Dance first. Think later...

Angst and nostalgia mark Dance in Vancouver Biennial

Vision Impure in Noam Gagnon's "Pathways." Laugh last = laugh best? Photo: Erik Zennstrom

…that, according to Absurdist Laureate Samuel Beckett, “is the natural order.” How else to take any action at all in a time when meaning has broken down? Such was Beckett’s view of his bleak post-World War II milieu. And such, again, is our own post-truth reality, at least judging from this year’s Dance in Vancouver (DIV) biennial.

Three top-tier local choreographers – Noam Gagnon of Visions Impure, Amber Funk Barton of The Response and Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY – mounted works of great emotive force and originality on the Dance Centre stage. But, after first marvelling at their energy, control and technical panache, biennial audiences were left with plenty to think about, later. Different as they were in pacing, palette and musical score, all three works left a disturbingly dystopian aftertaste. Choose your poison:

In sheer body count, Gagnon’s Pathways led the pack: nine dancers, of which two were male. That allowed for complex geometric configurations and interlocking rhythms to the throb and spatter of Guillaume Cliché’s electronica score. Darryl Milot’s costumes – black spandex briefs and halters, kneepads and ankle socks, with a wispy fishnet overlay – initially reinforced this mechanistic imagery, with its suggestion of inanimate, rubbery gaskets and grommets.

But when the dancers “throw their gears” and break formation, a few minutes into the opening piece, the war inside, the kinky flash of the costuming shines through – the bare thighs and midriffs, the churning shoulders and tossing, unbound hair. A lot of self-stroking solos ringed by voyeuristic onlookers. Twosomes or threesomes emerge and dissolve amidst the pulsing melee. By the end of the 25-minute segment, several of the dancers apparently yearn to pair off with others across the stage, if only they were not ensnared by previous partners wrapped, squid-like, around their straining limbs.

What better time to adjourn for a quick pick-me-up drink in the downstairs lobby bar or the DIV Lounge in the Dance House top-floor Marcuse Studio? But better chug quickly and brace oneself back in place for Act Two of Pathways, ominously entitled the reckoning. It struck me as a whirlwind evolutionary recap, starting with our earliest emergence as yawping anaerobic tube worms around some sulfurous undersea fumarole.

The dancers then “progress” through human speciation, as depicted in the phony hilarity of what looks like a college Spring Break beach party (pictured above), which soon devolves into a surging group grope and then into sobbing despair. To the drumbeat of a Stefan Nazarevich audio-sample collage, all nine coalesce into some sort of witchy cauldron-stirring rite, but then fragment into antagonistic sub-tribes that peter out in a heartbreaking Anthropocene collapse. Time for another drink.

It took Gagnon a cast of nine to spell out this ontogeny/phylogeny story. Amber Funk Barton covered much of the same ground all by herself in her original work, VAST, which premiered at last year’s Vancouver International Dance Festival.  

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