Review: Unwrapping Culture (until October 17) at the Dance Centre

For a fuller description of the artists and the artistic decisions that made this work, see the Dance Centre description of Unwrapping Culture.

Art always has the capacity to surprise. I had an experience I’ve never had when viewing countless theatre and dance shows. I had the fight to urge to jump up and start tidying up the floor, which was littered with plastic toys, tchotchkes, and confetti. Never having been accused of excessive orderliness, I was shocked by the visceral quality of this urge. Unwrapping Culture is a work about the intersection of Western consumerism with Thai culture, and if the intention was to make the viewer feel strongly, it succeeded admirably.

Although this is obviously advertised as a dance work, many other elements are incorporated as well: music, film, audience participation, narration, theatre. Although I always appreciate multi-dimensional works, I almost felt the dance part could have been emphasized a bit more.

In general, there’s a chaotic, disoriented feeling, which may be a fair representation of urban Thailand overrun by tourists. I have yet to make it to Thailand, but I have heard the dismay of recent visitors, especially in comparison to long ago visits. This piece barely touched on sexual exploitation which may be the most dismaying aspect of all.

The two dancers, Alvin Erasga Tolentino and Pichet Klunchun, work together smoothly. The play also includes some religious (Buddhist) aspects, which I found unsettling, as I pondered whether religious ardor is displayed for commercial purposes.

Unwrapping Culture is unsettling (and pay close attention to one of the films partway through). The artistry is undeniable, and there are some beautiful aspects, but this work cannot be summed up as beautiful. It’s a courageous exploration of ugliness, or perhaps more accurately, an exploration of beauty and ugliness mixed up together. 

Dance Centre brings you the world through dance, and Unwrapping Culture October 15-17

First, take a look at the BC Dance Calendar. Start with “Gravity and Other Myths”, from Australia and playing at the York Theatre starting tomorrow (October 13). There’s Karen Flamenco, Dances for a Small Stage, and many more.

For classes and workshops at the Dance Centre, take a look here.

One production that I am particularly looking forward to is Unwrapping Culture, October 15-17 at the Dance Centre, presented by Co. Erasga (Vancouver) | Pichet Klunchun Dance Company (Thailand). In July, I saw Filipino-Canadian dancer Alvin Erasga Tolentino performing at Dancing on the Edge Festival, and that alone makes me want to attend. As described:

Unwrapping Culture brings together two exceptional male artists: Filipino-Canadian Alvin Erasga Tolentino, whose sophisticated works reflect on personal and cultural identity, and Pichet Klunchun, an outstanding exponent of the Thai classical dance style of Khon, who is known internationally for contemporizing this ancient form. Their first collaboration combines the technique, theatricality and storytelling elements of Khon with the paraphernalia of today’s rampant materialism to create a devastating critique of the corruption of authentic Thai culture by the forces of commercialization, in a passionate and bitingly funny piece which immerses us in the conflict between traditional and modern.

I have certainly heard from visitors to Thailand about the forces of commercialization. I’ll be there Thursday and I’m eagerly anticipating it.

Reviews from Dancing on the Edge Performances (concluded July 11)

Throughout the various performances I saw over several days, one constant stood out. The musical scores were always intriguing, varied, and unexpected. These types of performances are ephemeral, and it’s hard to capture in words why they gave these impressions. But if you have the chance, attend Dancing on the Edge (or other contemporary dance performances) for the sound as much as for the dance.

I have focused on a few pieces that left a strong impression, but all of the pieces were worth seeing and hearing.

Edge Up, Sunday, July 5


I have seen several of Hong Kong Exile’s performances. These works are typically multi-disciplinary, and NineEight is no exception. The company members mostly all have strong personal connections to Hong Kong. Intrinsic to such connections, is an undercurrent of fear and menace not just from mainland China, but also that Cantonese culture in general, including in Vancouver, is being lost. Their recent “Centre A” art gallery presentation, transgression/cantosphere, in Vancouver’s Chinatown focused on the Cantonese culture that is slipping away on a daily basis.

