If art does not make the public more capable of feeling, of seeing the world through other eyes, and wanting positive change for all, then it only perpetuates class division, and in so doing, social strife.
Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES) is one of the most blaring sacrifice zones of class conflict in the Western world. Along the East Hastings streetscape nightmares of addiction, insanity, and indigence spill and course like opiate-infused blood through the vomit-stained streets. For the average urban wanderer and lifelong resident alike, compassion and empathy are waylaid by depression and anxiety.
Square in the eye of the shit storm is none other than the quaint, amusing dance studio and theatre, the lovely Firehall Arts Centre. Over the course of eight evenings, Canada’s leading contemporary dance festival, Dancing on the Edge, showcased fifteen performances. In Vancouver, hundreds of dance lovers, if not thousands, have been captivated by the degree of awe-inspiring talent from emerging and seasoned artists, also applauding the incredible efforts of the arts community at large.
Highlights abounded, though there were certain performances that pierced the veil of wonderment, and exhibited sheer beauty of the body and mind as one spirit. Special performances not only made the audience gawk with pleasure, irresistibly seduced into another world of the physical imagination, they were also full with enough magical moments to make people think differently, tantalized by the ecstatic grace of the human body in flight.
Yet, the seducer is not immune to seduction. Such was true for Naomi Brand, recipient of the prestigious Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award, as she found herself relocating to Vancouver. Her choreography for Re:play, featuring dancers Walter Kubanek and Hilary Maxwell, had a deep resonance for those given to contemplating metaphors of love, gender and relationship.
Impressively, Kubanek is a strong classical pianist as well. The delicate harmonic currents of Chopin’s Nocturne op. 9 no. 1, oceanic in grandeur and atmospheric in its magnificence, were heard from above, as Maxwell and Kubanek inspired each other with the gravity of their supporting and releasing embraces.
Re:play is an exercise in mutual partnership, and literally, of a relationship that not only thinks, but also acts outside of the box. The entire piece was set inside a box, quite too small for the two of them, yet, somehow, they were able to demonstrate how even when tightly confined, love is expressible, and as diverse as the visions of Brand.
A night passed. The DTES is a cesspool of mind-numbing horror. As the sun sinks below the North Shore Mountains, where the filthy rich light their sprawling mansions, the eyes of pimps, pushers, users, and prostitutes open like the mythic, nocturnal gape of werewolves and vampires, seeming figments of the adolescent mind.
A woman stumbles in soiled clothes, mouth half-open in a drunken curse, her belly swollen with unborn life. Passersbys wonder, what is the fate of her child? Here, tragedy mounts like an unstoppable deluge. Another woman leans outside of a flophouse, smoking deliriously, while a blonde, unwashed young man on a bicycle prods her with guilt. She’s at a loss for words, and much more, in a place where the female body has become one of the only means of profit.
Femmes Fatales by Meredith Kalaman is exactly poignant in this respect. Performed by an all-female cast, Teghan Fedor, Kate Franklin, and Kalaman herself, the choreography offered insight into the inner life of a woman in Western society. Over the last six decades, Canada has suffered an epidemic of missing and murdered women, who, as reflected in the prison system as well, are disproportionately represented by a greater sum of Aboriginal women.
Kalaman voiced not only the ongoing, unsolved tragedies in Canada, but also those committed throughout North America and Europe. As the recipient of the 2015 Chrystal Dance Prize, she is at the top of her art, and is using her prestige for social justice. Gender socialization is a source of bitterness, as women continue to be targeted, exploited and disregarded.
Women have ever sought refuge in customary domestication and patriarchal hierarchies that only stultify their individuality and natural-born freedoms with systemic oppressions. Ultimately, the societies that purport to exhibit the height of democratic egalitarianism society perpetually facilitate the murder of not only the female body, but also the soul of womanhood.
A day passed. A new dancer emerged out of the womb of night. His body, blank with chalk, quivered with inhuman intensity in the dim light. As under the curse of a hallucinogenic intoxication, his eyes burned with a flood of visceral agony for what felt like an eternity and was, in fact, the passage of a few very deliberately paced minutes.
Choreographer Jay Hirabayashi crafted Oxygen with the hellish delight of a quixotic visionary in love, with mystic gravity of simply being alive. To breathe in this world of lost humanity is one of the most gripping of affirmations for the modern soul. Set to the mind-swallowing sonic charge of “no wave” music by the American experimental rock band Swans, Oxygen went places where dance so rarely goes.
Dancer Billy Marchenski put out a death-defying performance. His body transformed with the boggling elasticity of the very air, becoming nothing more than the chemistry of molecular movement. At one point, as he turned his back to the audience, his musculature and fat quavered in the spotlight. As he shook rapturously, moving shapes and gesturing faces could be seen in the contours of his skin.
A night, and a day passed. The condemned hotels of DTES creak with long-defunct neon signage. Chinatown butts its ageing head up from the south, and Gastown rears its haughty gentrification from the west. That the hotel signs remain unlit by night makes the neighborhood look even more desolate.
At the Firehall Arts Centre, The Mars Hotel is opening. A vagrant jazz musician saunters into the hall, late, as the audience stares at a closed, red curtain. He invites us in, where youth runs wild like the bygone Buffalo, and love is as combustible as Chinese New Year in Gastown.
Originally a piece of flash fiction written by Vancouer writer, P.W. Bridgman, The Mars Hotel is a rightful inspiration for a sharp, cutting treatment of love in the 21st century. Going a bit off the beaten page, from the fiction of Bridgman to the choreography of Ziyian Kwan and dramaturge of Maiko Yamamoto, dancer Noam Gagnon walked into the audience, dragged his gay lover onstage, and kissed him in the spotlight with a fiery, chemical passion.
Composer and cellist Peggy Lee devised a noise extravaganza of the heart, splayed to the end of all knowing and certainty, luring the audience to travel beyond the realm of mere contentment, to where love lives. It’s a place called The Mars Hotel, and outside one can hear the sonic boom of engines revving to the masterful exactness of Aram Bajakian’s unparalleled electric guitar.
Ziyian Kwan, also one of the two principal dancers was, at one point, adorned in nothing but a stylish trench coat and tight black underwear, as she rammed a leaf blower into an enormous white beach balloon, reading the word, “Love” in bold. The modernity, and the honesty of the dance, led the audience to reimagine the concept of Love.
And the dancers asked, as they threw their hearts out into the open air for all to see, and feel the common release. Then, the dancers took whatever semblance of shame and repression may exist among the society present and blasted it to the stars by the raw creative energy of the performance.
Truly, Love is a concept that has been raised to the heights of theology. Like an exploration vessel in the tempest-tossed waves of secularism, true art calls into question every last preconceived dogma.
So, as the subjectivity of divinity, of god as within, has gradually come into social acceptance following the cultural and spiritual revolutions of the Sixties, there may be yet a revolution of love brewing in the heart of each and every last individual of today. Simply, as once a man said, “I am God,” and shook the foundations of religion, so the masses may soon live with the idea that “I am Love, and free love of its possessive objectivity once and for all.”
Review by Matt Hanson