Category Archives: Dance

More good plays

Assassins (the Sondheim musical) was the first musical I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.  With a cast of ten and a musical ensemble, it’s well placed in the Westbury.  It’s a series of vignettes about everyone who assassinated or tried to assassinate a US president.  As I wasn’t familiar with many of the stories and I didn’t get a program until afterwards, I probably missed the ones in the middle – I remembered about John Wilkes Booth (Jacob Holloway), John Hinckley (Maxwell Lebeuf), and Squeaky Fromme (Emma Houghton, with Nancy Macalear as her collaborator Sara Jane Moore), and partway through I started wondering whether I’d missed the part about Lee Harvey Oswald killing President Kennedy – but that was the climax which came near the end, since I guess it’s the most memorable one for a lot of living Americans too.  Scott Shpeley, who had been playing with the musical ensemble, also turned out to be Lee Harvey Oswald.  Chris W Cook, Jeff Page, Rory Turner, and Billy Brown played other assassins I wasn’t familiar with, and Dan Rowley, and Larissa Pohoreski other characters in the ensemble.

Typhoon Judy was also a performance focused on music, with Christopher Peterson playing an aging Judy Garland, in song, in reminiscence, in flirtation with accompanist (Nick Samoil), and in four fabulous costumes.  The portrayal was credible and touching.

MAN UP! was a wonderful dance show with social commentary.  It’s being held over at the Westbury next weekend, so you have a couple more chances to see it.  Four male performers dance in high heels, powerfully, poetically, and conveying a range of emotions.  Some pieces include all four (Gregory P Caswell, Joshua Wolchansky, Jordan Sabo, CJ Rowein) and some have smaller groups or solos.  Rowein and Wolchansky’s love duet was particularly moving, as well as Wolchansky’s barefoot solo on the side stage.  Monologues and video clips provide context and discussion-starters about the limitations of conventional gender expectations (as well as allowing time for costume changes).  I was fascinated to realize afterwards that the performance had been lacking the personal flirtation aspect of burlesque dancing.

Every Fringe I see Rocket Sugar Factory, the improv duo of Jacob Banigan and Jim Libby, because they are so much fun to watch.  Along with their local accompanist Jan Randall, they are masters of crafting long-form stories and playing them out with delightful characterizations.  This year their show involves creating the pilot episode for a new television show, and the one they created in front of me, Mister Jules Verne, was something I would watch if it existed.  I love the way these two switch characters seamlessly, borrowing mannerisms and language habits, and I’m also a fan of Jim Libby’s near-corpsing, letting his delight in the game show through the characters he’s embodying.  (One of the 2 For Tea performers, James, does this as well.)

I also made time to see a new comedy, Harold and Vivian Entertain Guests, written by University of Alberta acting student Jessy Ardern.  Take the premise of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – the older couple full of malice entertaining a couple of starry-eyed naive newlyweds, and wield them as weapons in their battles with each other – and make it funny instead of horrible – and that’s the start of Harold and Vivian.  David Feehan and Kristen Padayas play the eponymous hosts, and Rebecca Ann Merkley and Eric Smith play Janet and Mike, the young couple who arrive with over-the-top optimism and PDA and gradually crack into full-on hostility as well.  Corben Kushneryk (also seen this Fringe in Who am I?…) is credited as director and designer, so he must be responsible for the delightful set conveying the reality of a starkly divided household before the show even starts.  I was especially taken with Padayas’s portrayal, the perfect pink bouffant homemaker with twitches of panic and surges of rage.   Eric Smith’s brand of pomposity and pratfall may also be seen in Death Comes to Auntie Norma (one more show, Sunday 8 pm).

 

 

Nextfest!

One of the events of an Edmonton June that I had missed in previous years is Nextfest, the celebration of emerging artists in various disciplines which used to be run out of the Roxy Theatre.  There is no Roxy right now, but Nextfest continues, with more events and performances than I’ll have time to catch.  High school performers (#NextNextfest) have a full schedule at the Mercury Theatre (former Azimuth/Living room).  Some things are along 124 Street.  And the mainstage performances are in the lower-level auditorium at Faculté St-Jean on 91 Street.

