Friday, April 8, 2011

Critical Perspective: L'Effet de Serge

L’Effet de Serge by Philippe Quesne / Vivarium Studio (Paris)

Vivarium Studio is supported by The Institut Francaise and The Consulate of France in Calgary.

Michael Thomas Taylor, University of Calgary

I had a friend like that, my husband said last night at Theatre Junction, and truth be told I wish I did too. Serge, played by Gaëtan Vourch, is a lanky, unassuming astronaut clown; a deadpan, low-budget, pyrotechnic trickster; an existential escape artist alone in his room, finding wonder in the everyday with three-minute performances he presents to invited guests.

All of this has been said in a number of articulate and often affectionate reviews from across Europe and North America. Internationally, this show has been a hit and it was a hit last night as well – a quiet, evenly spoken kind of hit, the kind of experience you’re happy to talk about, but happier to have chanced upon and shared with others, a distillation of feelings that you didn’t know you had. (Which is not to say the audience was quiet; Serge provokes constant, riotous laughter.) This visceral kind of performance – an experience of ritual meaning making, of something “happening,” which includes painfully long-lasting non-action intervals – is as charming as it is elemental. To say that this is Serge’s “effect” on us is to say that the piece blurs the boundaries between life and art, between fiction and reality, and between the artificial and the authentic; with Serge, these usually hackneyed phrases in fact become lived experience. Descriptions of the work tend to emphasize Serge the Sunday-evening-performer, and yet the astronaut who arrives is emphatically not Serge, and by the time this figure has completely come to inhabit his apartment and his new role and has welcomed his first visitor, nearly thirty minutes have passed – almost half of the performance. That we hardly notice this time passing and so easily follow Serge into this new scene, almost forgetting the meticulously deliberate construction of both the character and the setting, is telling.

Another of Serge’s effects is to make us see that we have always been part of this world. In the first moments of the performance, as Gaëtan Vourch appeared in his astronaut kit behind the glass door with some sort of scanning device (or was it just a blue light?), I had a sudden sense of reversal – that I had come to the theater only to find this figure looking in at me. I had the feeling that I was in the vivarium, and that this unexpected appearance revealed my life to have been, all along, contained in a glass box on display. And of course, as we know from the program and from a casting-call that Theatre Junction emailed out last week, some of the friends that Serge invites over are locals. We are Serge’s audience and we might just as well be sitting on stage. This also means that, ultimately, we are as much part of the performance as Serge himself, which is one reason he stays with you, and that you wish indeed you had a friend like him.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Critical Perspective: Under the Skin

Michael Thomas Taylor
University of Calgary

Under the Skin
Wen Wei Dance & Beijing Modern Dance Company
Theatre Junction, March 24, 2011

"Under the Skin" is a cross-cultural piece that brings together two works, two companies, and two choreographers - Wen Wei, who is based in Vancouver but originally from China, and Gao Yanjinzi, Artistic Director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company. Its fundamental message is the common humanity under our skin - its specific theme, the encounter of these two ensembles, who undertook a series of journeys together to China and across Canada in creating the work. What the program distributed in Theatre Junction didn't tell us about this collaboration, however, explains a lot about the limits of the project. Only in the talkback (or in published interviews) did we learn that the first part of the program, "Journey to the East," was choreographed by Gao Yanjinzi, while the second part, "In Transition," was choreographed by Wen Wei. (These two titles are announced nowhere in the program brochure, though "Journey to the East" does make an oblique appearance in the music credits.) Whether or not the choreographers intended this omission, it reflects a tension within the project that is not entirely productive. The choreographers certainly conceived the evening as one collaborative endeavor rather than two individual pieces and meant it to appear as such. But the two halves in fact bear unequal weight.

