FOLK-S and other PuSh festival works redefine dance

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      This year, more than ever, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival will show you just how widely, and wildly, dance can be defined.

      One show, Italy’s FOLK-S, Will you still love me tomorrow?, turns the ancient Bavarian folk dance called schuhplatter into a contemporary endurance experiment. Another, Britain’s Wallflower, asks its performers to remember “every dance they’ve ever danced”—taking the floor under a disco ball and passing requests on to a DJ.

      Elsewhere, the intimate Belgian-Dutch Sweat Baby Sweat turns a man and woman’s physically pummelling contortions into a perspiration-soaked metaphor for love’s trials. And these are just a few of the dance-infused pieces on this year’s roster, from January 16 to February 5.

      Part of the credit for PuSh’s ambitious, boundary-exploding work can be attributed to the Dance Centre, which has copresented edgy international fare at the fest since its beginnings. The open-minded vision for the programming can also be linked to the fest’s interdisciplinary bent.

      “There’s a lot of dance that happens in Vancouver, so where do we fit?” asks associate curator Joyce Rosario, sitting in a lounge at PuSh’s headquarters on Hamilton Street. “Our lens is more about performance in general. We certainly have an eye for how dance influences the performance you see around the world today. I’m seeing a lot of that crossover: how choreographic practice is influencing other forms and how choreographic practice is borrowing from other forms.”

      Still, no matter how much the pieces at PuSh are upending genres, they’re accessible in the best kind of way. PuSh is a place to find dance in which you won’t have to know what a perfect tendu or arabesque is, with subject matter that hits at the gut of the here and now.

      In the past, that’s meant everything from dance shows that feel more like rock concerts (Usually Beauty Fails) to a dancer moving ecstatically to the sounds of preaching evangelists (It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend).

      Put another way, at PuSh, dance goes far beyond the pleasures of watching beautiful, virtuosic bodies move through space.

      Sweat Baby Sweat.
      Klaartje Lambrechts

      “The spirit of adventure and the value of curiosity: I hope that’s what we kind of instill,” says Rosario. “So much work that we present is hard to describe. You have to be there experiencing it.”

      A perfect example of what she’s talking about is Alessandro Sciarroni’s FOLK-S, a show that proposes a contract between the audience and the dancers, and that can be riotously different each night.

      First, some background. Sciarroni based the dance on the centuries-old folk dance where male dancers slap their shoes and legs with their hands. Schuhplatter actually translates as “shoe beating”. With a background in visual and performance art, Sciarroni is known for delving into everything from juggling techniques to sports rules for his works. “One thing I love most is to work on some subject that I don’t really know,” the artist tells the Straight from his home in Italy.

      He became interested in the way that rhythmic dance could be used to explore themes of time and endurance through repetition. He adds: “It’s a tradition that is still very much alive in this region. It’s not something to create for tourists, but something that is still transmitted to the young generation. So my interest was in the fact that it was still alive.”

      Creating FOLK-S required Sciarroni’s dancers to learn schuhplatter—a task that proved extremely challenging. “I went to these regions and I asked these companies if they would like to teach us,” he relates. “They said no. They have really strict rules—for example, if you are not born in this village you cannot learn the dance.”

      A little dismayed, Sciarroni went home and tried again by email, this time simply asking the experts if his dancers could show them their steps, just so they could tell them if they were doing it correctly. They agreed.

      Sciarroni eventually built a structured, 50-minute work, removing the costumes and ironic humour from the original folk dance, placing it squarely in a contemporary context. But something was missing. He says he saw a chance to make FOLK-S about bigger ideas.

      So he did something radical: now, off the top of the show, a performer grabs a microphone and tells the audience the production will continue until there is only one member of the cast left on-stage or one member of the audience left. Performers will leave the stage, one by one, when they become too exhausted to continue the gruelling dance. Viewers are invited to leave the theatre when they want, but they can’t return.

      FOLK-S, Will you still love me tomorrow?
      Andrea Macchia

      “What has happened is the duration can be very, very different,” Sciarroni explains.

      “It can be from 1.5 to 2.5 hours; it really depends on the energy you can establish between the audience and the performers,” he notes, adding that sometimes the crowd starts cheering for the dancers.

      What Sciarroni had come up with was a strong metaphor. “If you can leave, you start to see this performance with a different amount of responsibility. And this was, for me, translating the idea that traditions are something you have to take care of. You have to still go to witness it for it to stay alive; you have to go to a lot of effort to pass it on.”

      Adding to the spontaneity of the evening is the fact that, except for the opening number, the playlist changes every night. “We don’t use folk music,” the choreographer explains. “The playlist ranges from classical to pop to hip-hop, and we can choose at any moment to put music from this playlist on. We really wanted the dancers to remain fresh.”

      The result has garnered raves, striking a category-busting place between theatre, dance, performance art, and even anthropology. But for Sciarroni, just as with the PuSh fest, categories really don’t matter anymore.

      “Ten years ago, I was very busy into categorizing my work—I was studying the history of art and I was a huge fan of performance art,” says Sciarroni, who says all that started to change when he began showing his work at dance festivals. “Ten years ago, there was still a huge separation between dance, theatre, and performance art. Nowadays, it’s totally different.

      “To me, now, it doesn’t make sense to define the genre of your work.…If I have to think, ‘I have to make dance,’ I cannot.”

      As part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, FOLK-S, Will you still love me tomorrow? is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from February 2 to 4; Wallflower is at Performance Works from February 1 to 3; and Sweat Baby Sweat is at the Dance Centre from January 18 to 20.