Dusk Dances Dazzle in Downtown’s Portside Park
Feeding the cultural vibrancy of the city
With festival season upon us, there is never a dull moment in Vancouver’s city parks. The weekend of July 4-6 was no exception with the 20th national anniversary of Dusk Dances, an eclectic outdoor dance festival that features a fusion of contemporary and traditional works as part of a larger annual event Dancing on the Edge. Originating in Toronto, Dusk Dances features both local and national performers, feeding the cultural vibrancy of the city and the country by presenting accessible performances by donation each year in Gastown’s Portside Park, better known as Crab Park.
This season the name of the game was diversity, with host-in-character Shiva Shakti Karma Banda, a.k.a. Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg (a common name amongst Vancouver’s dance scene), at the fore. Friedenberg is a veteran performer and choreographer with a flair for comedic theatrics that led the way through the park with a schtick of asanas, leg warmers and lipstick. Dusk Dances featured four pieces, situated in designated locations around the site that were each tailored to match the unique geography of the environment. With Friedenberg spooning healthy doses of clichéd Vancouver dharma to the crowd with a tongue-in-cheek smile, Shiva Shakti became both our guide and life coach for the evening, drawing correlations with the orange t-shirts that the volunteers were sporting to the 2nd chakra- the seat of creativity, encouraging the audience to access our own chakras through deep breathing exercises.
The opening act of the evening, Brittania’s own The Carnival Band, is a community-based ensemble that features a full Mardi Gras- style brass band with an electric guitarist and several percussionists supremely decorated with colorful clothing, face paint and wacky accessories. The Carnival Band made a grand spectacle marking the beginning of the show by marching single file over the bridge through the park’s entrance to assemble under the small band shell, bopping to the joyous music like a tickle trunk-come-alive in true carnival style. Naturally, the mood was infectious; audience members gathered to groove to the sound while others looked on with smiles, toe-tapping to the beat. Lead saxophonists Ross Barrett and Tim Sars shared the stage, passing the mega phone between one another to shout out count downs and lyrics to the songs. The Carnival Band’s energy was exceptional as they moved through a repertoire of allsorts including swing numbers, calypso, Afrobeats and a tango, finishing with a dark and dramatic Waits-esque song that left the band members laid out on the grass after a long and sputtering brass slide with Sars shouting, “We’re all gonna die!” as they fizzled to a close.
Shiva Shakti came to the rescue with her microphoned headset and little bell, escorting us to the next act, entitled be graceful in the wind. The audience was led around a piece of yellow tape encircling a tree next to the water’s edge. The view from this site was spectacular, with the buildings of downtown and the iconic red cargo cranes of Vancouver’s downtown port just behind. Three ladies, including dancer and choreographer Meghan Goodman and dancer Susan Kania appeared dressed as forest sprites and began laying cedar boughs down along the interior of the circle, acknowledging curious onlookers as they prepared the space in ritual. Dancer Julia Carr then re-entered with a thurible, a brass instrument on a long chain easily recognized from a church setting that holds and burns incense during mass. She gently followed the pendulum swinging around her body, mirroring the circular formation of the audience in a Ptolemaic spiral around the perimeter leaving a trail of smoke that filled the air with the perfumed aroma of sage.
Ambient sound floating from loud speakers triggered the commencement of growth-inspired movement, and a motif was born of the hand reaching slowly up into the sky with tension-filled fingers and flexed feet. Ever-present breath informed the dancing bodies who circled in unison past one another in one direction and back, tracing a pendulum shape on the ground. Their detailed costumes, designed by local creator of Lost & Found Puppet Co. Maggie Winston, featured a leaf appliqué on the lower body in natural brown and green tones, matching the object of worship, the tree growing in the centre of their dance. A waterfall of movement cascaded through the bodies, arms and legs each completing and passing on the phrase in canon. Then the curious green mats set up around the base of the tree came into use, as the dancers slowly inverted in headstand, with toes spread and reaching for the sky. Skirts flipped and became the base of a human tree with legs for limbs. The pose was held painstakingly until each dancer had reached stillness and then the music took over, washing us with a mellow, Enigma-style synth beat simulating the passing of time. The grove of human trees stood silent to finish, with balancing muscles rippling through, demonstrating their quiet strength.
Next we were led to the set of Cree Creation Story, where a bearskin was laid along a park bench in an altar comprised of flowers, deer hide, racoon fur, and stones. The audience faced north toward a full view of the North Shore mountains, Cypress, Grouse and Seymour, a stunning sight to compliment a traditional style tipi that had been set up next to the furs. A voice recording of Métis elder Tom McCallum began telling the story of the beginnings of time from the Cree perspective, or Cihcipcikwan as it is known in Cree language, over the loud speaker. The voice beckoned four dancers who emerged from the tipi to sounds of songbirds and crows cawing, giving way to a single drum beating in the rhythm of a heartbeat. The dancers followed in a contemporary round dance, each uniquely clothed in complimentary colors, some with moccasins, one with a fur coyote skin worn on the head.
