists in the country: Sylvie Bouchard, Claudia Moore, Lucy Rupert, Miko Sobriera, Rebecca Hope Terry and Gerry Trentham. From the opening game of hang-man, they engaged the audience with ease and charm.

The piece required they speak a dense and difficult text while dancing, not an easy task.  Dancers are not actors.  They do not have the vocal muscularity and flexibility of those who speak for a living.  Their voices required the amplification of a hand mike.

I loved all of their physical performances.  I felt they did their best with the text which is not their metier. They brought great elegance to the awkward task of working with a hand mike during a dance performance.  Phil Strong, sound designer and composer and the technical staff of the theatre controlled the levels of music and other sounds with skill and restraint.

The audience gave EUNOIA a loud and spontaneous standing ovation.  It was well deserved by Denise and her cast and design team for executing a complex, protean task with sophistication, beauty and grace.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Mommy Issues: 6 Essential Questions At The Factory Theatre

This week was the first time I've seen a mainstage show at the Factory since the still sitting board unceremoniously fired the theatre's founding artistic director, Ken Gass.

I had attended the Fringe and NextStage there.  I support the Fringe and I was willing to move the boundary line that far.

Then friends self-produced in the Factory Studio this winter and after some thought, I decided to support them.  The show, "OF MICE AND MORRO AND JASP" was a marvel:  beautifully acted, intelligently and sensitively written and tightly directed.  I laughed and cried.  It was one of the high points of the winter theatre season for me.

Then someone gave me a ticket to see Ronnie Burkett and I went with a friend and it was fabulous, as it had been at LUMINATO back in June. Funny, moving, naughty, edgy:  I had a second great night at the Factory.

Then, Volcano produced a MacIvor play in the studio and I bought a ticket to A BEAUTIFUL VIEW and went with another friend.  It is not my favourite play of his, although he is one of my favourite playwrights but it was thought-provoking and affecting, a well-acted, well-directed production.

I tweeted about most of those shows.  I didn't write about them here because I saw them late into short runs and didn't think it was useful.

Then, a friend invited me to join her for 6 ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS this week.  She and I catch a few shows together over a season. She is a thoughtful person and a talented theatre artist.

When we last saw a show together earlier this winter and I told her I was still boycotting the Factory, she asked me a hard question: "Are we going to let the Factory die over this? Do you really think that's the right thing to do?"

The answer to that question, after some thought, was no.  I hate that the board is still in place. The new lobby looks like the garage that belonged to the friend's dad in FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF
(sans Ferrari or bucolic view). The elevator does not go to the top floor (seriously) meaning the vaunted "access" is for audiences, not artists who still need to climb a flight of stairs to the rehearsal hall on the top floor.

Still, I agree that the Factory Theatre is an important cultural institution in this city and no, I don't want to see it die.

So off I went to see the first play by a well-regarded Canadian woman writer and academic, Prisila Uppal. Her book, PROJECTION: ENCOUNTERS WITH MY RUN-AWAY MOTHER was nominated for a Governor General's Award for non-fiction. The material in that book forms the basis for her play, 6 ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS.

Professor Uppal has not adapted her smart, well-written, well-structured, lyrical and poignant book to the stage. Instead, she has chosen to use some of the material in the book as a jumping-off point for a "theatrical" interpretation of the story about her attempt to reconnect with her run-away mother twenty years after that mother abandoned her, her brother and her quadriplegic father in Ottawa. The daughter hasn't seen her mother in twenty years.  The mother now lives in Brazil and has cancer. Both mother and daughter are writers and academics.

The book just churns out story:  memorable characters, action that speaks to character and drives conflict. It has all the makings of a great play or feature film.

Unfortunately, almost none of that makes it to the stage. There's some beautiful language here, but it takes more than poetry to make a play. The play tries for some kind of magic realism but ends up a mostly incoherent mess.

6 ESSENTIAL... does not create engaging characters in believable relationships or escalate story stakes with action in any way that allows the audience to connect with the material.

The script suffers from a classic problem of first scripts by inexperienced playwrights. The protagonist does not drive the action of the play.

Director Leah Cherniak's decision to pitch this as a loose and loud clown show does neither the actors or the play any favours.  Renata (Mina James in an utterly thankless part) our heroine is presented as a bland bourgeois foil, an MD in the histrionic freak show of her family. Richard Zeppieri (Uncle Garbage) and Maggie Huculak (Grandmother) do their best,  but  Elizabeth Saunders' talent is wasted in an irritating, over-the-top performance as Renata's narcissistic Mother.  Much of the frenetic physical action, rather than being inherent to character, ends up feeling imposed on the amorphous text.

Like the direction, the acting and the script, the set is messy and unfocused, unnecessarily busy for no apparent reason.  I loved the projections, but disliked both the costumes and the rubbish set.

It's an 80 minute show and by the 30 minute mark, I was looking at my watch.

By the time  the play tells any story or creates any credible conflict between the characters, I had been so beat up by the pitch of the production and the performances and so frustrated with and stymied by the disjointed writing, I was just numb, irritated and wanted it to be over.  I didn't care about any of them.

Uppal freely quotes Dickens without crediting him.  Would she had absorbed some lessons in story structure and character creation from him.

You can make all kinds of magic happen in a theatre, as Dickens knew well.

I have experienced some powerful stage magic at the Factory this winter.  A clown in a red nose accidentally killed a wind-up dog and I wept with her.  When her sister slid up the stairs with a battered suitcase to find them somewhere else to go after a disaster, in one pause, one hunched shoulder, one tiny sigh, I felt her love for her sister and the crushing burden of taking care of someone who is totally out of control. A puppet named after an entree with a flower growing out of his head made my heart soar on the wings he wants and doesn't have, except in his heart.

Great theatre isn't about reality:  it's about naked emotional truth.  To make great theatre you need to make me feel your feelings and dream your dreams.

Uppal was right about one thing: some dreams are meant to die.

This play should never have been put on stage at a major theatre in this state. This production is a shoddy disservice to a great book that tells an incredible story.

One of the two artistic directors or dramaturges at the Factory should have put their foot down when this was still in development. There are plenty of skilled playwrights experienced at literary adaptations in town who could have made the book into an electrifying script. Sorry Professor, this is an epic fail.

Hopefully, the next show at the Factory Mainstage is better.