The Revizor, revised, revamped and reborn as dance theatre

revisor is a parable for our times, adapted in a uniquely expressionistic form of dance and theatre from Nikolai Gogol’s play The Inspector General (Revizor in the original Russian) by writer/performer Jonathon Young and choreographer/director Crystal Pite. This is the same team (including composer/sound designer Owen Belton and scenic designer Jay Gower Taylor) that in 2015 brought us the brilliant Betroffenheit.

With revisor Young, Pite and their collaborating performers Doug Letheren, Rena Narumi, Matthew Peacock, David Raymond, Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey and Tiffany Tregarthen have raised the bar again, with great inventiveness and spectacle, leading us into a nightmare-in-progress, reflective of the very political deceit, fake news, divisiveness and government corruption that dominate our airwaves today.

Gogol’s 1836 play, both a farce and a satire, trades in the same themes. He developed the play from an anecdote related to him by Pushkin, about the case of a lowly clerical figure sent to a regional outpost of the czarist empire on some minor assignment. The clerk is mistaken for an official of influence and authority and soon has the local department head and others toadying before him. For Young and Crystal, the play presents “a matrix for both voice and body . . .malleable and resonant.”

Inspiration for this adaptation of The Inspector General came from accounts of a 1926 non-naturalist production of the play by the Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940). Meyerhold eschewed method acting for a kind of physical theatre that harked back to commedia dell’arte and expressed the symbolism he found in the text in the physical movements of his actors.

Ingeniously, Young et al created a spoken text that works like a score, the performers mouthing the words as they are heard overheard while performing exaggerated movements as if they were human puppets. These movements tell the tale of deceit, for the emotions they express often belie the words the actors are mouthing.

The performance of the farce in a series of tableaux – with Doug Letheren as Director of the Complex, Jermaine Spivey as the Postmaster, Tiffany Tregarthen (in removable beard) as the Revisor and a blousy, Cindy Salgado as the flirtatious Anna, wife of the Director – opens and closes the piece. What transpires in the middle is a dance deconstruction of The Inspector General, plumbing the emotional depths of the play, while stage directions are voiced overhead. Expressionism reaches its height with the appearance of a figure bearing a huge set of antlers that then get used as crutches.

The movement of the 10 performers is extraordinary, very dreamlike, an effect heightened by Owen Belton’s electronic, industrial soundscape and Jay Gower Taylor’s abstract video projections that trace needle-like paths on the scrim like an electronic circuit gone mad. The words of the text are repeated and broken down into phrases that apply the idea of the revisor to the dance – constantly regrouping, revising the movement, getting down to the elemental level.

All to say, catch revisor if you possibly can, and hope that there’s a chance to see it more than once, for its complexity demands revisiting.

revisor

Created by Crystal Pite + Jonathon Young

A Kidd Pivot Production presented by Canadian Stage

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, until March 16

Photo of Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen, Doug Letheren, David Raymond, Rena Narumi, Matthew Peacock by Michael Slobodian.

Night travellers take us to our ancestral home

There must be millions of people in the world today who have never and may never experience a truly dark night sky. Such is the effect of urban and rural light pollution, that many will never witness the constellations or the Milky Way. The idea of losing the night came to Saskatchewan choreographer Shannon Litzenberger in 2014 when she took up an artist’s residency at Grasslands National Park, declared a Dark Sky Preserve in 2009.

That experience was the seed for World After Dark, a multi-media exploration in dance and words, of all that our connection to the night can mean, and how fragile our relationship to it has become. Christopher Dewdney’s book, Acquainted with the Night: Excursions through the World after Dark gave Litzenberger the impetus to assemble a dynamic creative team to collaborate in words, music, video imagery and especially dance in an exploration of the metaphors associated with night.

A poetic voiceover narrative — the work of playwright and dramaturge Guillermo Verdecchia, in part referring to and quoting from Dewdney’s text – is key to the coherence of this show. Rarely is speech employed so effectively in dance as it is in World After Dark, in the voiced-over narrations delivered offstage by Irene Pauzer and Dan Wild, and in short bits of spoken by the performers.

