September 17, 2021 was Day 1 of Salvage, a three-night collaboration between Mile Zero Dance and the Lowlands Project Space.
The Lowlands is a unique venue: the back yards of two adjacent bungalows in the Highlands neighbourhood of north Edmonton. Several pieces of installation art were set up in the adjoining back yards. They also set up three formal stages. One traditional one in one yard; one wrapped around a tree between the two yards; and a round stage in one of the front yards.
However, the performers on the first night defined other performance spaces: on lawn, on a cement walk, in a patch of dirt, around a fire pit.
The first work was a solo performance by Jason Romero, set to recorded contemporary music from around the globe. It was a sensuous, grounded performance. At one point, he was seen through colourful hanging window frames of an art installation. At another, he danced on a patch of fresh soil that my friends and I had avoided stepping on, lest it had been newly seeded. Instead of being a garden, it was actually a stage for Romero, who who danced on and in the patch, coating himself in dirt, flinging it about, either to shake off excess, or to share its richness. No matter where he performed, or the genre or language of music, Romero’s movement vocabulary seemed to communicate who he is in this place at this time.
The second work was by dancer Katherine Semchuk with musician Julian Anderson-Bowes. They combined dance improvisation and jazz improvisation in a performance which started on the front yard stage with a table and chair, to the middle of the yards around a fire pit, to the back of one of the yards on a formal stage with light sticks. They defined space and spatial relations throughout the set. Because there was no fixed seating, we were able to follow them from staging area to staging area, often being close enough to watch the pair watch each other as they improvised. They started low-key, but built up to a spectacular end, as they moved from no light to fire light to electric light, and as Anderson-Bowes’ music went from acoustic to electronically processed. Semchuk’s performance was bold throughout, but became epic–one could say incandescent–by the time she wielded lightsticks like ancient weapons.
This was the first live dance performance I’ve seen since February 29, 2020. It was a spectacular evening of art and dance, made all the more memorable by the mild autumn weather and the opportunity to see friends and artists I haven’t seen in person in 18 months.
Day 2 and Day 3 of Salvage are on tonight and tomorrow afternoon. If you can’t make it to the venue, you can live-stream them. That’s what I plan to do, and I can’t wait.
Autumn 2019 was a bit of a blur for me as I suffered two rounds of a viral cold while juggling a busy schedule. I did get out to some performances, but did not manage to write about them. I’ll say a few words now for prosperity, and also because I still think about these performances.
Work: Eve 2050 Artist: Van Grimde Corps Secrets Date: Friday, October 18, 2019 Venue: Triffo Theatre, MacEwan University
Last summer, I saw Isabelle van Grimde’s dance film Eve 2050 at DYSCORPIA: Future Intersections of the Body and Technology, a massive visual art exhibit at the University of Alberta’s Enterprise Gallery. The exhibit was curated by Marilène Oliver, whose sculptures can be seen in the film, and who wanted to further explore the themes of the film.
As the title implies, the film version of Eve 2050 is about humanity in the future. It was also the first part of a triptych of performances by van Grimde’s company, Van Grimde Corps Secrets. The second work was a Montreal performance installation in which dancers and audience members co-mingled. The last part of the triptych was a stage performance which debuted in Montreal, and was subsequently presented in Edmonton in October as part of the Brian Webb Dance Company’s current season.
I attended the first of two performances of Eve 2050 at Triffo Theatre. Walking into the auditorium, it was apparent to even those who had not seen the film that the evening was going to be about the interaction between humans and machines. A dancer was already on stage. A vertical beam of light from the stage was scanning the audience.
What followed was not merely an adaptation of the film, which was about cyborgs and human-machine hybridization. The stage performance focused on artificial intelligence and other technological inventions that have allowed humans to extend their presence beyond their bodies. Van Grimde carried over some of the dance vocabulary seen in the film and added a layer of interactive technology. Using infrared technology that was invisible to the audience, dancers triggered and interacted dynamically with seemingly 3D images, including Marilène Oliver’s full-body MRI (which Edmontonians would have seen in the Dyscorpia exhibt) and an architectural rendering which was like a mind palace come to life.
The nine-member dance company was far from overwhelmed by the technology, whether digital or analogue. (One of my favourite “special effects” was a scrim in a door frame with a dancer on either side, suggesting a full-length mirror or a portal to another possible existences or selves.) Fittingly, as they were performing in the the birth city of Marshall “the medium is the message” McLuhan, Van Grimde Corps Secrets’s symbiotic relationship with technology was both the means and the meaning of the work.
Work: Chapter One Artist: Ballet Edmonton Date: Friday, October 25, 2019 Venue: Triffo Theatre, MacEwan University
Ballet Edmonton’s first show of the season was also the first time I’d seen the company since it changed its name from Citie Ballet and hired dancer and choreographer Wen Wei Wang as its new artistic director in 2018.
For the 2019-20 season, Wang has put together three shows, each numbered as a chapter, rather than named. Chapter One was performed on October 25 to 27 (I attended the October 25 performance) and featured two ensemble pieces with themes of seasonal change.
The evening began with Forêts by Serge Bennathan with sound design featuring sounds of the forest by Karissa Barry and Wade Staples. All the dancers wore black outfits, but each one was a little different, so we could tell the trees from the forest. Forêts was a work of pure motion and sound that prompted me to reminisce about the way being in the forest can feel like a reassuring hug, and also a privilege to witness the dynamics within its environment.