I’ve seen several mainstage shows.  Evolve was a set of short dance/movement pieces, solos and bigger ensembles.

Blackout was an hour of sketch comedy and improv. The pace was quick, the characters clever, and the inclusion of recent political events spot-on.  I liked it a lot.  It reminded me of the work of Hot Thespian Action, the troupe out of Winnipeg which was at Edmonton Fringe a few years ago.

Pinniped and Other Poems was a play written by Skye Hyndman and directed by Philip Geller, a lyrical indirect piece including flashback scenes, walrus mustaches, live goldfish named x0 and y0, an intriguing set making use of twine, rope, and translucent flats, and some effective and unusual stage business.  Alex Dawkins’ demeanour and costuming portrayed a mysterious woman from the protagonist’s past, while Connor Suart, Emily Howard, and Jake Tkaczyk all seemed to be presenting aspects of the main character.  Live music was provided by Vik Chu.  From a vocal production viewpoint I was impressed by how all the performers managed the dense text with clear articulation despite wearing what looked like straw and twine all over their jaws, and particularly how Jake Tkaczyk’s character managed to sound like an old man without losing volume or clarity.  If time permits I will definitely be watching this one again because I think there is more in the text than I picked up.

Shorts is a program of five short pieces.  I’m not sure if they’re all parts of longer works in development, but at least some of them are.  Louise Large and Andrew Dool each had solo pieces, both with unconventional treatments of fourth-wall conventions.  Kali Wells’s Forms of Communication was an entertaining escapade that started from a situation anyone might find himself or herself in, and then escalated.  It reminded me of some of the scenarios in Suburban Motel.  I also appreciated the value placed on hand-knitted socks by the characters!   Liam Salmon’s Un(known) Stories was a natural-sounding chat among three friends, exploring LGBT terminology and concepts, lived experience, and respectful disagreement.  Leif Ingebrigtsen’s Echoes of a Lost King was perhaps the most ambitious project, two songs and a scene from what seemed to be a fully designed original musical about a group of D & D players and their characters on quest, with Joleen Ballandine, Gabriel Richardson, Eva Foote, and Hunter Cardinal.   All four are strong performers and musicians, but in this short piece I noticed that the music was a particularly good showcase for Gabriel Richardson’s voice.

Desirée Leverenz’s Husk is playing in a space on 124 Street just south of 111 Avenue.  The space seems to be intended as some kind of semi-institutional residence, so it has good potential for site-specific work, with an intimate stage/risers room on one side, and the opportunity to wander through various small rooms and spaces on two floors.   The piece included a couple of full-ensemble scenes with cryptic story, movement, and sound exploration, along with a more experiential session in between where audience wandered among displays interacting with the performers as much as they chose.  Philip Geller’s and Morgan Grau’s interactions were particularly compelling, eliciting audience help or response; some of the others were more distant or diorama-like.  All seemed to be isolated, and to be embracing or struggling with some aspect of fluid and mess.  I think my favourite part of this piece was when I gradually became aware that what I thought was a completely comprehensible conversation among odd characters was actually a repetition of nonsensical phrases, imbued with actor intention as in some kind of Meisner class exercises.  (I did not actually notice this right away because I think I was assuming I hadn’t heard right and my brain was filling in more comprehensible narrative.)  Other performers in this piece were Roland Meseck, Emily Howard, Sophie Gareau-Brennan,  Stuart McDougall, Connor Suart, and a couple of others I didn’t know.

Nextfest continues until tomorrow, Sunday 14 June.

Two flavours of playful dance

In the last week or so I’ve seen two dance performances – both talented and creative, and neither of them taking themselves too seriously, but still very different.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is the New York City-based all-male company that’s been around since the 1970s, doing the repertoire of a classical ballet company but with all the roles played by men.  I had wanted to see them since I first read about them in the Globe and Mail sometime in the 1980s.  When I heard that the Alberta Ballet was hosting them for a few days in Edmonton, I was excited.