“Take a moment to let your eyes adjust (to the dark),” a narrator advises as the lights gradually come up on Linnea Swan, the personification of night. A goddess of darkness, she appears outfitted in designer Alexandra Lord’s black silky jumpsuit covered in shiny, spangly stars, as if she was wearing the night sky. Curled up on the floor in fetal position is Louis Laberge-Côté, our Everyman urbanite, as Swan takes us on the progress of night across the globe (courtesy of Elysha Poirier’s video projections on the upstage scrim). The night covers the Earth in darkness, as “dripping time passes . . . No trace of her is left on you.”

Aroused, agitated, Laberge-Côté voices a fragmented, disoriented shout of orders and numbers: “Six. . . Five . . .Rules . . . Sorry . . . This is the policy. . . I’m sorry . . . these are the parameters.” This is a desperate man, a bureaucrat trying to impose order, struggling against the darkness encroaching on him. Four figures in drab dungarees pull him down to the ground and remove him.

In the next scene, Ms. Night, relating the discovery of fire and the consequent light brought to early Earthlings, is our hostess at a disco bar or nightclub, where downtown workers seek the night to reinvent themselves, leaving behind their dreary occupations for more exciting identities on the dance floor. Syreeta Hector, Emily Law, Nikolaos Markakis and Kathia Wittenborn more or less depict themselves, as Swan continues her presentation. “Only losers will go to bed alone tonight,” she says.

And so it goes, with a voyage into the night forest in which our Everyman, fearful yet intrigued, recovers a connection to nocturnal creatures, including a mothlike being beautifully articulated in a solo by Wittenborn. There’s a brief sequence set to the text of Margaret Wise Brown’s famous children’s book, Goodnight Moon, and a beautiful monologue from Laberge-Côté about sneaking out of the house on summer nights to envelop himself in the darkness.

The choreography, with assistance from dance dramaturge Gerald Trentham and creative advisor Marie-Josée Chartier, is compellingly original, emerging organically from the story line and synched to John Gzowski’s haunting sound design, presented to advantage through Ken MacKenzie’s light and set design.

A huge creative effort went into the making of World After Dark and one only hopes it has a life beyond this premiere at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, perhaps in some dark sky preserve.

World After Dark

Concept, choreography and direction by Shannon Litzenberger

Harbourfront Centre Theatre, March 6 to 9, 2019, Toronto

Photo of Linnea Swan and Louis Laberge-Côté by Lyon Smith

A Wondrous theatrical adventure

Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland enchants like one’s first encounter with the 1865 Lewis Carroll book of the same name. And what a theatrical adventure it is.

Reworked from the sprawling, less disciplined version that Wheeldon introduced in 2011, the National Ballet of Canada production of Alice, just opened at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, is tightly structured in three acts and anchored in romantic story ballet tradition.

As with the best of fairy tale ballets, this enthralling two-hour-and-forty-minute show is about transformation and self-discovery, complete with a guide, Professor Carroll/the White Rabbit, to interpret the phantasmagorical landscape of Alice’s imagination. Underlying the storyline is a girl’s journey through the confusing and mood-shifting passage of adolescence into young womanhood.

The story opens in 1862, in an upper-class garden in Oxford, where Lewis Carroll, a lecturer in mathematics and friend to the Liddell family is entertaining their three daughters, Lorina, Alice and Edith, reading to them and performing magic tricks. In the background, social-climbing Mrs. Liddell is preparing a garden party for the Dean of Christ Church, while her blustering husband tries to tame her temper.

When Alice’s mother, in a rage over an alleged theft by the gardener’s son Jack, banishes the boy from the household, Alice, who has befriended Jack, is deeply dismayed. To console her, Carroll goes to take her photo and emerges from under the camera cloth as the White Rabbit, his hair blanched and tufted up like a pair of ears.

Down the rabbit hole goes Alice, captive to her Wonderland escapades. All the characters in her life now appear as figures inhabiting the psychedelic world she has slipped into, with each drink of magic potion or bite of a mind-altering cake.

