By Kaija Pepper

Three well-established theatrical festivals dominate the dance landscape at the beginning of every year in Vancouver, starting with PuSh International Performing Arts in mid-January. Two popular shows at PuSh were the one-woman solo, Pour, at Scotiabank Dance Centre’s black-box studio-theatre, and the group spectacle, The Eternal Tides, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Vastly different in scale and scope, they both featured a vulnerable female body at the centre of the action.

Pour (2016) marked the return to the city of Daina Ashbee, a young choreographer familiar to Vancouverites from her time performing with Raven Spirit Dance. Now based in Montreal, Ashbee has become known for her confrontational works, and Pour is certainly one of them. Mostly floor bound, dancer Paige Culley is like an artist’s model, moving into one pose after another, showcasing how the body contains within it endless ways to reveal effort and repose. There’s something strong in the beauty and vulnerability of a young woman’s nude body in such singular theatrical display, and also something disturbing as we watch its every minor and major effort. (Read more on Ashbee and Culley on page 32).

Like many choreographies relying on repetition to make their point, it was a little hard to stay with Pour throughout. The same issue undercut Lin Lee-Chen’s The Eternal Tides. The 2017 piece, which marked the Canadian debut of Taiwan’s Legend Lin Dance Theatre, presented a series of gorgeously staged tableaux. Take the opening, which featured a powerful drummer on each side of the stage, lit by warm candlelight, and a stage floor and backdrop draped in white fabric.

For what seemed like 20 or even 30 minutes, a single, slender figure, naked except for a loincloth, white-dusted, with Rapunzel-length hair, magnificently embodied the repetitive cycles of time and tides as she swept her torso, arms and hair in vast circles and spirals, first on the floor, then standing, and back to the floor, over and over, round and round. But it went on too long, and the butoh-slow movement of the ensemble sections that followed demanded a rigorous meditative state of attention from the audience.

The Vancouver International Dance Festival opened quietly on March 1, at Scotiabank Dance Centre, with a solo by Vancouver’s Amber Funk Barton. Vast, intended to evoke the way each of us is alone in the universe, and yet also connected, favoured much stillness and waiting, but in the one main section of dance — when Barton allowed her body to let loose, to find its own enthusiastic rhythm — the piece itself found a convincing, invigorating pulse.

Lucie Grégoire arrived from Montreal with a solo performed by Kim Henry (prefaced by a brief introductory solo from the choreographer). Again, it was the moments of energetic, generous dance — the body in choreographed time and space — that were most satisfying. For much of the time, Henry followed predictable paths around the stage, often just running, which is perhaps the reason that when she exploded into a jeté — it happened just twice — the leap resonated like thunder and lightning. As did the section when the light-limbed, nimble-footed dancer turned like a candle flame in the wind, her satin slip glowing.

The festival’s Playhouse headliner was New York’s Shen Wei Dance Arts in its Vancouver premiere. The popular company appeared in two well-respected pieces from its repertoire: Folding (2000), to music by John Tavener and Tibetan Buddhist chants, and Rite of Spring (2003), to a four-hand piano version of Stravinsky’s familiar score. Shen Wei, the company’s artistic director, creates with a visual artist’s eye — his use of colour in costumes and set (his own design for both) complements his astute placement of bodies onstage in his choreography. The two pieces have aged well, and the company’s 12 dancers masterfully performed both the processional aspects of Folding and the energetic calligraphy of Rite of Spring. The latter thankfully did not follow the usual narrative about a virgin sacrifice, instead responding, story-free, to the music’s exciting clamour.

In the Chutzpah! festival lineup at the Norman Rothstein Theatre were two works by Roy Assaf, an Israeli name much heard these days. His Six Years Later (2011) proved to be an intimate and touching duet, danced with unaffected grace by Madison Hoke, West Virginia-born, and Assaf himself. 

Their articulate bodies presented a story of a couple’s close connection, the relationship’s different vulnerabilities accompanied by a mixed soundtrack that ranged from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to a 1960s pop song by the Marmalade. The latter set the action at a nightclub: the couple chatted as they walk backward together, like they were on a dance floor, before relaxing into the beat.

Later, she pushed on his chest as if trying to get his heart started, as if the relationship had stalled. The action constantly shifted into new emotional territory as the pair grappled together to form shared shapes or delicately facilitated each other’s moves.

Assaf’s The Hill, from 2012 — performed by Assaf, Ron Cohen and Avshalom Latucha — was not as expressive. But the sections of choreography that built on the relaxed postures and repetitions of folk dance created a fresh and friendly theatrical vocabulary. The Israeli Army Band march that started the piece, along with goofy marching from the dancers, made the military parody clear.

On February 22, Ballet BC presented a surprising premiere for the contemporary 16-dancer troupe: a two-act Romeo and Juliet set to Prokofiev’s romantic orchestral score. The choreographer was Medhi Walerski, the company’s European choreographer-in-residence.

The contemporary ballet choreography, with everyone in socks, had great sweep and momentum in the ensembles; exciting, forceful bodies filled the stage thanks to recruits from Arts Umbrella Graduate Program as well as four Ballet BC apprentices. It was ideal movement for young, hungry dancers. Only 10 characters are singled out to represent the familiar story, along with gangs of Montagues, Capulets and, in the second act, Shadow Figures, 17 men and women flitting around the deaths at the centre of this love story’s finale.

Emily Chessa was a vibrant Juliet. She is physically ideal for the role — small and compact, and still in her 20s, she doesn’t have to work arduously at simply being youthful. More importantly, her romantic yearnings were beautifully expressed in both the unaffected drive she brought to the choreography and in her bright expressive face. Some of the solo choreography for Romeo (Brandon Alley) was a bit too squirmy to read in dance or character terms (it was like he had hot coals coursing through his blood stream, literally, not metaphorically). In his light-hearted trios with Mercutio (Scott Fowler) and Benvolio (Patrick Kilbane), character was more successfully integrated into the choreography.

Walerski talks in the program about avoiding story ballets until this commission, and his interests are clearly in abstract work. Yet without the colour of distinct personalities, there’s an awful lot of plot to get through, and the first act sagged toward the end as each scene of the well-known Prokofiev score had to be played out.

The striking monochromatic set by Theun Mosk featured a stage enclosed in dark fabric and a trio of large rectangular set pieces that stood in for doorways, with one upended to become Juliet’s balcony. Walerski’s layered costume design of grey and black had a similar minimalist aesthetic, evoking either contemporary or vaguely historical times, as in the severely high-necked and very trim gown of Mother Capulet (performed by ex-Ballet BC dancer Makaila Wallace). Certainly the production looked good and its grand sweep of passionate dancing from the popular troupe was enormously seductive.



Ballet BC’s Gilbert Small (Tybalt) and Emily Chessa (Juliet) in Medhi Walerski’s Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Michael Slobodian