Expanse 2021, the festival of bodies in motion, moves online

Expanse Festival 2021. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Creating more space.” It’s a phrase that recurs like a mantra, and an invitation, when Azimuth Theatre’s two new co-artistic producers Sue Goberdhan and Morgan Yamada talk about this year’s Expanse Festival, opening tonight on an internet near you.

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Expanse, the ever-expanding “celebration of the body in motion,” is a mainstay, along with the SOUND OFF Festival, of the Chinook Series, the two-week cross-company curated showcase of innovative multi-disciplinary art — productions, salons, panel discussions, lobby interludes and gatherings, interactive “dance parties” — that breezes back into town this very night. The sixth annual edition, through April 4, is exclusively online, in an adventurous array of forms, a cross-hatching of live-streamed and video.

There’s a diversity of on-demand content to stream at your own pace. Or you can “go” to Expanse for a festival evening and let the Chinook blow over you as a sort of extended Chinook watch party. You put yourself in the hands of a curated “playlist,”different every day, that includes a selection of streamed performances, and hanging out “live” in the virtual lobby before and after each, to see choreographed performances by The Lobbyists, and/or chat with your fellow festival-goers. The idea, says Goberdhan, is “how to make it as interactive as we can….”

“Sharing” and “different ways of connecting” — both challenging  notions in the isolating pandemic world of 2021 — are key motifs in the Azimuth lexicon. And Goberdhan and Yamada apply them to both the movement arts festival dreamed up 16 years ago by Murray Utas and Amber Borotsik (and re-imagined beyond narrow frontiers of “dance” ever since), and to their new partnership.

After all, times being what they are — a logistical nightmare and/or a rallying cry to innovate, on any given day — the Azimuth co-producing pair making their debut with Expanse have never been able to work together in person in the theatre’s new Strathcona office. “It’s like having a really cool room-mate,” laughs Goberdhan, of the perpetual screen presence of Yamada in her apartment as they make, and re-make Azimuth plans on Zoom.   

“We inherited a lot of programming, originally designed to be live,” says Yamada of Expanse offerings planned by their Azimuth predecessors. “They gave us the machine; we set it in motion.” Vanessa Sabourin and Kristi Hansen exited last year to “make space,” as they said at the time, for a new diverse generation of theatre artists.

The artistic glue in the Expanse 2021 lineup, beyond even its elastic-sided founding idea of the body in motion, is “experience-based” creation, as Yamada puts it. Which is to say artists mining their own personal experience directly, and finding a way to share it onstage.

At its most unfiltered, there’s Moon Speakers, a free closed-space open stage for Inuit, First Nations, Métis female/ femme/ two-spirit artists to “share their experience, their art, their heart,” says Yamada. Its Expanse session Saturday (curated by Sissy Thiessen Kootenayoo) is the launch of a continuing monthly series.

There is a fully produced play in the lineup, too. Deer Woman by the Calgary-based Indigenous playwright Tara Beagan, the winner of the 2020 Siminovitch Prize, is explosive in a way that will stop you in your tracks.

Cherish Violet Blood in Deer Woman, Article 11. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Once seen never forgotten, I can vouch for that; I saw the Article 11/ Downstage Theatre production last fall. It’s a visceral, heart-stopping account of an escalating personal quest for vengeance and justice in this world of murderous violence for Indigenous women. And there is nothing timid or elliptical about its attack on white hypocrisy. Cherish Violet Blood stars as the avenging warrior, and she is riveting.

“It’s an important show,” says Goberdhan, “a show that spoke to us as individuals, in bringing visibility to everything Deer Woman is about.” And Andy Moro’s vivid production, which takes the play off the page and stage at crucial moments, and into the woods, “does an amazing job of bridging the gap between theatre and film, digital theatre and physical theatre,” Yamada adds. And that, for live theatre, is one of the crucial artistic identity crises of our time.

The World Made Itself by and starring Miwa Matreyek. Image by Miwa Matreyek.

If the world had different, two offerings by the highly original L.A.-based artist Miwa Matreyek would have arrived at Expanse on tour, live. Instead, we’ll see her work — she interacts as a shadow-play presence in her intricately layered projection designs and collages — in digital captures. Infinitely Yours is an exploration of climate change grief;  The World Made Itself includes panoptic views of the earth through airplane windows.

With The Guardian: Return of the Princess, the adventurous Lady Vanessa Cardona and the Remix the Ritual collective address, in fairy tale form, personal migration survival stories inspired by real life. In this, a sequel to the first instalment seen earlier this year, a princess and a dragon struggle to find a way through the pandemic in Latin America. “This time it’s with bodies not shadow puppets,” as Goberdhan describes “a cool and interesting piece, with important subject matter.”

The Good Women Dance Collective, five collaborators with a long and distinguished history of infiltrating dance into theatre, and vice versa, have curated three offerings, under the banner rooted — here and now. 

By tradition, the winner of the Good Women Dance Collective New Work Award the previous year, premieres a new piece at the following edition of Expanse. So we get to see Dnaplay: ORB, filmed in the Good Women dance studio at a moment when that was allowed. It’s the creation of Nasra, a multi-faceted artist known to Edmonton audiences primarily as a spoken word poet, actor, and Black Arts Matter producer. As billed, intriguingly, it’s “an opening ceremony, yet a story within its own….”

“The movement part of their artistic process will be interesting to see…. We were excited about giving them the opportunity,” says Good Women’s Ainsley Hillyard who has long cleaved to the notion that “everyone is a dancer.”

“The older we get, the more thoughtful and creative we get,” she laughs. “We’re a contemporary dance company, yes, but we’re always trying to expand further out, to see what else dance can be, and celebrate cross-culturally. And Nasra has a foot in a bunch of different door(ways).”

Blood Memory, by Indigenous artists Ayla Modeste and Tarene Thomas, explores ancestry, the land, and sexuality in a piece that includes spoken word, song and drumming. And the third of the rooted — here and now offerings is The Power of the Drum by the Edmonton-based Cuban Movements Dance Academy, led by Leo Gonzalez. As Hillyard describes, it’s inspired by the African roots of Cuban dance, an amalgam of dance, drumming, and spoken narration.

Goberdhan and Yamada have brought in two collaborators to guide The Lobbyists, an ensemble featured in the original movement pieces that happen before, after, and between streamed shows. One is Duty, by Andrés Moreno, an expansive exploration of our collective and individual responsibilities, was filmed at the Legislature (which can’t possibly be a coincidence).  The other, with an equally resonant title, is Natércia Napoleāo’s Threshold, filmed in a theatre at a moment when restrictions permitted that.

As Yamada says, “the stamp Sue and I want to (put) on Expanse is in mentorship opportunities…. How can we create them, at every layer of the company?” The keynote of Azimuth has been sounded.

Where: The Chinook Series runs March 25 to April 4, online. Check out the full Expanse Festival line-up, and its schedule of salons, workshops, and parties, plus curated playlists, at Azimuth Theatre. Unless otherwise indicated, all tickets are pay-what-you-will, available at fringe theatre.ca.



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