It is Saturday night and the Studio Theatre at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts is all dressed up ready for the show, a full-length solo by Vancouver-based choreographer-performer Vanessa Goodman. When we enter the theatre there are about 50 chairs set up facing a corridor of white Marley dance floor, which seems to recede away from the gaze toward the back of the stage, as if it is triangular (perhaps it is). Lights are hung and hoisted and propped at odd angles, and some clothing has been placed quite visibly at the front of the floor/stage. Behind and visually framing all of this are heavy black drop curtains.
“Blurring the lines between what is real and what is imagined, In Fiction is based on the fact and fiction surrounding caul births, the extremely rare phenomenon where a baby is born cloaked in the amniotic sack,” reads the program.
Vanessa Goodman lies on one side, every so slightly behind an small amp as the lights slowly increase. She is far away, down a long tunnel of light and dressed in a strange costume that obscures most of her shape, with a clear plastic visor. She is a fetus, and there is a heartbeat in the soundscape that tells us she is alive, moving gently amidst gentle tones of a humming female vocal.
In this first vignette several codes are established that are consistent throughout. One, the lighting is low, and often leaves us wanting. Two, the lighting shifts often, and Goodman consciously dialogues with the light in her movement choices. Three, costumes and props play a large role in the unfolding of the score.
In an instructive tone, a technologically garbled female voice educates us about “caul” births. The voice describes the process of removing the amniotic sack from the infant- a delicate act, and begins to describe some cultural beliefs around caul births (interestingly, all these are positive). Goodman moves slowly towards us downstage, near-nude save for a heavy clear plastic poncho, which covers her like a second skin.
Amid eerie, alien-whistles and a nonchalant shuffle-beat, Goodman’s movement expands and transforms into fast-twitch sequences that move rapidly (almost too quickly to register) from shape to shape, often finishing with a suspension. She hits positions like a kickboxer, and stretches herself like taffy.
Dozens of lighting shifts and a dramatic shedding of the poncho occur, and then a fabulous moment unfolds far upstage. Goodman, bare-skinned, moves fluidly along the floor, but strobe lights give us the information in film stills. Her back is rounded, then she is on the floor, then in a deep lunge, moving towards stage right. The sound of trickling water creates a quiet and exploratory atmosphere. There is something beautiful and vulnerable about the tone of bare skin in the low light.
Many times I am struck with the very diverse potential that exists in lighting scores for performance, a potential that Goodman exploits with skill and experience, in rich collaboration with the lighting designer, James Proudfoot.
What makes In Fiction so pleasurable and palatable is the sophisticated way in which it directs the viewer’s gaze, creating striking images that imprint themselves on the memory. (A final image of Goodman clothed and hooded in an outline of puffy athletic wear, arms outstretched, a silhouette in the haze as the female voice repeats “the caul is seen as an omen of supernatural armour”).
The other major success is in Goodman’s durational choices. I never feel as though a scene or an image takes too long, and yet the performer is in no rush. She is careful, methodical, yet at times pushes herself to full physical extension, while staying totally committed to each moment.