Thirty years is a long time. It’s an especially long time for a contemporary dance festival, and Dancing on the Edge is the longest-running one in Canada. 

At the helm since the beginning is producer Donna Spencer (who was joined by co-founder Esther Rausenberg for the first few years). Some local artists who were in the first festival are still creating dance and presented works this year: Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, Noam Gagnon, Jennifer Mascall and Paras Terezakis. The festival retains its penchant for presenting dance in unconventional and outdoor settings — this year’s venues included a furniture showroom, a crosswalk, a nude beach and an open-air stage on Granville Island — while supporting local dance artists and presenting works-in-progress and international companies.  

The theme of nostalgia and reflection on the past surfaced quite a bit during this milestone year. Amber Funk Barton performed her short solo For You, For Me, inspired by her experiences at the Firehall Arts Centre where the festival is based. In black shorts and T-shirt, Funk Barton danced in silence while moving through remembered movement and bygone experiences. It was humorous, contemplative and personal.  

Liz Kinoshita’s VOLCANO
Photo: Gianinna Urmeneta

Liz Kinoshita’s VOLCANO, a reflection on time, experience and travel, was one of three full-length pieces at the festival. Her fusion of musical theatre, tap dance and vocal harmonies was innovative, uplifting and endlessly entertaining. Kinoshita (a Canadian based in Belgium), along with three other dancers, was luminous as they deconstructed the musical theatre form and put it back together with contemporary dance influences. Inspired by the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruption and the ensuing travel delays, Kinoshita’s lyrics are witty and provocative.  

Another prominent theme was Indigenous experience and our relationship to the natural world. Lara Kramer’s Windigo, another full-length piece, is described in the program notes as a “Nordic epic with a post-apocalyptic stroll” that “exorcises the demons and the waves of violence perpetrated against the Indigenous people.” That is an ambitious and admirable undertaking for a dance work, but it didn’t come across clearly. Windigo felt post-apocalyptic — with a pile of debris at stage right and two dancers (Stefan Petersen and Peter James) dragging and dissecting ragged mattresses — but the narrative was slow to unfold, and the connection to the intended theme was not obvious. Serving as shelter, raft, resting place and storage trunk, the mattresses housed and seemed to symbolize the collective experience of their lives. Kramer sat at her audio console providing eerie background sounds including creaking doors, crackling fire and children’s voices.  

A double bill featuring The Sun and the Moon by Holly Bright and Rematriate by Olivia C. Davies highlighted Indigenous and feminist perspectives. In the first, embodying the sun and moon, Genevieve Johnson and Nicola Birdsell moved as one being, their bodies entwined, until breaking free and feeding off each other’s energy. Using props such as antlers and a skull, their movements were grounded in the cycle of living things and the cyclical nature of the sun and moon. 

In her solo, Davies emerged from a sheet and stated, “This is what it feels like to suffer great loss, to witness great devastation. And this is what it feels like to go on.” As she frantically spread the sheet onto the floor, she hissed and breathed heavily until enveloping herself in the sheet again, her face pressed against it in a silent scream. The physical embodiment of grief was powerful and direct.  

Dab Dance Project of South Korea presented Hoyeon Kim’s Bomberman, about human versus natural forces, performed inside a small, plastic-walled box that quarantines the dancers from the outside world. The three dancers manoeuvered around each other robotically, pausing in yoga-style poses or joining together to create impressive creatures out of their bodies. With fluorescent tubes, LED lights and fog, they employed shadow play to great effect.  

Many works were informed by questions of identity and relationships, including Meredith Kalaman’s polished duet (with Ellie Bishop) For as long as I can remember, in which she meets different versions of herself. Using mirroring, Kalaman and Bishop’s movements were on parallel tracks, representing their co-existing realities. 

Similarly, the three dancers in Lesley Telford’s IF embodied three versions of one identity that competed for physical and mental space as they pushed and shoved each other to gain prominence. The melancholy piano repeating the same sequence of notes added to the theme of interwoven identities.  

The complexities of all types of human relationships were on display in Noam Gagnon’s Pathways, a fast-paced athletic piece with eight dancers running and diving across the stage, pausing briefly for moments of intimacy or struggle. Wen Wei Wang (who recently took the helm of Ballet Edmonton) presented an excerpt from his work-in-progress named after his mother, Ying Yun (英云), which explores his own identity and his mother’s influence. An all-female cast of five dancers moved in fits and starts, at times powerful in their grace and unison, and at others vulnerable and frantic.  

Jennifer Mascall’s OW, a work-in-progress at last year’s festival, has grown into a playful hour-long study of vocal sound and how it creates meaning in conjunction with movement. Speaking in gibberish, the large ensemble’s quirky conversations formed a loose narrative about personal relationships that could be gleaned from their tone, facial expressions and actions. 

Dances for a Small Stage, a local series, came on board to present outdoor performances on Granville Island. With a taste of genres including tap, contemporary, hip hop and flamenco, they featured impressive performers such as all-female street dance crew Diamonds in the Rough. 

The most innovative site-specific work was Paras Terezakis’ work-in-progress Against, at the Brooks Corning furniture showroom. The interdisciplinary piece featured live electronic music, live-feed video and a disjointed narrative that took us from the showroom’s boardroom to its workspaces, warehouse and loading bay. Elissa Hanson, Arash Khakpour and Renée Sigouin used workspaces to evoke the emotional landscape of office life and social isolation.  

On the festival’s first evening, dance artists, supporters and members of the community gathered at the Firehall Arts Centre for a party to celebrate this anniversary edition. Vancouver city councillor Adriane Carr proclaimed July 2018 as Dancing on the Edge Month, and the indomitable Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg led a hilarious dance game show, By the Edge of Your Dance Pants. 

To cap off the night of nostalgia, Harvey Meller and Cornelius Fischer-Credo, whose duet, Street of Dreams, closed the first festival, performed an excerpt. Thirty years later, their bodies still remember. 

— TESSA PERKINS DENEAULT 

 DI WINTER 2019

Olivia C. Davies in her work Rematriate
Photo: Chris Randle