The Outliner: rendering the invisible visible
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Jennifer Mascall’s The Outliner:
rendering the invisible visible.
By Susan McKenzie
In July 2016, audiences attending the premiere of The Outliner at MascallDance’s space on Jervis Street in Vancouver’s West End enter a huge formal performance environment with large, suspended white canvases, inhabited by fantastical beings and unexpected events.
Fluttering fans among the audience punctuate the darkness in summer heat. Silent attendants wait in the shadows to sporadically roll platforms of seated audience into different viewing positions as the evening unfolds, redefining and heightening the space and the audience’s perspective.
Solo dancers emerge – each wearing architecturally devised garb that is part costume, part contraption. All are an extension of an idea of the body. A partnership emerges between dancer and garment, tracing lines and volumes previously undelineated in space, rendering the invisible visible.
“I’ve noticed that from the eighties onward, every once in a while I’ll want to do a dance with a contraption,” muses the work’s choreographer Jennifer Mascall. “By this I mean an object that expresses in material form, an idea we live and abide by in dance. The point of ignition between dancer and garment reveals what we understand and communicate about the body in space.”
In her response to The Outliner, Vancouver Sun arts correspondent Deborah Meyers observed that “the equal weighing of the material and the metaphorical, and the bold privileging of process over product, is part of what has set Mascall apart from her peers over the years.”
Revisiting a series of solos from her post-modern past, Mascall sought to discover “whether the thoughts in them remained active 25 years later or if they were of a specific time.” She and her team stripped the solo ideas down to the studs, exploring them from her present perspective.
Spine Lines (1992)
Choreographed and Performed by Jennifer Mascall
Mascall led with: “It can’t break in rehearsal, and we have to know why it goes where it goes, and when.” As collaborating designer Ines Ortner describes: “Finding the right materials to serves a wider variety of purposes can be quite a big challenge, not just to come up with a potentially suitable material, but also to find and test it. How the material then can be incorporated into a design that does not just look amazing, but is also highly versatile and functional is the next big challenge.” The team likens this time, trial and error to Goldilocks, testing for “just right.”
Some dances fell away. Melt, for instance, a quivering, feathered rhythmic dance accompanied by a recording of jazz improviser Al Neill’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow was reconstructed on the beautiful dancer, Martha Hart, and performed twice. “When I watched it,” says Mascall, “I thought it represented a dance from another era; the simple bourrees with the music suggested a narrative that I might have considered at another time – perhaps the early ‘70s. The dances that remain are ones with ideas that have sustained through the decades of work.”
Spine Lines (1992)
Choreographer/ Performer Jennifer Mascall
Photographer: Cylla Von Tiedemann
Graft, on the other hand, sustained her interest.It derives from the 1992 work SpineLines, which Mascall herself performed in its’ National Arts Centre premiere. The dance has become a container for decades of study by the choreographer of lines in space.
Susan Berganzi’s original costume design emerged based on artwork created by MascallDance showing all the lines of energy which extend from the body when we dance. Mascall says “There are many stories of the terrors involved in performing Spine Lines, wondering whether the costume mechanism was working, sticks breaking mid-performance , and so on.”
Designer Ines Ortner relishes “observing Jennifer peeling away the layers of comfort and predictability.” Working closely with Mascall, she re-examined the original design to develop a new design better able to withstand the force and creative path of where the dance needed to go. Working with two existing photographs, they sought “a material that would not break, unlike the wooden original sticks. We ended up using PVC pipe from the building center.”
Renee Segouin performing GRAFT (1991) in 2015
Choreographer: Jennifer Mascall
Photo: Michael Slobodian
Festival curator Jeanne Holmes calls the West Coast “a hotbed” of exciting new dance (Georgia Straight), providing a full third of the work seen in 2016’s prestigious Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa. Among these was Graft, danced by Ron Stewart in “Older and Reckless” at Artscourt. Stewart is one of four dancers to perform Graft in the year leading to The Outliner premiere. Mascall says that “each one expands the dance, adding new lines and fields of energy, and taking it somewhere it has not been before.”
