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

 

 

 

 

Gallery

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

Ballet West makes classics

It’s always a treat to see an accomplished classical ballet company you’ve never seen before. Ballet West, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, rises to the occasion in the program presented by Dance Victoria at the Royal Theatre, which concludes tonight.

As an opener, Sweet and Bitter, by Spanish choreographer África Guzmán, makes a good showcase for the technical abilities of eight Ballet West dancers: Emily Adams, Rex Tilton, Katlyn Addison, Jenna Rae Herrera, Chelsea Keefer, Alexander MacFarlan, Joshua Shutkind and Jordan Veit. The Friday performance, to Ezio Bosso’s alternately solemn and allegro string and piano composition, was curiously bloodless, as if the dancers had not yet engaged with their audience.  Perhaps it was the canned music, or maybe they were just warming up. But their fluid lifts, graceful entrances and exits, and classical lines were clearly evident.

Founded in 1963 by artistic director William Christensen and Utah arts patron Glenn Walker Wallace, Ballet West established a classical repertoire under Christensen, also co-founder of the San Francisco Ballet. He created the first full-length American productions of Coppélia, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, all of which Ballet West still performs.

Current artistic director Adam Sklute, former associate director of The Joffrey Ballet, conceived and produced a new Swan Lake, which opens Ballet West’s home season next week, and is very much a tribute to the Marius Petipa original. Katherine Lawrence and Christopher Rudd, performing in his farewell season, dance the White Swan Pas de Deux on the Victoria program, followed by Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell performing the Black Swan Pas de Deux. Sisk was the standout here, eyes flashing, dancing with wonderful attack, strength and defiance and executing the familiar steps and fouettés as if she really had something to tell us.

Nicolo Fonte, Ballet West’s resident choreographer, created Fox on the Doorstep in memory of his late father Lorenzo Fonte. Apparently Fonte opened the door one morning and found a small white fox on his doorstep. The choreographer later learned that at the moment of the fox’s appearance, his father had died. Fonte set Fox on the Doorstep principally to the wonderfully evocative, mostly piano music by Ólafur Arnalds (who plays Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto next Friday). Arnalds’ music, along with that of Harry Escott and Jóhan Jóhannson, makes a tapestry against which dancers Adams, Keefer, Katherine Lawrence, Gabrielle Salvatto, Sisk, Arolyn Williams, Adrian Fry, Tyler Gum, MacFarlan, O’Connell, Tilton and Veit perform duets, pas de trois, quartets and ensemble arrangements, often against the loud ticking of a clock. Lawrence, is a dynamo here as is O’Connell, rising shirtless near the end of the piece like the spirit of the missing loved one.  Fox on the Doorstep is a powerful contemporary ballet – a frisson of danger is inherent in the mens’ vests resembling shoulder holsters — that one longs to see again.

Ballet West

Presented by Dance Victoria

At the Royal Theatre, Victoria, February 1 and 2, 2019

Photo of Arolyn Williams and Chase O’Connell in Fox on the Doorstep by Beau Pearson

A bravura bear for our times

A one-man monologue, a song-and-dance routine, mime, performance art and, above all, storytelling, Bears has a unique charm that possibly only Sheldon Elter could realize.

This bear of a man of many talents is Floyd. Narrating his own tale in the third person, he identifies with the big grizzly bear, whose habitat in tar sands country is under threat. Floyd is accompanied by a chorus of seven fairy-like creatures – Shammy Belmore, Karina Cox, Skye Demas, Lara Ebata, Zoë Glassman, Gianna Vacirca and Kendra Shorter — who illustrate Floyd’s story, their words either echoing his thoughts or making a running commentary as they make like sleeping bears, butterflies, alpine flowers or prairie gophers.

There’s a lot going on in Bears, which earned MacKenzie several awards, including a Dora for Outstanding New Play. He wrote the play to reconnect with his family’s Métis, Cree and Ojibwe heritage on the North Saskatchewan River. He might have had Elter in mind as he wrote, for Bears displays elements common to Elter’s hit show Métis Mutt. A stand-up comedian, actor and very entertaining guy, Elter took us from laughter to tears in that intense performance, as he does in Bears.

Bears runs from high seriousness to banality to profanity, often within one or two sentences.  When Floyd muses about grizzlies, referring to “frolicking in alpine meadows,” then tranquilized, then reduced to art installations of “their shellacked bear droppings,” the chorus chimes in with “like, shitloads.” Elter plays his dual role well. One minute he’s an indigenous man complaining how “the Feds cut our funding” for a project. The next he’s a would-be bear ravaging the forest floor for wild strawberries or chatting with woodland chickadees.

The humour ranges from satire to farce. (The bear’s sense of smell is so good “he can tell which squirrels are menstruating.”)  The chorus also indicates mood, an assist to the audience, for the script can be confusing. Monica Dottor’s choreography is quite challenging for young performers who don’t appear to have had much dance training, but the dainty, shape-shifting choristers can be amusing.