I enjoyed the performance.  I think I would have liked it more if I was more knowledgeable about ballet, because I don’t think I picked up on all the inside-joke-y parody bits.  They performed part of Swan Lake, a piece from Les Corsairs, a Balanchine-esque piece called Go for Berocco,  a dying swan solo, and a Spanish-themed piece called Paquita, with variations.  The twelve performers were costumed suitably for male or female dancers for each piece (simple flowing dresses for the Balanchine piece, pancake tutus with Spanish-dancer decorations or matador-type jackets with white hose for the Paquita, classical outfits for the Swan Lake).  The performers dancing female parts danced competently en pointe and their male-dressed partners executed graceful lifts,  and they were all graceful and strong enough that it was clear we were watching talented dancers.  But they were also very funny, with facial expressions and little bits of stage business adding what the characters were really thinking about each other, and with all the dance gestures just dialed up to parody.  The scene-stealing curtain-calls were a good example of that.

Then at Canoe Festival this weekend, I enjoyed a dance/movement performance created by Jake Hastey of Toy Guns Theatre, called “Fortuitous Endings (What to do when you wake up drunk in a BBQ cover in your neighbour’s backyard)”.  This one had an ensemble of nine performers: Christine Lesiak, Celeste Tikal, Mark Sinongco, Robert Halley, Dario Charles, Richelle Thoreson, Rachel Gleiberman, Krista Posyniak, and Cory Christensen, along with singer Must Be Tuesday. It had a similar playfulness and natural sexiness to the Toy Guns pieces at the 2014 Fringe.  It was longer, running almost two hours with an intermission, but the pacing was good and it did not feel too long.   Between movements, various members of the ensemble read aloud the last paragraph of a variety of books, from Existentialism for Dummies to Le Petit Prince and Where the Wild Things Are. Couples connected, struggled, and parted, with regret, wistfulness, resentment, or anger. They made use of the aisles in the Westbury Theatre and sometimes slipped between rows of seats and engaged audience members directly.  The musical score included both Wonderwall and Nessun Dorma.   Costumes seemed both natural and beautiful, and good use was made of occasional nudity.  And parts of it were hilarious.

Several of the dancers performed compelling solo pieces.  As in the summer I was struck by Robert Halley’s grace and control making him stand out as a technically skilled dancer.

The closing piece involved each of the twelve performers setting up some solitary comfort on the stage and then engaging with it oblivious to the others, as if getting on with post-breakup life – making and drinking elaborate coffee drinks, working out, creating origami, sunbathing on a beach, and so on.

In the Ballets Trockadero show, the choreography responded to traditional expectations of rigid gender in dance by sending them up in an over-the-top way.  Although the performers were all male, they were performing as exaggerated versions of ballet character male and female, makeup, costume, and all.  Amusingly, the program contained not only twelve performer biographies under the performers’ real names, but twelve bios of the female personae and twelve of the male personae, with delightful pun-filled names like Nadia Doumiafeyva and Sergei Legupski.  Fortuitous Endings basically just ignored those traditional expectations, with couples of various genders and age differences expressing fluid sexuality in a natural way, and with female performers sometimes lifting male performers as well as vice versa.  And in 2015, I found myself preferring that treatment to the parodic stereotype-breaking of Les Trocks, which would have blown my mind in an earlier era.

Movement and emotion: Raw at Expanse Festival

Expanse Festival is tagged “Edmonton’s Movement and Dance Festival” and “An Electric Four-Day Celebration of Art in Motion”.  It’s a busy time of year for me, but I managed to attend one event on Saturday afternoon, the ticketed show “Raw” in the Westbury Theatre at the ATB Arts Barns.  The program for the festival showed other interesting events and conversations happening throughout the weekend, from movement workshops to drop-in performances and discussions.  I hope to see more of it next year.   (And to get to Skirts Afire, which I missed completely and which sounded really neat.)

The afternoon program contained four movement-focused performances, each I guess about 15-20 minutes long with recorded sound as needed.

