PuSH Festival: Trailblazing poets spur on Four Horsemen

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      Twenty different people are credited with helping to bring The Four Horsemen Project into being, but two important influences have been left off the list: coffee and the CBC, both of which were present at the innovative multimedia production’s birth.

      As the show’s cocreator and codirector Ross Manson tells it, he was sharing a pot of java with his friend Kate Alton when they decided to see what was on the radio—and what they got was definitely not the opera. In fact, it was Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe show, and the veteran broadcaster was spinning “Allegro 108”, a tricky, emphatic, and almost totally abstract polyvocal fugue by the spoken-word foursome of Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery, and bpNichol—the Four Horsemen of Toronto’s mid-’70s avant-garde poetry scene.

      “Because we’d missed the intro, we didn’t know what the piece was or when it was from, and we both assumed that it was current, and non-Canadian,” says Manson, reached in Toronto during a rehearsal break. “We imagined it was some really cool European avant-garde group, and then we were shocked when we heard it was from a 30-year-old, out-of-print LP that had been made in Toronto.

      “I’d never heard of the Four Horsemen,” he adds. “And we both thought how terrible and how typically Canadian it is that a group like that has pretty much been forgotten.”

      Inspired by that initial encounter, Manson and Alton decided to spread the word about these overlooked apostles of vocalized sound art. With help from Dutton, the unofficial curator of the Four Horsemen’s recorded legacy, they immersed themselves in the group’s extraordinary vocabulary of protolinguistic moans, groans, ululations, and gibberish, before deciding to stage a “sound poetry–dance fusion” version of the first Four Horsemen work they’d heard.

      “It was outrageously successful—screaming, stamping, standing-ovation successful,” Manson recalls. “So we wrote three more single pieces and had the same reaction. And it was only at that point, maybe two years after the initial hearing, that we decided that we should make a full piece.”

      The result is The Four Horsemen Project, which runs at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from next Thursday to Saturday (January 17 to 19). Although nominally produced by Manson’s Volcano theatre company, it’s a true collaborative effort between that group, Alton’s Crooked Figure Dances, and Vancouver-based animation specialists Global Mechanic.

      Theatricalizing the Four Horsemen’s sound poetry proved relatively easy. “I instantly felt this would make for exciting theatre and dance,” Alton says, after Manson passes her the phone. “Dance is my medium, of course, so when I hear something aurally exciting it makes things happen to my body. And what I loved about the Four Horsemen’s work was the element of play. Their spirit of experimentation and play influenced me in my explorations of their material.”

      Finding a suitable structure for the project’s episodic reimaginings proved a little more difficult. As dramaturge, Manson ended up using a sketch-comedy technique pioneered by John Cleese during his Fawlty Towers days—breaking the piece down into its essential components, then literally moving them around until they come into focus.

      “He’d create these different units,” Manson explains. “He’d write them out on pieces of paper, like, you know, ”˜Basil [Fawlty] does this.’ And then he’d lay them all out on a table and think his way through the pieces of paper until a structure that made sense started to emerge. It’s a very tactile way of working, and we did the same thing.”

      The result, Manson and Alton agree, captures the wildly innovative aspects of the Four Horsemen’s work, much of which was at least semi-improvised, within a repeatable framework. “Somehow, even though it’s not a narrative, it has an arc that takes you somewhere, emotionally,” Alton says. “That was actually the most difficult and delicate thing to achieve, but I think we did succeed in that.”

      And her creative coworker notes that all three of the surviving Four Horsemen—Nichol died in 1988—have seen the piece and given it their blessing. “Paul Dutton was moved to tears more than once, and Stephen has been really supportive,” Manson notes. “So we feel that we’ve done a pretty good thing.”