Dance on the Fringe


Winnipeg Fringe Festival, Part II, Dance 2011 edition

Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham

Everybody dance now!

Yes, Fringes love to dance – and the 2011 Winnipeg Fringe was no exception. It used to be, not too long ago, that the Winnipeg Fringe danced on only one leg. Mind you, when that one leg belonged to Jolene Bailie, no one was complaining. Jolene has been absent for at least two or three years now (and is sorely missed). Fortunately, five— count them, five— dance groups decided that this year was their year.

First up was the sizeable cast of the Bolero Dance Theatre with their production of Matador. This was a reprise of the production they first performed at the Franco-Manitoban Cultural Centre in March of this year and which I reviewed on April 1, no fooling. This was a stripped-down version to fit into the time slot of the Fringe. Now, when the men and ladies of Bolero strip, they do it right and they do it hot, hot, hot (and that’s beside the temperature outside which was also hot, hot, hot…).

Some small changes had been made which vastly improved this performance. Sadly, Duncan McGregor was consigned to playing only flamenco guitar and singing, his duties on cajon having been taken over by Jay Stoller of Nafro Dance on the Middle Eastern goblet drum, the darbouka or dombek as it is known in various Middle Eastern countries. This may have been because Duncan was singing and dancing and acting in Illuminati II which was reviewed in the first instalment of this three part Fringe coverage. Just as a side note, Casimiro Nhussi, artistic director of Nafro Dance, will be taking Jay Stoller with him to Mozambique, Nhussi’s home country, later in August. This should bode well for Winnipeg’s music scene.

Contemporary dance groups, including the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers themselves, took up the other four slots. This was rather interesting as a wide variety of experience, from a group of fourth year students right up to the big daddy itself, was in evidence.

So let’s take a fresh look at Fringe dance beginning with a look at Fresh, Nova Dance Collective’s submission to this year’s program. Fresh is the brainchild of seven female dancers in their fourth year of the Contemporary Dancers Professional Program. The first question that arises is: were there no male dancers in this class? This question is particularly relevant given that a couple of other dance groups had included male dancers for the first time in a long time— but more of that later.

The second question is why the audience was expected to shell out $10 per for a student recital when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet has been hosting their First Steps program of student choreography for free for some time now. Having gotten that out of the way, it’s time for kudos, the biggest of which goes to Janelle Hacault whose dancing was a delight. It is unfortunate that this program began with an apology by Janelle for being just fourth year students followed by an extolling of all the other dance performances presented by other groups. If you don’t have the confidence to do a show, don’t do it. If you do have it, then get on with the show. Interspersed between dances were video interludes created by Erin Buelow that tended to be rather pedestrian, except for the third one which reminded me of the work of Dali and Buñuel, in particular their Un Chien Andalou. Was it this film clip that inspired these dancers, giving rise to the best two choreographic works of the performance?

I had been watching (and reviewing) with a great deal of interest the choreographic works of Alexandra Elliott and Renée Vandale as represented in their offerings at Young Lungs Dance Exchange performances. They had done some very promising work that, unfortunately, was marred in some way through inexperience. Their performance at the Fringe, in The Scents of Tang, was their coming-of-age. Set in a seedy tango club, the choreography begins powerfully with a spot light falling upon the fallen figure of Farrah Fernando whose fishnet stockings display holes and who begins to awaken sensually. This establishes the playground in which these women work. Three dancers – Nicole Coppens, Alexandra Elliott and Keren Parker – enter to examine the entrails only to discover that this is not a corpse. Parker is the alpha female of the group, the star dancer who is almost immediately challenged by newcomer Renée Vandale displaying a natural sensuality. Let’s hope the bitchiness she also displays is not natural as she portrays this cold, arrogant vamp.

What then follows is an extension of the West Side Story theme that was used to good measure in Alexandra’s and Renée’s Young Lungs piece taken to an individual level as Renée’s character and Parker’s battle for the honour of being supreme dancer, allegiance of the others wavering throughout in a fickle, catty clash. My only criticism, and a minor one, is with the overly melodramatic crying scenes that could have been considerably shortened – but then, in a work that was only 37 minutes long, taking even a minute off the run time might have been too much.

Drive Dance with heels and ladder

Drive Dance arrived on the scene last year spreading the colour Rouge to enlightened audiences. They returned, with certain modifications, this year in Shades. Last year, Drive Dance consisted of four young female dancers. This year, they were pared to three along with three male dancers including the brother and sister team of Robyn and James Thomson Kacki. The choreography was thanks to a bequest from Stephanie Ballard and Gaile Petursson-Hiley who have begun a heritage project. All three female dancers – which include Arlo Baskier-Nabess and Kathleen Hiley along with Robyn – come with strong CVs. The three males – Ardley Zozobrado and Warren Clelland in addition to James – are all dance students (which may explain why Fresh could not find any male dancers). The first piece, ‘Interiors,’ was an exceptional choreography by Petursson-Hiley with video shot on a back screen as well as the gossamer coverings of three blocks that, later, turned out to contain female figures writhing within. Absolutely breathtaking. ‘Surrender,’ another Petursson-Hiley piece, deserves special commendation as humour in dance is so rarely seen. I happened to be sitting beside Petursson-Hiley during the performance. She said that the reason why it is so rarely seen is that it is so difficult to pull off. Here it was pulled off spectacularly. Is it any wonder that this show was selected for ‘Best of Fringe’ honours at its venue?

We are now left with the big daddy of the dance performances – the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers themselves. Bash on Regardless was an exceptional collaborative work between choreographer and artistic director Brent Lott, dramaturge Debbie Patterson, and poet Jaik Josephson with incredible lighting by Dean Cowieson. The four usual WCD dancers – Kristin Haight, Lise McMillan, Johanna Riley and Sarah Roche – were joined by Emma Rose and a male dancer Mark Medrano, another graduating student. Marks’ appearance was such a surprise given that the WCD hasn’t had a male dancer for ages that I had to ask Brent why this was. He replied: “I have always said that I would not hire a guy unless I knew he would look good alongside our very talented women dancers. I also want to hire a guy who was committed to Winnipeg and our very vibrant dance community. So it took a while to get those two requirements but I am very pleased to have Mark onboard as one of our apprentices this year and I hope this is just the beginning of our creative relationship.”

The spanning of dance and theatre on exhibit here in a Fringe setting was highly unusual for the WCD but Brent had been “wanting to try something quite different from what I have been doing the last five years.” The program describes the work: “Staring down the punishing expectations for women in the first half of the last century, Elizabeth Smart side-stepped convention to demand a place in the adventure. This bohemian unwed mother of four devoured life unbridled and without apology.” Involved was her love affair with George Baker that was set out in Canadian writer Smart’s 1945 book By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. This performance is part of a full-length work titled 97 Positions of the Heart. Although everyone was excellent, Sarah Roche shone for both her dancing and acting ability, the inflections of her voice capturing the nuances of the text.

One of these days, we’ll welcome back Jolene Bailie to the Fringe fold. In the meantime, we’ll have to be satisfied with the offerings of this year’s Winnipeg Fringe Festival. With the quality demonstrated in these shows, Jolene may have difficulty working her way back in (Nah!).

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On the Town

John Herbert Cunningham

John Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. His poetry reviews have appeared in Arc, Prairie Fire, and other literary magazines.