So my political and cultural expectations were set from my personal knowledge, which may influence my interpretation (as it always does). Not to mention I visited Hong Kong last year and saw the brave participants of the Umbrella Revolution up close. I struggle to describe the work, but I was left with impressions of media and manipulation, of tradition and modernity, of being pulled in numerous directions. I felt engaged with this piece, both in terms of movement and sound, throughout.

I was happy to read that this production of NineEight is just the beginning for this work. It will be staged in an open rehearsal at Gateway Theatre on September 11-12, 2015. So I recommend you attend that, even if you caught it this time around.

this hallow space has a corridor

For this piece, which was intriguing but difficult to recount, I was particularly struck by the initial sounds, which reminded me of a Van de Graaf generator in a rainstorm.

Edge 2, Tuesday, July 7


Analyzing a piece when you aren’t sure of its meaning is risky for the critic. But given how the dancers in this festival repeatedly pushed the boundaries, I will try to be slightly brave. Here’s what I saw and felt in this piece.

The actor engages with a large piece of patterned fabric indigenous to the Philippines. He is first entangled and almost strangled by it. He finally succeeds in removing it. He tries leaving it completely alone. He tries wrapping the rectangle up small and using it in different ways (for example, as a hat). Ultimately, he dons the fabric again, but this time in a dress form. He suggestively sashays in a stereotypically feminine way. Perhaps the dancer, Alvin Erasga Tolentino, can best incorporate his indigenous culture into his life when he recognizes the feminine aspects of himself.

Regardless of the accuracy of this interpretation, this was one of the most engaging solo pieces I saw at Dancing on the Edge.

Edge 3, Tuesday, July 7


What I took from this piece was a riff on Creation stories, particularly feeling the influence of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, with a touch of Frankenstein. I do not see any of that in the official description, but that is what I got from it. The lighting (as was typical for DOTE) was excellent in focusing our attention. The dancer, Billy Marchenski, was nearly nude, giving the performance a primeval feel. I strongly felt the creativity and energy of the dancer.

Final note

Every time I attend a contemporary dance performance, I tell myself I have to learn more. Time is always precious, but I wonder if a free course like this might be useful to those of us who seek to improve our knowledge:

Creating Site-Specific Dance and Performance Works (from Coursera)

Review: 15X at Night (Dancing on the Edge Festival)

My first hurdle with any site-specific performance, particularly on Granville Island for some reason, is finding the spot. I’ve noticed a general tendency among people to not allow enough time to navigate Granville Island, and I’m guilty myself. I figured out the right place to be seconds before the dance started.

Walk to Edibles Canada, turn right along Johnson Street, and look for an empty courtyard right next to Ocean Concrete. If you see the colorful silos (which you should see anyway, for Vancouver Bienniale), you’re just a bit too far. But most importantly, leave plenty of time, and enjoy a nice stroll or have a drink before the show starts at 10 PM every night until the end of the festival.

You’ll be sitting in this courtyard, looking at the giftshop you can see in the photo.

I took this photo just after the show ended. SImon Courchel, the dancer, is at the left.

I took this photo just after the show ended. Simon Courchel, the dancer, is at the left.

Paul-André Fortier is the choreographer for this show, and for Misfit Blues. Although the two pieces vary a lot, both use spare, sharp, geometric angularity. There’s no fan in 15X at Night, as there is in Misfit Blues, but I wondered if Courchel might be evoking similar mechanical movement at times. Courchel’s lithe physicality is a joy to watch. There is no sound track, other than the natural sounds you hear on Granville Island at night. As you watch, you can look upward to see the steel trusses of the Granville Street Bridge.

As I watched, I was reminded once again how dance is really another language. How could Courchel remember this precise 30-minute sequence of movements if he does not see meaning and syntax in them? I have some half-formed ideas of the “meaning” of this piece, but I will instead focus on how I was entranced for the entire show, which passed so very quickly.

This is a free show, one of several that Dancing on the Edge puts on, along with various ticketed performances. Take a look:

Review: Serge Bennathan’s Monsieur Auburtin, at The Dance Centre until March 28

I didn’t know what to expect going into this work. Serge Bennathan’s Monsieur Auburtin is unlike any other dance work you are likely to have seen. It evocatively combines storytelling, original composition and musical performance, and dance into a seamless whole. I went with a couple of friends who are not necessarily warm to contemporary dance, and they also loved it. While profound, the piece is also very accessible and comprehensible.