Would that the playwright had made more of the role of Mama, played by fine Cree actor Tracey Nepinak, last seen at the Belfry in a revival of The Rez Sisters. She is the calm centre, and she’s especially moving when speaking in Cree. But for chunks of the 80-minute show she’s on stage with nothing to do.

Bring your imagination if you’re coming to see Bears, for it’s a thoughtful play that requires careful interpretation. T. Erin Gruber helps that process, having created a minimal set of shiny, reflective shapes like mountains and clouds that dramatically re-engineer the space with some brilliant lighting.

Beyond avalanches, desecration of the environment and a tale of a golden eagle drowned in a toxic tailings pond, there’s a home truth to convey, a statement that applies to all communities: “We must stand together for justice in this world.” Mama says so.

Photo of Sheldon Elter and chorus by David Cooper

Bears

By Matthew MacKenzie

An Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre production

At the Belfry Theatre, Victoria, until February 24, 2019

Gallery

Three days in Hanoi

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In a city of contrasts, a tourist visiting Hanoi can in the space of a few hours experience the sacred and the crassly commercial, the high anxiety of negotiating anarchic traffic and the splendid tranquility of a walk around an inner-city lake.

On this second visit to the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, having already taken in the mandatory sights of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum, the Imperial Citadel and historic sites such as the Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war, I got dropped off at the tiny, perfect Den Ngoc Son temple across a picturesque bridge in Hoan Kiem Lake, just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Amid the bustling preparations for the lunar new year, Tet, to come, visitors and worshippers flock to this legendary location. In the 15th century, Lê Lói, who became emperor and founder of the Lê dynasty, was on this lake when he received the magic sword, Heaven’s Will, from the Golden Turtle god, Kim Qui. Thus did Vietnam gain independence from China. Later Lê Lói returned the sword to the turtle god, giving Hoan Kiem its name, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword.”

Next stop is the Temple of Literature, not exactly what an English major might expect, but a complex of courtyards, monuments and temples dedicated to Confucian teachings and scholars. Explanatory panels in the central courtyard present archival documents and photographs of the French occupation of the city, which started in 1873. Within 12 years, the Concession was complete and the ancient capital, first established by the invading Chinese army in the seventh century as the Red River fort, was a mirror image of a 19th-century French capital. Vietnam, forever conquered and then repelling invaders including the Chinese, the French and the Americans, or ruled over by authoritarian royal families, presents a perfect case study in the nature of power.

The Women’s Museum, on a main street in the Hoan Kiem district, earns its reputation as the best museum in the city. Outstandingly curated displays on four floors, take us through centuries of female influence from marriage and family, to women’s participation in war and revolution, to the development of women’s fashions. Most inspiring is the history of Vietnamese women’s involvement in combat from 1945 to 1975. A typical heroine is Kan Lich, who directed a female guerilla force against American troops at 18 and was honoured in 1968 as a Hero of the Nation for participating in 49 battles and bringing down an American Dakota plane.

Beyond the centre of Hanoi and well worth the short taxi ride is the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, where detailed reconstructions of minority habitats and customs give the visitor a very clear picture of the Vietnamese population. Fifty-three ethnic minorities, divided into five main groups, make up the contemporary population of Vietnam. The majority, Viet or Kinh peoples, account for 87 percent of the 95.5 million population (as of 2017). The arts and crafts and traditional lifestyles of minorities such as the Red Dao or the Black Hmong are all on display here, but are best appreciated with a visit to their homelands, mostly in mountainous regions of the country.

Strolling through the old quarter of Hanoi in January you’ll quickly get a taste of what a huge occasion Tet is. The coming Year of the Pig, will be very lucky for those born in such a year, and as you wind your way through busy, narrow streets some of them specializing in the sale of silver, silk, stationery or flowers, you can feel part of the celebrations. And after a day of dodging scooters and cars on the streets of Hanoi, no better place for a final stop than at Body and Soul spa, where I experienced the best massage ever.

From top: Den Ngoc Son temple; Temple of Literature; Yao family relic, Museum of Ethnology; Kan Lich, Women’s Museum

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Lovers in a dangerous time in China

A well constructed page-turner, Robert F. Delaney’s first novel is for Canadians watching the Huawei affair play out, a timely expose of what it’s like to operate in China as a North American, whether it be as a journalist, an investor or even a spy. The Wounded Muse, published in November 2018 by Mosaic Press, is a fiction based on Delaney’s experiences reporting business news for outlets including Dow Jones and Bloomberg from the mid-1990s.

Jake Bradley, born underprivileged to alcoholic parents in rural Kentucky, has advanced on the strength of his intelligence and gift for languages, to become a business reporter for Toeler News service in Beijing. Schooled in a provincial university, he is fluent in Mandarin, and leads a comfortable life as a plugged-in, semi-closeted gay man in the Chinese capital. He meets Qiang, a Chinese national who has been working in California’s Silicon Valley and has returned to his home country to document the rapid changes and resulting social displacement that has been going on in China with the ramping up of its economic growth and preparation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In helping Qiang with his video project, Jake falls hard for the Chinese man, and then Qiang suddenly disappears, presumably taken into detention for reasons no one can surmise.

