Joe Ink's 25-year retrospective is a beautiful testament to a storied career

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      At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Wednesday, March 6. Continues until Saturday, March 9

      There’s a scene in Joe Laughlin’s dusk where dancer Tara Dyberg feigns puking, crying, and screaming all within a few seconds. It’s a disturbing little moment in the darkest work the prolific Vancouver choreographer has ever created. In a dynamic program featuring two other pieces from the Joe Ink artistic director’s back catalogue, it’s also a striking example of his versatility. 

      But pretty it is not. No wonder, given that Laughlin made dusk during an especially difficult time during his life. At age 47, he had a heart attack. While he was recovering, cancer took the life of his dear friend Lola MacLaughlin, another gifted choreographer to whom this 25-year retrospective is dedicated.

      Adapted from the original 2011 60-minute piece, this dusk is pared down to 40 minutes of fitful movement. The five dancers lurch forward and lunge back, punch the air and convulse on the spot, all on an empty, hazy set. Jesse Zubot’s haunting score builds to crescendos of white noise, drawing viewers into a trance as the performers enact a fever dream. They seem to be wavering between life and death. When Kevin Tookey fights to leave the stage over and over again, the others keep pushing him back. He gives in, underlining dusk’s themes of surrender and survival.

      Dusk features elements of contemporary dance, classical ballet, and contact improvisation, gestures from different languages as seamlessly intertwined as the dancers’ bodies when they collapse together in a heap on the floor. Laughlin has that rare talent of drawing from so many styles—he’s also worked in opera and has a background in gymnastics—to fuel an endless supply of fresh ideas. 

      He’s at his comedic best in Harold, Billy, Stan, and Jack, which was originally created in 1997 for the KISS Project. Karissa Barry, Katherine Cowie, Heather Dotto, and Tara Dyberg are unrecognizable here, done up just like the four men (Laughlin’s dad and three uncles) captured in a 1940s photo that inspired the piece. Their hair is slicked back; they have sideburns, moustaches, and bushy eyebrows; they wear black suits with skinny black ties; and they carry themselves with brusqueness and machismo. If you hadn’t read the program notes, you’d never know that these gangsters were female.

      A red leather couch occupies centre stage. The dancers jostle on it for space, pose for an unseen camera, and rise up and down again and again, pausing only to punch each other on the chin or shuffle sideways like Charlie Chaplin. It’s pure Old Boys’ Club here, complete with silver flasks, cigars, and gun shots. Set to an Ennio Morricone film-noir score, this gender-bending romp is a blast.

      As strong as those two numbers are, the evening belongs to Tookey, who shines in Left, a warped 2003 “pas de deux for a man and a teacup”. It was originally performed by Laughlin himself, but here Tookey owns it.

      Wearing a modern brown suit with the kind of white ruff collar seen in Rembrandt paintings, Tookey is a man obsessed by the cup and saucer that sit under a slender beam of light at centre stage. The delicate vessel is his dancing partner and confidante as well as a symbol of upper-class politesse—a stereotype Tookey smashes. Whispering rapid-fire words to the little cup, he comes across as certifiably mad. And when Tookey dances with the dishes balanced on top of his head, while executing exaggerated flourishes of his hands and feet, he’s the epitome of grace and control.

      It’s a testament to Laughlin’s artistic direction that another dancer can execute his own inventive moves so convincingly and beautifully. Can’t wait to see what Laughlin’s 50-year retrospective will look like.