Small Stage point 5 deserves two thumbs up

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A Dances for a Small Stage production. At the Emerald on Friday, November 29. No remaining performances

There are some who might not like Dances for a Small Stage’s new venture, and we have a name for them: claustrophobes. Sitting cheek by jowl and knee to bum with a hundred of your new best friends isn’t for everyone. But if enough people are okay with being squished into a tiny space while taking in some really big talent, future editions of Small Stage point 5 are going to be this city’s hottest dance ticket.

How hot was the inaugural event? Well, its first two nights sold out, and the third—added at the last minute by organizer Julie-anne Saroyan—came close. That’s not too shabby. And on night one, at least, there wasn’t a soul in the crowd who didn’t feel he or she’d been privy to something special.

In one sense, Small Stage point 5 is a throwback to the Small Stage series’ roots: intimate performances in a tiny, nontraditional venue. But at the Emerald, a Chinatown restaurant, Saroyan has wisely added a twist to her programming in that the new event pairs dancers with musicians. This isn’t exactly innovative, given that Vancouver has a long history of interdisciplinary performance, but the intimacy of the setting is a beautiful mirror for the interpersonal exchange that is collaboration.

That sense of being in on something private was especially strong in the evening’s final pairing, which featured dancer Jennifer McLeish-Lewis and Mother Mother singer-guitarist Ryan Guldemond. At first, their connection wasn’t obvious, with the stone-faced, Morrissey-quiffed songwriter standing front and centre and McLeish-Lewis hiding behind him, occasionally snaking a limb out from behind his torso as he sang about “shitty little demons” and his sense of unworthiness. Her movements gradually became more animated, though, and he took strength from them, ending their two-song set by picking her up in a fireman’s carry and making his way off-stage. It’s hard to tell whether their set was a quirky look at the fan-star relationship, a statement on relationships in general, or simply a semi-improvised romp, but it was a lot of fun—and the moment when the slender McLeish-Lewis carried the not-insubstantial Guldemond, still playing, on her back drew a gasp from everyone in the room.

The humour was more explicit in the first half’s closer, which found Hayden Fong teaming up with singer-pianist C.R. Avery in an extended comic routine with a convulsive punch line that involved picturing our beloved prime minister as a “Commercial Drive butch dyke”.

A stretch? Maybe not. That hair! Those lips! Kudos to Avery for making the connection—that man has a truly warped mind—and to Fong for his physical comedy, which included split-second impressions of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Avery himself, all delivered with little more than a twist of the mouth and a tilt of the head.

As for beauty, nothing could touch Retrospect, in which the charismatic Lina Fitzner animated a Corbin Murdoch lyric. Sung a cappella by Murdoch, Khari Wendell McClelland, and Matthew Smith, and set in a dance studio, the words were all about hope and art, and the dance was similarly focused and aspirational.

The other pairings found electronic musician Stefana Fratila working with Karissa Barry and cellist Michelle Faehrmann accompanying Julianne Chapple; they were also lovely, if less immediately striking. And comic relief was provided by an unusually simian Billy Marchenski and the seemingly sloshed Justine Chambers, honouring the Emerald restaurant’s Rat Pack–inspired décor by working their way through the Italian section of a book I’m now going to run out and buy: Rude Hand Gestures of the World.

Small Stage point 5, however, deserves nothing less than two gleeful thumbs up.

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