Dancing on the Edge moves fluidly to digital, exploring the different moods of isolation

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      At the Firehall Arts Centre from July 3 to 11. No remaining performances

      The just-wrapped Dancing on the Edge festival was taxed with navigating the pandemic’s Phase 3 distancing rules, and the result was programming that offered some real moments of revelation.

      The 32nd annual event mixed small-scale courtyard and theatre events with a wide assortment of mixed-bill programming online.

      The fest was well situated for the shift to digital (though that in no way should diminish the huge effort that went into rebuilding its plans). Its contemporary artists are used to experimentation, its shows usually taking an intimate scale that lends itself to the kind of short films that featured here. 

      The mostly Vancouver-based performers revealed new sides to themselves in cinematic work that felt surprisingly polished for the short turnaround. And several of the pieces, in a way that only dance can, poignantly expressed this moment of isolation and dissociation in ways that went beyond the confines of words.

      Still, there was a bittersweet sensation watching artists like Josh Martin, Ziyian Kwan, and Jeanette Kotowich show their stuff online, instead of at the Firehall, where it's easy for audiences and dancers to make direct connections.

      That said, the venue went out of its way to make you feel like you were there, opening each digital segment with video taking you by the iconic neon sign, through the red doors, up the carpeted staircase, and into your theatre seat. Then fest producer Donna Spencer appeared, just as she would at the venue, to personally welcome you to the show.

      A standout was the intense solo Brimming, by Company 605’s Josh Martin. Shot by David Cooper, it was a polished dance film that played with editing and built to an emotional whallop. Martin revealed dark new corners in himself exploring the idea of the body as a container, invisible forces pushing out from beneath the skin.

      In a work set in what felt like an eerie, sepia-lit plywood box, lighting designer James Proudfoot added to the atmosphere with rows of dangling bare light bulbs. At moments, Martin sat on a chair, pulsing to the music, at others jerking robotically or rocking hypnotically when he came to his feet. Brimming made time feel like it was standing still, the dancer-choreographer embodying a gnawing, disquieting limbo we can all relate to.

      Josh Martin in the intense solo Brimming.
      Zahra Shahab

      As the forces started to “brim” over and his container opened, Martin pulled into a silent scream that seemed to express the collective, Edvard Munch-like howl we all need to let loose right now.

      It was a nice foil to Rachel Meyer’s work-in-progress on the Edge 6 program, the Ballet BC alumna's piece all liquid bodies rolling and curling in on themselves.

      Shay Kuebler’s M.O.I.—Moment of Isolation was another highlight. The only offering performed live in a socially-distanced Firehall theatre was also streamed in a shoot by Cooper.

      The Radical System Art show opened with a wonderfully playful—and timely—intro video by Keiran Bohay (shot by Justin Lopes), who began the work by adjusting his suit jacket and tie in his living room, Zoom-meeting-ready. The camera panned out to reveal he was only wearing his boxers and socks on his bottom half (a running COVID joke).

      Moving to swishy electro-jazz, the dancer went on to pull off an incredibly physical piece, complete with street-influenced floor skills, despite his apartment's furnished confines. Fun stuff, energetically edited.

      What followed, in the theatre, was a chain of six more solos choreographed by the performers and Kuebler, each exploring isolation in a different mood that was underscored by soundtracks that ranged from the haunting noise art of God Speed You! Black Emperor to the transcendant rhythms of Lhasa de Sela. Calder White and Isak Enquist expressed confinement in enclosed squares of light, or by throwing long shadows against the wall; Sarah Hutton joined a mesmerizing duet with a projection of Odile-Amélie Peters dancing in her living room, never quite synchronizing and speaking to that disconnect and ennui that's universal in these pandemic times.

      Jeanette Kotowich moves on rooftops.

      Other streamed work took diverse form. Tara Cheyenne and Alison Beda’s short Stuck and Emotional Houdini proved video as a perfect format for Cheyenne’s one-of-a-kind slapstick and warped humour. Jeanette Kotowich used editing and movement to build a ritualistic, meditative space in Kâ- Nîmihitot Atayohkan and resonance. The title of the former means “She who dances the Spirit” in Cree, and the artist offset that ancient inspiration by performing on urban rooftops. In resonance, she communed with the nature of Pacific Spirit Park, from the rippling water to the long beach grass, to serene effect.

      Overall, the fest danced its way smoothly to a digital platform, suggesting that streamed work may find a lasting place at the Edge--long past the pandemic and beyond the overriding theme of solitude.