Dance Review – Yvonne Ng’s Frequency and Weave…part one

More often than not, in dance works that are very personal in nature, choreographers need a good editor.  This is true of Yvonne Ng’s Frequency. I’m mentioning this point first because the length itself and repetitions within Frequency, mar a honey of a dance piece.

Ng is not known for her ensemble work. Apparently her last piece for a large number of dancers was 2006, so we can forgive her choreographic overkill, and put it down to enthusiasm. Frequency is certainly very ambitious for its blending together of movement, technology and design, and should be cited for this strength.

There is certainly a lot to recommend in Frequency, an exploration of identity, connection and societal influences. Joanna Yu’s set is gorgeous with its hanging balls of light encased in yards of material, and a back wall dotted with flower-shaped shards of tulle. It is a white wonderland, where both good and bad things happen. At the beginning, the stage is littered with articles of white clothing, designed by Yu. The five dancers wear these different outfits throughout, as they take on (and let go of) different personas.

A running theme is the influence on the group mentality of peer pressure or herd instinct. The dancers jump high into the air with glee, capturing the unfettered joy of childhood. At other times, they are a mass of synchronized followers, stamping in rhythmic cadence. They challenge each other, whether in competitive fun or darker hints of menace. Ng returns to this theme several times in the piece, and as attractive as these moments are, they collectively are too much, too soon.

There are very arresting images within the piece that conjure up a plethora of themes and meanings. A recurring image is one dancer caught in a headlock by another, the latter’s feet gripping the former’s neck in a vice. The victims flay about the floor but they cannot escape the restraint, as the controllers relentlessly march forward in formation. There is also a repeating male duet (performed by Brendan Wyatt and  Zhenya Cerneacov), that is both gentle and disturbing as their bodies entwine. At several points, Cerneacov stretches out on Wyatt’s body, like a visible shadow covering his entire frame. Is it master or lover? The three women (Mairéad Filgate, Amy Hampton and Meredith Thompson) on several occasions launch into graceful, lyrical duets and trios where they are both leaders and followers. The dancers are very, very good, and the expressions on their faces are as important as the very physical movement and highly choreographed hand gestures.

Frequency is rife with complicated technology. Old fashioned, portable tape recorders, cell phones, video projections, land lines ringing. Clearly the emphasis is on connection. The recorders sometimes end up in cunning knapsacks on the backs of the dancers, and the tape cassettes are switched in mid-stream, mostly by Thompson. There is a lot of recorded voice overlap. The attractive other world score is by Erin Donovan.

In other words, there is a lot going on in this very ambitious piece. A tighter, shorter version would have more impact.

The opening work, Ng’s solo Weave…part one is absolutely charming. The format is the popular “talk as you go”, with the monologue accented by movement. It’s the story of Ng’s mother who was abandoned during World War Two. Ng is always expressive, and is particularly adorable and droll in this work. I hope Weave will grow into a complete work.

Frequency, choreography by Yvonne Ng, performed by Zhenya Cerneacov, Mairéad Filgate, Amy Hampton, Meredith Thompson and Brendan Wyatt, The Citadel, Mar. 7 to 11, 2012.

Dance Review (Reprint) – Wayne McGregor|Random Dance/Entity

This review of Wayne McGregor’s Entity originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Feb. 8, 2011. The performance took place at the Grand Theatre in Kingston ON before moving on to Ottawa and Montreal.

Entity is back in Canada, appearing at the Fleck Dance Theatre as part of Harbourfront World Stage, Feb. 28 to Mar. 3, 2012.

England’s Wayne McGregor, and his company Random Dance, produce works of immense depth, and his fusion of dance and technology have made him one of Europe’s hottest choreographers. McGregor’s intriguing full-length piece Entity (2008) is currently on a three-city Canadian tour, and contemporary dance doesn’t get more sophisticated than this.

Entity is a quintessential example of McGregor’s intellectual and artistic inquiry. On one hand, he’s fascinated by dance as science, or how the mind and body work together to produce movement. On the other, cold experimentation goes hand in hand with images of stunning beauty.

McGregor sets his thesis right from the start with a grainy movie of a running dog, which looks like an experiment from the work of motion picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. The dog is an entity, a body viewed in the abstract, and so are the bodies of the 10 dancers that follow. Through a series of solos, duets and ensembles, they are entities moving through space. The way McGregor works the body, and combinations of bodies, however, is a fascinating process.

But Entity is not just cool science. Abstract though his movement is, little stories seem to be happening to individuals, to couples and to larger groups of dancers. The humanity of the entities cannot be suppressed. The movement is also living sculpture, beautiful in its conception and striking in its visual impact.

McGregor’s signature is a body that seemingly has no rigid interior structure. In the Q&A that followed the performance, words such as double-jointed, boneless and extreme were used in an attempt to describe McGregor’s physical calling card.

The basic McGregor body, with a nod to Bob Fosse, has the shoulders back, the chest and pelvis thrust forward, with the deep concave arch of the spine raising the buttocks to almost impossible heights. The limbs pivot through the sockets at unbelievable angles. Movement travels through the body as fluid waves. No matter how distorted the position, the body is always limber and supple. Nothing jars the lyrical flow.

