I normally post my reviews on Plank Magazine's website, but I've just been informed that Plank was specifically asked to not have me review this particular show. I'm not sure who made this request, why the request was made, or why I wasn't informed of it before I saw the performance, reviewed it, and submitted my article...especially since James offered to take me for coffee before the show to talk about it (a bribe, perhaps?)
But anyway, here we are. I'm not sure what they thought I would say, and the funny thing is - I really enjoyed the show.
_POST – The Plastic Orchid Factory
Friday, May 27th, 2011
Director: James Gnam
Performers: James Gnam, Natalie Lefebvre-Gnam, Bevin Poole, Alison Denham
When James Gnam entered the space last night at the Dance Centre, I wanted to burst out laughing. Not because of anything he was doing, but because of what he was wearing – a white latex tube top corset, white tights, and a gigantic twisted headpiece that made him look a bit like Mozart and Lady Gaga’s lovechild. However, I stifled my laughter.
No one else laughed either. Maybe because they were intimidated by the set up of the space – chairs and stadium style lighting lined the four walls of the room, leaving the entire space open for the performers. In hindsight, I’m tempted to say that should have made the space feel less formal. I personally held in my giggled because I thought Gnam’s first full length work – 2009’s endORPHIN – took itself entirely too seriously and I was nervous this piece was going to play out in a similar fashion. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Gnam began a series of grand, regal gestures – bowing and posturing for the crowd. Seeing him in such an effeminate light took me by surprise. I always enjoy a man who is comfortable enough in his sexuality to experiment with gender roles, and it certainly helps when he is as crushworthy as Gnam. I couldn’t help but notice he was wearing (evil) socks, my pet peeve. They were not necessary for any of the movement he was performing, though I suppose they made his feet stand out even more against the black floor.
The three women entered the space and put on their space-age saucer harness tutus. This was not the last time that I wondered if the piece was too reliant on the props and costumes. Though they were utilized well and were part of some of the most important images of the night, the movement sometimes seemed like an afterthought because the props took up so much of the focus. Each woman began their own gestural phrase of movement accented with exaggerated breaths and distorted facial expressions. These phrases were repeated perhaps a few more times than necessary, but it was nice not to feel overwhelmed by the dancing – often a full length piece is bogged down with so much choreography that it all begins to look the same. When that happens all of the choreography loses its value because the minds have trouble absorbing everything they are being shown. Here it was comforting to know that each of the dancers had a home base to go back to whenever they needed it.
Bevin Poole began to assist Gnam with unraveling his headpiece, which was actually a gigantic piece of fabric that had been wound up and wrapped around itself many times. Natalie Lefebvre-Gnam and Alison Denham performed a duet in the center of the space. It was one of many moments during the piece that there was something task-based happening in one part of the space with something movement-based happening elsewhere. These layers offered the audience a choice of what to watch – a nice change from a more classical performance. I never realized how well-matched Denham and Lefebvre-Gnam could be – their bodies were so compatible, their expressions so in tune with each other. Because of this synchronicity, I was disappointed that they were watching each other as much as they were to make sure they were beginning their phrases at the same time. Obviously they wanted their dancing to be in sync, but I wanted to see their trust in the timing. Gnam and Denham performed a higher octane version of this duet later on in the piece (without socks!!!) and I enjoyed it much more in that context – it was performed with a bit more abandon and the momentum was allowed to take over.