(photo credit Michael Slobodian)

The piece is, among other things, an extended homage to both his teachers and classical dance virtuosos like Nijinsky, Nureyev, and Baryshnikov, as well as many others whose names I do not know so well. The love and appreciation and admiration that Bennathan expresses is indeed heart-warming.

Bennathan’s first dance teacher, Monsieur Auburtin in Metz, France, introduced him to Nijinsky via pictures of the impresario dancing in Giselle. The effect is life-changing and incredibly profound.

Wiki Commons picture of Nijinsky in Giselle.

Perhaps French elegance, if presented coldly, can be offputting. That is a classic stereotype, but Bennathan presents elegance with a warm face. The sound of his voice is a true pleasure to hear. The track his life is taken is one of coincidences and chances grabbed. But make no mistake, Bennathan is passionate and earnest about art and about artistic expression.

Throughout the evening, the composer Bertrand Chénier played on electric guitar and piano, and at one point one of the dancers played the violin. The music was a natural component of this work.

What made the night even more special was after the show, when Howard Jang, of the Canada Council for the Arts, awarded Serge Bennathan the prestigious Jacqueline Lemieux Prize, for his work in dance in Canada. Having seen the work, I am not at all surprised of Bennathan’s reputation as a teacher and mentor and choreographer. Bennathan expressed a clear love and appreciation for Canada as a country, a place, like Marseilles, where he feels he truly belongs. So much artistic development and innovation is driven by immigrants who have made a conscious decision to bring their talents to Canada. Bennathan founded the dance company Les Productions Figlio.

Review: ribcage: this wide passage, at Firehall Arts Centre


The most powerful image of this multimedia work, combining theatre, live viola, dance, and video, is when Heather Hermant, playing Esther Brandeau, sits down to bind her breasts so she can dress and live as a young man, Jacques, in 18th-century Quebec. With this severe constriction comes the freedom of being able to live and work and support herself and travel freely. Hermant is a spoken-word artist, so often this work does seem more like a recitation than traditional theatre.

I have participated only lightly in researching family history, but it is indeed thrilling to find an undiscovered connection (and I have the privilege of having relatives who have done a lot of work on this subject). Hermant started researching her own family line, and found that Esther was a collateral ancestor, a young woman who disguised herself as a young man and got work on a ship to New France (Quebec). On a historical note, in pre-Revolution France, Jews were banned from immigrating to French North America (some got around this, particularly in New Orleans, but Esther is thought to be the first Jew in Canadian New France). Thus, Esther faced two significant hurdles in getting to North America: religion and gender. Esther found a way to explore and escape her life, for whatever reasons she had for doing this. Hermant also touches on the dispersion of Portuguese Jews in Europe (who were also subject to the Inquisition and deported from their homeland).

It’s tempting to put modern constructions on centuries-old behavior. Was Esther transgender? Was she just taking the only means she could figure out to escape the life she had (for whatever reasons she wanted to escape it)? Hermant sees her work as a “queer story about displacement and identity”, although we know nothing about Esther’s self-construction and self-identity other than what we can guess from the scant historical records. The work belongs to the artist, and it becomes about more than Esther, so I understand Hermant’s casting of this work as “queer”.

When Esther is deported back to France, after being discovered for her religion and gender, nothing more is ever heard of her. What might have happened? I tend towards pessimism, but perhaps Esther lived a full and interesting life, maybe even crossing the boundary again to live as a man.

The music and video enhanced the often spooky, mysterious feeling I felt as I watched and listened to this work. On a technical note, the Hermant’s words were often difficult to hear above the music. For me, this was particularly noticeable with the French passages, as my lack of fluency makes me desperate to hear everything very clearly. However, I was thrilled to see another example of multilingual theatre–which I can’t help but feel is the future of theatre as we manage multiple hybrid identities in a multilingual world as part of everyday experience.

The constricted ribcage, the wideness of the open ocean. This work is full of imagery and I enjoyed seeing its debut.

The Firehall has brought two premieres of one-woman shows to the stage in the past month: The Village and ribcage: this wide passage. Both have fascinating themes and innovative use of music and film.

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!).

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.