Review: Made in China, at the Firehall Arts Centre (Wen Wei Dance)

I saw this piece in an open rehearsal in January, before the troupe took the work to Banff and their premiere performance.

I really liked what I saw in the rehearsal, so I was definitely anticipating the full production with lighting and visuals and costumes.

The lighting and visuals added a lot to this work. I couldn’t believe the intricate shadow work, and how mesmerizing it was. I was often torn between watching the dancer and watching his or her shadows. Sammy Chien did an excellent job on managing the lighting and visuals and the dancers did a fantastic job matching their dance to the projected screen behind them. I often felt like I was seeing a live and animated classical Chinese painting, in terms of how the perspective worked. It’s sort of shadow puppetry, except there are no puppets.

I hadn’t realized that the informal discussion that the dance troupe has at the start, where they describe their artistic paths and their relationships to China and Canada, was part of the work. During the rehearsal I thought they were just chatting with us. I was glad they included this explanatory and introductory part in the work. It’s not “pure” dance, but the juxtaposition of dance, theatre, music, and shadows add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

As for the music, I am biased as I love traditional Chinese music, but Qiu Xia He’s mastery of numerous instruments is amazing. She developed this specialty at her mother’s urging so that she could escape the Cultural Revolution.

The different parts of the work were perhaps not quite so clear to me as they were at the rehearsal, where, to my recollection, we had labels (such as “Birth”). But you will still get a strong emotional sense. I interpreted some of the dance to refer both to an infant learning language, and a new immigrant learning the new language. Other dance seemed that it might refer to hunger and suffering (perhaps during the Cultural Revolution?).

This troupe plays with the stereotype that Chinese are not artistic, but do everything “the same” (and they specifically refer to this at the start). If you watch this work, you will see for yourself how fallacious that stereotype is. Everything about this work is unique, but the best part for me is how all the different elements are combined in such a harmonious way. It was slightly frustrating for me not to understand the Chinese language parts, but given that the projected screen was fully utilized with the visuals, I doubt that surtitles would be a great choice here. I think you will understand the work pretty well, and most of it is in English anyway.

Wen Wei Wang expresses what he means by “Made in China”. I recommend seeing this (alas, it may be too late in Vancouver!).

620 Main Street

I frequently walk by Tosi’s. Go and see him if you haven’t. Reblogging from Changing Vancouver.

Changing Vancouver

620 Main St

Our 1978 image and today’s view of the building are almost identical. Anyone who has looked into the window of Tosi’s Italian food store might conclude that the window display hasn’t changed over the decades either. According to the Assessment Authority the build dates from 1930, which is the year the street directory tells us Tosi and Co moved here. If you look on the company website you’ll see that the building was once part of Woodward’s – that’s not actually true. Woodward’s first store was indeed built on this block, and numbered as 622 Westminster Avenue (which became Main Street in 1910). However, around 1903 there was a renumbering of this block, and the original 622 was several building to the south, on the corner of East Georgia (which was then called Harris).

There were buildings here before 1930, and we’re not sure how much the remodeling in 1930 incorporated those structures…

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Review: Valley Song, Gateway Theatre until February 21

Until February 21, at Gateway Theatre:

In Valley Song, old Buks (nicknamed Buks, with a full name of Abraam Jonkers) tells the prospective new landowner as he gifts him with a cartful of luscious vegetables and fruit, something like, “The earth is a woman, and us old men, we know how to keep her happy.” At church, the verse is quoted:”The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” The play opens with the narrator bringing us into the world of the South African Karoo, so we can feel the rain and see the flowers and smell the earth.

Like “Mies Julie”, which I reviewed last year, Valley Song is about human attachment and connection to land, in both plays, South Africa’s Karoo region. What does it mean for people to be attached to land? I’ve had several people tell me of their intense longing to their home of New Orleans–how if they leave, they absolutely have to come back. I know from my relatives how attached they are to the ancestral family farm. And, of course, the intrinsic attachment of Aboriginal people to their land is undeniable. Think of the Christian creation story–Adam is formed from the soil. Some Aboriginal creation stories involve creation of humans from mud. This intensity of connection is not something that I feel myself, rootless as I might be, but I have certainly heard enough people express it. The connection that Buks has is all the more poignant because he cannot dream of legal ownership, as he simply lacks the funds, even if the end of apartheid has made land ownership by anyone of any race legally possible. A white man with some spare cash can come from a city far away and buy the land and kick off its current inhabitants, including a family that has been there for hundreds of years. Buks is desperate to prevent that displacement from the land he loves.

