For insight into how widely contemporary dance is being defined these days, head down to the Dancing on the Edge festival. Live music, text, visual art, and film: it’s all making its way into the works this year in pieces that push the boundaries of the form—that is, if boundaries even exist anymore.
Offerings are as diverse as TomoeArts Society’s Weaver Woman, a mix of Asian myth, theatre, and music; Hong Kong Exile’s NINEEIGHT, a multimedia tribute to absurdist Hong Kong cinema; Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s immersive dance-theatre comedy “how to be”; and dumb instrument dance’s The Mars Hotel, a live-music and art collaboration that evolved out of a piece of flash fiction.
Debuting on one of the fest’s Edge programs, Hotel began as an ultra-short story by Vancouver writer P.W. Bridgman. A dance and jazz fan, he invited dance artist Ziyian Kwan and cellist-composer Peggy Lee to create a response to the work. The resulting piece was to be a gift to his wife, but has morphed into much more.
“It’s sort of like he gave me this little story and I went to bed one night, because I read in bed, and I lay down, and I read it and then fell asleep, and then I had a dream,” explains Kwan, sitting in a Main Street café with Bridgman and Lee. “Then the process from there is ‘What is the dream I had?’ ”
The story is a poetic meditation on destiny and love: it follows a man’s lifelong journey from lying in the arms of his mother to crossing the Atlantic, as an adult, to meet his beloved in a Paris hotel.
“It’s this metaphor, the idea that all of us from the time of birth are moving towards love, to a way of loving,” Kwan says, adding she’s created an intuitive rather than a literal take on his story. “I’m just working on vignettes about love.
“Here, we’re all talking in different languages about the same subject,” she says, referring to Lee and herself.
“The process has been a little unusual,” agrees Lee. “Ziyian hasn’t said, ‘I need this and this and this for my dance.’ It’s been each of us responding.”
Kwan will dance the piece with former Holy Body Tattoo sensation Noam Gagnon, and they’ll share the stage not just with Lee’s Handmade Blade trio, but with a giant, inflatable Big Love Ball—a bouncing, white sphere emblazoned with the word LOVE, created by local designer-artist Wendy Williams Watt.
Lee has written the music by building on the feel of the story and implementing sequences of improvisation. “I like melody but also textural sounds, so I felt it was a good fit.”
For his part, Bridgman was happy to give them complete artistic licence over the work—his sole stipulation being that it carry the same title.
“As a writer, 99 percent of the time, you won’t ever have the opportunity to find out the effect your work has on your reader; you’ll never hear about it,” says the author, who uses a pseudonym and keeps his real identity a mystery. “This gives me the chance to see what this triggers—and that’s a pretty remarkable opportunity for a writer.”
He won’t know till opening night the final form Lee and Kwan’s vision will take.
“It’s about community—that there are so many ways that you can get together to make work,” observes Kwan.
Natalie Tin Yin Gan, of the fast-rising, interdisciplinary art collective Hong Kong Exile, has a similar outlook. Her new NINEEIGHT, also part of this year’s strong contingent of Edge programming, is in fact a response to another art form: absurdist Cantonese cinema. The SFU School of Contemporary Arts grad, whose specialties are physical theatre and choreography, drew inspiration from the silly slapstick comedies called mo lei tau. She used to watch them during the long, hot summers her family would spend visiting Hong Kong.
“Then, watching them as an adult, I felt such a closeness and affinity to these movies but recognized how removed I was now from the language and culture. It was recognizing I was used to the aesthetic of mo lei tau films, but realized how much was going over my head, the finer details,” she explains.
For NINEEIGHT, Gan has built a fractured, gestural score from watching the movies over and over, including the rubber-faced expressions of star Stephen Chow. The three performers, Michelle Lui, Alex Tam, and Milton Lim, will be moving with live-triggered sound and projection, with the percussive score designed by Hong Kong Exile composer and new-media artist Remy Siu. “There’s an incredible amount of voice work that takes place in this piece, and a lot of character work,” Gan adds of the work’s theatrical elements.
On a different level, the piece explores political transition: the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, around the time the movies were made. “I realized the movies were time capsules of what people’s concerns were and how they were identifying politically,” explains Gan, who also holds a degree in international studies. “The more I researched the cinema and entertainment of the time, the more I saw it was a reflection of what was happening. And given the unrest at the time and the unrest going on [there] now, we realized we were bringing forth a conversation that was as present and poignant as you can get.”
The multimedia work ends up melding that political comment with theatre, music, and new media. “One could say, ‘Why define dance?’ Because there are so many things that can be dance,” offers Gan. “But then another side of me says it’s important to address it as dance because that means that people know that we can redefine dance. Coming from a dance background, but being so deeply inspired by other art forms, I’m very interested in where dance can go.
“Where the lines are drawn between theatre practice and dance practice, I don’t even know.”
Her work is vastly different from Gan’s, but TomoeArts Society’s Colleen Lanki is equally unable to draw those lines between forms. “I don’t separate,” says the choreographer and performer, speaking to the Straight between rehearsals for Weaver Woman.
Much of her point of view comes from her unique training in Japanese classical dance. “I’ve always been connected truly to total theatre, where music, movement, and acting are inseparable,” she says. “The work I do, I want all of it there. It’s the way I think.”
Weaver Woman is a hybrid of storytelling, theatre, dance, live music, and projected calligraphic Japanese painting. Its origin is a myth based on the story of the weaver girl and the cowherd, well-known in China, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea, about two lovers separated by the gods; they are allowed to meet only once a year. Lanki is drawing on a contemporary take on the legend, written by Korea’s O Chonghui. In that writer’s modern setting, the reason the woman is waiting for the man is left mysterious. “There’s just this real sense of loss,” explains Lanki. “She’s waiting and waiting, but he’s not home and she’s kind of going crazy. What’s described in the story is what she sees out the window and in her memory.”
Actor Maki Yi performs the text as Lanki dances, while composer and erhu player Lan Tung plays the original score, along with members of the Orchid Ensemble. As Lanki points out, Lan, too, defies categorization: “Is it folk, is it jazz, or is it classical? She draws on all that and makes something new out of it.”
No doubt: it’s collaborations like these, with artists from outside the dance community, that are pushing the form so far onto the edge at the dance fest.
And, back on Main Street, Kwan muses aloud about how this kind of new dance could spur on other art forms as well.
“You know what would be another fun experiment? After P.W. sees the piece, we could approach him and say, ‘Hey, P.W., how would you like to write a piece of flash fiction about the piece you just saw?’ ”
“I’d love to do that!” Bridgman responds immediately. “You have my number.”
As part of the Dancing on the Edge festival, Weaver Woman is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Friday and Saturday (July 3 and 4); NINEEIGHT is at the Firehall Arts Centre Sunday and Monday (July 5 and 6); and The Mars Hotel is at the same venue on July 8 and 10.