All of what ensues – Alice growing large and then small, swimming in a pool of her own tears or receiving hookah smoke messages of who are you? – is accomplished with the ingenious use of scrims and mind-boggling video and still projections of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, assisted with some brilliant puppetry. (The black-suited Cheshire cat operation is hardly to be believed.) The visuals are tightly synched to Joby Talbot’s score, orchestrated by Christopher Austin and Talbot into a soundscape of eerie swooning to carnivalesque romp to soaring romantic themes.

Jillian Vanstone’s Alice is delightfully light-footed and girlish, transforming before our eyes into young woman of passion and compassion. Francesco Gabriele Frola grows too, from infatuated gardener’s son Jack into Alice’s prince, the Knave of Hearts. Their several pas de deux express true love, with great strength and articulation.

Skylar Campbell, the Lewis Carroll figure who morphs into the White Rabbit, ably carries the through line of the tale, as a protector and a guide and sometimes anxious fusspot, with admirable inventiveness.

Comedy and satire, realized in Bob Crowley’s stunning sets and costumes and Nicholas Wright’s outlandish scenarios, drive the adventure without overwhelming Alice’s inner journey. First appearing as the bossy, vindictive Mama Liddell and then encased in a bright red steel bell of a dress as the even haughtier Queen of Hearts, Greta Hodgkinson seemed to be channelling a lead from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. She delivers a wonderful spoof of the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty, her comic talents matched by Rex Harrington’s as a henpecked Papa Liddell, reimagined as the King of Hearts, all in red, tripping around in 18th-century heeled shoes like a drag queen looking for her spotlight.

Top of the list of inspired casting is Piotr Stanczyk, en travesti as the self-important yet grovelling Duchess. He is literally laugh-out-loud funny with his every appearance.

True to story ballet tradition, Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures is also a celebration of dance for its own sake. Donald Thom, the Magician who becomes the flame-haired Mad Hatter, is a Nicholas Brother en pointe in the tap-dancing sequence of the tea party, along with the farcical Vicar become March Hare, performed by a giggly, buck-toothed Jack Bertinshaw to Meghan Pugh’s animated Dormouse. A standout solo is performed by Harrison James, as the slinky Rajah/The Caterpillar in a sequence inspired by Arabic belly-dancing. A hilarious vaudeville-esque variation and some beautiful ensemble performances – the flamingo croquet game and the game of cards – complete the picture of what a well-trained, versatile ballet company can do.

A little trimming in the third act wouldn’t hurt, but if you are looking for big bang for your ballet buck, this Alice is the ticket. It’s an all-ages show comparable to the National Ballet’s Nutcracker that will withstand many repeat viewings.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon

Performed by the National Ballet of Canada

Until March 17, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

Photo of Greta Hodgkinson as the Queen of Hearts and Jillian Vanstone as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Cylla von Tiedemann

A poignant love letter to a Vietnamese Mom

“I’m not Chinese. If I were Chinese I’d look a lot like this but less Vietnamese. . . My last name is “Nguyen” and not New Yen. Vietnamese is a tonal language. You need a special muscle to hit that “Ng” sound and that muscle is called “tolerance”.

With this bit of gentle confrontation, actor and comedian Franco Nguyen opens Good Morning, Viet Mom, playing now at Toronto’s Aki Studio in Daniels Spectrum. It is a very clever show, Nguyen holding his audience in his affectionate grip with a script he wrote himself.

First produced at the 2017 Toronto Fringe and the 2018 Next Stage Festival, Viet Mom is freshly mounted by Cahoots Theatre with a bigger production team. Director Byron Abalos has sharpened the edges of the show with choreographed movement by Andrea Mapili and Kevin Matthew Wong’s video and still projections, some displayed in a monitor shaped like a suitcase.

Good Morning Viet Mom is a love story. It came into being on a trip Nguyen, a Second City alumni and sketch comedy artist, made with his mother Dieu to Vietnam around 2012. It was his first time there, his mother’s return after 28 years, and the purpose was to visit Nguyen’s elderly grandmother.

