David McIntosh passes around a slip of paper to each person gathered at Unit/Pitt. The lyrics to a call-and-response song read:
Me: Oh the smell of blood intoxicates me in Hell’s embrace!
You: Oh Hell….!
Across the gallery walls, Chris Bose’s work crawls and slashes, bright and unapologetic. The graffiti mural depicts Bose’s journey from B.C.’s interior to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and the bright mountains, totems and tags have slowly expanded to include five weeks of audience-scrawled drawings and text.
Fluorescent lights buzzing, the audience stamp their freezing feet, waiting for the song. “I’m me, and you’re you,” McIntosh says, and raises his glass. The thirty-or-so thick crowd laugh a little. We raise our glasses, too. By the end of the evening, we’re not so sure.
Battery Opera Performance’s Vancouver, Crawling, Weeping, Betting, took over Unit/Pitt Gallery from January 17th to March 1st. The free, three-part series, which unfolded over three days each weekend, asked its audiences to walk, watch, and drink in response to texts about Vancouver, written by McIntosh and Bose.
Late Thursday nights, a “witching hour solo” was visible through the dark gallery’s barred windows; one small, live-projected screen viewable from Unit/Pitt’s Pender street front. On Fridays, one storyteller, a group of musicians, three dancers, and a willing audience collaborated, through the vessel of a wine tasting, to create a verbal roadmap for the performers to improvise along. On Saturday afternoons performers waited, huddled around a space heater, to offer visitors an improvised walking tour of the city, centered around Bose’s and McIntosh’s stories.
The project’s duration wasn’t the only unusual aspect of Vancouver, Crawling, Weeping, Betting in the city’s performance – especially dance — context. The show piped up as Vancouver’s most recent voice in a larger conversation around non-traditional performance spaces: choreography’s “death” and the resulting “rebirth of dance”; where “if the elements of the choreographer’s craft involve space, rhythm, time and physical communication, these tools might be put to an open-ended range of creative uses”1. This move away from traditional proscenium presentation and its resulting disintegration of audience/performer boundary, as currently dominated by Tino Seghal, Xavier Le Roy, Mårten Spångberg etc, isn’t unheard of amongst Vancouver’s performing artists, collectives or companies, but Battery Opera’s unpolished, improvisatory and often unsettling show felt important; here, now. The dialogical, unapologetic performance series asked the public to encounter their preconceptions of performance, participation, memory and storytelling in the corridors of Vancouver’s oldest and most quickly transforming neighbourhood.
On the second Saturday of the series, I show up for a walking tour. Aryo offers himself as my guide.
“So.” He says, “Shall we go?”
We arrive at the Dominion Building, on the corner of Hastings and Cambie. The architecture student on our tour tells us at the time it was constructed, it was the tallest building in the British Empire. We feel this word, empire, dragged with us, through Chinatown, down East Hastings. Aryo shifts his weight and we fall quiet. He begins:
Vancouver: You devil driver
The Downtown Eastside holds personal history for both McIntosh and Bose, but, as most recently highlighted by Vancouver City Hall’s approval of the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, the neighbourhood is a highly-contested site of the city’s written and re-written history of colonialism, poverty, addiction and displacement. McIntosh and Bose’s writing shifts and blurs between accounts of drunken nights and time spent living on the street, to anecdotes and meditations on the Eastside’s past lives.
Another stop. Aryo turns to us, his audience, his participants: myself, another dancer, an architecture student. Outside the Carnegie Center at the corner of Main and Hastings, he speaks about the early city:
Past the Rickshaw
Past the Carnegie Centre
Thinking about what it
Must have looked like 50 years ago
60 years ago
A hundred years ago
What did East Vancouver look like?
I imagine the port city of Vancouver: wood structures, the smell of fish. The four of us are still amongst movement, it is pacing and milling around us. When the street light changes we don’t move to cross, and it becomes obvious to those around us that we’re not passing through. People gather to listen. The group now grown to six or seven. The architecture student brings up the Great Fire of Vancouver. Another woman joins our stillness and fills in the details he can’t recall. She recounts a fire she saw in an SRO up the street. The light changes and this time we cross. She walks with us and jokes that the history channel is often worth watching; it wouldn’t hurt us to do it.
The poems, given life as spoken text and taken on a walk, sometimes felt unsettlingly performative as subject and setting collided. One of the texts begins:
East Hastings: He tells me
He couldn’t walk
Down East Hastings
Because the smell of Crack
Made him weak.3
This layering of performative participants — viewer, speaker, setting, both charged the walking tour with resonance yet left me wondering whether Bose and McIntosh, or perhaps I, had inadvertantly exploited the palpable suffering in the area, the choreography of a vulnerable population providing metatheatrical reinforcement. At stops along our walking tour, I was acutely aware of the unlikely presence of our group. At moments, the space we took up on some of the city’s most desolate corners felt unbearable. Who was performing, what was being performed?
