Wen Wei Wang’s “Dialogue”: Inhabiting the Masculine

One of the most exciting aspects of small dance performances for me is the opportunity to be physically close to the performers. I’m pulled further into the experience and it allows me a tiny insight into what the dancers may feel, physically and emotionally, as they perform.  In seeing Wen Wei Wang’s Dialogue I was offered a chance to briefly inhabit the six male worlds of each of these excellent dancers.  I decided before the performance not to try to identify Wang’s meaning of each segment within Dialogue and instead to pay attention to the emotions the performances evoked in me. This was difficult. However, I was not disappointed by the result as Wang’s piece began with an anxiety-inducing, scratching, grating electronic sound running in the background, instantly creating a sense of discomfort.  Emotion evoked, powerfully.  Dialogue begins with six men moving their chairs to centre stage near one another, clearly feeling detached, suspicious and defensive.  Their uneasiness is obvious.  Slowly, they begin communicating through hand gestures and exchange.  From here the performance often focuses on singular dancers with supportive dancers in each scene.  A standout for me was the performance of Nicholas Lydiate, a versatile, physically hyper-strong dancer originally from England and raised in the Canadian Prairies.  Lydiate’s entry into one scene wearing only his underwear, moving erratically almost as if battling the devastating effects of a neurological disorder was both frightening and confusing.  At the same time it was fascinating as seeing the human body move in this way is not something we often experience.  Later, we see Lydiate again with dancer Arash Khakpour in a scene depicting power and struggle between the two men.  Khakpour repeatedly holds his open hand against Lydiate’s face, directing and moving him. Lydiate is weak and powerless, in one sense evoking the helplessness of addiction.  Khakpour also shares a scene with dancer Ralph Escamillan in which Escamillan is both engaged with and repeatedly rejected by Khakpour, who retreats at will to his chair and pulls his black shirt over his face, rejecting Escamillan’s love. Later the group of dancers confront Khakpour, his face still covered, and force it off of him in a segment that might seem either aggressive or compassionate or both. This theme of coming together or pulling apart runs throughout Dialogue.  This relationship is again shown in a segment with the athletically gifted dancer Tyler Layton-Olson at stage right, convulsively moving his prone body toward the audience while struggling to remove a shirt causing him extreme discomfort. Dancer Andrew Haydock then gently takes the discarded shirt and puts it on casually in what I saw as a gentle, kind moment of taking on the burdens of another.

What intrigued me most about Dialogue however was Wang’s ability to convey a sense of what it might be like to feel the emotions and physicality of a man versus my own as a woman.  This was new to me as I find it is my tendency to minimize gender differences.  Whether this was Wang’s intention is irrelevant as this is simply my own interpretation and experience. There are movements and segments conveying loneliness, rejection, male sexuality, madness and fear in Dialogue.  Wang seems to portray an aggressive, frustrated, erratic energy through his dancers but also conveys moments of gentleness, humour and compassion.  I saw Dialogue twice, first as an emotional experience and second to try to understand this experience.  It is a joy to watch the dancers perform as their body awareness is very high and integrated into their being.  For me, Wang’s Dialogue was a triumph because he showed me something new in inhabiting the masculine and his choreography was successful in portraying a wide variety of complex emotions.

-Gayle Thom

Dorothy Dittrich’s The Piano Teacher: A Reason to Hope

In Dorothy Dittrich’s play The Piano Teacher: Lessons on Life and Love we observe two women’s very different experiences of grief and loss through a gently developing friendship. The concert pianist Erin, intensely depressed and emotionally frozen to the extent that she is unable to resume playing the piano, shows us raw, intolerable grief and loss in its immediacy. In contrast, in the piano teacher Elaine we are introduced to a woman who has lived within her grief so long, its pain has turned to a dull ache to be endured.

Erin is in crisis; her needs are immediate and her character dominates the stage as a result. Megan Leitch’s physical embodiment of Erin’s staggering depression conveys the exhaustion inherent in loss and grief. The marvelous performance of Caitriona Murphy as Elaine generates an intriguing degree of interest in part due to the mildly hidden nature of the character’s struggle. Elaine is a woman caught in self-delusion, believing that she has accepted her arthritic condition which prevented her from pursuing the greatest joy of her life; to play piano professionally. This complexity is finely written by Dittrich and skillfully adopted by Murphy as we experience the confusion within Elaine’s own embattled mind throughout the play. Murphy exhibits the simmering, veiled grief of Elaine perfectly, with a tilt of the head and a smile as if to say “everything’s fine”. It is the third character, Tom, who leaves the audience wanting for more. Tom, played effectively and amicably by a delightful Kamyar Pazandeh, appears to serve a purpose in the play which may have been intended, as a new love interest to Erin, to evoke envy in Elaine as she sees Erin start to move through her grief while she remains immobile. This results in Elaine’s own crisis and finally, true confrontation with her loss. But just as we start to learn about Tom’s life, his dialogue is shut down and we are left mildly perplexed.

Moving to the physical elements of the play, the intentional design of the audience seating, with half the audience on one side and the other on the opposing, required the play to be blocked so that the audience would miss none of the emotional experience and dialogue of the characters. Although I can appreciate the skill in arranging the movements of the actors to accommodate the two-sided audience, for this play, given its highly emotional story and subsequent demand upon the actors, I would have liked to experience a more traditional front facing arrangement. I wonder if this may have allowed greater intimacy with the characters, including lingering focus on their facial expressions, so we could have seen clearly and consistently their emotional states. Unique were the floor-to-ceiling wires, creatively used as props by the actors during transitional scenes. It would be interesting to see how this effect translates to a traditional front facing setting. Equally effective were the lovely musical pieces strategically inserted into moments within the story, some beautiful and expressive, with others, like the piano duets, adding a playful touch just when the characters and the audience needed a lift.

Towards the end of the play, it is clear that Erin is on her way to healing from her loss, as we see her confidently sit at a piano at a formal concert ready to perform again. But are we satisfied that Elaine was healed through her relationship with Erin? Does it matter? This is one of the many aspects of Dittrich’s play which makes it interesting and thoughtful. In The Piano Teacher Dittrich reveals life’s disorder, and through character development shows us that things most often do not tie up fully or neatly. Dittrich’s sensitively written characters show us that movement through grief is possible. It offers hope, telling us we don’t have to remain emotionally paralyzed. That much is clear, and that is enough.