A Chutzpah Festival presentation. At the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Sunday, February 17. Continues February 18
On an otherwise quiet Vancouver Sunday night, the busiest dance week of the past year ended, unexpectedly, with its strangest and most avant-garde little offering. The Chutzpah Festival consistently offers up edgy surprises, and this year’s was Sidra Bell Dance, its dark-maned replicants (male and female) wearing black briefs, matching see-through shirts, white face paint, ultralong faux eyelashes, and long braids down their backs.
But first, the program opened unassumingly, with three short works by San Francisco’s LEVYdance. Two of them, Falling After Too and Physics, were the kind of studies in contact improvisation that have long been familiar to Vancouver audiences. They felt safer and less fresh as a result, except for the undercurrent of violence and aggression to choreographer Benjamin Levy’s work. The first was a rough, combative duet between young dancers Yu Reigen and Paul Vickers, where the ever-entangling couple would kick at a back, pull at a thigh, or push from behind a knee till it collapsed. The restless Physics found two couples struggling, a thumb pushed intrusively to a chin, or a foot planted provocatively to the upper back, each point of touch starting a domino effect of intertwining movement. The similarity of the bookending pieces made the tormented middle solo stand out: in if this small space, Josianne Valbuena alternately shook on the spot like she was possessed or pushed off unseen forces, all to the sounds of a fittingly abrasive electronic score that crackled like frying onions or burning leaves.
Sidra Bell’s Nudity could not have been more different, in part because it is more of an in-your-face dance-theatre style. The soundtrack, doctored by Bell herself, jumps insanely between experimental music, noise rock, and grind metal. Two choice segments: the creepy opening, with a French man’s voice-over talking about death (“C’est ça, la mort”), and his gurgling death throes; or a later command looping over and over, “Warning: reduce your volume levels now.” Like the dance, the music follows the logic of a fever dream, conjuring surreal, alienating sensations.
To these discombobulating sounds, and under stark lighting, the fearless, technically honed dancers twitch and pose, often striking balletic stances before fracturing into Bell’s frantic idiomatic language of snapping cheeks, silent screams, tapping feet, and whirling hands.
The piece obviously seems to be about strictures, and the damaging rigors of formal ballet. At one point Rebecca Margolick hollers “Go back!” “Do it again!” at Jonathan Campbell as he attempts again and again to execute an intricate sequence; at another, the dancers yell out rehearsal demands like “Prepare!” and “Arms open!” as they execute the movements while running in circles. Sometimes they manage to escape the stage, coming right at audience members before pulling back.
But what does all this sound and fury ultimately signify? The ongoing nightmares of old-school ballet? Nudity is undeniably fascinating to watch, but one craves more meaning to the cryptic, surreal dancescape. Still, you have to admire the utter fearlessness of its dancers—and of the risk-taking festival out there on West 41st Avenue.