Saturday Afternoon at 2019 PuSh Festival

PuSh Festival in Vancouver is always a struggle because there is so much happening and only one of me. Today I managed to make it to two events and witness three dance performances- The Biting School’s Suddenly Slaughter, and then Left of Push where plastic orchid factory premiered In Traduction [Le Manifeste] and twobigsteps collective remounted Ravel.

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We have to start with Suddenly Slaughter because I feel like there simply isn’t enough room in my mind for the multifaceted 75-minute performance and I must get some of it out before I explode or something awful happens. When I enter the Russian Hall is arranged with several lines of seating on each side with a long strip of performance space in the middle. The rows are slightly raked but not quite enough to have a great vantage point (I am three rows back) and I feel like I only can catch about 3/4 of what’s going on.

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Zahra Shahab and Victor Mariano in Suddenly Slaughter/ Photo by Angel Lynne

In the work, theatre meets dance and they find each other mutually supportive. I haven’t often seen these two disciplines hold equal weight in a show but Arash and Aryo Khakpour of The Biting School are coming close. The show is “a tribute” to This God Lover Died in the Love of God, This God Slain Died by the Sword of God, a prominent Iranian play written by Abbas Nalbandian in 1971.

The work is certainly a creative adaptation. Everything from poetry to the play’s original dialogue to improvised dance appear and edges are blurred between the narrative, its themes, the “fourth wall” and even performance disciplines. Dancers recite text, actors dance and each performer represents several characters at different times. The result is a confusing but intriguing cesspit of ideas and emotions that take me for a wild ride, down the rabbit hole of creative whim.

The cultural divide between me and the original playwright makes the play difficult to understand, and that missing context might be the piece that would bring it all together. Much is happening underneath the surface in this work- religion, sex, exploitation, poverty, pedophilia, murder- and everything feels tight and charged, in a society strictly controlled.

Still, there is a clear trajectory toward a single holy day, the “day of the murder”, and each separate plot string seems to come together with a final death (at least, this is referred to). Along the way are many brilliant moments of full embodied passion from the performers, some motifs that chillingly come back throughout (the sun in the desert is hot, my father recited the Qur’an so well, I am so alone) and interesting movement choices (Zahra Shahab with one finger each on the foreheads of Billy Marchenski and Victor Mariano, manipulating them as she speaks of her lover).

I find it difficult to stay with the plot of the original play because I am viewing it through the screen of an entirely different work. But this removal and feeling of dissociation isn’t altogether unpleasant to me and in fact I kind of enjoyed it.

I have questions around why the brothers of The Biting School have chosen to bring a play that is nearly fifty years old and conceived halfway across the world to stage in this wildly reimagined form for the 2019 PuSh festival. Are they trying to say something new, or using the opportunity to repeat Nalbandian’s vision?

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JUMP TO Left of PuSh were Evann Siebens and Natalie Gnam have filled Left of Main with projections of Natalie walking around Chinatown.

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Natalie LeFebvre Gnam/ Photo by Evann Siebens

Left of Main, an Artist-Run-Studio founded in 2016 by plastic orchid factory in conjunction with several other performance companies in town is a large and very white studio/performance space with continually surprising potential for adaptation. Today’s performance of In Traduction [Le Manifeste] transforms the space with perhaps a dozen projectors that turn the walls into a living film.

In amongst the film-reel walls, Natalie LeFebvre Gnam moves through a sequence, it appears, trying to keep pace with her recorded self. Evann Siebens, similarly dressed in blue coveralls, follows her with a camera over one shoulder and chord trailing behind, the live projection filling one panel on the walls. Time feels fluid and the synthesized soundscape is meditative. A white paper handout reads like a “No” manifesto, including No unnecessary technology and No men shooting women and No to the male gaze.  A question reads, What is the female gaze?

The work evolves: LeFebvre Gnam’s recorded voice introduces the topic of language and translation and whether or not the same words in different languages actually have slightly different meanings. She recalls how language relates to movement in ballet and the strange disconnection between language and movement.

I notice: the quiet, genuine female presence on film and in person, the camera dancing along with Siebens, long black chords rippling and snaking on white dance floor, I hear the amusing translation of a French children’s song, and wait as the work slowly, without rushing, opens up.