Choreographer Jennifer Mascall's White Spider scales wild heights

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      Rare is the 21st-century dancer who's limited to a single style. Rather, more and more of those who call the studio and stage their workplace can execute a breadth of forms, from classical ballet to contact improvisation, modern dance to martial arts.

      But mountain climbing?

      True to modern-day form, when Vancouver choreographer Jennifer Mascall asked five dancers to take up the activity for a new piece, none of them blinked.

      “We went to the Edge [Climbing Centre] and got our belay tickets,” Mascall says in an interview before a rehearsal at West Vancouver's Kay Meek Centre. “We weren't so much interested in getting up as we were exploring the physicality of what the harness does with your body.”

      Scaling peaks is at the heart of the Mascall Dance artistic director's latest work, The White Spider. It takes its name and inspiration from the book of the same name by Heinrich Harrer, who in 1938 was on the first team to successfully climb the north face of Switzerland's treacherous Mount Eiger. The 5,000-foot ascent, whose name means “ogre”, is also known as the Murder Wall because of the number of lives it has claimed.

      The parallels between mountaineering and dance are undeniable, Mascall explains. Whether it's a group of climbers ascending a precipice single file or an ensemble of performers swirling together on-stage, each member is completely dependent on the others. One slip-up and everyone suffers.

      Then there is the unshakable commitment that climbers and dancers make to their chosen activity, a loyalty that leaves some people perplexed.

      “I remember once a friend asked me to go sailing with him [in California], and I said ”˜No, I can't; I'll miss [dance] class,” Mascall says. “He couldn't believe that I wasn't going to go sailing. It was incomprehensible to an outsider.

      “People always ask contemporary dancers, ”˜Why do you do this?' And people wonder why someone would want to climb up a mountain that's considered suicidal. But for climbers, it's their life. They do it without question. The same can be said for dancers.”

      Mascall's White Spider—which runs at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre next Friday and Saturday (March 12 and 13) as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival and the Cultural Olympiad—isn't a retelling of Harrier's narrative but rather aims to take contemporary dance to new heights.

      Helping her do that is sculptor Alan Storey, whose best known work is the pendulum in downtown's HSBC building. He's designed a kinetic sculpture for the harness-clad dancers to jump off, step on, and rappel down. The large disc resembles an oversize satellite dish and rises, tilts, and spins; the set also includes ladders.

      Incorporating climbing gestures into her vocabulary is new terrain for Mascall, who's been choreographing since 1974 and cites Merce Cunningham and movement therapist Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, among others, as influences. Over the years she's conducted site-specific performances and hosted improvisational series, and her work ranges from the abstract to the theatrical.

      Set to an original score by Jeff Corness, The White Spider comes at a time in Mascall's career when she's more dedicated to her craft than ever.

      “It's so much fun making dance pieces,” she says. “I have dances sketched out for the next 10 years. I feel like I'm just getting started.”