Thursday, 7 November 2013

Nicole Mion/Brian Webb - Timms Centre for the Arts - Edmonton - October 11, 2013


Choreographer: Nicole Mion
Performers: Justine Chambers and James Gnam
Live Music: Tariq
Lighting Design: James Proudfoot
Costume Design: Natalie Purschwitz
Set Design: Nicole Mion
Stage Manager: Brian MacNeil
Dramaturge: Lee Su-Feh

Quiver begins with very dark lighting, a row of 14 two-foot-tall white household fans looking fresh from Wal-Mart covered in colourless translucent plastic are placed along the upstage border. Two are placed at centre stage about 3 meters apart. Downstage right is overtaken by a vast set-up for the musician Tariq, who is surrounded by more fans. A dancer (James Gnam), also covered in a colourless translucent plastic hoodie is at stage left, a special rectangular down spot illuminates his space.

Gnam is a supple and precise dancer. Seemingly trapped in his place, he transitions from wristy pops and locks to lurches to flopping, as though his puppet strings are cut but then reattached. Gnam's character reaches out to upstage left, as though there is something there that can set him free. With the similarly-costumed fans in the background, one might interpret Mion's concept for Gnam as an anthropomorphized fan, stuck forever in his sad fan-ness.

But then Gnam is then released from his place. He crumples, and ripples up, continuing across the stage with some robot moves contrasted with looseness, his character resembling Michael Jackson's Scarecrow from The Wiz. At this point, we don't know what the fans mean or what they'll be used for. At times, Gnam's character seems druid-like, hiding his face within the plastic hoodie, among a Spinal Tap-style mini Stonehenge. Despite the polished and sincere movements, dancing among the little fans comes off as silly. Taking a considerable amount of time and care, Gnam tenderly frees himself from his fan bag hoodie, now full of sweat pouring from the sleeves. We momentarily forget about the fans as Gnam delicately discovers his skin. Free of his strings, Pinocchio becomes a real boy.

For whatever reason, that's the last we see of Gnam. The next several sections feature the lithe Justine Chambers. Chambers establishes herself first by producing a taller stand fan. She sits on a stool and sets the fan to oscillate and follows the path of the fan with her head. Chambers then follows a similar path as Gnam, sometimes walking on all fours in a bear-like manner. When un-inverted, her leg often rises elegantly to a parallel à la seconde. She sets about her dance of discovering the fans, her low-level wonderment calling to mind essences of clowning mixed with contemporary dance. But considering her dutiful reconfiguration of the fans between sections, her sudden wonder seems unlikely. The piece becomes about plastic bags being blown about the stage. One section stands out as particularly unfortunate as Tariq steps out of his lair, and he and Chambers take an exceedingly long time to reconfigure the fans from around Tariq into a different circle around Chambers, who then plugs in the fans, turns them on, and dances with one of the plastic bags on a string, gazing at it almost lovingly. For this, Tariq switches from harmless ambient electronic to pleasant, if bland singer-songwriter, and the scene just comes off as sappy. For the big finish, as we can now expect, the fans are all in motion and there are bags everywhere as Chambers dances and watches her creation set in motion.

Side note: I was recently informed by a dance juror for another event in another city that no fewer than seven submissions involved electric fans. If you are considering making your own fan dance, I'd wait a few years for the fad to die down.


what awaits me

Performed and created by: Brian Webb and Nancy Sandercock
Music composed by: Ludwig van Beethoven (C# Minor Quartet)
                                  Dave Wall
Music performed by:  The Enterprise Quartet - Guillaume Tardif (1st violin), Yue Deng (2nd violin), Charles Pilon (viola), Tanya Prochazka (cello)
Video by:  Kyle Armstrong
Lighting design by: James Proudfoot
Costume Design by: Tamara Bliss
Stage Manager: Brian MacNeil
Artistic consultant: Ginelle Chagnon

Some of your favourite works of any art form might involve highly skilled silences, sustained low-level action, singular notes or chords that hover in the air, or paintings that show within a single colour. What makes the difference between success and failure is how well an artist can accomplish doing seemingly very simple things, or almost nothing, and what the intention is behind it, and how that might read to the audience.