Each dancer performed their unique style of movement until the sound of wind came whirling through, stirring up the dancers who spun around with arms flowing. The group began a series of unified movements, travelling in one unit diagonally across the grass to one corner and then back upon themselves and across again like a herd or flock. Interpretive movement intertwined with modern dance steps to symbolize animals while the soundscape included audio samples of a buffalo herd and coyotes howling. A narrative unfolded as Tom’s voice told of a husband, Tawahum, played by dancer Eloi Homier, and his wife Wapimikwan, or White Feather, enacted by Artistic Director of Compaigni V’ni Dansi and choreographer Yvonne Chartrand, who woke up each character from under a fur blanket. The couple frolicked to Pow Wow songs, honoring the sky, and miming their roles in the story with activities like hunting and carrying water that escalated into a chase with the coyote in tow. The sound of water washed away the chase and storyteller Tom came back to speak about the connection of women and the water spirit. As Wapimikwan danced with an ocean blue sash, Tom named women as Life givers, resembling the water. The sash then danced between them all, waving and fluid as the heartbeat drum returned to close the dance.
Shiva Shakti arrived to escort us to the upper corner of the park, where we came upon a smattering of white paper lanterns decorating the landscape. As we waited for the performance to begin, we showed our appreciation with an optional downward dog or tree pose as she announced the evening’s contributors. In Unquiet Winds, Toronto-based choreographer Denise Fujiwara chose all-white for her two person cast, a duet by Sylvie Bouchard and Brendan Wyatt. Wind chimes drew the two characters out of the woodwork to greet us. The gentle pair dressed head to toe in layers of chalky clothing with faces and hands powdered pale as a ghost, as is typical in Japanese Butoh practice. They moved delicately towards each other, playfully inquisitive in their non-verbal interaction. The audience watched on as the ageless female slowly opened her mouth wide and then filled her body entirely with air, floating for a moment before strongly exhaling a gale of forceful wind that knocked her partner to the ground. She then came to the aide of her unconscious counterpart, to awaken him with a life-giving touch. They engaged in a mime-like duet of embodied movement, pushing the space between them, or Ma, as it’s called in Japanese, back and forth with visible energy.
The sustained motions progressed into light, quick and airy dance accentuating the frailty of the two humble beings that wore ballet slippers, a testament to the medieval European love poems that the dance was inspired by, as bagpipes played in the trees. A Celtic voice accompanied the pair while she serenaded him circling delicately around his head with her arms with the innocence of a child. Harp music enhanced the ethereal Ma created between them and soon she was prompting his reactions, the tension building as they chased one another with wide smiles, making sure not to touch. At last he crumpled to the earth, tired, but this time she collapsed as well, and after a few moments of suspense they touched fingers at long last, ending the piece.
The final performance switched gears with a comedic farce by Toronto’s Julia Aplin entitled Inner City Sirens, Part II. We arrived on the scene to witness the cast, a dynamic duo dressed in blue and red superman outfits, complete with swim caps and goggles, warming up behind two inflatable kiddie pools filled with water. As we sat down, accompanist Jesse Baird, who also backs up indie legend Feist, began a mix of surf-rock and glorious royal fanfares using melodies made by voice scatting into a megaphone. The spectacle initiated with the squeeze of a rubber ducky, as exceptional drummer Blake Howard kept the energy high with epic drum rolls and solos to punctuate the bombardment of eccentric shapes that made up the swimmer‘s routine.
Signaled by a lifeguard’s whistle, they thrashed about with vigor, noses held, hurling themselves repeatedly into the pools of water while holding jointly symmetrical shapes created mid-air as they jumped bravely into the cool seaside breeze of the dusky grey Vancouver eve. They emulated whales, three year olds and professional athletes in a water ballet of deliberately heavy drops of weight in a contest to create the biggest splash. Before long the first two rows of the audience were soaked although presumably seated beyond the yellow-taped splash-zone. The team seethed of Olympic quality, executing with strict discipline a series of moves drawn from synchronized swimming, modern dance and contact improvisation with über serious composure and the utmost precision. 360 degree turns and interdependent lifts ended in an argument initiated by an over-zealous Brodie Stevenson whose determined moves exacerbated by audible noises inspired a tangent off into spastic fanaticism, leaving troupe member Mairéad Filgate dripping motionless in the pool fuming at his error in not adhering to the routine. The act ended with fluffy Canada flag towels wrapped around the musicians, after they dropped their instruments to present their own rendition of synchro-perfection, reluctantly soaking them selves in the process.
Ending on a high note, Dusk Dances proved full of vibrancy with an amalgamation of theatrics, music and dance flavoured by an array of cultural traditions that highlight the intricacy of present day performance in Canada. For more info on Dusk Dances, visit the links below:
Photo Gallery of Dusk Dances by Kendra Archer for VANDOCUMENT
by Jen Dunford
Jen Dunford is an emerging artist in the Vancouver community. She graduated from SFU with a BFA in Contemporary Dance and works actively in preserving culture through art, creative writing and performance.