Nguyen saw for the first time how much his mother had sacrificed for him after bringing her son, a babe in arms, to Canada. She worked in a factory in Toronto, generously sending money back home, even as her Winnipeg-born teenager – whose Vietnamese is too basic to really converse in a deep way with his mother – would be demanding a flashy pair of the newest Nikes. And getting them.

Viet Mom is Nguyen’s response to his loving, generous mother, saying in a poignant piece of theatre what he could not say in her language. The actor deploys his stand-up chops to describe frequent visits to Honest Ed’s, one-stop shopping for his mother, an emporium that looked like “a clown had sex with Dollarama.”

With self-deprecating humour, Nguyen tells of his coming of age as the son of an Asian immigrant, giving himself the hip-hop handle of Nip Dog. The laughs fall away as the performer segues to a tearful memory of profound gratitude when, as we see in his videos, Nguyen takes a journey of the heart to find out who his mother and his Vietnamese family really is.

This mom, just back from a visit with her journalist daughter in Hanoi, is grateful to have witnessed, through Canadian-Vietnamese eyes, all that a cross-cultural family can mean.

Good Morning Viet Mom

Written and performed by Franco Nguyen

A Cahoots Theatre Production

At Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto, until March 3, 2019

Photo of Franco Nguyen by Dahlia Katz

I am woman, flesh and spirit

The keening begins before the house lights are down. Out of the darkness, a shrill cry, rising in pitch, louder until it’s a glass-shattering single high note held unendurably long. In a slow-motion film fade-in, a  figure can be glimpsed in the murky space, naked arms raised high and wide like a Thunderbird totem pole. Then, with a clack of a switch, we are struck with the glare of a stagelights so strong we have to shield our eyes. Before us, stage front and centre, staring steadily into the middle distance stands Paige Culley, naked but for a pair of blue jeans, which she ever so slowly begins to unzip and partially remove, squatting down as if to pull them off then changing her mind. She moves to a cross-legged position upstage on the dance pad, a big rectangle made of pale blue Styrofoam sheets shiny with some kind of body oil. She removes removes the jeans completely now, emerging like a newborn from a shed skin. Lying full out, she begins to slowly roll along the slick surface, literally painting the floor with her body as she outlines the perimeter of the dancepad, upstage right, across the back and downstage left.

Pour, at 60 minutes long, is as much performance art as dance. Culley’s sculptural movements, mostly on the floor, are agonizingly slow, inviting us to contemplate the body as a three-dimensional work of art. Conceived and directed by Montreal-based dancer/choreographer Daina Ashbee, the show prompts thoughts of missing and murdered indigenous women. Ashbee found the perfect interpreter for the piece in Culley, a BC-born, Montreal -based dancer who has worked closely with Dancemakers and Compagnie Marie Chouinard.

Ashbee, whose heritage is Cree and Dutch, was trained in Vancouver and has made her name as an up-and-coming choreographer on the stages of Montreal, Europe and Mexico. She is currently artist-in-residence at Agora de la danse in Montreal and describes her choreography as “an investigation of the body in order to address the subconscious. . . and bring awareness of my own thoughts and processes. Articulating this awareness through choreography helps to uncover my connection to the environment, the earth and to my ancestors.”

This connection is clear, as Culley, now well oiled, lies supine on the floor and begins a rhythmic pounding of her elbows on the floor, replicating the beats of an Indian drumming circle. Culley’s strength and control is empowering. She is fierce in her exertions as she rolls first from one side to another. She pounds with her hips, each of her buttocks, then her torso, then full body, like a mermaid, flapping prostrate on the shore. There are sounds too – an earthy groan of connection to some primal force.

Then standing tall, dripping with sweat and oil, her face enflamed, Culley begins a slow sideways shuffle with her back to us, crossing the stage from left to right and back again, completing enclosure of the performance space that she began with her body rolls. This ritualistic enclosure defines the territory of the self, inviolate, never to be overlooked. As the dancer turns to face us once again before being plunged in darkness, that direct gaze offers us her full spiritual and physical presence, a gift to be sure.

