Graceful ageing, with help from friends

Vancouver dance legend Laughlin solo's bespoke works by three master choreographers

Carving out a space all his own. Image: JoeInk

The lobby bar of the Scotiabank Dance Centre has already been open awhile before the doors even open for Joe: A Solo Show. So by the time everyone files into the underground black box theatre, it already feels like a wake.

An Irish wake: convivial, reminiscent, gloom-free even though the “guest of honour” is right there in the room, silent and motionless. Eavesdropped snippets swirl around anecdotes about how audience members are connected with Vancouver dance legend Joe Laughlin – as a friend, colleague or patron.

It’s an attractive crowd, lissom and soignée; dance people. It seems the only one not joining in the cheerful chatter is Joe himself.

But at least he’s not horizontal and casketed. He sits, stage right, shrouded in shadow behind a glowing dressing room mirror. The glass is emblazoned with photo mementos of his life and times as a farm boy, then a competitive gymnast, then a versatile and eclectic dancer, then a choreographer, teacher and impresario.

The talk subsides when he stands up and strides down to stage centre, just a few paces from the front row.  He’s physically imposing – tall, straight and barrel-chested – but not overweening, in matte grey polo, slacks and socks. Bald-shaven pate but a week-old stubble as white as the dazzling smile he flashes us.

He scans the audience, reserving an extra twinkle for a few attendees. Then the houselights dim and so do the spots as he glides backwards to stage rear. His gaze becomes indrawn; he’s not seeing us anymore. Rather, he’s attending to a voiceover conversation between himself and his disciple, Amber Funk Barton, an iconic local choreographer in her own right.

The tone is easy-going and colloquial, mostly centering on reveries of Joe’s prairie upbringing in the 1960’s. That’s not so long ago, by actuarial reckoning, but for a performer – especially one of Laughlin’s celebrated athleticism – it may feel well over the hill.

By his own admission, he’s all but given up his own stage career in favour of mentoring others. But Funk Barton seems bent on persuading him that there’s dance in him yet – an idiosyncratic, intuitive gestural language all his own. And, as though to prove her point, he starts dancing “in tune” with the voiceover dialogue.

Nothing flamboyant. His moves are understated, quizzical, limning the shape of the spoken thoughts rather than the rhythms of the recorded speech. But the dance-literate audience evidently “gets it,” audibly chuckling now and then at some particularly telling tic or twitch.

All the more so when he segues into a more formal piece, the first of three solos expressly choreographed for this evening’s hour-long programme. This one celebrates the wonder and dignity of farming. Funk Barton creates a character she’s named Silas, a sort of amalgam of Joe’s prairie reminiscences and her recent readings in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Loughlin dances Silas through his rounds of digging, ploughing, sowing, reaping.

He minutely scrutinizes his sprouts and seedlings, then hails his burgeoning crops with gestures of fanfare. The score is by Montreal “baroque pop” rockers Arcade Fire, as performed by L.A.’s Vitamin String Quartet until it somehow takes on the tone of Aaron Copeland – stately, yet vigorous.

So vigorous that, after the solo, he retreats to the dressing room glass to mop his sweat-spangled pate and revisit the photos on the mirror. Voiceover again, this time Joe in conversation with Italo-Canadian choreographer Gioconda Barbuto, with whom he shared a 1996 Clifford Lee Award.

Once more, Laughlin sketches in the spoken words with gestural doodles. And once more the subtext is how Joe, at this stage of his career, is ready for a new dance vocabulary, less expansive perhaps but just as expressive as ever. Together, the two old friends parse the mirror snapshots, which bring them to the verge of tears, but they wind up giggling instead.

And throughout the dialogue, Barbuto has taken careful note of his gesticulations, which form the basis for her choreographed solo, Long Story Short. To an electro-acoustic score by Vancouver’s own Owen Belton, Laughlin struts out in a sort of semi-formal tux, which he presently peels off and carefully lays out onstage. For the rest of the number, he dances in angular figures vis a vis the shed jacket, as though coming to terms with his own outgrown persona.

Then more swabbing and more half-danced voiceover dialogue. This time Laughlin’s interlocutor is South African choreographer Vincent Mantsoe, whose incandescent smile is audible, sight unseen, just in his recorded speech. Same underlying message: just dance yourself, true to feeling, and never mind the physical virtuosity.

Joe takes the message to heart dancing Mantsoe’s solo. The title of the piece, Giya (“dance” in Zulu) may be African, but the mood is decidedly urbane, in tune with Astor Piazolla’s tango score, Oblivion. Laughlin dances it with a self-assured suavity, wholly comfortable in his own 56-year-old frame, a fitting coda to his first-ever all-solo recital.

Which brought the audience to its feet for a prolonged ovation, not just standing but outright ululating.

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