Saturday, 4 October 2014

Toy Guns Dance Theatre - Entertaining Dance Theatre at The Fringe

Director: Jake W. Hastey

In many ways, Toy Guns Dance Theatre offers the perfect latter-day Fringe show. No longer really on the fringe, the shows that do best are well crafted, accessible, provide humour and entertainment, and aren’t too challenging for the mainstream fans that attend the performances.

And if entertainment is what you’re after and you’re coming in from the ‘burbs, Toy Guns Dance Theatre might be just the thing for a summer night at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival. For the sake of brevity, and because these two pieces follow the exact same formula (described shortly) and offer the same subjects, both Propylene Glycol, Maltodextrin, Retinol Palmitate, and Other Words I Don't Understand Like Love and Bright Lights Cold Water – watching Netflix at 3am questioning your mortality will be reviewed together. It’s quite possible their other Fringe show Red Wine, French Toast, and The Best Sex You've Ever Had follows this same formula as well, and therefore it’s quite probable that it’s just fine that you didn’t go see it.

Toy Guns Dance Theatre is a project by the boisterous, playful, and multi-talented Jake Hastey. Hastey’s background consists of a brief pre-professional ballet career, as well as a theatre and music performance background, all of which are components for this genre called dance theatre.

The term “dance theatre” enjoys a confounding range of meanings, from the artistic and avant-garde work of Pina Bausch and Yanira Castro to the accessible and mainstream efforts of Toy Guns. It seems to be important to Hastey to balance what he believes to be art with entertainment and mass appeal. This proved to be true for Toy Guns as their large audiences sold out most nights at the Fringe and both of their shows were among the few shows that were held over—completely unheard of for dance at the Fringe. Particularly when most reviews of Fringe dance performances consist of theatre critics attempting to convince the audience that dance as a performing art has a few merits, and if you normally can’t tolerate it, you might hold your nose and attend a dance show this Fringe. Naturally there’s no mention that attending theatre, as a performing art, is similarly chancy.

top photo by Marc J Chalifoux
The overall feeling of Toy Guns is much like an episode of the television program Friends from the 1990s combined with an episode of Glee. Some of the wittier dialogue may even evoke the television show Big Bang Theory. The humour and delivery are similarly paced and on a similar intellectual level, the performers are young, the hair is reasonably well coiffed. Pop songs are used throughout, the more sombre moments are generally represented with a dance soliloquy to a sad pop ballad. The compositional formula that Hastey follows is more like musical theatre, in that it alternates theatrical sequences with showy dance sequences,  which may or may not have anything to do with the theatrical scenes. The substance of the scenes consist of random post-university ennui, PG-13 sexual innuendo, and some dead-panned verbal exchanges—such as a game of Go Fish—presumably to add an element of surreality. Just when it starts to get a little sad or lonely, something hilarious happens. Predictably, just when it starts to get cheerful, someone’s feelings get hurt. One exchange involves a motif that keeps coming up in theatre lately, where peers are stoically pitted against each other in catty comparisons and criticisms. Questions like, “Who is prettier? Who is more sincere?” or “What do you think of Jim?” (nasty response) “What do you think of Hilary?” (envious response). Though overused in performance lately, these questions feel relevant in a world dominated by social media which extend these sorts of junior high insecurities well into adulthood.

The style of dance Hastey uses is best described as ballet mixed with lyrical jazz, or better yet, studio contemporary. It’s the kind of thing seen on competition dance shows and in strip mall dance schools, with front windows loaded with dance trophies. Dancers from these recital-based studios emphasize precision, flash, and flexibility as much as costume and makeup requirements. They are notoriously lacking in depth, authenticity, subtlety, or art.

Certainly this sort of training or aesthetic is very far from the spirit of Pina Bausch or Yanira Castro. These choreographers do have heavy physical and psychological demands of their artists, but their approach comes from less presentational forms and more from experimental and original movement concepts and processes. Despite a couple blatant rip-offs from Bausch’s dance theatre elements -- formal wear for the dancers, the mountain of pillows receiving a similar treatment as the roses from Der Fensterputzer -- her spirit is nowhere to be found in this work.