In terms of partnering, bodies combine in such convoluted ways that often, one can’t discern which limbs belong to which dancer. In trios and larger groupings, the individual actions of the dancers become almost impenetrable. The quicksilver physical changes are a kaleidoscope that moves too quickly to allow the eye to rest on one detail for any length of time.

Hand in hand with the movement are the visuals. The digital video of Ravi Deepres is projected on a curved mesh screen designed by Patrick Burnier. Burnier’s costumes begin as unisex white T-shirts and black briefs. In the latter stages of the dance, the men are bare-chested while the women wear black halters. This increased exposure of flesh becomes the landscape for Lucy Carter’s arresting lighting.

The mostly black and white videos are fleeting abstracts of algebra equations, bar codes, DNA spirals and microscopic cells. Numbers hurl by at dizzying speed. Mathematical calculations and laboratory specimens are superimposed upon one another to blur the focus. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of body parts. The tools of hard science have been rendered into video art that is beautiful in and of itself.

The original music by Joby Talbot and Jon Hopkins is very dramatic, more cinematic soundscape than dance accompaniment. Whether edgy electronica, melancholy strings, lyrical pastorals, or nerve-wracking scratchings, the score is always atmospheric and evocative.

In the finale of the dance, the image of the running dog returns, but this time we look at the entity differently because of McGregor’s choreography. We can isolate the rippling muscles, see the gorgeous symmetry of the legs in motion, and be aware of the effortless beauty of a body pushed to the extreme.

(Wayne McGregor|Random Dance appears at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Feb. 28 to Mar. 3, as part of Harbourfront World Stage.)

Dance Review – Laurence Lemieux’s Les cheminements de l’influence

Laurence Lemieux christened the new studio theatre at the Citadel with a very personal solo. The dancer/choreographer chose a very abstract topic – a piece to honour her father, renown Quebec political scientist Vincent Lemieux.

The title comes from a book that Vincent Lemieux wrote – Les cheminements de l’influence, or in English, Pathways of Influence. When I interviewed Lemieux before the work’s premiere, she admitted that one could not actually dance “political science”, but she could pay tribute to her father’s exacting pure science approach to measuring the zeitgeist of the Quebec people, and compare it to her own artistic approach to creating dance.

Now if one had not read the comprehensive program notes, one would have no idea about Vincent Lemieux’s place within the choreography. What is vividly apparent, however, is Lemieux’s love/hate relationship with Quebec.

Gordon Monahan’s wonderfully evocative soundscape references Quebec history with old radio broadcasts. The background to the dance includes the national anthem sung in French, a 1984 hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques that turned into a brawl, news reports of the 1962 Quebec election, politician Camil Samson’s rant against credit, the funeral of Premier Maurice Duplessis, the opening of the massive James Bay hydro project, and the 1977 Stanley Cup final overtime period between the Canadiens and Boston Bruins – and all this interpolated with deconstructed Chopin music for prepared piano. (The program does include excellent translations of the spoken French.) Gabriel Cropley’s simple lighting design suits the piece’s political/reflective theme very well.

Lemieux arrives sporting a tuque, gloves, boots and a winter coat. In time, she sheds the coat to reveal a red plaid lumberjack shirt and jeans. The costume places her right in the heart of Quebec. Lemieux begins by walking pathways across the dance floor, but each time with a difference – in military mode, confusion mode, defiant mode, aggressive mode and the like. At one point, she even staggers and stamps about like a drunk in a barroom. She also goes through motions of skating, and even preening. Big arabesques and lunges, goose stepping, the discipline of pure ballet, turns and balances, frantic gathering and reaching – all depicting the various emotions that Quebec evokes within her.

For example, during the Hydro Quebec segment, Lemieux executes distorted physical shapes on the floor, all the while balanced precariously on her arms and legs. I saw in this the rape of the environment, and the dam’s impact on the Inuit and caribou. There is also a section where she manhandles a stack of much-despised American money. At another point, she is a barefoot penitent, or, she swivels back and forth like a feather in the wind. Volumes of subtext can be read into these images.

In essence, Lemieux is paying tribute to her father by exploring her own feelings about Quebec. That is the point where her father’s methodology and her own methodology merge together.

To be perfectly frank, I would be happy watching Lemieux perform to Old MacDonald Had a Farm. At 47, she is still one of the most exquisite dancers in the country. In Les cheminements de l’influence, however, she does gives us choreography with substance, which makes for satisfying viewing. Lemieux has crafted an intriguing dance out of a tough theme. How this piece would go down in Montreal and Quebec City is anyone’s guess.

And a final word on The Citadel itself, created by Lemieux and husband Bill Coleman. This old Salvation Army soup kitchen/worship hall has turned into a stunning studio theatre. It’s a welcome new performing space.

Les cheminements de l’influence, choreographed and performed by Laurence Lemieux, The Citadel, Feb. 15 to 25, 2012.