A parallel love story concerns Dawei, a dishwasher in a hotel in Macau, who has drifted there from his poor village, Yongfu, in the far northeast province of Heilongjiang. Dawei meets Zhihong, a Beijing bureaucrat on a recreational visit to Macau, with his boss who runs a section of the government overseeing the film business. Zhihong, it turns out, is married, and after his under-the-bridge tryst with Dawei, quickly drops him. But Dawei, with little money to live on, follows Zhihong to Beijing and gets a job as a courier for a travel agency.

With a minimum of byzantine twists, the two plotlines intertwine as Jake encounters Dawei and befriends him and Zhihong is drawn into the Sun Qiang fiasco, working in an intelligence role in his ministry. Qiang’s sister Diane, employed by a European bank in Beijing, and his former husband Ben, a researcher at MIT in the Boston area, join Jake in trying to extract Qiang from detention. The action plays out in 2007 with flashbacks to 2004 and in between and forms a credible tale of intrigue and human rights abuses against a backdrop of China’s development as a super power, taking its place on the world stage.

Delaney’s prose is serviceable and he ratchets up the tension as Jake gets himself deeper and deeper into trouble, emotionally and politically, in his search for Qiang. He doesn’t spare the details when it comes to men grappling in secret, but the sex is not gratuitous and the dialogue only occasionally forced. In making the transition from journalism to fiction, Delaney has wisely stuck to what he knows and the result is an informative narrative of love and identity in dangerous times.

The King redux

 

Let’s not look at all the ways a 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical misses the mark when measured against today’s views on imperialism, toxic masculinity and diversity. What can’t be challenged is the power of the music. This is what the producers at the Lincoln Center were counting on when they revived The King and I in 2015.

The show is an homage to the original stage and film production with Yul Brynner in the role of the petulant king and Gertrude Lawrence, then Deborah Kerr as the redoubtable Anna Leonowens. The book was based on the novel The King and I by Margaret Landon. It was inspired by a memoir by Leonowens, an Anglo-Indian teacher, recalling her time as governess to the children of the Siamese King Mongut in the 1860s.

Bartlett Sher, resident director at Lincoln Center, earned a Tony Award for best direction of a musical for this production and it’s easy to see why. While anyone trying to fill Yul Brynner’s curly-toed shoes has a tough job to do, Pedro Ka’awaloa’s “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera”s ring true. His stature is not as commanding as might be expected, but he nails the king as a case of arrested development who nevertheless had a desire to lead his country into modernity, if not reduce his absolute power. Ka’awaloa’s voice is not as strong as some of the others’, but he doesn’t have to sing much.

The women characters own this musical. Angela Baumgardner wears Anna Leonowens enormous hoop skirts very well, and has the voice, the hauteur and the love of children to make her governess come alive. She gets the opening number of the show, still on deck of the ship that is bringing Anna and her son Louis (Hayden Bercy) into Bangkok. “I Whistle a Happy Tune” is a full-throated anthem to female independence and courage, qualities that make The King and I a proto-feminist creation. Every woman here surmounts her straitened circumstances.

Paulina Yeung almost steals the show in the role of Tuptim, the slave girl gifted to the king of Siam by the king of Burma. She is secretly in love with Lun Tha, a scholar working in the palace on the design for a temple. Yeung’s rich, warm rendition of “My Lord and Master,” “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” reveals her background as an opera singer.

Deanna Choi makes a dignified senior wife, Lady Thiang, especially singing “Something Wonderful.” She complements the unbridled playfulness of the royal children (a sampling of the king’s 67 offspring), delightfully portrayed in their topknots and purple silks by CJ Fernanado, Anjali Kanter, Kylie Kuioka, Linder Sutton, Kayla Teruel, Hiroko Uchino and Eliot Waldvogel.

Bern Tan takes on the part of the king’s righthand man/enforcer Kralahome and is suitably forceful, overshadowing the king when they occupy the same space. The role of British diplomat Sir Edward Ramsey is a placeholder for British imperialism and male dominance, but Stanton Morales is a good foil for the king and opens up the possibility that Anna has fallen in love with her king.

No sensible choreographer would mess with Jerome Robbins’s original choreography and Christopher Gattelli doesn’t. He enhances the lively production numbers with new moves and preserves the rollicking polka between king and governess, danced to the music of a nine-piece orchestra conducted by David Aaron Brown. This production of The King and I gets its dazzle from the Michael Yeargan’s economic, Buddhist-oriented set design and Catherine Zuber’s costumes, which so well illustrate the east-meets-west theme of the play.

Where this revival of The King and I excels is not in the reinforcement of identity politics but in its honouring of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s intent to show we are all the same under the skin.

The King and I

By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

Directed by Bartlett Sher

Presented by Broadway in Victoria at the Royal Theatre, Victoria until January 6

Photo of Angela Baumgardner as Anna Leonowens with the royal children by Matthew Murphy