On Friday night, the Brian Webb Dance Company opened its 40th season with a presentation that was both new and nostalgic, as befitting a venerable company with a long history of presenting new work.
BWDC participates in the Prairie Dance Circuit, which chooses new work to tour the Prairie provinces. This year, the featured choreographers are Melanie Kloetzel and Gerry Morita.
Melanie Kloetzel: It Began with Watching
The evening began with Melanie Kloetzel’s “It Began with Watching”, a fun and timely piece that she wrote, choreographed and directed. The lights go up on eight female dancers, all wearing suits tailored for men. I had the impression that they were businessmen, emphasis on “busy” and “men”. They began by performing slow movements, like participants in a tai chi class, or cogs in a highly regimented, well-oiled—albeit slow—machine. Eventually, one dancer stopped and left the stage while the others carried on. Then, another one stopped and left, followed by another and another, until all but one had left the stage. The lone person on stage turned her back on us and appeared to hang herself. The lights on stage went down, but the house lights went up, and the dancers who had left the stage reappeared in the audience area, shaking hands and congratulating people with the kind of platitudes you hear at the end of a meeting.
They eventually return to the stage for what I felt was the highlight of the piece. The dancers re-assembled as a chorus, chirping catchphrases such as: “At the end of the day”, “Let me be clear”, and “It is what it is”, until they were essentially performing a sound poem. Their chatter morphed into nonsense musical phrases and back again, all conducted by the person who had remained on stage. The “conductor”, incidentally, set off her pinstripe suit with a Trudeau-red necktie. It becomes clear that these are meant to be government people, not captains (and lackeys) of capitalism as I had assumed, but perhaps this blurred line was intentional. It seemed integral to a major point of the piece: that the slow and steady work of the democratic process has been volubly and fatuously hijacked.
Gerry Morita: Second-Hand Dances for the Crude, Crude City
The work that called my attention to this show was Morita’s “Second-Hand Dances for the Crude, Crude City”. I had read that it had to do with Mr. Chi Pig, the former lead singer for legendary Edmonton punk rock band SNFU. I saw the band a couple of times back in the day, most memorably when they and two other punk bands opened for the Dead Kennedys at SportsWorld (no regular venues wanted to risk their soft seats for such a potentially destructive—and awesome—show, so they were booked into a concrete-floor roller rink).
I tried to avoid reading too much about the show beforehand, so I wondered if it would be simply a dance scored with SNFU music, or if it would be a jukebox musical like Twyla Thorpe’s Movin’ Out, in which a narrative was constructed from hit songs by Billy Joel. “Second-Hand Dances for the Crude, Crude City” turned out to be neither.
The set looked like a rehearsal hall that had been plucked out of an old warehouse, such as the Great West Saddlery Building (which has rented space to bands) and dropped onto the Timms Centre stage. The set even had a ping-pong table, with two people actually playing ping-pong throughout the piece. Behind them was a drum kit, mic stands and guitars. These were eventually used by a live band to play a couple of SNFU songs very loudly (which was why earplugs were handed out as we entered the theatre). Performers playing other tech types hung around. Morita and another dancer, Stacey Murchison if I’ve read my program correctly, stood at the sides of the stage doing some exaggerated punk-dancing. Eventually, they moved to centre stage and transitioned to more intentional dance moves. Not satisfied with mimicking punk aesthetic, they incorporated punk ideas in their duet. They appeared to be two bodies in motion vying to occupy the same space at the same time. This, to me, brought home an essential element of punk: sights, sounds, and ideas that seemed contradictory were constantly being thrown into conflict. Bands like the Sex Pistols mocked the establishment record industry by being signed to one; the Clash (literally, it’s in their name) made different genres of music work together; the sweet voices and harsh music of the Slits; the new/old, tailored/torn, hard/soft, small/large contrasts in how punks dressed before a punk look was codified.
Mr. Chi Pig, whose real name is Ken Chinn, was not on stage, but he did perform, via a recently recorded black-and-white video that was projected on the wall. I remembered him as a gravity-defying, spiked mohawk-coiffed punk, but in the video, Chinn was in a sedate studio setting. He had a long, white beard looked far older than his 56 years; heck, he looked like an elderly Confucius. (I should say that Chinn was one of the few Chinese-Canadian punks on the scene, and thus an inspiration to me personally. This is probably a subject for another dance, or at least, another day.)
Chinn’s voice has aged, too. In the video that closed the show, he sang Johnny Cash’s arrangement of the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”. Cash was 70 years old when he released that song. Chinn sounded older. Obviously, “Hurt” was not a song that SNFU performed in the old days. It’s a song Chinn could only really sing now, having survived a self-destructive period of life. Clearly, “Second-Hand Dances for the Crude, Crude City” is just a dance set to SNFU music, nor is it a jukebox musical. It’s a different type of collaboration. Gerry Morita collaborated with not only the eight performers with whom she shared the stage, but also with Chinn, his music, and the audience’s memories or impressions of the Edmonton punk scene of the early 80s.
Time and Place
My thoughts were centered on time because of Brian Webb Dance Company’s 40th anniversary. However, equally important to both works is place. The red necktie and talk of parliament situates Calgarian Melanie Kloetzel’s “It Began with Watching” in Canada. Everything about Edmontonian Gerry Morita’s “Second-Hand Dances for the Crude, Crude City” is about Edmonton, including the title (“crude” for punk, “crude” for a young, working class city, “crude” for oil).
Local stories in dance are another way for creators and audiences to see and remember how place affects us, and how we affect place. Thanks to BWDC, Melanie Kloetzel, Gerry Morita, and all the performers and technicians for making, sharing, and inspiring more memories this weekend.
BWDC: 40th Anniversary Season