Dancing on the Edge's final mixed program a study in contrasts

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      A Dancing on the Edge production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Saturday, July 13. No remaining performances

      The final mixed program in the 2013 edition of Dancing on the Edge offered two compelling but utterly different visions of ensemble play, an unnecessary solo, and an object lesson on how not to end a festival.

      No doubt there’s a good reason why Wuppertal, Germany–based choreographer Kenji Takagi’s The Box I Came In was programmed last, and I presume it’s because soloist Pamela Tzeng had already been featured prominently in Tania Alvarado’s lengthy and taxing Hereafter. Gifted as she is, there’s no way Tzeng could have done both pieces back to back.

      It’s not as if The Box I Came In was unrewarding. Takagi has worked with the legendary Pina Bausch, and elements of her style were on view in this meticulously crafted piece. Well-made and well-performed though it was, however, it explores very familiar themes of angst and alienation. There was no sense of revelation here, no surprise.

      Those qualities were abundant in Mascall Dance’s The Nijinsky Gibber Jazz Club, however, and this complex, provocative, thrilling, and semi-improvised undertaking should by rights have been the finale.

      Choreographer Jennifer Mascall doesn’t get the credit she deserves in her home market, perhaps because she’s been around since the 1980s and Vancouver is always on the lookout for the next big thing. It’s also true that her interest in process and improvisation has meant that she’s occasionally mounted productions that have looked half-finished. The flip side of that, though, is that there’s always something raw and new in her work, and that’s certainly true of The Nijinsky Gibber Jazz Club.

      Here, the hook was a short story, written and read by performance poet Barbara Adler, detailing the 15-year-old Michael’s struggle to find dignity and independence under the stifling love of his mother. It’s an insightful examination of what Jungians might call the process of individuation, but it could easily have turned sentimental were it not for Mascall’s surreal eye and the strength of her cast. First among equals has to be the wildly creative Billy Marchenski as Michael, whose hilarious pas de deux with violist Stefan Smulovitz was a festival highlight: the way the musician kept playing while being simultaneously bowled over and groped defied belief. Amber Funk Barton also had an astonishing turn as Michael’s mother; after being spurned by her son in another weirdly animated duet, she whirled her arms in a shocking—and, you’d think, physically impossible—paroxysm of grief.

      Hereafter, which opened, paled in comparison to The Nijinsky Gibber Jazz Club, but almost anything would. A surprisingly lyrical examination of a postapocalyptic world, it found dancers Tzeng, Robert Halley, Laura Henley, and Walter Kubanek moving in gorgeous synchronization to a soundtrack that pulsed between grainy noise and lyrical strings. Images of death and sickness have rarely looked so lovely—which might undercut this work’s message, but certainly made it a pleasure to watch.