photo by Tracy Kolenchuk

And yet, audiences love a Toy Guns kind of dance show. There’s nothing particularly challenging in the subject matter, you can just sit back and enjoy hot young bodies frequently stripping down to underwear and doing lyrical jazz. The hardest part for a mainstream audience will be the occasional same-sex pairings, but these are generally glossed over like the other themes. Only the dancers in the audience will cringe when Propylene Glycol choreography includes a tired and true tombé, pas de bourée, glissade, piqué arabesque-type combination. One movement phrase that is actually interesting features a young woman who dances a brief circle that turns on itself before she backs up and falls onto the hands of a young man lying on the ground. It is a difficult move to transition into and out of, and the surprising fall is initially breathtaking. Then the phrase loses its power as it is repeated over and over with her falling onto each man lying on the floor. If the movement is meant to suggest philandering and failure through this repetition with multiple partners, it succeeds in becoming predictable and progressively disappointing.

The donning and doffing of clothes down to underwear happens so much that when they finally do it yet again in the final dance number to that Mumford & Sons hit, you don’t even care anymore, and they don’t seem to either.

The visuals of a couch and flashlights in a public park are entertaining, as are the 300 pillows. After seeing the pillows used throughout the dance as props of comfort and battle, it is a pleasing ending to see the company all end up as friends in the end, making a large pillow mountain and doing victorious stag leaps into it. 

It’s clear a lot of time and energy went into making these precise pieces, and the audience was very appreciative of this energy.  It’s understandable why Toy Guns was a so popular at the Edmonton Fringe this year. The work is solidly constructed, and it offers great accessibility for an audience looking for sit-com level subject matter that would otherwise be intimidated or bored by more challenging work. Both Toy Guns Dance Theatre performances gave the sense that the director and performers were in control of their performance. In the absence of a deeper message or delivery, the show biz-oriented Hastey should be encouraged that his formula for dance theatre works well, particularly for an Edmonton International Fringe Festival audience.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Biota - Kathleen Hughes Dance Association

May 4, 2013 8pm
Royal Alberta Museum
Edmonton, Alberta

Kathleen Hughes moved back to Edmonton in 2010 from Ontario with a long history of Graham training, performance and running a company. This performance was a mix of previous and new work by Ms Hughes, Justin Hughes and Tony Olivares, and was performed by the choreographers and by what appeared to be students of Hughes. 

Overall, this performance was expensive for the value of the performance. It was an amateur performance for $25 whereas no professional contemporary dance company in Edmonton charges more than $20. Still, the audience of mostly relatives seemed happy with the show. The difficulty in writing this review however, is balancing the professional dance company claim and high admission fee with the quality of the production.

Hughes herself is known to teach a very challenging Graham-style class. The dancers in the performance appeared to be very mediocre, maybe just out of high school dance programs. While they had some technical abilities, the performances from piece to piece were generally lacking in soul or any direction for effort or intention.

There was a promising duet between Tony Olivares and Hughes called Flight of Paradise. Olivares is a well-known and talented professional and he was a guest performer with the company. The two dancers wore fringed outfits and progressed over the course of the dance from stage right to stage left The beginning of the duet was strong, with the two of them moving well together and quickly establishing themselves as a strong and loving pair, slowly pressing into bold poses in a sort of slow motion Greek chorus, very similar to this Graham company photo below:

Martha Graham Dance Company photo

photo by Tracy Kolenchuk

After the first few movements, the piece was exposed as an ill-rehearsed improv, and Hughes' gaze dropped as she became visibly sheepish as she ran out of ideas and lost her connection to Olivares. Olivares is an improv pro, and was able to keep the piece moving forward, and they managed to reconnect by the time they got to stage left. Just as confused as the piece was, the title is also problematic, suggesting that Paradise itself is flying.

Justin Hughes had a solo about being alone within nature. Justin Hughes is a pretty big guy who is essentially a contact improv dancer. This doesn't always translate well to solo or non-contact work (the converse is also very true). Aside from some very good supple rolls and falls, the performance was more dull than deep, Hughes lumbering through his choreography while pretending to be lost or meditative in his little place in the woods. Hughes wrote the music himself, which was sentimental enough to match the choreography.
photo by Tracy Kolenchuk

Justin Hughes also created a duet about friendship for two of the younger dancers. It doesn't need to be reviewed because he told us himself in the program note that it is a lovely dance.

Olivares then had a solo that changed the energy of the concert. Covered in earth toned paint, he seemed to transform the stage to dirt and emerge from it. Even if you had tired of hearing the throat singers of Tuva at every modern dance show in the 90's, you might have been happy to hear them again after awhile. As Olivares continued upward from his slow, sticky, imaginary primordial ooze, we began to believe he might come right off the stage and cannibalize us all in one big bite. We may have actually offered ourselves up to him to do so, that's how compelling it was.

