Modulus Festival meets Dances for a Small Stage

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      They’re life partners as well as creative collaborators, but it’s not often that composer and media artist John Oswald and dancer-choreographer Holly Small get to work together. When they do, though, it tends to be a big deal: consider Radiant, their 2009 multimedia masterpiece. Its Toronto premiere involved multiple screens, Japanese-inspired costumes, lush lighting effects, and a cast of 20. So it’s almost a relief that for their next joint undertaking, they’re having to think small—very small.

      Thanks to a collaboration between Music on Main’s annual Modulus Festival and MovEnt, the two veteran Toronto-based artists will be featured during the 31st installment of the latter’s wildly popular Dances for a Small Stage series. And even though Small Stage recently moved to the capacious Ukrainian Centre, the performing area remains tiny.

      This presents a challenge to Small and Oswald that few Vancouver-based creators ever face: their rehearsal rooms are too large. “This show is necessarily little, and it’s conveniently little, and it’s a pleasure that it’s little—although I think I’m the only person that so far hasn’t complained about the size of the stage,” Oswald says, on the line from their home. “We mark off these fairly large studios we work in with these little rectangles and say, ‘This is our floor space,’ and I think it’s a great restriction. But it’s somewhat difficult for the dancers.”

      Oswald notes wryly that his choreographic contributions will be enhanced by the limitations of the space. “Some of my stuff happens on a chair, and normally the dancers are dwarfed by the stage,” he says. “Some of Holly’s dance has the traditional spectacular leaps and things, so it’s an additional challenge in adapting the choreography to a small stage.”

      If so, it’s a challenge Small is ready to face, and she says that there’s more to their upcoming Vancouver appearance than meets the eye.

      Nominally, the two are responsible for the second half of the program, which will feature approximately a dozen brief works—some choreographic, others video-based—strung together in a kind of multimedia suite. Joining Oswald and Small will be Toronto dancers Jessica Runge and Sean Ling, plus Vancouver’s own Vanessa Goodman and Billy Marchenski; various formations, including gender-segregated trios, will be explored.

      The first part of the program, however, will find the Toronto-based Cecilia String Quartet playing Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1, with its four movements choreographed by Karissa Barry, Stewart Iguidez, Makaila Wallace, and Goodman. But Small and Oswald will get in on this, too.

      “We’re not completely divorced from the first half,” Small says on a second line. “I’m going to work with each of those four choreographers as a director and dramaturge. We’re both involved in that as director or dramaturge, kind of. Mentors, maybe, is the word.”

      “I’m supposed to do that too, even though I don’t know what dramaturge means,” Oswald quips.

      The Cecilia String Quartet’s Caitlin Boyle, Rachel Desoer, Min-Jeong Koh, and Sarah Nematallah will reappear midway through the evening’s second half, performing Oswald’s preLieu, a Kronos Quartet–commissioned score that has already been deployed by dance stars Susan McKenzie and Margie Gillis. “We’ve decided to keep the choreography in-house, though,” Oswald says, adding that he’s based his movement score on the quick and discreet gestures of classical page-turners. Moreover, the piece is an acoustic rendition of an electronic treatment of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Alla danza tedesca”, from his String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, itself a reference to a German folk dance of the early 19th century.

      It’s obvious that neither he nor Small is afraid of complexity—which means that, in their upcoming show, the stage might be small but the ideas will be expansive.

      MovEnt and Music on Main present Dances for a Small Stage 31 at the Ukrainian Centre next Thursday to Saturday (October 23 to 25).