But this connection to land is in tension with another undeniable human feeling, which is the need to explore, to move onwards, to progress. As the grandfather, Buks is thus in conflict with his granddaughter Veronica, who cannot bear the thought of being a servant to white people like all of her ancestors in living memory, and who wants to explore a singing career and achieve wealth and fame in Johannesburg.

David Adams, with some changes in clothing and lighting and accent, plays several male characters, both white and “coloured” (“coloured” being the term used in pre-apartheid and apartheid South Africa for people of acknowledged multi-racial ancestry, and the term that the Jonkers characters refer to themselves by). Sereana Malani is lovely, with a wonderful voice, and plays the role of Veronica adroitly and empathetically.

There’s no solution to this tension between rootedness and aspiration. Grandfather and granddaughter must seek to bridge the gap however they can. I am very interested in multilingual theatre and I enjoyed how this play brought Afrikaans terminology (explained in the program) and Afrikaans songs into the performance. While Buks is a loving, gentle soul, the play also explores how he also has some traits of a classic repressive Afrikaaner patriarch (although himself oppressed, he’s taken on some cultural traits of the oppressor).* Veronica is not only a sweet innocent, but someone who schemes and plans to get herself a better life. The playwright Athol Fugard, born in 1932, demonstrates his deep feeling for his homeland and its peoples with this play.

* This is seen in Buks’ insistence that he is the one who controls the household and his word rules. Google will tell you more sadly real stories of the results of Afrikaaner patriarchy within families.

Wen Wei Wang’s “Made in China” dance piece coming to Firehall Arts Centre Feb. 18-21

Made in China: Firehall Arts Centre, February 18-21

Last month I had the chance to see a rehearsal for Wen Wei Wang’s “Made in China” dance composition.

Because the piece was in rehearsal and I am unsure if any more changes have happened, I won’t dwell too much on the details. But I was really impressed by the musicianship (Qiu Xia He plays numerous instruments as part of the performance–read more about her), the costuming (thinking particularly of the red garments of Gao Yanjinzi, artistic director for the Beijing Modern Dance Company), the way the performers all worked so harmoniously together, and of course the dance itself which seemed so natural and evocative.

Each of the artists talked to us about the work and about their personal stories. Qiu Xia He learned to play music, at her mother’s behest, to escape being sent off to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution. Wen Wei Wang talked about taking his mother’s scarf and dancing as a child. The dance of Wen Wei Wang and Gao Yanjinzi flowed together so smoothly, and they discussed how easy their partnership in this work has been.

Sammy Chien, whom I have seen at other events, is an electroacoustic composer, sound designer, and multimedia expert. The rehearsal, in a back room at the Firehall, did not have the technical details set up, but it will be great to see that aspect of the show. Sammy Chien and Qiu Xia He also participated in the dance at different points; as explained during rehearsal, this collaboration arose naturally although neither is a professional dancer.

Although I am looking forward to seeing the show with all the production accoutrements, I do feel a bit bad for those who missed this chance to interact with the artists in an informal setting. But this will be a really evocative, and fascinating show–that I am sure about. Here’s a clip from the opening in Banff.

Review: Vincent Mantsoe NKU/Skwatta, at the Firehall until Feb. 14

Read the programme when you arrive. That will help set the stage and the mood for the dance pieces you see.

I loved the musical soundtrack. It covered a large number of styles and time periods, most of which I am not personally conversant with. Most of it was not traditional African music. I read that “the cultural influences of African, Aboriginal Australian, Asian, contemporary, and ballet traditions are important influences on Mantsoe’s work” (Wikipedia) and that comes across in both his movements and the musical selections. I love that Mantsoe is erudite and confident enough to draw from a host of global inspirations.