You might recall an interview with Marcel Duchamp, being challenged and questioned on his work and the aesthetic of Dadaism. At the very end, the artist to his own amusement concedes something to the effect of, "In spite of myself, I am a meticulous man."

Witnessing a dance with very little happening, an uninformed audience might simply walk out anyway, wondering where the dance is. An informed audience might simply expect, after seeing and hearing many kinds of art that involve meticulous and practised austerity, that there will be something at least modestly transcendent about it. If it is sloppy and careless, they might just call bullshit.

Webb's stage begins empty of people but scattered with 15-20 mod-styled stackable chairs. A traditional arrangement of music stands for the quartet is in the upstage right. The first person to enter the space is the violist, Charles Pilon. He stands at the one of the upstage chairs and waits there a long time and eventually takes his place. With no further direction, he simply drops character and becomes the violist. One at a time, the rest of the musicians and the two dancers filter in. Two of the musicians seem less comfortable with wandering or waiting, and proceed directly to their places.

Webb begins walking about the stage, much like he did in a Mile Zero salon a few years ago. In that case, his character was clear. A senior citizen lost, wandering in silence and facing early onset dementia. Riding the cusp between lucidity and confusion, it was a poignant statement on aging. His lost walking in that piece was not well received by all, but this reviewer happened to appreciate it.

In what awaits me, Webb seems much less defined in his character, and it goes on for 45 minutes. His female partner, Nancy Sandercock, enters with ambivalence, and the piece then seems to be about ambivalence and waiting. Occasionally the two look at each other, not usually at the same time. Perhaps boredom is the point, but we might agree that we shouldn't be bored by watching. The continuing ambiguity of the characters' relationship does not stir intrigue, instead it becomes increasingly difficult to care about them.

After awhile, there is a longer pause in the music and a large projection screen slowly hums it's way open. The lights go out and the quartet attacks the music by Dave Wall with full force. The video shows a dark, almost monstrous figure, standing very erect. Eventually you can make out that it's Webb in silhouette. Sandercock also appears, standing erect, and sometimes in mirror image side by side.  There is no action other than standing. We can still see the live performers, they change their cadence to a very slow walk in a circle. They of course make this improvisational choice knowing they can still be seen by the audience. They seem to be in a dream state at times as they walk, but sometimes they can't resist breaking character to check out the video. As Wall's piece is aggressively sawed out by the impressive Enterprise Quartet, the video shifts and we see an image of Webb slowly walking away with his elderly mother down an institutional corridor. A couple of edits from the standing figures and back to the corridor, the dream ends, the lights come back, the screen hums its way up and we're back to Beethoven.

The dance returns to more walking and waiting through the chairs, though now there is a mildly hastened pace, a brief and unjustified spooning on the floor, mild agitation, occasional gestures of movement and rolls to the floor. It might be difficult to see this as anything but a hope for an upcoming climax and ending. You may have started counting the number of people walking out, and you hear someone loudly whisper from behind you, "Please…be over…"

Webb explains in the beginning of the program that he works with improvisation. It is possible that at this particular performance, the improvisation simply falls flat, that there are no happy accidents. It is also possible that Webb and Sandercock rely upon the staging and the considerable work of the collaborative artists to carry the piece and that they were not meticulous in forming their characters or movement concepts. It is possible that improvisation is performed in the absence of a serious practice of improvisation.

A highlight of the piece is the fact that Webb's mother is in the audience. From the beginning and during some of the longer silences, her frequent vocalizations and statements are carried throughout the theatre, creating some comic relief to the piece. Although we can't see her, she endears herself to us. And so, we want to like this piece, which is at least in part about her. But even she is reported to have said, "This should have been over by now."