After the show I had a discussion with some other audience members who told me they were disappointed that the dancing in the show wasn’t as athletic as they had hoped it would be. Though I understand where this complaint comes from – that the average viewer might want to have more of that instant gratification. However, I disagreed. I know these performers can dance, I’ve seen them all dance many times. I’m much less concerned with them performing gymnastically than I am with them doing things that contribute to the overall aesthetic of the piece. I was totally content with the (often) humorous scenarios that Gnam created. They moved the story along and they reflected so many of my experiences with ballet in a human light. I can’t be the only one who likes to see dancers behave like regular human beings. In one scene LeFebvre-Gnam was wrapped up in the huge piece of white fabric until she looked like the Michelin Man’s bride. It was hysterical to watch her tiny feet waddle around the space while she was weighed down with so much excess fabric. For anyone who saw endORPHIN, you’ll notice that Gnam has a tendency to dress his wife up in ridiculously oversized clothing for comedic effect. I had the giggles here, but when underneath the tulle she began to repeat the gestural phrase we’d been introduced to earlier, I had such a sense of continuity with her character – it was a beautiful moment. One of several highlights of the show.
My favourite scene of the night was between Denham and Poole – they competed to see who could give the other the most baffling instructions (“blink 7 times, look this way and see the other side of the room without moving your head, touch your ear to your left shoulder – now relax.”) I remember early ballet classes feeling exactly like that – being told what to do with every single part of my body, most of which feels/sounds/is physically impossible, and then they would tell me to relax. An interesting thought came out of this section during the talkback (lead by the wonderfully articulate Su-Feh Lee.) Lefebvre-Gnam said she knew she had become her own dancer when she stopped worrying about pleasing the teacher at the front of the room. Poole/Denham’s duet perfectly illustrated the desire young dancers have to do as they are told, as well as their desire to compete with each other.
But, of course, the piece was about trying to figure out how classical ballet can inform these modern contemporary minded bodies. The next segment saw Lefebvre-Gnam transformed her into a pseudo-ballerina wearing one pointe shoe, her saucer tutu, and a tiara. She repeated Gnam’s earlier regal motions with a few more balletic steps thrown in – and though this section overstayed its welcome, I loved what it was trying to say. It was almost poking fun at classical ballet in a way, and as someone who finds classical ballet completely boring and pretentious and archaic – I enjoyed it, very very much. Here it was easy to see Lefebvre-Gnam’s classical ballet training clashing with her visible distaste for it and her desire to be an individual. Above everything else, _POST made me think about the role that nepotism plays in the Vancouver dance scene. It’s a small community where people often hire their partners/spouses/friends instead of dancers who would be more suitable to the movement or the roles. While I understand the tension that is created between partners when one is working and the other is not, nepotism does our art form no favours. The role should go to the most appropriate performer. Here it was so satisfying to know that no one could have been better suited to this particular role than Lefebvre-Gnam.
As the piece began with an homage to the royal origins of ballet, it seemed fitting that the ending of the piece was as abstract and anti-balletic as possible. Unforunately, Gnam’s desire to create something that didn’t rely on classical performance techniques meant that the ending felt extremely anti-climactic. Poole slowly clambered through the white fabric that had been featured one too many times, and after what felt like an eternity she emerged on the other end of the fabric wearing it as a long tutu – and then the lights went out. I wasn’t ready for the piece to be over, and I didn’t want that to be the end. It didn’t help that the soundscape was so even throughout the show either. I lost any sense of build or momentum that I’d found earlier in the piece. I couldn’t help but wonder if the expectation of a ‘full length evening dance work’ to be exactly 60 minutes long might have kept Gnam from further exploring. In my opinion, the actual length is much less important than how long the piece feels. Here the piece felt relatively short – it was witty and amusing without pandering to the audience. The subject matter was obviously close to Gnam’s heart, and to the other performers. As an audience member I could sense that connection to the piece, and I felt a connection to it too (maybe it helped that I too was once that small boy who felt out of place surrounded by girls in tutus.) It had a statement to make, and it made that statement loud and clear. Though I felt disappointed by the finale, all of those positive aspects combined with the unorthodox seating, the intimacy of the smaller audience and the piece being jam packed with memorable imagery made for a very exciting evening. It’s not often that I am caught off guard by a piece, especially by a choreographer whose work I am familiar with. The growth and versatility that Gnam showed last night was a welcome surprise.
While I take a moment to consider the negative effect that censorship has on our arts community, please take a moment to do the same.