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.