On the way back to the gallery, silent, we unconsciously re-trace the route we’ve just taken. On Main and Hastings, a woman in a wheelchair asks us if we might help her up the hill. Aryo passes me his cigarette, ducks his long limbs behind her chair. She introduces herself as Michelle and we begin again, chatting, the three of us.
“Are you artists?” She asks.
An often revisited conversation in performance is one about embodiment, about the inevitable visibility of a performer’s history to the audience; the difficulties present in a performer standing in complete stillness, the impossibility of neutrality. Vancouver, Crawling, Weeping, Betting’s setting was not neutral, no empty stage, no seats to fill. The stories are already embedded in the city and amongst its inhabitants. Bose and McIntosh experimented with the bodies not only of the performers, but the participants and bystanders as the medium for transformation. Everyone involved had dragged their histories with them to arrive: standing, speaking, or silenced. There was a shift of weight, then a beginning:
I think this place is older than all of these things I have mentioned
The tennis court
the grazing field
It has a feeling to it
beyond all these things
I don’t know what it is.4
Throughout the duration of the exhibition of performances, I found myself orbiting the gallery. I’d stop by on my way out of work to catch the last half hour of a solo, visit the gallery on Saturdays to warm my hands and see who was around. I walked my usual routes through the city and felt acutely the thin layer of rubber sole between my feet and the ground in the story Aryo had told us of salmon frozen mid-spawn, the city’s first hastily-laid pavement smothering their flipping, silver bodies.
One freezing Thursday night, I skirt around to Pender Street from Gore to catch a witching hour solo on my way home from work. Four of us are gathered, including David. People wander past and stare, sometimes asking for an explanation, before moving on. “She’s dancing,” David says. My hands deep in my coat pockets, my feet numb, I watch Michelle Lui toss her small frame around the room, ducking and disappearing from the video feed, to reappear tumbling from behind the camera’s reach, her white jeans and shirt flashing her presence before she dives again, long black hair floating a half-second behind her. At midnight, David enters the gallery and turns on the lights. Michelle lies on her back. The air beats in and out of her. She’d have moved that way for an hour, audience or not. I think of what gets danced, unwatched, in the city’s dark rooms.
He gave us the keys:
Suddenly I come to
Like being born again
But this time flushed
Out of a toilet
We’re in the lobby of a hotel on Granville
Trying to get a room.5
Over the six weekends, Vancouver, Crawling, Weeping, Betting, provided grounds for pattern to emerge. If these patterns are seen as the “space, rhythm, time and physical communication that contribute to the changing definition of choreography”, and in turn dance, the show undeniably participates in this change. The pattern is also one of a city and its artists attempting to grapple with the rapid rate of emergence and disappearance of history and experience. The dances that rub shoulders, that are shouted, that are ignored. The show’s performances tended towards the explosive, often unsubtle, and sometimes clumsy in their direct relationship to the physical and sociopolitical environment. Yet in the three iterations of the show, Bose and McIntosh demanded a call for new modes of excavation. Stories were present in a shift of weight, listening in the shadow of the Carnegie Centre while a small crowd gathers. They were apparent in the nervous laughter shuffling through the room as David opened the show with a toast to his ancestors, to “the rape, the pillage, the alcohol, the resource extraction”. They settled into us in the quiet way we hugged our knees closer as a dancer’s body screamed by, telling us back a story we’d just offered.
Vancouver, Crawling, Weeping, Betting took place from January 17 – March 1 2014 at Unit/Pitt Projects. It was curated by David McIntosh and Chris Bose, and featured a multitude of artists:
Dance: Maxine Chadburn, Michelle Lui, Brian Solomon, Kelly McInnes, Sophia Wolfe, Elissa Hansen, Billy Marchenski, Paras Terezakis, Cease Wyss, Justine Chambers, Daina Ashbee, Diego Romero Arash Khakpour
Music: Finn Manniche and cohorts (New Improved), Peggy Lee, Aram Bajakian, Tony Wilson, Ron Samworth Bracken Hanuse Corlett, Max Murphy, Jeff Younger, Ben Brown, Russel Scholburg, Joel Lower, Gary Wildeman, Bruce Freedman
Stories: Chris Bose, Michael Turner, Margo Kane, Bracken Hanuse Corlett, Cease Wyss, Henry Tsang, Veda Hille
Guided Improvised Tours: Brian Solomon, Pedro Chamale, Michelle Lui, Aryo Khakpour, Chu-Lynne Ng, Maxine Chadburn