Blue Eyes, Black Hair had some spoken word as well as expressive movement, so it was easy to grasp the narrative of the situation.  A man on a beach (I don’t know how I knew he was on a beach, maybe he said so and maybe it was in the program) (Mat Simpson) has one of those moments of life-changing eye contact with a black-haired, blue-eyed man (Liam Coady)  who walks by without speaking.  It’s not clear whether the response is mutual.  But Mat Simpson’s character is so bowled over by the handsome stranger that he seems to lose control of his limbs and face, twitching in awkward-looking ways as he tries to express himself.  A third character, a woman who bears a certain resemblance to the black-haired blue eyed man (Ainsley Hillyard), arrives on scene and the main character makes contact with her in an attempt to relive his connection with the man and understand it.  The two of them then share a poignant scene of moving about each other and exchanging energy while never quite touching in physical space, even executing what appears to be a non-contact lift.  Meanwhile, the black-haired man Apparently this piece was inspired by a French novel of the same name.   And while I thought it was great as a dance/movement vignette that didn’t need any more exposition or resolution, I’m a little curious about how it could be a novel.

The second piece, The Feeling of Not Being Empty, was a wordless communication among an ensemble of three women in black dresses (Anastasia Maywood, Bridget Jessome, Krista Posyniak), as choreographed by Tatiana Cheladyn.  For me it kind of suffered by being between pieces that had more obvious narrative, so without paying a lot of attention I just felt as if I was watching interesting shapes and shifting alliances, but I don’t have more coherent observation.

Next was The Uprights, directed by Murray Utas and performed by Alyson Dicey.  (I’ve seen Alyson on stage before, as a child in Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit and I can’t remember where else.)   The solo performer conveyed frustration with limitations and exploration of new postures and freedoms.

The final performance, Untitled, was a Good Women Dance Collective work in progress.  The performers were Alison Kause, Alida Nyquist-Schultz, and Kate Stashko, and Ainsley Hillyard was credited as choreographer.  Early on, I thought that it was all about comparing and keeping score, and that impression continued to fit.  Two characters repeatedly measured themselves against each other, in movement and in words.  As the story became clearer and the personalities of the two characters became more distinct with more animosity, it became funnier but it wasn’t just funny, it also mattered.  The competitiveness seemed more overt than usually seen between adults, so it reminded me a lot of siblings or small children.  The third character seemed to be an authority, someone asking the comparison questions and judging the responses.   Like two kids and a teacher, or two employees and an employer, or something.

Brontë Burlesque, revisited

Earlier this month I saw the final show of A Brontë Burlesque, the Send in the Girls show that played at the Roxy Theatre.  I remembered seeing a version at Fringe 2012, in a basement space south of Whyte Avenue, but the bigger stage and better-designed auditorium improved the viewing experience a lot.  The show was directed by Lana Michelle Hughes.  Ellen Chorley and Delia Barnett were returning to the show as producers and performers (playing Emily and Anne Brontë), and the other two performers were new to the show, Chris W Cook as Branwell Brontë and Samantha Duff as Charlotte Brontë the eldest surviving sibling.

The scenes jump around in time, but are announced by the year “It is 1848” or whatever, and I soon got perspective on those dates by comparing them with the death dates of the various characters.  And, well, they all die.  But they don’t disappear from the stage – the scenes of the latest-surviving character have the spirits of the others clustered around the deathbed.

The interplay of the various combinations of characters was fascinating.  (I have several siblings myself, so I recognised some of this, but I hope my manipulations were more benign.  And we haven’t run about in our underwear since we were small children playing superheroes, either.)   The characters became distinct for me very quickly.

The conventions of burlesque allowed the costume designer (Tessa Stamp) to show us several layers of approximately-period clothing along with coloured draping used as props for the dancers.  The dance piece where the three sisters put on men’s dress shirts and ties to portray their literary noms de plume was particularly well done.  Each of the performers had a solo dance at some point during the show, and the choreography provided for character reveal as well as artistic allure.  The new performer for Branwell, Chris W. Cook, danced his solo with good audience rapport and apparent enjoyment, so it was a little disappointing to me that he didn’t disrobe further than slipping off his tie, dress shirt, and braces, when the female dancers had gone farther.