The second piece was The Rite, choreographed by Shay Kuebler. Inspired by The Rite of Spring, the 1913 ballet by Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky, The Rite did not cause the audience to riot, but it did portray cycles of nature with choreography that rejects formal stuffiness and embraces organic movements. At first, the ensemble appeared and moved as a huddled mass. Gradually, they flew apart, like fall leaves in the wind, until one dancer portrayed a full life cycle. In the end, the other dancers huddled around her, as if taking her back into the ground, ending the piece as it began, and setting up for the next renewal.
Kuebler will be bringing his company, Shay Kuebler Radical System Art, back to Triffo Theatre on February 14 and 15, 2020, as part of the Brian Webb Dance Company’s season.
I should mention that Ballet Edmonton and Brian Webb Dance Company are collaborating, sharing flip sides of the season souvenir booklet and other resources. It’s a fantastic development, as the two companies perform in the same theatre and offer complementary takes on dance, with Ballet Edmonton presenting modern ballet and Brian Webb Dance Company presenting avant garde dance.
Work: Sara Does a Solo Artist: Sara Porter Date: Friday, December 13, 2019 Venue: Mile Zero Dance
Mile Zero Dance has been doing interesting things with its new storefront space in Little Italy (10816 – 95 Street). It hosts daytime yoga and dance classes, evening dance performances, and all-day exhibits of art in its front lobby.
The evening performances vary from its Dirt City Cabaret series of experimental work to full-length work by the company and by guests. In December, I attended the opening night performance of Sara Does a Solo by Toronto’s Sara Porter, who had also spent the week conducting workshops at Mile Zero.
Porter walked in and welcomed us after we were seated in the intimate space (it’s a dance studio with folding chairs set out on the same level as the performance area). The house lights remained up as her greetings slid into an introduction, and then into the first monologue of the piece. There was no formal boundary between the three pieces of communication, and this was intentional.
Normally, I would introduce an artist with their area of practice. I might have written, “Porter is a dancer and writer”, or, “Porter is a writer and dancer”, but Porter’s piece questions the idea of occupational labels and identity. Porter, who has taken breaks from dancing, made a statement, then amended it, reviving the tenses, challenging the urge to pinpoint an artist’s activities on a static timeline. She said, “I was a dancer. I could have been a dancer. I will have been a dancer.”
The piece reflected the fluidity in her life. From the audience’s point of view, the program was delightfully unpredictable. Porter would follow a story with a movement piece. She would pull a seemingly endless stream of dresses out of a suitcase and wear them all. She would perform a dance to a silent soundtrack. But nothing felt out of place. Everything was about who she was as an artist.
Sara Does a Solo was a combination of memoir, theatre, and dance. She managed to keep you in the story while she deconstructed the story. At no point did being reminded that I was watching the construction of a story kick me out of the story emotionally. She had a way of keeping the audience reeled in. For example, in telling the story of how she met singer Mary Margaret O’Hara (a personal favourite of mine, so I appreciated the story and the MMOH music included in the piece), Porter repeated the beginning of Sara Does a Solo.
At the Q&A after the show, Porter said that she created Sara Does a Solo five years ago. She hasn’t revised it, so as an actor, she’s playing herself from five years ago. “You have to find a way to make [the work] come alive for now.” Sara Porter found the way.
With Swipe, Synaethesis Dance Theatre set out to examine “how social media — and a growing attachment to our cellular devices — impacts our lives and the world around us,” according to the note in the show’s program.
The troupe explores our relationship with devices and software 17 contemplative, descriptive, and thought-provoking pieces (some are very short; the whole show is one seamless hour). Among the phenomena that fall under Synaethesis’s scrutiny are selfies, texting, internet dating, cyberstalking, comments sections, and video calls.
Overall, the statements about technology are refreshingly judgment-free, focusing more on how we live with technology. To convey different ideas, responses, and uses of technology in our lives, director and chief choreographer Leah Paterson (associate choreographer Brett Bowser created or co-created a few pieces) incorporates different styles of dance. The music selection is also diverse, including snippets by electroacoustic artist AGF, audioclips of YouTuber Dr. T explaining ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), and throwbacks to classics by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Queen. (They also use a bit of Laurie Anderson’s 1981 single “O Superman”, which would have earned the production an automatic two stars were I in the business of giving marks).
The seven-person cast (Bonnie Douglas, Michelle Bibeau, Mpoe Mogale, Lauren Hall, Camille Ensminger, Samanga Kuzio, and Paterson herself) is uniformly strong. Each dancer is given at least one big spotlight moment, and they all work together well, whether as a full ensemble, or in duos and trios.
Production designer Trent Crosby created a minimalist set with some spectacular lighting and a smoke machine creating a moody atmosphere.
If Swipe looked like a rock concert sometimes, it also felt like one. For a show about technology that’s been criticized for being cold and distancing, the audience really got into it, cheering, applauding, and shouting out their support. Physically sharing space with performers and fellow audience members is an irreplaceable experience.
That live energy can’t be replicated. But you can get onto social media to tell all your friends to see it (there performances on the last Thursday and the last Saturday of the Fringe), and you can hope that someone has recorded the performance for prosperity (the troupe did, in fact, have a videographer present).
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.