Instead, what happened next was a seemingly random entry from stage right by Kathleen Hughes and two other women, who came out in white t-shirts and black yoga pants and stood behind Olivares. It almost seemed like a joke. However, they proceeded to surround him in earnest with a loving embrace, this poor savage whom they seemed to be trying to save with the power of love.

 photo by Tracy Kolenchuk

The final piece was another work that was nearly Graham-like in its presentation. Entitled, A Beautiful Woman Has Come, Kathleen Hughes was wearing a sexy cut-out long white goddess gown. According to the program note, the piece was originally made in 2003 and since then, Hughes had changed which goddess the character represented a couple of times.  The young dancers were her prostrate subjects, and she walked among them touching them kindly as they scattered about on the floor, clearing a path for her as she strolled aimlessly through the space. Only occasionally did Hughes pause to offer a sculptural affectation. In essence, it held all the choreographer-as-goddess vanity of a Graham work, but none of the action, none of the intense drama, none of the catharsis, none of the research, and none of the clarity to which Graham was so severely devoted.

photo by Tracy Kolenchuk

Sunday, 17 August 2014

body-TRAKS - by Tony Olivares Dance


(company début)

Westbury Theatre,
Edmonton, Alberta
May 21, 22, 2014

Tony Olivares 
Levi Etherington
Jason Romero
Joshua Wolchansky

Music performed live by Martin Johann Kloppers 

Walking into the Westbury Theatre lobby, a sheet of paper covering a large portion of the floor is seen. Covered in bright paint, we see the marks of bodies stepping and smearing across the page, a colourful remnant of dress rehearsal the night before, presumably the body-TRAKS.

Olivares’ new company consists of all men. This is not typical and is a bold choice to go forth with. There is a small but strong history of all-male companies, such as American choreographer Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers from the early days of modern dance in the Depression Era:

and the and the long-running ballet parody Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, affectionately known as The Trocks.

As the lights come up, Martin Johann Kloppers is centre stage with his cellotaur, a bright red electrified cello in the shape of a ribcage. Kloppers wears ultrawide pants and an open shirt. His music for this show runs the gamut between New Age and Celtic to classical music/rock fusion – the kind often enhanced by pyrotechnics and light shows. He is a decent player, perhaps inspired a bit by the style and virtuosity of Joe Satriani, though Gob Bluth  also comes to mind.
The first section of the body-TRAKS consists of the dancers one by one walking onto the stage to present themselves to the audience. Each dancer gets a solo of sorts to demonstrate their prowess as individuals. Topless and wearing blue jeans, the men take turns performing leaps, turns and dives, making sustained displays of muscular stretches followed by stalking crawls and advances. The poses move from bravado to graceful capitulations. We see lurches followed by ripples through the torso, tours jeté land with slow, sustained follow through. The back of the hand is often important. Shoulder stands peak and fall into a throbbing crumple. These are not directed at one another as much as to the audience, or perhaps to the floor, or an invisible force. They do rarely make
visual or tactile contact with each other, but the feeling seems to be one of general harmony within the newly-marked territory. The flow of the movement and the spatial relationships are not particularly remarkable, but are well-designed and organic, like a group of men going through a daily routine that just happens to contain some lovely moves. It’s pleasant to watch.

photo by Marc J Chalifoux
Left to right: Wolchansky, Etherington, Kloppers, Olivares, Romero

There are also some flaws here. Blue jeans are a popular look in contemporary dance, but are notoriously stiff to dance in. To make up for this, some of the costumes are ill-fitting. Dance support belts are seen at the hip line with tags, and some of the dancers are still stained with paint from the dress rehearsal. Olivares himself seems unusually tentative and injured, a bandage on one foot. He is often seen looking down at the floor, which is not usual for him in solo performances where a strong focus is often present.

The music changes and the pants all come off and the dancers are down to just dance belts. The dancing continues with skims that suddenly drop to the floor, sharp slices at the air followed by rondes des jambes. We are now able to appreciate the lower half of the male dancers’ musculature, as well as bruises and more intimate tattoos.