I can’t remember the previous production well enough to say for sure what is different.  The set detail of a portrait with faces that fade in and out (a Matt Schuurman video design detail of course) was in the previous production but it was done better this time.

As several of the characters in the story died of tuberculosis or related lung problems, the stage convention of a bloody handkerchief was used more than once.  I do not know whether people in previous eras ever coughed blood and didn’t die, because on stage and screen that convention always means Anyone seeing this now knows this person is about to die.   And I saw this device again the other night in Nevermore.

My first Nutcracker!

I’d never been to a performance of the Nutcracker before.  Actually, I don’t think I’d ever been to a full-length ballet, except once when I took my little sister and her friend to use some free tickets to a performance based on The Emperor’s New Clothes, many years ago, and all I remember about it was getting a parking ticket.  I do like modern dance and less traditional ballet and other forms of expressive movement performance.  I’ve seen Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, and various student dance performances.  But this year I decided to include the Alberta Ballet Nutcracker in my pre-Christmas festivities.    My mother always used to play her LP of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on high rotation in the Christmas season, and I think maybe we once watched part of a performance on television, and our high school band sometimes played an arrangement of the highlights.   So I felt like I knew the story.

I went to a matinee.  I did not have any children with me and I was not wearing either sparkles or black.  So I felt a little bit out of place that way.  But the Jubilee Auditorium is a comfortable venue, with coat check (that you have to pay for), London bar service, and ballet-themed souvenirs for sale.   And I had a good seat, in the middle of the orchestra, without anyone wiggly sitting in front of me.   Before the show started, many of the audience members were peering over the edge of the orchestra pit, some of them making me nervous by sitting on the lip of the barricade.  I was also interested to see that many smaller audience members were using the same kind of plastic booster seats available at cinemas nowadays.

Someone from the Alberta Ballet made a speech beforehand, and then introduced a special guest who would be participating in the performance, Mayor Don Iveson.  His Worship then marched onto stage rigidly wearing a top hat, tails, and white gloves, to talk briefly about the city’s support of the arts and to promise us that he would not be dancing.

And then the performance started.  I found it a little bit harder to follow than I’d expected, because it turned out I didn’t actually remember the story as well as I thought, the plot summary in the program was white printed on uneven-dark and hard to read, and there wasn’t something in the program like a list of scenes or musical movements.  The first half of the show was more story-driven, with the big Christmas party, the gift of the Nutcracker, the fight between the Nutcracker and the Rat Tsar, and so on.  The second half was mostly just a series of dance pieces with interesting varied costumes and music, put on for the entertainment of Klara and Karl/Nutcracker-boy and Drosselmeier.   The first part was a lot more familiar to me, maybe because the story part was more interesting to me as a child and maybe because we listened more to the first side of the record, back when that was a thing.  I had completely forgotten that Klara was instrumental in the Rat King/Tsar’s defeat, though.  I thought it was interesting that in the program notes and the acting for this production, it was clear that Klara’s brother breaks the nutcracker unintentionally and feels bad about it, whereas the versions that had been stuck in my head since I was a small child with younger brothers had the breakage being at least somewhat intentional.  If I had not been paying attention to Mayor Iveson, I don’t think I would have noticed that one of the adult party guests in the background of the party scenes did not actually dance, because he looked completely at home mingling, bowing, and so on.  Maybe next year he will get to waltz or something.  While I was watching the first scene, set on a city street while the well-dressed guests were arriving for the party, warmly-lit stone houses and gold onion-domes on the backdrop, I suddenly thought, “Oh, this is the Moscow that Chekov’s eponymous three sisters were longing for!” And that is slightly anachronistic, but I still liked the idea of it. 

In the performance I saw, Klara was Akiko Ishii, Karl was Yukichi Hattori, the Sugar Plum Fairy was Nicole Caron, and her Cavalier was Kelley McKinlay.   From the program, it looks like most of the dancers were taking turns performing different parts in the different performances.  I didn’t know they would do that.

And that was my first Nutcracker.