Take a look here: https://vimeo.com/241325669

Pour

Conceived and directed by Daina Ashbee

Performed by Paige Culley

A To Live Presentation in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and the Theatre Centre

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto until February 24, 2019

 

 

Dancing explosively into the light

   From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

Such sentiments – and a whole lot more – have inspired the spectacular and often profound multimedia production that is who we are in the dark. The Peggy Baker Dance project that premiered last night at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre grew out of a short 2015 work, fractured black, that marked the first collaboration between Baker and dynamic violinist Sarah Neufeld, a member of Arcade Fire and the Montreal ensemble Bell Orchestre.

Baker’s best performances have centred on a live interaction between solo musician and dancer or dancers. For who we are in the dark, Baker pairs Neufeld with Arcade Fire master drummer Jeremy Gara, on a riser upstage. The show builds like the progress of a chemical reaction as eight dancers move through a space of electric possibility. Gala’s drumming is synched to Jeremy Mimnagh’s surging black and white projections on the stage-high back scrim, while Marc Parent’s incisive strobes, like criss-crossed bars of neon light, animate a stage bathed in mood-altering ultraviolet, turquoise and nightshade colours.

Kate Holden, the premiere interpreter of Baker’s choreographic vision, leads us into the fray, as Sarah Fregeau, Mairi Greig, Nicole Rose Bond, Benjamin Kamino, Sahara Morimoto, David Norsworthy and Jarrett Siddall form a well rehearsed and coordinated ensemble.

Who are we in the dark? We’re scared, we’re secretive, combative, sexual, intimate – we’re in touch with our id. All is expressed in Baker’s muscular, enclosing and repelling movements and Fides Krucker’s vocalography: the dancers’ growls of satisfaction or apprehension, howls of pain, murmurs of animal pleasure or mewls of a creature looking for its mother, as they move in ensemble like a mob driven by the collective unconscious.

The huge, furiously painted canvas hangings of the recently deceased Montreal artist John Heward add another layer to who we are in the dark. One hangs on the wall above the musicians and never moves. Others, displaying Gestalt images such a circle or a crude house or mountain, drop down into the performance space, where the dancers tear them and move through them as if they constituted another form of music.

A chilling, electric hum rises and falls through the piece as Gara’s primal, syncopated drum rhythms and Neufeld’s scissoring violin bow, alternately frantic and soothing, drive the dancers. Four same-sex and male-female couples express their love in dance. In one still moment, Neufeld does a vigorous violin solo in a spotlit cone, in conversation with a line of dancers, Holden in the forefront, leaning in to the music with beautiful Baker sweeping arms and elongated torso and legs. As the music, lightshow and projections rise to a crescendo, the scrim turns into a rainbow-coloured swirl of paint, a backdrop for Sarah Fregeau, who enters in a pearl grey costume, as if she’s found enlightenment.

These are dark times and great art can lead us toward the light at the end of the tunnel. who we are in the dark was made possible with cash from the National Arts Centre’s Creation Fund and the dare-to-dream determination of CanStage executive producer Sherrie Johnson. Baker and her collaborators have mounted a show that reveals just how big they can go given the right budget.

who we are in the dark

Concept, choreography and direction by Peggy Baker

Composition and live music by Sarah Neufeld and Jeremy Gara

A Peggy Baker Dance Projects production presented by Canadian Stage with Fall for Dance North

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, until Feb 24; Montreal’s Thêâtre Maisonneuve, Feb 27-March 2; Hamilton’s McMaster University, March 6; Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity, March 9; Whitehorse’s Yukon Arts Centre, March 13; and Kingston’s Grand Theatre, April 9, 2019

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

 

 

 

 

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Up and down the Mekong Delta

 

For anyone captivated by the idea a tropical river cruise, a trip on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta doesn’t disappoint. On board the vintage, wooden-sided Bassac II, I was channelling Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen.

