Peter Chu brings big influences to Dances for a Small Stage

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      Peter Chu is that rare performer who can dance with one foot in the commercial world and the other squarely in the artistic. No, wait: that’s not exactly right. Chu is the even rarer performer for whom the two worlds meld into one. And when his own company, chuthis, makes its Vancouver debut at Dances for a Small Stage with the vaudeville-inspired fever dream that is Nothing Sticks, audiences will get to see how excitingly his diverse influences can fuse.

      Local dance fans will remember Chu from his expressive performances as part of Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM, most recently in an aching duet with Anne Plamondon in The You Show. He’s travelled to the far corners of Europe and throughout North America with the critically acclaimed troupe. He first met Pite back at Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, where he went after graduating from the Juilliard School. But he’s also a veteran of everything from backup dancing in Céline Dion’s Vegas spectacle A New Day to starring as the smouldering heartbreaker in Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts” video. There’s all that, and then there’s the fact he grew up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, with a music-teacher mother and was heavily into athletics, from gymnastics and diving to acrobatics and cheerleading.

      It turns out that Chu is also a genuinely nice guy, as the Straight found out when we hooked up with him at a JJ Bean before rehearsal across the street at the Grandview Legion. The affable artist marvelled at how his various sides can be seen as drawbacks, depending on what kind of work he’s auditioning for: “It can be hard for me. Sometimes I’m going for jobs in L.A. and they’re saying, ‘You’re too artsy,’ or someone else will say, ‘You’re too commercial.’…That’s why I formed the company. I just wanted to be the best of me. I wanted to present what I want to present.”

      Small Stage, though a far cry from, say, the glitzy Vegas digs of Dion’s Day, is in a weird way the perfect format for Chu’s offbeat vision. “I love that it’s dance from all different backgrounds; I love all aspects of movement,” he said. “I’m not doing a vaudeville show—though it does have a flavour of old vaudeville—but I respect that era so much. They brought so many elements of different genres of art to one show.”

      His own chuthis (yes, it’s pronounced “chew this”) is the ultimate chance for Chu to bring together all his influences into something new. Nothing Sticks was the result of a 2010 Capezio A.C.E. Award for Choreography that allowed him to create a piece for New York’s Roseland Ballroom. The Small Stage appearance is a happy coincidence: he’s on a summer hiatus, he wanted a chance to rework the piece, and he’s a pal of the show’s artistic producer, Julie-anne Saroyan, who also serves as Kidd Pivot’s stage manager.

      The new version of Nothing Sticks, which explores the impermanence of life and art, will feature six performers. Chu is the central Mr. Stick, in top hat and tails, carrying an umbrella like a cane. The multimedia show plays with the notion of stick figures, with projections of primitive stick-man animation, an impromptu game of hangman on a big chalkboard, and a stylized, sometimes herky-jerky movement to the dancing. The soundtrack is a pastiche of everything from Eddie Cantor’s “Makin’ Whoopee” to Shirley Bassey’s “Big Spender”.

      As for the choreography, you can expect a seamless fusion of everything Chu’s absorbed in his diverse career.

      With such a variety of experience already behind him, where Chu will end up next is anyone’s guess. Will it be Vegas, where his company is (nominally) based? Well, the busy artist, who also teaches on top of touring, competing, performing, and choreographing, puts it this way: almost in spite of himself, he feels at home when he hears the “ching-ching” of slot machines at the Vegas airport. And he does have a storage locker there. “But really, when people ask me where I live,” he admitted to the Straight, “I say that I live on the plane.”

      Dances for a Small Stage features Peter Chu’s Nothing Sticks on Wednesday and Thursday (August 1 and 2) and a mixed program of local artists on August 3 and 4 at the Grandview Legion.