“Inside the solo it feels very tenuous,” Stewart says. “The dance deals in a real way with chaos. Those flying PVC piles follow the spiral and twist of my body. The range of the solo is the range of shifting form produced by that spiral, twist, breath.”
Kaspar also remains. Deciduous branches extend the performer’s arms, playing with balance, creatureliness and transformation. The eldest work in the collection premiered at Toronto’s Harbourfront in 1984, and toured Canada the following year as the first Independent tour on the Candance Network. It was subsequently expanded to a quartet performed by two Vancouver companies.
Choreographed & Performed by Jennifer Mascall
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann
“When I collaborate on an original creation (meaning the first time a dance is made) I work directly from the dancer’s interpretation of the proposition we set before us. Kai Lai, the original dancer in Kaspar was slight, specific, detailed and poetic and the details of the dance remain so,” says Mascall. “Originally I had the dancer just walking on a line, and then I put him on skis. Next I went out and got him television antennae and had him put them on his hands. We kept working; then I went and got branches – and the branches were it – we took the skis away.”
She continues: “Next I toured it (performing it myself). After that, Tom Stroud (former director of Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers) learned it from me for a Canada Council audition. Just before his performance, I understood that he had to have boots on, so I made him boots out of sweatpants, and sewed rubber on the soles. I said “I’m sure you’ll be great!” and he was. The last minute adjustment simply added to his attention when performing –his concentration became even more intense.”
During The Outliner’s premiere week, BBC’s Gilbert Small performed the solo, informing the dance with an acute awareness of the space and muscular, prehensile movement appearing to enliven the very tips of the branches and reach beyond the rafters of the huge hall.
The branches become both partner and environment. In the 80’s, Mascall went out and cut branches from trees for each set of performances. The dance adapted to the properties of each new set of branches, which were usually damaged over the performances. Expanding the work for a company whose season took place in May, “I hadn’t considered that the branches didn’t have leaves. But in May, everything had leaves, so we cut rhododendrums, which they used; it had a bizarre effect and in fact changed the entire character of the dance!”
More recently, artificial branches were constructed for the solo. Yet these ultimately
proved unsatisfactory and were replaced by found arbutus branches in TheOutliner’s premiere the following year. Another storied aspect of Kaspar involves the many consequences of cloth bags used in some iterations to enclose the dancer’s head and each foot.
Another element in The Outliner is a dancer-operated writing machine. Mascall says that sculptor and MascallDance collaborator Alan Storey, “has been creating writing machines of various kinds for twenty years. One, for instance, was to have two silos outside, quite high – maybe a storey and a half – with paper (I imagine this huge scroll) on which the wind made the pen write. They’d collect the paintings and (I think) sell them. So Alan and I agreed to work with this.”
“The wind machines he’d created always produced a drawing. It felt critical to me that rather than a drawing, it produce a word. Because of our on-going conversation over decades with the general public on meaning, I wanted to satirize the power, the meaning of a word. So the dancer dances, and they are writing: the pen is behind and above them, attached to a string, and another string is attached to their thigh. The word is being produced behind them and they can’t know if they have made it.
It’s very clear – the viewer sees the dancer is on a completely different level than the pen to paper, and then see the word, as though it has the meaning, and the word hasn’t actually anything to do with what’s going on. Another dancer scrolls the paper down. It’s very mechanical, and this I like very much.”
“In 2010, I invited the designer Catherine Hahn, having seen these contraptions, to make us a costume that we’d then make the dance to. Using sticks she happened to have in her studio, she made something resembling a praying mantis, and images of
an Elizabethan queen. Just as Nathan Wiens did later, she asked “what is the process I am in now? I have these sticks – let’s see what we can do…” This became Profilo Eterno.”
Jung-Ah Chung performs in the MascallDance installation
Remnants of Memory (2011)
Profilo Eterno is a study in spheres determined by Catherine Hahn’s costume design.It premiered under an earlier title at the gala opening of Remnants of Memory (2011), an installation of MascallDance costumes and stories at the Pendulum Gallery in downtown Vancouver which became the catalyst for The Outliner Project.