The Mekong Delta, end point of the 4,500-kilometre-long river that has its source in the mountains of Tibet, is known as Vietnam’s rice bowl. The Mekong here is called Song Cuu Long, the River of Nine Dragons, for its many branches on the vast delta. The two main tributaries, watery highways for serious freight transportation, are the Hau Giang (Lower River) or Bassac River, and the Tien Giang or Upper River. My daughter Jenny and I elected to take the day cruise up to Can Tho and back down on the Bassac, boarding at Cai Be, a bustling port that’s a four-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City.

The delta is a populous part of the country, both on and off the water. We grew used to the sounds of karaoke voices pumping out from villages behind a wall of thick jungle greenery as we steamed upstream over lush outgrowths of water lilies. In the towns on the delta, people inhabit stilted houses on the river banks, or they ply their wares at floating markets, as tourist cameras flash. Thirsty? You can order up a fresh coconut cut and served by the lady who poles her launch between larger craft offering onions, potatoes, greens, fish, meat, whatever. The floating merchants live on their boats too.

Our guide Anh took us ashore to walk a short path into a village where homes were surrounded with pens for pigs, ducks and chickens. Fruits cultivated here include bananas, jack fruit, mangoes, papaya and much more. Along the way we learned how Vietnamese growers in the south can get three harvests of rice out of the huge paddies that cover the delta. It’s women’s work, we heard, as Anh pulled no punches about life in the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Women here in the south also raise the children and keep house.

Throughout Vietnam these days, it’s Mammon over Marx. Despite a roaring economy, with annual GDP growth of more than 6 percent, the average citizen must work very hard to make ends meet. There are no government pensions, no medicare and those who wish proper health care and education for their children must pay for it, sometimes in bribes to insure proper care in hospital. The hoarded-up (prior to Tet celebrations) huge statue of Ho Chi Minh in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City became a symbol of how far this communist state has strayed from the ideals established by its first leader. Ho Chi Minh, who served as president of North Vietnam from 1945 to 1969, died before his country achieved victory in the American War and reunification of the north and south parts of the country, which didn’t happen until July 2, 1976.

Amid the buzz of construction and commerce – universal in Vietnam – there is room for peace and prayer in some spectacular temples on the delta. Most unusual for this part of the world is in the Cao Dai temple in Cai Be. Decorated in an Eastern rococo style, the Cao Dai temple is dedicated to a religion unique to Vietnam. A fusion of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, Cao Dai also displays elements of Christianity and Islam. Its monks and nuns all wear white and the most prominent symbol is a single eye, signifying an all-seeing divine power or God.

In Can Tho, a city with a population of 1.52 million, three outstanding temples are evidence of  the return of religion to the centre of life in a country where the communist government once banned all religious observance. The biggest and most typical of Vietnam is Pitu Kohsa Rangsay Pagoda, a massive edifice featuring huge statues of the Buddha and four levels of worship. On the top floor, the carved wooden monks, gathered as if attending the last supper, add a human touch.

A helpful young monk took us on a brief tour of the Khmer pagoda called Pitu Kohsa Rangsay, radiant in its gold leaf covering. The abbot invited us to rest, drink tea and invited questions on the practice of Theravada Buddhism, practised mainly in Cambodia. He delineated the major differences between different strands of Buddhism practised in southeast Asia. Their objectives don’t differ and when followers from different countries meet as a group, he said, “we converse in Pali, the language of the Buddha.”

Our last stop in Can Thu before reboarding Bassac II was the Chinese Ong Temple, facing the Mekong and easily identified by the Chinese characters and iconography decorating its front. Inside, disciples keep incense burning around the clock and tend to altars to different deities and local heroes. The temple was built in the 19th century for worship of Kuan Kung, a deity associated with intelligence, honesty, confidence, virtue and faithfulness. Many offerings were piled up in front of the Goddess of Fortune and the Kul-Am Buddha.

Getting There: to book a Bassac tour, go to http://www.travelvietnam.com

Photos from top left, clockwise: a Bassac touring boat, Cao Dai temple, incense in the Ong temple, a monk and law student at Pitu Kohsa Rangsay temple, a merchant hawks her wares near Can Tho