In NKU, the stage is set with thin ropes strung in a splayed pattern across the stage. The ropes conveyed strong rays of sunlight, but also suggested bondage and oppression and restriction.

In Skwatta, Mantsoe first appears wrapped in a white cloak, a genderless, ageless figure with face obscured. When researching what “Skwatta”  meant, I came across the South African hiphop group Skwatta Kamp–take a look at that group too.

Mantsoe is visually compelling in terms of movement, artistry, and general presence. The time literally flies when watching him. I’m trying to let go of the continual “What does that mean?” dialogue in my head, and the somewhat fruitless quest for narrative, so as to fully appreciate the moment, and I recommend doing that if you can.

Mantsoe briefly and graciously introduced himself at the end of the night. I wish I could hear him in the Q&A session that he is doing Thursday night (Feb. 12). Mantsoe has a compelling life story and a lot to say.

South Africa is happening in Vancouver: dance, theatre, film!

Vincent Mantsoe, an acclaimed South African dance artist, is performing at Firehall Arts Centre until February 14. The show is called NTU/SKWATTA.

Valley Song is on now at Gateway Theatre until February 21. This is a play about land ownership and connection to the land and dealing with the aftermath of state-entrenched apartheid.

Cadre is coming to the Cultch, starting February 24. This play is about the new South Africa.

And the Vancouver South African Film Festival returns to Vancouver April 10.

We are always lucky in Vancouver to have such excellent multicultural offerings, and I really look forward to seeing as many  of these as I can.

Afterall Journal –I love it!

I’ve written on this subject before. But I have a new love when it comes to journals. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I picked up a copy of Afterall, described as “A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry”, and it presents as a series of engaging essays related to artistic criticism.

It’s a frequent complaint of mine that academic articles purposely use pedantic, obscure, and quite likely meaningless language to establish an in-group, leaving the rest of the possibly interested public out in the cold. Week after week, someone writes that a randomly generated paper was accepted for academic publication, and although many of these cases involve vanity journals, not all of them do (Alan Sokal is probably still the master prankster in this area, with his “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”” spoof paper). And, if one has to pick a worst offender, anything postmodern can send a chill up my spine (and it’s not as if Derrida has nothing important to say–far from it!).

But Afterall is intelligent, and engaging, and it really stretches one’s intellectual boundaries without being stupid about it. Here is a review (by Anna Lovatt) of a theatrical work:

The protagonist of Janice Kerbel’s radio play Nick Silver Can’t Sleep (2006/07) is a nocturnal subtropical perennial in bloom, longing for another who blossoms just once a year.1 Nick Silver (Nicotiana sylvestris) is also an insomniac, who craves sleep with the same sultry, melancholy yearning directed at his would-be lover, Cereus Grand (Selenicereus grandiflorus). Throughout the fifteen-minute play, the polymorphous eroticism of plants becomes entangled with their narcotising properties, as Nick’s desire for Cereus competes with, and is ultimately overwhelmed by, an opposing drive towards unconsciousness. Time expands and contracts as weeks, months, seasons and years appear to pass in a single night — a dreamlike temporality, redolent also of the cyclical rhythms of the vegetable world. Breathily, drowsily, Nick awaits his languid Cereus, only to succumb to the vertiginous pull of sleep at the precise moment of her blossoming.

Yes, the play sounds fantastic, but this description is, at least to me as a fledgling critic, beautiful and evocative.The review then discusses historical approaches to the sexuality of botany and various other intriguing topics.

Another article I quite enjoyed is “Exchange and some change: The imaginative economies of Otobong Nkanga”, by Monika Szewczyk. Nkanga is an African woman artist and professor whose work, some of which is exhibited at the Berlin Bienniale, is inherently multidisciplinary and experienced in a much different way than a painting or sculpture. Too bad you need either a subscription or a hard copy (although I’m sure subscriptions would be welcome).

The main problem I have with this journal, as I do with so much reading material, is that it feels like each article deserves much more of a time investment than I can give it.

Given I have not read widely in this publication, I would not be surprised if some burdensome gibberish may appear at some point, given artistic academic predilections. But I have not yet seen it, so perhaps I should stop being suspicious.