In its overall concept, "Journey to the East" is simplistic, even sentimental where "In Transition" is complex and deconstructive. This starts with the music. It is not clear from the program whether Giorgio Magnanensi composed new music for both of the pieces, but in any case the industrialized, decomposed, disruptive electronic sounds of "In Transitions" are a world apart from the swooshing seasounds of "Journey to the East" - the sounds of the waves, we were told in the talkback, that the performers had to cross in their journeys. In "Three Sixty Five," the work by Wen Wei that we saw last year at Theatre Junction, this kind of musical displacement was deployed against a paragon of Western harmonic tradition, Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." "Under the Skin" as a whole develops no such tight link between structure and dissonance, the basic tenor of "Journey to the East"
seemed untouched by the crosscurrents of the second piece. The stage design tells a similar story. One may question whether the video made a contribution to Wen Wei's piece at the same level of the choreography, or whether the the sudden, brutal projection of spotlights into the audience was innovative, but the range of the work's elements and the incongruity between them exposed the stage and the performers' place within it in a radically elemental, stripped-down way. It remained nearly impossible for this kind of performance to develop any relation to the mystical, immersive fogs and shadows of "Journey to the East." Most telling is the difference in the use of the two ensembles. Wen Wei has crafted a work in which the members of both ensembles fuse together to perform the differences produced by their encounters: the confusion that Western visitors experience in a modern Chinese metropolis, the reticence that can be provoked by cultural misunderstandings, and of course the potential for physical conflict and contact. In Gao Yanjinzi's piece, by contrast, the Chinese cast members do not play a major part. Instead, they are present mainly as spectral doubles - as visions behind a scrim that emerge only briefly toward the end of the work, when they trade places with the Canadian ensemble, or as citations of traditional Chinese dance. This reduction of the Chinese company reinforces the distinction between the two ensembles rather than transforming it.

This is especially unfortunate given the one thing the two works have in common, namely the extraordinary power, individuality, and creativity of the choreography and the dancers. It is the physical movements of "Journey to the East" that stand out as vividly original - a bar that is set with the opening solo, which translates the cyclical lull of the waves into an idiom of swimming strokes that deepens and deforms more precisely with each new extension of the arms. As the choreography progresses, each performer in turn acquires such an individual presence, making the changing configurations all the more striking. It is no surprise to discover that the members of the Canadian ensemble each have significant, and significantly different, projects and dance-theatre companies of their own. The members of the Chinese ensemble, as we hear from Wen Wei in several published interviews, also have their own training and customs that made the first encounters difficult. To have forged an extraordinarily charged common physical language out of these differences, in which the presence of each individual performer becomes more heightened, is the achievement of "Under the Skin." Even if the two parts don't come together and pull against each other with equal force, both Wen Wei and Gao Yanjinzi have established a collaboration that does.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Critical Perspective: Lucy Lost Her Heart

Michael Thomas Taylor

Photo by James Stangroom

Conceived and Directed by Mark Lawes
Text by Mark Lawes and Raphaele Thiriet
Created with The Resident Company of Artists

To illustrate the remarkable idiom Theatre Junction has developed under the direction and artistic vision of Mark Lawes, one may consider the character of Pierre. A brother or a son and perhaps a lover who has been injured in a mine accident and become mentally disabled, Pierre's figure is disarmingly genuine and vulnerable but also, for the theatrical space of this performance, metaphorically crucial and precise. Boisterous and eager in his fur hat and oversized frame, he has been given the simple task of painting the rocks in the mine into which the characters have withdrawn from a frozen, desolate surface. His art brings color back into the gloom, but he paints the rocks red, the name of a character who has been murdered, and whose ghost also inhabits the tunnels. He is loved by more than one of the figures, and yet his name - the French for rock - also makes him into the remains of Lucy's heart, which has turned to stone. Pierre's coloring marks traces of trauma, dislocation, forgetting, and death out of which this theatre takes shape. And this kind of poetic density characterizes all of the figures in the performance (a fact that has made them grow more vivid in my mind over the past several days).

The history of identities played by Stephen Turner across the trilogy of works that has now concluded with "Lucy Lost Her Heart," of which Pierre is the latest, is similarly emblematic of the radical compression that this piece achieves. Like each member of the interdisciplinary ensemble, Stephen brings an unusual history to the theatre: he is a sculptor. In "Little Red River," he played an iteration of himself that was inseparable from the physical presence of his works, which he hammered out slowly and patiently for the audience. This doubled persona reappeared in "On the Side of the Road," though it was dislocated into another story and place, the Northern Lakes, and recast in a new medium, ice, that disappeared as the performance progressed. In "Lucy Lost Her Heart," this presence has transpired away to become bedrock for the ensemble and performance itself. It is not hard to imagine that Stephen's sculptural forms have been taken up and abstracted outward into the set: vertically into the geometrical prairie church under which Pierre colors his rocks, a frame impossibly cantilevered into the air by two I-beams and a set of stairs; and perhaps horizontally into the white plane that marks the center of the stage as an open field of dramatic possibility. Even more, his materials of wood, earth, metal, and ice have become the dramatic environment itself. Of course, you need not know this history to watch "Lucy Lost Her Heart." But it offers a token of how the company has developed.

