This seems to have been dance week, and not just because I spent two evenings revisiting “The Red Shoes” and “Black Swan” (the things I do for this project!) as research for “The Leap.” Over the weekend, I had back-to-back exposure to two sides of the Canadian dance world, one timeless, one timely: the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, and “Walking Mad,” a triple bill by Ballet BC.
The museum on the far northwest corner of campus, conveniently right around the corner from the journalism school, could not be a more appropriate place to see native dance. It stands on a cliff overlooking Burrard Inlet and the North Shore mountains beyond. (If only this had been an outdoor summer festival!) The land, according to program notes, is “un-ceded traditional territory of the Musqueam Nation”; it is not uncommon here for performing arts venues to make such acknowledgments. The view travels with you inside the galleries, since one wall several stories high is glass. It formed a backdrop for the festival stage set in the main gallery – a wilderness answer to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room looking out at the lights of Manhattan.
Native dance is less my fach than classical ballet. But I recently noticed that the cultural events I was attending in Vancouver – the symphony, the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” broadcasts, the Vancouver Opera live and in person in a couple of weeks, the National Theatre Live from London – were just a little too much like what I would see at home, and that I might be missing an opportunity. The First Nations festival offered an additional, irresistible attraction: dancing with masks. As the owner of one of New York City’s better mask collections, I had to go.
Friday’s opening-night program consisted of six acts, some better than others, from full companies to a solo hoop dancer. Two troupes used masks: the headlining Dancers of Damelahamid and the closing Rainbow Creek Dancers. Watching them, I learned why so many of the masks I’ve seen here in shops galleries have no eyeholes. (In part to avoid buying every mask I see, I have a rule that anything I add to the collection must be wearable – i.e., have eyeholes. Unless, of course, I really, really like one that doesn’t.) Here masks were not necessarily worn on the face. Some, like the bird-faced helmet masks with their long bills, are worn atop the head, like baseball caps with pointy brims, with the dancer’s full face exposed; smaller ones are part of headdresses. Oversized masks, like the ones I saw in the Vancouver Art Gallery some weeks ago, are not worn at all, but carried in front of the dancer. The hinged jaw of Rainbow Creek’s raven mask clacked rhythmically as its hinged jaws opened and closed; wearers of other bird masks, some on their heads, some smaller ones on their hands, followed suit. In the troupe’s closing number, an oversized salmon head bobbed above “water,” then danced, complete with a fluke that waved goodnight. Sadly, I didn’t take my camera — a decision I regret, since a number of people were shooting.
For an ultramodern building, the museum proved surprisingly atmospheric. Pale colored lights played off the totem poles surrounding the audience, suggesting the aurora borealis to an audience facing the night sky. Most haunting was the music, strong on choral, driven by percussion and, in the performance of the visiting Australian Aboriginal dancer Robert Bamblett, a didgeridoo. Of course I couldn’t understand the lyrics in native languages, but that only enhanced the effect.
The program was short on showmanship – too little attention to pacing; too many acoustically challenged speeches by people unskilled at public speaking; an ending that just ended, as opposed to a finale. But then, the point of these dances was never to put on a show. Their purpose was ceremonial, to honor the often-invoked ancestors and carry their traditions into the future. Judging from the audience, which ranged from elders beating time to the music to a crying baby, I’d say they’re succeeding.
Downtown the next evening, Ballet BC presented two new works choreographed by Canadians and a Canadian premiere by a Swede: artistic director Emily Molnar’s black-on-black “between disappearing and becoming”; Aszure Barton’s “Vitulare,” which blends elements of line dance, breakdance and flamenco, with a few shimmies and jazz hands mixed in; and the evening’s title piece, Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad,” a sometimes comedic, sometimes disturbing work to Ravel’s “Bolero” and Arvo Part. The entire program was resoundingly contemporary – not a tutu in sight – and the audience in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre responded, especially to the Barton, with enthusiastic applause, whistles and finally a standing ovation. The Ballet BC dancers seem equally at home on point (some lovely fluttering legs in the Molnar) and in a modern-dance idiom. It’s a company worth watching, as I will do again in the work of my student Suzanne Ahearne, who is documenting the week’s rehearsals and performances as her final project.
On my way to the ballet, I was heartened to see a crowd of perhaps 200 rallying at the adjoining Vancouver Playhouse in support of that theater’s resident company, which had just announced that financial problems were forcing it to close after 49 years. (I celebrated my birthday with a matinee there, a creditable production John Logan’s Tony Award-winning “Red.”) That night was to be the theater’s last performance, but judging by the reviews of “Hunchback,” the better show was outside. “This is a vigil, not a wake,” stated paper signs taped to the walls. Supporters declared their sentiments in messages chalked on the sidewalk: “Do not go gently [sic] into that good night” ; “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” from “Hamlet”; “Tennessee Williams was here” and “Sir Ian McKellen was here”; most simply but eloquently, “Theatre changes lives.” A poster signed by company members, and later by well-wishers, elaborated: “It is through cultural institutions like this theatre that the collective voice is heard, that consciousness and art has a home, and that life is breathed into the concrete and steel of this city. Vancouver needs culture to stay alive, vibrant, relevant; it’s more than just real estate.” That’s the lesson I’ve been trying to teach all semester, and I’m sure I haven’t said it any better. In an era when harsh economics have forced too many theaters to go dark, can’t someone please find a million dollars to keep this one in business?