Henrik Ibsen

DanceWatch Weekly: Sarah Slipper choreographs ‘Hedda’

NW Dance Project debuts two new dances about lying, including Sarah Slipper's version of "Hedda Gabler"

It’s all about liars these days. Recognizing them, calling them out, keeping them in check. It’s the new reality. What truth is, has shifted for some, but truth is fact, it doesn’t shift. Only the shifty shift. And, this week’s two premieres from NW Dance Project dig deep into liar psychology. The first is Hedda by NW Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper, and the second, Flamingo 37 by Ballet BC resident choreographer Cayetano Soto.

Hedda is based on the play Hedda Gabler written in 1890 by Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s work at the time was groundbreaking because it explored the realities of the human condition through everyday topics and everyday people. Hedda Gabler tells the story of a restricted Victorian housewife, bored and trapped in a loveless marriage to a very boring man. Her only entertainment is in the manipulation of others.

NW Dance Project studio rehearsal for Sarah Slipper’s Hedda. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert. Photo features Kody Jauron, William Couture, Elijah Labay, Anthony Pucci, and Franco Nieto.

Slipper’s Hedda is a deep examination of Ibsen’s text and the character Hedda told through dance, music, and theatre. On Monday I was able to sit down with Slipper and discuss her process in creating Hedda, her history in dance and theater, and what it’s like to be a choreographer in today’s world. That conversation unfolds below.

Flamingo 37 is about liars, Soto told me in his rehearsal last week. “Flamingo” is the name he gives liars and 37 is the number of times a particular individual in his life has lied to him. “Good liars, they make a living, the liars are the fighters,” he said. “They are the ones that survive. If you’re not a liar you won’t survive in this world…If you’re going to be a liar, be a good one.”

That may sound a bit dark, but Soto is anything but. Originally from Barcelona, Soto is like the bubbles in champagne: light, energetic, and off the wall. His energy is contagious. This is his third work for the company: the first was Not Yet in 2007 and the second was Last But Not Least in 2008. Since 2015 Soto has been the resident choreographer at Ballet BC, and he creates ballets on dance companies worldwide. Next week he’ll be in Germany.

Cayetano Soto rehearsing NW Dance Project dancers Andrea Parson and Kody Jauron for his new work Flamingo 37. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Flamingo 37 is really a party in disguise. The dancing takes places on a gigantic, round, white shag carpet to the crooning of Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, Tito Puente, Dean Martin and others.

The dancers are dressed in pink kilts, black shirts and black socks with rhinestone tiaras adorning their heads. The contemporary ballet choreography is coquettish, technical and quick, theatrical, witty, and over-the-top with plenty of flamingo motifs to satisfy.

For Soto, the principles of his work are “to be generous, to be the best that you can be, to not lie, and to be honest.” When talking about the dancers he said, “I’m giving you (the dancers) space to have the possibility to reach another level with your artistry. I don’t want them to be a copy; they have to find their own way to express my movement. I think we are doing it; it’s hard.”

NW Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper rehearsing Katherine Disenhof and Lindsey McGill for her new work Hedda. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Interview with Sarah Slipper

Why did you choose the story of Hedda?

I love stories that feature women, his (Ibsen’s) women are quite strong. I just thought she’s such an interesting character, I love that. there’s so much conflict going on within the play and I like using conflict both physically and then emotionally and literally. It provides me some dynamics in choreography to create pressure, to feel the tension or to feel the expansion in the breath. She’s a nasty character, she’s manipulative, she’s destructive, it’s all about her. But I love her for some reason…

How do you translate a play into a dance piece?

This one is particularly hard because so much of it is in the brilliance of the text. The subtly, the innuendo, it’s all in the words. Also some of the action, some of the back story, and some of what you don’t see on the stage is built into the text. So if I even followed the text, you wouldn’t know what the hell is happening, right?

I mostly tried to take the language of Ibsen and transform it into a feeling, physically, choreographically, so I wouldn’t have to say everything literally. I am following kind of the path of the play, but so it’s not so wildly off. I took some of the offstage stuff and tried to bring it onstage. So what was said in words that happened last night, we kind of get a glimmer of what happened last night, danced out. Or, this happened 10 years ago, so I did a little bit of that to help make sense of it all. Hopefully you feel some of the tension built up between all the characters. There are a lot of triangles in the play—it’s really built on triangles. Louis, who built the set, built it as a triangle.

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The Best of a Bad Situation

Elizabeth Malaska's paintings at Nationale use the canon for their own purposes

The desire to express a deep appreciation for an artist’s work while knowing that when it comes to writing about that work one feels somewhat out of one’s league… This may be the highest praise an arts writer can give an artist. And while attempting an essay may not do the artist any favors, such it is for me with painter Elizabeth Malaska’s When We Dead Awaken II at Nationale.

First of all, the title has a curious phrasing and demands extra effort to decipher its meaning. It has the flavor of an echo, as if it could be attributed to some older text, a poem perhaps. Sure enough, a quick check of Google brings me to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It’s the title of his last play, which is about a male sculptor and his long-lost, female model/muse. One day she reappears and, as it turns out, she has been driven mad by his fame and the loss of her role as his dedicated model. Furthermore, she feels as though her soul has been taken in the experience, and from that moment on she has considered herself dead. Somewhat paralleling her disposition, the artist considers her largely responsible for his masterpiece, the work that put him in the spotlight, yet he has felt empty ever since. No surprise (this is Ibsen, after all) they both die tragically in the end.

Having found a context for the title by reading the play, I could have let my research end there had I not then had a similar intuition about the title of one painting in the exhibit, “Not to Pass on Tradition, but to Break Its Hold over Us (the Archive and Its Shadow).” The phrase cannot be random, and in fact, the non-parenthetical part comes from a 1972 essay by Adrienne Rich, the title of which is “When We Dead Awaken – Writing as Re-vision.” I believe it is from here Malaska draws her most direct reference. In short, Rich makes the argument that women need to find a way to write with their own voices, unburdened by the male-dominant narrative that is embedded in the canon. If we consider that this is also Malaska’s goal in painting, then we might do well to take a closer look at this particular painting as perhaps being most directly related to this effort.

Not to Pass on Tradition, but to Break its Hold Over Us (the Archive and Its Shadow)/Elizabeth Malaska

Not to Pass on Tradition, but to Break its Hold Over Us (the Archive and Its Shadow)/Elizabeth Malaska

Here my feeling of ineptitude arises. First of all, as with many of Malaska’s paintings, I find myself wishing I had a deeper knowledge of art history, for the references in her pictorials are many, and presumably full of meanings I will likely fail to grasp. I can, however, hope to provide the reader with a descriptive gist of it all, and in the doing, perhaps come upon some insights.

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