All of the figures are similarly condensed out of "autofictions" developed in workshops among the ensemble as the material for Mark Lawes' artistic direction of all elements of the performance, which for this piece included a visit to the abandoned mining town of Wayne, Alberta. Their reality cannot be separated from either the intertwined metaphors (and translations) of the work's bilingual script - a tightly wrought, emotionally raw dramatic poem co-written by Mark Lawes and Raphaele Thiriet - or from the physical elements of the performance. That is to say, their shifting memories tell stories that take literal form, and it is these transformations that we witness as theatrical events. The first and second parts of this trilogy unraveled along narrative arcs punctuated by fantastic happenings and accidents. "Lucy Lost Her Heart" dispenses with any such overarching conceit to forge a relationship between stories and identities that is tighter and more essential. The fantastic moments on stage, including the fantastic identities of the figures themselves, can always be folded back into the collective dreams of the ensemble. To give another example: Red becomes the bear who was discovered in a block of ice and eaten (cannibalized?) as the figures dance around her in a celebration that is both charming and unsettling. But as one of my students remarked, this also makes her the ghost she has become: "You can't eat a scared cat," Pierre screams at the Lost Soldier, "because then it will live on inside you." The point is not that Red is the one or the other of these images, but that she performs the poetic possibilities suspended between them.

Each of the characters on stage is rich and memorable, both in the roles they play and their individual presence as performers: Raphaele Thiriet's fiercely lyrical, at times caustic figure of Pocahontas, a girl who was captured and caged in the circus but has now escaped, and who also seems to give voice to the town of Lucy; Ian Killburn's Lost Soldier, a wounded romantic whose trauma (and vocal performances) drive the ensemble; the physical, sexual encounters and entanglements of Red, played by Isabelle Kirouac, which extend out into the audience; and the entertainer / dreamer / cowboy / FLIP (fucking little island person) Mike Tan, whose performance to my mind anchored the entire cast with its virtuosic range. All members of the cast are present on stage throughout the performance, and the audience is forced to consider these multiple points of view in choosing where to look. Yet what is most compelling in "Lucy Lost Her Heart" is what happens between the figures. Each figure has a moment of confession in which they tell their own story. But it is in the scenes of shared physical movement and song in which action becomes dynamic. These scenes push all of the figures beyond their own boundaries as characters and performers into the space of transformation that they create together.

This transformation extends to the stage itself. Chris Dadge - the musician who performs on stage with a range of sources including live recordings, electronic and acoustic instruments, and some unusual objects - embodies the transposition of the work's figures into the physical elements of the theatre. His liminal status is marked by his position on stage, constantly present and yet off to one side, his voice also unobtrusively that of the narrator who recounts the catastrophic origins of Lucyland itself. It is impossible to tell whether the characters come from this past or have created it themselves, whether they have burrowed their refuge out of their memories or whether these have collapsed around them. Answering these questions is immaterial, but asking them is not. Their openness articulates a principle that structures all the physical elements of the stage - the forms and shapes of Deeter Shurig's minimalist, versatile, and open-ended stage design; the deftly accented types of Lauren Tamaki's costumes; the sudden illumination of the set with projections that disperse the figures into reflections and memories of themselves; and the choices to exploit of all dimensions of theatrical space, as when the Cowboy's dream of a tunnel to the other side of the ice becomes a dead-end echo-chamber of complete darkness. This last moment was particularly powerful, as the audience found itself suddenly thrust into the disoriented claustrophobia of the mine, but it jostles in my mind with a series of further images - whimsical, somber, terrified, tender, and outrageous - that remain equally insistent.