Early constructions by Catherine Hahn for
Remnants of Memory installation 2011
Hahn’s original costume design provokes a spacial language of arcs, tapering and slicing the environment in this study of transformation. Mascall: “Catherine Hahn worked in a way none of the others had, a way that I’d like to work always (if I could afford it). She came to each rehearsal – just sat and watched what we did. She’d say “Oh. That’s not going to work.” And she’d sew something up and put it back in again, evolving the notion.”
“So now, when I work with another person, I think “What am I interested in?” And here, my interest is in the volumes. It makes lines that outline volumes we know about – like the volumes underneath our armpits or the space behind our backs – not the line you make to go somewhere. These remind me of the space and support of the yolk sac or the amniotic fluid. Instead of positing what I was interested in and seeing how the designer translated it, I took what they made and made it into something that I was already working with.”
Fast forward four years. Mascall’s team has further developed Profilo Eterno. Ines Ortner says that “the actual making of the piece is relatively fast. However then (activated in the rehearsal hall) the actual collaborative process begins, demanding a constant rethinking, adjusting, maybe even restructuring of the costume. Just then it reveals itself – if all the “bones” of the costume actually work. “
“The costume is a chain effect. It is a set of laws. I dance with its laws,” says dancer Elissa Hanson, who says the experience was “maddening and satisfying – the most challenging thing I have ever worked on. The costume is extremely live, and being inside it is an intense sensory experience – a loud constant twanging, buzzing, rubbing reverberation that no one but me is aware of. I feel my eyes water, the beat of my chest. I have a sense of heartbreaking, powerful hilarious magic at the edges of things. Huge opposites are in play.”
Elliot Neck describes himself as “Costume Technician” in this process – he has a super-radar for what can work. “There’s the fragility of the units coming off the back. So small that at first you cannot see them, the line off the back responds and exposes each nuance. It can show the audience that there’s something more going on than is visible.”
“There’s a sense of the performer’s energy carrying well past physical form. The objects act as amplification, magnifying gesture and detail. The straightening of the spine ends not at the head but eight feet up in the pieces attached to the hat – the very top of the spine – as her posture shifts. It brings that awareness outside the body.”
Observing the work over the premiere run, Mascall concluded: “Profilo Eterno was my second attempt to create a work based on a costume, and I felt that the complications of the costume made a dance that could not sustain the battering of a tour.”
“We are an Unfinished Planet”
co-created by Jennifer Mascall and Robin Poitras
Designer: Nathan Wiens
Costume: Robin Poitras with Leah Weinstein
Photographer: Michael Slobodian
“We are an Unfinished Planet” is the newest of the works, a powerful thread in the weave of The Outliner. Co-created in spring 2016 by Jennifer Mascall and the incomparable performer Robin Poitras, the work is a duet with a matryoshka-like cone-shaped wooden “dress” sculpture created for the work by Vancouver designer Nathan Wiens.
Extremely subtle nuance compels the viewer’s attention. Achieving it technically draws on a complex of skills. Musing on these hidden aspects, Poitras says: “I’m using my spine, elbows, knees and feet to control the wood, and sometimes I am blind inside the wood.”
She describes the sculpture she dances with as “rectoversal – so you can create a kind of container that holds something or that receives something. An open triangle receives the universe and a downward triangle contains something, a cupping. Because it is in multiple parts, you are either constructing or deconstructing some form, constant potential transformation. The structure is loaded with imagery.”
Meticulously, without haste, the dance delicately uncovers layer upon layer of imagery. The effect is elemental.
brief excerpt of Robin Poitras performing Unfinished Planet, by Jennifer Mascall and Robin Poitras,
ArtSpring Theatre 2017
Vocalist: Cicela Månsson, Composer: Purcell
The Outliner is currently touring Western Canada.
Design Contributors include: Susan Berganzi, Catherine Hahn, Ines Ortner, Alan Storey, Nathan Wiens among others.