Sex and Symbolism at Vancouver International Dance Fest

Erotica: Gallic, Dravidian and arboreal -- different strokes for different folks

Foutrement by Virginie Brunelle at VIDF
Sujit Vaidya, The Longing Courtesan at VIDF
Topless at the Roundhouse. Photos courtesy Vancouver International Dance Festival.

Opening at just about the same time as the city’s crocuses and cherry blossoms, the Vancouver International Dance Festival (VIDF) served up a heady dose of vernal lust in its first week at the Roundhouse.

Male soloist Sujit Vaidya deployed the subtle conventions of South India’s highly stylized Bharata Natyam genre to vividly incarnate female desire as a Longing Courtesan. Montreal choreographer Virginie Brunelle wrung out her audience and her dancers alike with Foutrement, an explicitly erotic, semi-nude pas de trois.

But, for me, the hottest and most intimate love scene of the week was not even vertibrate, but rather vegetative, as enacted by EDAM dancers Delia Brett and James Gnam in choreographer Peter Bingham’s Secret Life of Trees.

The two dancers stand, shirtless, back-to-front, downstage centre. With her fingers, she lightly traces swoops and whorls along his spine. He thrills to her touch, ribs atremble like breeze-tossed boughs.

Then they switch places, her frisson limned by lighting designer James Proudfoot’s stark overhead spots. The eerie, high-pitched, almost subliminal soundtrack underscores that what we’re seeing is not exactly sex, as we’ve come to know and love it, but rather some kind of botanical tropism quite alien to us.

But nonetheless ecstatic for all that, as we sense when Brett and Gnam proceed to sally upstage in tumbling frenzy, to the accompaniment of choreographer Bingham intoning his own free-associative forest meditation.

The tangle of the dancers’ intertwined limbs forms a roiling, “rooted” base for videographer Chris Randle’s projected black-and-white imagery of towering trunks and gently luffing foliage.

This duet epitomizes Bingham’s signature style: “Contact Improvisation,” which (according to EDAM’s website) “emphasizes flow and the cooperative exchange of weight between partners.”

Other ensemble members – Walter Kubanek, Chengxin Wei, Anne Cooper and Olivia Shaffer – mostly dance from the same playbook. They work mainly in pairs and threesomes, despite occasional lapses into highly coordinated orthogonal gesticulation (presumably to reflect Bingham’s stated theme of “secret,” coded arboreal communication.)

Secret Life’s focus on “intricate, entwining root systems” well befits Bingham’s penchant for low-rise, grounded choreography. The “touch and tumble” style of Contact Improv goes in much more for rolls and lateral lifts than for pirouettes, attenuated toe dance and vaulting leaps.

Virginie Brunelle leans in the opposite direction, though often, one senses, with ironic intent. In the opening scene of Foutrement she brings out diva Isabelle Arcand equipped with a pair of dainty pointe shoes and a stocky male partner, Simon-Xavier Lefebvre.

He’s built for heavy lifting and, in the hour to come, he’ll hoist Arcand and their co-star, Claudine Hébert, seemingly hundreds of times.

Aside from the toe shoes, Arcand and Lefebvre come onstage in nothing but whitey tighties and, incongruously enough, football shoulder pads. To the soprano strains of Bellini’s Norma they collide with a “clack” and grope each other for a few balletomanic swipes before he abruptly drops her cold.

She falls limp to the stage as the soprano chokes off in mid-phrase. Arcand regains her feet and twitches in frustration (en pointe, of course). Then the two of them spiral warily in for another collision – and another, and yet another – each with the same result.

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