Dialogue – Wen Wei Dance, May 25, 2017

Wen Wei Wang’s Dialogue felt more like a series of dance vignettes organized along a theme than one continuous, complete piece. Each segment highlighted the individuality of the dancers, suggesting that the path to dialogue and understanding lies in the appreciation of others’ unique perspectives. In its best sequences, Dialogue plays with the dichotomy between the emotional vulnerability of its dancers and the strength of their bodies, offering a visual parallel to the requirements of meaningful communication: openness and confidence. The dialogue metaphor can be extended to the audience’s reaction to the dancers and what we bring into our interpretations of each vignette.

One of the early segments felt like a dialogue with another work of art I’d seen recently. In a scene reminiscent of a rave, Nicholas Lydiate, wearing nothing but sunglasses and underwear, joins the other fully clad dancers grooving to drum and bass. His wardrobe is the only vulnerable thing about him – he is confident and cocky; a scene-stealer, performing deep squats and gyrating with abandon. I am watching him, but I am thinking about The Sleepwalker, an uncannily realistic bronze sculpture of a man in his tighty-whities, frozen mid-step along the Highline Park in NYC. He looks like a “living statue” street performer – the ones who make you jump by moving suddenly as you pass. It takes a few uneasy minutes to realize that he is, in fact, an inanimate sculpture. Tony Matelli, the artist, describes The Sleepwalker as an existentialist piece – there is something so lost and vulnerable and confused about seeing this man exposed and out of place outdoors that it inspires a feeling of dread about the world. Seeing Lydiate come out on stage full of swagger in his unflattering white underwear, I felt like he was reclaiming this man, dispelling the dread by giving us a peek into the Sleepwalker’s internal life. He only looks vulnerable, but inside, his life is full of movement and strength and surety and humour. There is joy to be found in this world. It’s all about perspective.

A later sequence moved me to tears and felt like the heart of the entire performance. Arash Khakpour begins a solo where his movements speak of shame and insecurity. He uses his shirt to hide his face, drawing the bottom hem up over his head, erasing himself from view. The others flock to him, pulling his shirt back down, beginning a beautiful and tender interplay amongst the entire company of dancers as Khakpour continues to try to hide himself while the others compassionately unveil him. They move together in a circle, tightening and then loosening their grips on each other, each weaving their way into and out of the ring, sometimes breaking the circle but never breaking contact with at least one of the others, who pulls them back in. It is the most perfect visual representation of dialogue and conversation – individuals connecting through communication and empathy. Understanding is not static – it shifts and comes in and out of focus like the dancers entering and leaving the circle. It requires a commitment to continue the dance.

The scene that followed was jarring by comparison: the circle breaks apart and the others form a semi-circle around Khakpour. Their movements become robotic and inhuman as they appear to shoot Khakpour as he writhes on the floor, telegraphing injury with each shot. Violence begins where dialogue fails. It is impossible for me to divorce Khakpour’s ethnic identity as an Iranian-Canadian from reading this scene. It becomes a non-verbal commentary on Islamophobia, reminding us that seeing people of Arab or Muslim backgrounds as threats and scapegoats for our fears harms our targets most acutely, but also robs us of our own humanity and ability to connect.

Not all of Dialogue’s vignettes touched me – the spoken word segments broke the spell a little – but overall, I was moved by the choreography and the sincerity of the performances. The focus on individualism allowed this all-male dance company to explore a broad and nuanced sense of masculinity using pathos, humour, and sexuality. Ralph Escamillan’s work on this front was especially notable  – his high heeled tango to Leonard Cohen was a breathtakingly sensual finale, a piece that seemed a little disconnected from what came before it unless one reads it as an unabashed acceptance and expression of this dancer’s identity. Then it suggests that we need to come to an understanding of ourselves before we can engage in dialogue seeking the understanding of others.

6-7 things about the Audain Art Museum

  1. The pile of drums in one corner of the Audain Art Museum is a piece by Indigenous artist Sonny Assu. Curator Darrin Martens explained on his tour that this piece was called ‘57 things’, and that there were 57 drums, one for each year the potlatch was forbidden, and I thought, ooh, that’s good.  I wrote it down.  Later, however, I learned that the piece is not called ‘57 things’ after all– it’s called Silenced: The Hidden.

the hidden

2. I decided to use that information to write a piece for our class blog called 57 things      about our field trip to Whistler. But then I googled artist Sonny Assu and realized there is no basis to the ‘57 things’ idea.  The piece is indeed representing the years the potlatch ban existed, but that was 1886-1951—67 years.  I counted the drums in my photo and that seems to be the number.  (67 is way too many things for a blog though.  Hence my title of 6 – 7).

  1. There was another Sonny Assu piece in the gallery, same theme, and this one is in fact called 1886-1951:

1886-1951

I remembered seeing it at Audain and looking around for the title and artist name and not finding it. It’s only now that I’ve googled Assu that I know it’s his.  Again, the 67 years of the potlatch ban are represented, this time by coffee cups (the status symbols of modern Vancouverites); they’re made of copper because that was a valuable material the Kwakwaka’wakw people used to share.  The cups have been abandoned on a Hudson’s Bay blanket that depicts the colonialism the Kwakwaka’wakw people were forced to endure.

4. When the curator was asked if the First Nations whose masks were displayed here had been consulted on how to display them, he said “I had no time to do that.” I could feel our entire class collectively wince at this answer.  The curator did, however, tell us that the museum makes time and space available for First Nations who want to borrow or use the masks that tell the story of their heritage.  Magnificent!   I want to assume the nations have been told that they can do that, and hope they borrow these pieces and share them if they find them meaningful.

5. The new First Nations masks by a variety of artists and the pieces made by Brian Jungen out of Nike Air Jordans and golf bags are a hopeful wonder. I saw there some of the same cheekiness we read about in Michael Yahgulanaas’s work and I want to see more.

6. Stephen Waddell’s large photograph Termini, stopped me dead in my tracks.

waddell

 It’s not First Nations art but it’s also not out of place here; old women wearing plaid blankets and plastic bags on their feet overload their wheelchair cart, and arguments could be made for themes of excess, and shame, and ignorance and relentless progress in this picture.  But the truth is I’m drawn in because I know Waddell.  We went to high school together and he was funny and smart.  Thirty years ago we went on a day long date to the PNE and then shared a kiss the night before I moved away to university and I never saw him again….

 7…. and I think I was supposed to contact him when I came back to visit and I never did. I didn’t make time because I was a dumb teenager. So, while I apologize for this overly personal reflection and weighty metaphor, I will say this: as the Audain Art Museum curator stated, the role of art is to create a dialogue and to communicate.   It’s easy to fail and to let things slide since we’re all busy.  But learn the names of the pieces in your gallery and the pertinent information about them.  Make names of artists and art easy to find.  Open that dialogue with the nations whose masks are displayed at Audain.  Maybe you were too busy before. Start now.

  • Cathy Collis