In the final scene, when Raphaele Thiriet incants a seemingly endless pile of words with an even dispassion that swells, measure-by-measure, as she announces each new item, these transformations collapse. The lights come up, the costumes come off, and the projections come to an end. Language is what remains of things, apocalyptic traces of objects bereft of their world. And this is perhaps what has finally become of Lucy - words of rubble and debris that fill these mines. The power of "Lucy Lost Her Heart" is to show us what it can mean to have made these things come alive.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Critical Perspective: C!RCA by Circa

Michael Thomas Taylor
February 3, 2011

Like everyone else in Theatre Junction, I was awed by C!RCA – their physicality, control, and sheer virtuosity. You can read about it in superlatives elsewhere or, better yet, experience it for yourself. What I liked more was the way the show was balanced, like the cast members themselves, between these amazing feats and supple emotional encounters. This too is announced online, and this experience also exceeded what I could have imagined beforehand. All the same, I came away from the show feeling like I had seen a series of vignettes rather than a choreographed performance, a “physical poem.” Each scene was poignant in its own regard. The intimacies and conflicts remind us that acrobatics and circuses have long been family affairs, which are re-imagined here as physical contact and conflict, trust and support. And some of the performances display a wry wit about the eccentricities and oddities of the circus, not to mention the strengths and unexpected, unbelievable abilities of each individual performer. The taught line throughout the entire evening was above all the performers’ control and rapport, itself a continuous ring encompassing each fantastic exploration of the circus’s physical vocabulary – its ups and downs, free-falls and impossible twists, its slapstick, its real and hidden dangers, its sexuality, and its uniquely amazing power of theatrical display and absorption.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Critical Perspective: The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny – A Pop Opera

Michael Thomas Taylor
October 14, 2010

For all its understated anomie, “The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny” is full of charm and surprises. Acerbic, surreal, post-modern, melancholic – all of these moods morph in and out of the duets, which are sung somewhere between Mozart’s recitative, Stephen Sondheim, and the sound of casual conversation over the radio. The music is minimalist, driving and suddenly delicate, the set a pristine kind of pop. And the poetry is deceptively capacious. Built out of the language of everyday love, it struck me at first as something like Ricky’s well-worn leather bag that can swallow anything you name it. But this morning when I woke up the words were hard and forefront in my mind, like ice-crystals on a window the morning after a snowstorm. In particular, I wondered about the obvious but unheard coarseness in so much of what we say to those we love and fuck, and about the inexplicable vulgarity we sometimes attach to our bodies. All the same, the overnight process of transpiration also starkly revealed some aspects of the show that I consider to be flaws. For these Belgian artists so conversant in a multilingual world, the supertitles were a lost opportunity. Why not make something of this additional dimension to language, rather than repeating the tired operatic convention of supertitles? And at times in the middle, I felt the construction became less taught. Twenty minutes of cuts might have done the piece some good. At some point I recall thinking: this ballad would make a memorable short film. Not to give anything away, but the film does come, though I think one could disagree about its merits. I’m still not sure of how to understand its – admittedly explicit – escape into a realm of visual fantasy, with its sudden translation into images (or projections?). But even if I don’t think it really fit as an ending to the ballad, I don’t regret the dislocation.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Critical Perspective: 'Architecting' by TEAM

Michael Thomas Taylor

September 23, 2010

Two things have stayed with me since TEAM’s performance of “Architecting.” The first is the team itself. The image of the Cathedral, built over centuries by teams of unnamed craftsmen, aptly captures this company’s foundation. Like the paper model and its builder we see on stage, the analogy is a little haphazard and hammed up, though not in the least bit tongue-in-cheek because it’s true of the way this company works. They inhabit each other’s imaginations. The result gives weight to the second thing that has stayed with me: their palpable commitment to the work’s ambition – to “architect” something new out of the American dream.

You can read more about this project’s raw materials in the many on-line reviews that have appeared since it opened two years ago: New Orleans, Margaret Mitchell, “Gone with the Wind,” and the red soil of the South, “the best soil for cotton in the world.” But for all the evening’s dramatic complexity, to my mind these monuments of American culture are left largely intact; I didn’t leave with the sense they were, like New Orleans, a site of catastrophe. The characters and their stories may have found themselves dislocated across history and highways, but the performance rarely moves beyond a basic impulse to tell a story. To me, this was a missed opportunity. The actors are so skilled, so fluid, and so compelling that it’s a pity the structure of the piece itself fails to gain any force of its own. This starts with the set. The video projections, the storm-induced blackouts, the thunderclaps, even the recorded voices – they never amount to much more than a cinematic backdrop to the drama on stage. Once during Scarlett’s monologue a video-link goes live and suddenly new dimensions open up. But moments like this remained isolated, even forgotten, as did the bar-singing welcome to the audience that receded into a collection of worlds more or less behind a fourth wall (or at the very least safely ensconced within a dramatic space). To me, the urgent need to “architect” the ruins and promises of these iconic myths called for more radical choices.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

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