Edge 5 - Plastic, Planes, and Poetry

Billy Marchenski and Alison Denham connect and disconnect in Adam-Eve/Man-Woman

Wadded plastic, descending airplanes, and dangling mikes: memorable images graced each of the three commissioned works in Dancing on the Edge's Edge 5. Made up of two duets and a trio – Co.Erasga’s Adam-Eve/Man-Woman (Part 1), Peter Bingham’s right in front of you, and Serge Bennathan’s Slam for a Timetraveller – the program chanced to follow a classic narrative arc, from emergence in the first piece, to greatest tension in the middle, and restoration of harmony at the end.

The first and most visually arresting dance, Adam-Eve/Man-Woman (Part 1), opens with two figures conjoined at centre stage, each swathed in folds of clear plastic that cover the head and front of the body. As the figures rotate, bare backs (and buttocks and legs) appear. Meanwhile, the plastic, as prop, unleashes a chain of allusions: embryonic sacs; BDSM wrapping; beach balls that deflate; traveling bushes (in cartoons) that disguise those who lift them from behind; bunched-up bed covers; the mess of packing paper on moving day. When plastic presses the dancers’ faces, I hear an internal alarm: they’re suffocating! But their peaceful expressions allay any concerns.
Despite the title of the piece, the choreography emphasizes the common humanity of Adam and Eve, not the archetypal contrast between them. The dancers, Billy Marchenski and Alison Denham, often assume downward dog, a posture that, viewed from the front, highlights shoulders, spines, and ribs, while downplaying gender differences. Only after a slow process akin to cellular division do the dancers separate and retreat to opposite corners of the stage.
The tentative whimsy of the opening sequence gains momentum. Sheets hanging from their faces, the two run together for a friendly belly slam. The music – Ravel’s Bolero –progresses from perky woodwinds to explosive percussion until, by the end, the duo sheds the plastic as if it were snakeskin. In closing, they contract and flex their backs, especially the area between the shoulder blades, in a way that angels stripped of their wings might do. The complex emotions and wealth of imagery embedded in this piece made it a standout.
Instead of gender difference, Bingham’s duet, right in front of you, uses gender sameness to explore friendship-building between men. Before a projected cityscape of rooftops poking through trees, Farley Johansson follows his own winding head movements to a spot downstage where he clenches his fists and then releases them into a floating ‘V,’ reminiscent of the ‘levitation’ game played in doorways. Entering upstage, Chengxin Wei mirrors Johansson, winding, twisting, and reaching, until Johansson turns and watches his ‘shadow.’ At this moment, a plane descends across the screen, to the audience’s amusement (the backdrop has appeared static until now). More chuckles are heard as Johansson jumps axels and checks to see if Wei is impressed, initiating a familiar pattern of showing-off and one-upmanship.
But then the contact begins: Wei slides face-first down a diagonal formed by Johansson’s side, then spirals, turns, pirouettes, rolls, backbends, and flips. When a prostrate Johansson clings to Wei’s ankles, it is clear the balance of power has changed. Wei invites Johansson onto his back, then dekes him out; Wei pulls Johanssen out of a plank by his waistband; Wei manipulates Johanssen as if he were a Ken-doll. In a reversal of the piece’s opening configuration, Johanssen eventually finds himself upstage, mirroring Wei, whose arms float up to the sky (this time – the power of suggestion! – evoking airplane wings).
Since the battle for dominance ends in a draw, the two begin to cooperate. One runs in a diagonal and takes a flying leap into the other’s arms. They zigzag and switch roles. Now a team, they speak to each other under their breath. Should we try that again? One more time. A handstand by Johanssen – first assisted, then free – makes a striking still image before the blackout. Given the rich possibilities opened up by the collaborative mode, the piece might have broken even fresher ground if it had transcended the `pissing contest’ a little sooner.
After two duets, the trio Slam for a Timetraveller promised for a fittingly rich conclusion to the program, especially since it involved text as well as movement and music. To some extent, this culmination took place. In Slam, Anne Cooper, Donald Sales, and Michelle Rhode execute vigorous ensemble dancing, including one stunning floor sequence in which the three lie facedown and side-by-side, heads to the audience and feet upstage (think of the folksong, “they all rolled over and one fell out”). Each pushes into the air, like a flying fish, Sales in the middle soaring at least two-and-a-half feet in a gorgeously horizontal plane.
Yet Bennathan does not fully tap the potential of three bodies moving together: Cooper usually stands at the back of the stage at the centre of three hanging mikes. During the piece, the mikes lengthen to the floor (forcing Cooper to kneel) and then retract to an uncomfortable height (forcing Cooper and the others to stand on tiptoe and arch their necks when they want to speak).
The deliberate physical awkwardness of the mikes reflects the difficulty of integrating the two lush, irresistible media of dance and poetry. True, Cooper’s wonderfully expressive voice milks the poem (written by Bennathan) for its every nuance, and a rolling verbal rhythm heightens the work’s lyricism: “dance in your infinite slide”; “in dance reconstruct the nothing on nothing as we throw bodies over bodies.”
But despite the powerful last line of the piece – “Listen to the others dance” – listening to a poem about dance while watching dance felt redundant. Or, perhaps to fully appreciate a meta-text required a degree of intellectual distancing that seemed at odds with the earthy physicality of the choreography. Of course, the tenderness and affection that underpin the piece register more subtly than guffaws on the emotional Richter scale, and it took effort to pull back from the easy laughs of Bingham’s piece (what was up with that airplane?) to ponder Bennathan’s “memory of regret.”
Still, the harmoniousness of Slam for a Timetraveller – especially the synthesis implied by three bodies moving as one – made it an apt resolution to the evening.

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Edge Five
was a Dancing on the Edge 20th Anniversary Festival production.
July 11 & 12, 2008, at the Firehall Arts Centre
Each of the three performances was a 10 for 20 Dancing on the Edge Commission Project

Adam-Eve/Man-Woman (Part 1)

Company/choreographer: Co.Erasga (Vancouver)/Alvin Tolentino
Dancers: Billy Marchenski and Alison Denham
Music: Bolero, Maurice Ravel
right in front of you
Company/choreographer: EDAM (Vancouver)/Peter Bingham
Dancers: Farley Johansson, Chengxin Wei
Slam for a Timetraveller
Company/choreography: Les Productions FIGLIO (Vancouver)/Serge Bennathan
Dancers: Anne Cooper, Donald Sales, and Michelle Rhode
Text: Serge Bennathan

By Jodi Lundgren