The Wildside Festival opened its doors to dance this year, collaborating with Bouge d’Ici to bring Co. Venutre, a piece about a friendship between 31 year-old Pepper Fajans and 91 year-old David Vaughan. Both men worked for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and through dance travelled to exotic places that only a James Bond film can rival: Nice, Jerusalem, Rome. Though the show is loosely structured on the two men discussing the arc of their friendship, it also delves into the far more difficult topic of the aging body. Reminisces are punctuated with modern dances that utilize simple wood structures and puppets, creating something that is a melange of Japanese minimalism with avant-garde/Dadaist shock value. The phrase “art-dance” comes to mind.
Co Venutre is a thinking piece. It relies more on its ideas to carry it than the performance itself. It’s not an easy piece to watch. There aren’t “wow” moments of physicality (though there is a rather awe-inspiring duo, but not for its showiness as much as for what the audience knows is required). The stories do not demand attention; a lot of the dialogue is mundane in nature. I wasn’t too invested as the two tell stories about drinking Prosecco and watching sunsets on the beach. For those who are familiar Merce Cummingham dance company and the history of dance, anecdotes about the master might be more meaningful. If not, a quick tour of the wikipedia page is a worthwhile five-minute investment to give the piece some context.
The show starts with a ghostly wooden board moving across the stage. Eventually, it is removed to bring Vaughan to his seat at centre stage and Vaughan recites a beautiful paean to dance. Among other observations, he says dance is an art with nothing to show for it in the way a composer, a writer, or a visual artist will have a final product to show for the efforts. A dancer’s only moment, says Vaughan, comes from when he moves and feels truly alive. Then, when Fajans emerges, two begin to reminisce… and reminisce… and reminisce for far longer than is necessary. Dances by Fajans, both amusing and abstract, punctuate the discussions. They talk about a photo of their master, Merce Cunningham, and the what they admired about his work, giving a sense of how a lineage transfers in dance, like a guru to an adept. Some historical familiarity will make this discussion more meaningful rather than navel-gazing. Finally, Co. Venture transitions to a discussion about the body and age. Here, the momentum and interest of this show is recouped.
Vaughan is 91. While I’m no doctor, he shows signs of a stroke and weakness in his body. He spends almost the entire show seated centre stage, a contrast to his very rich biography as a dancer, choreographer and coordinator of several Cunningham Company world tours. On stage, he makes simple movements — guiding and holding a stick puppet, for example. A duo has the two men dance together, using Vaughan’s limitations/abilities guiding the dance. Hands cross over knees, torsos twist, heads lift in sync. It’s a beautiful moment in the show.
The show made me think of a film that recently played at the RIDM Documentary festival, After Circus, which addressed retired circus performers who miss their happiest days starring on earth under the big top. These elderly performers do not “retire.” One 90 year old woman woman gleefully lifts her legs above her head though she can barely walk across the room. In the same way, Vaughan and through stories about Merce Cunningham, the audience of Co. Venture learns that dancers find ways to move. Restrictions become new ways to dance. It’s a powerful message about man’s need to express himself creatively, something that does not cease with age. Vaughan dances as he can, balances as he can, enjoys music as he can. One never ceases being a dancer.
Co. Venture is not an easy piece to watch. It doesn’t have a linear narrative. It’s not an outstanding tour de force of contortion and flow. Instead, it doodles ideas and concepts that are emotionally resonant when put into the context of who is dancing and the history of that tradition. In the end, it is ultimately a celebration of life and ability, of the need to make art at all ages.
Co. Venture plays at the Wildside Festival at the Centaur Theatre (453 St François-Xavier; Place des Armes metro) on January 10, 13, and 15 at 7 p.m. and January 16 at 6 p.m. $16.