Of Olivares’ dancers, Wolchansky brings his considerable ballet training to the piece. Romero is more influenced by jazz. Etherington seems to come more from contact improv dance spiced with martial arts training. Nearly nude, the dancers continue to dance, including leaps and near-misses controlled falls. Romero appears to have improved technically since some previous performances you may have seen him in. He is generally a very loose and flexible dancer, which often compromises strength and stability. In this performance he seems to have better control through transitions and while still a very young dancer, seems to have matured in his general stage presence.

In the second section of the piece, Olivares brings out a giant roll of paper. The paper is unrolled from upstage to downstage, and the men begin to secure the paper to the floor with tape, and the piece has a sort of commercial break. This seems to not have been rehearsed well as there is some fumbling through this. Even though Kloppers continues playing, it takes us out of the psychology of the world they have created for us, and it takes a really long time. At one point Olivares runs out of tape and he looks visibly irritated. Without any back up tape, duct tape is substituted for one section of the paper. The audience gives up watching and begins to chit chat

Meanwhile, a DVD menu appears on a large projection in the back of the stage behind Kloppers. As the dancers ceremoniously bring out bowls of coloured paint (lime green, teal, purple and pink), the music finally dies down and the men begin pouring paint onto the paper, which is one of the more interesting sonic moments in the show. A piano recording comes on, and the screen at the back of the stage now reveals an overhead view of the canvas.

The dancers begin to engage with the paint. They experiment with colour on themselves and on the floor. This is visually vibrant in the live aspect of the piece, but the video is a problem. In fact, video with dance is almost always a problem. In this case, the usual problem is balancing the amount of light needed for the camera to pick up the colour can not be reconciled with the amount of darkness needed at the back of the theatre to be able to see the video. The resulting effect is a near-monochromatic video of a very colourful display. 

As the dancers begin to dance, another problem becomes clear – the colours of the paint on the paper and body are visually satisfying, but now the stage is a slippery mess and the dancers are very tentative on it. So, as the music drives its Celtic rock jig, seemingly toward a climax of colour and celebration, the dancers respond to the floor situation with comparatively low energy. 

photo by Marc J Chalifoux
Left to right: Etherington, Romero, Wolchansky, Kloppers

Watching the video is a completely useless distraction, and it was much better to watch some of the small details such as one dancer throwing paint onto the paper with a particularly interesting wiggling and flicking gesture.

The music turns heroic and you might be envisioning Mel Gibson riding Falkor into the theatre. Instead, Olivares has obtained what appears to be the highest offering of a bowl of red paint. He holds it up above his head toward the projection as if it is an altar before turning and presenting it down in the centre of the paper. The four men gather, each facing the Four Directions. They kneel facing the bowl and Olivares pours the paint and on himself and on the others. A bit of the paint makes it to the canvas.  For the amount of ceremony attached to this red bowl, a brief and tentative communal dance happens on the slippery floor, and the dance ends.

The title, body-TRAKS seems to suggest that the piece is really just about the movement with the paint, and the resulting marks on the page that offer a visual history. Whatever ceremoniousness built into the choreography is not particularly important or unimportant other than to formalize the necessary getting-of-paint. At times there seems to be a collective male aspect to a sort of tribe without any particularly strong or meaningful connections between the men other than to partake in this activity. While there is some individuality expressed through the various styles of movement, there are no specifics of who these men are and who they are to each other. Only occasionally do they look at each other, touch each other, or move together.

While having a relatively complex collaborative aspect of the performance, the concept and structure for the piece are rather simple, and perhaps not fully realized in this work. The paint is potentially a strong visual image which has been much more successful in Olivares’ previous solo work. In this case, the paint was engaged with in the same way that most dance and performance art involving paint (or milk or blood or other liquids) are - with a personal exploration of the substance, a decoration of the body, and the subsequent interaction of a medium using the body as the tool of dispersion. In Olivares’ other work, he has more fully realized his characters (though they remain mysterious) and the paint adds a more clear otherworldly or primordial aspect to them. 

This is an ambitious début for Tony Olivares Dance. Of particular interest is Olivares’ vision for the aesthetic of the male body. In a time when magazines feature barely clothed women next to fully clothed men, and the beaches are full of men wearing shapeless bathing suits that cover the leg to the knee, the male body and how we feel about it remains a taboo subject, while the female body is merely controversial. It will be very interesting in the next years to see how this company develops in the small but burgeoning Edmonton contemporary dance scene, and within the larger dance community as a genre rarity.