“I am not a professional flamenco dancer,” says Judith Mendelsohn, pacing the stage in a fiery traje de flamenca. “So what the heck am I doing here?”
It’s a reasonable question. She’s part of the 2016 Fluid Festival, a contemporary performance and dance festival that isn’t short on highly-trained flamenco dancers. (It even includes a Cabaret of Flamenco Experiments coming up next week,October 27 & 28.) But this? This is the Physical Therapy Cabaret, and a clown dancing flamenco fits right in.
As a Calgary artist, I’m a little jealous of Edmonton’s Dirt Buffet Cabaret, “a monthly cabaret of unexpected works in progress” hosted by Mile Zero Dance. It’s a place for artistic experimentation and failure, where artists get to push their personal and aesthetic boundaries, and it’s okay to fall on your face (metaphorically or otherwise). The Physical Therapy Cabaret, a Fluid Fest mainstay since the first edition in 2006, shares that love for boundary-breaking experimentation. When it comes around, once a year, a group of local, provincial and national artists are set loose to try things they might not otherwise dare.
It’s easy for artists to get pigeonholed – writers are supposed to act a certain way, actors another. (“You know what happens when dancers talk,” says Lin Snelling during her piece. “Don’t you?”) I help run Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre, and it can be easy to forget that I – Mark Hopkins, the individual – have a creative practice outside of my company. In past editions of Physical Therapy, various Swallow-a-Bicyclers have been given the chance to spread our wings. One year, I drank a beer on stage with a stranger while sharing old family vacation slides. Another year, my colleague Charles Netto made sweet love to a burger.
Tonight, Swallow-a-Bicycle’s long-time staff member Alicia Ward takes the stage wearing a tank top inexplicably emblazoned with the word TART. “I do not draw,” she says. “I do not tap dance,” says Amanda Ho. For the next ten minutes, the dancer and illustrator frenetically swap roles in a performative enactment of skill-building. Creative boundaries, broken.
The night’s ten distinct and varied performances are threaded together by host Allison Zwozdesky in the persona of “Cheer Applausealot”, Calgary’s best audience member. Her mission is to train us in the duties of a good audience, from supplies (tissues, poking sticks for pesky seatmates) to applause technique. “You, as an audience member, need to be ready for anything.”
She’s right. The pieces embody the range of human emotion from Chenise Mitchell’s choreography of boredom (in an utterly relatable doctor’s waiting room) to Richard Lee’s embodiment of fun (with a brief detour into the pronunciation of “zed” versus “zee”), Jeannie Vanderkerkhove’s choreography of relaxation (sunny beaches, full-body hugs) to Oriana Pagnotta’s dry-humping, loogie-hocking, ball-grabbing, air-guitaring, stage-stomping display of gendered aggression. Pam Tzeng’s collaboration with musician/sound designer Krzysztof Sujata took the darkest dive into the human condition, performing a piece that evoked bondage and constraint to a shrill soundscape punctuated with the voices of distressed children, Tzeng’s face disfigured with dark oily patterns and the tiny voiceless mouths of parasitic twins.
The night also takes a journey through dance history. Mendelsohn’s amateur flamenco enthusiast proves to be Ida Rubinstein, a Russian Jew of the Belle Époque who fearlessly donned the roles of ballet dancer, actor and wealthy patron. Linnea Swan provides a crash course in Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 “No Manifesto”, intended to revolutionize dance and reduce it to its essential elements. Lin Snelling gives us a more personal glimpse of the past, declaring “I was there in the 80s” as she spasmodically whips a chair around the stage, tuning her body to Michael Reinhart’s acoustic guitar that rolls from string to percussion instrument and back again.
The night closes with Vancouver’s Ralph Escamillan in a full body spandex suit, looking like a bedazzled member of the Blue Man Group in a shiny red suit. He strips off layer after layer to Elvis Presley’s “(You’re The) Devil in Disguise”, hammering home the point: this is Physical Therapy. Anything goes.
“Maybe I should just stop?” says Mendelsohn toward the end of her flamenco experiment, lamenting her lack of technique. She drops her poise, despondent, turns her back, walks away… but then, looks over her shoulder with an arched eyebrow. “Fuck it.” She launches into a fishnetted high-kick routine. And the crowd goes wild.