Dancing on the Edge

July 1, 1998

Dancing on the Edge Contemporary Dance Festival

Firehall Arts Centre
Vancouver, British Columbia


July 1-11, 1998

Reviewed by Thomas Heyd

What really counts in dance? This question–explicitly raised by producer Donna Spencer in her welcome statement–was brought into clear focus at this festival through its contrasting themes and techniques, ranging from programs focused on humor, poetry, and the sensual to programs organized around the use of holograms and sites outside a formal theater space. Besides offering forty-three distinct performances, six of which were site-specific and free, the festival made available seven workshops. Here I can only report on a sample of the works presented.

The pieces featured in the program titled “Theatrical Bent” played up the dramatic power of dance. Laura Crema’s Lullaby of Birdland, for example, was described as “a dance/theater piece that draws its inspiration from jazz icon Billie Holiday.” Crema’s performance, accompanied by music evoking Holiday’s voice and stage appearances, was captivating for its sheer movement energy and passionate embodiment of the singer’s spirit. Crema’s piece made visually entrancing and highly allusive use of two sorts of props, namely a flower that she was to remove with her foot and then attach to her hair, and two elastic strings that attached her by one hand and a foot and then by both hands to the back of the stage.

Equally theatrical was Machine Parts by Pamela Robinson. Danced by six women (including Robinson), it was intended to portray the oppressive, dehumanizing environment of office workers made subject to corporate imperatives of speed and efficiency. This work was notable for its fast pace and the nearly continuous, high-contact interaction among the performers.

In contrast to the all-Vancouver cast of choreographers featured in “Theatrical Bent,” the program “Visceral Ties” presented the work of more mature dancemakers, Marie-Josée Chartier and Peggy Baker from Toronto and Karen Kuzak from Winnipeg. Avoiding the straightforward theatricality found in works based on narrative themes, these pieces developed abstract movement founded on the metaphorical power of the concepts inherent in their respective titles: Vue sur l’infini (“View on Infinity”), Yang, and The Shortest Distance. The works on this program complemented one other well. Chartier’s austere vision of infinity was pleasingly balanced by Sylvain Brochu’s lively rendering of yang, the Taoist symbol for “all that is bright, dry, warm, hard, masculine, round, odd-numbered, and upwardly moving,” and by Kuzak’s duet performed by Lesandra Dodson and Randy Joynt. In particular, Kuzak’s dance (accompanied by an Arvo Pärt score and by creative lighting by Hugh Conacher) exquisitely exemplified the possibilities in abstract art; it presented gestures redolent of romantic feeling, fractured by repeated “freezing up” of scenes (reminiscent of contemporary jazz), which made the performance a resplendent celebration of the dynamics and semantic power of body motion (and rest).

Pierre-Paul Savoie’s Pôles (dance + virtual) was a festival headliner, along with 3-on-1 by important Vancouver choreographers Lola MacLaughlin, Lee Su-Feh, and Jennifer Mascall. Pôles, which is being shown at Lisbon’s Expo ’98 and will tour the U.S., strikingly raised questions about the nature of dance and the contribution that new virtual technologies can make to it. Pôles (featuring performances by Jeff Hall and Savoie, virtual projections by Michel Lemieux, and scenic projections by Victor Pilon) recounts the vicissitudes of two travelers who meet on an alien world. The dance takes place on a mound and against a specially manufactured backdrop. The actual dancing was interspersed and accompanied by holographic imagery of Savoie and Hall–dancing or underwater or against a background of starry skies and blurry computer lighting effects.

Although at times the dancing seemed inventive and energetic, the interaction between ghostly holographic and real dancers left me with the feeling that these were scenes from Star Wars. The net effect of having to stage this piece in near-darkness and in the deep interior of the stage space, so that the holographic effects would work, created a marked physical and psychological distance between the scene and the audience that reinforced the sense that we were witnessing a movie instead of a live performance.

Dance gains much of its attractive power as an art form from its paradoxical combination of physicality and ephemerality. While inviting us to appreciate objects that are actually present (in dance’s case, moving bodies)–as painting and sculpture do, but literature does not–dance’s momentary, short-lived character makes that appreciation much more urgent, and hence valuable–like dramatic or musical performance, and unlike video or audio recordings of such performances. By making holograms and projections equal artistic partners to dance, Savoie may have forgotten what really counts in dance. He increased the spectacle of Pôles, but diminished the dance itself.