Capturing the contrasts in PHOTOG, Review by Mariel Marshall

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But in this day and age is a single photo enough to capture something as small as a moment or as vast as an entire war? Perhaps that is all it takes; one look to discard the complexities of a single still image: a child holding a gun, an orphaned Iraqi woman, or a half buried pile of civilian casualties. Presented by Vancouver based company Boca del Lupo, PHOTOG: an Imaginary Look at the Uncompromising Life of Thomas Smith, examines the controversial and provocative worlds of conflict journalism through the fragments of one man’s memory. In 2008 co-creator Jay Dodge interviewed four contemporary conflict photographers on camera in New York City. He weaves together their experiences, memories, and photographs into PHOTOG; a challenging piece that asks us to look closer at our complacent attitudes toward war, conflict and poverty.
Directed by Sherry Yoon and written and performed by Jay Dodge, this dynamic duo brings enormous spirit and connection to their work as they are also co-creators. In addition, the piece is seamlessly stitched together by a creative team composed of Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg (choreography), John Webber (lighting), Brae Norwiss (video), Carey Dodge (sound), Pietro Amato (composer) and Mara Gottler (costumes), to name a few.

Although the main character Thomas Smith (Dodge) is fictional, the stories are true, the text verbatim, and the images are unquestionably real. The piece juxtaposes the extreme landscapes of war with the banal and domestic images of home; the two so at odds with one another they prove impossible to reconcile. With intensely precise and imaginative use of technology, computer animation, dynamic physicality and good ol’ theatrics, the piece is able to examine the juxtaposed contrasts of black and white, war and peace, foreign soil and home turf, privilege and suffering, and togetherness and isolation, resulting in an introspective look at our own lives. 

Although Dodge’s performance is strong, the emotional arc of his character falls flat. Smith wears an emotionless mask through the piece which mirrors the isolated complacency of his world. However there needs to be moments where the mask dissolves so we can see the man behind the shell and his emotional depths. If Dodge takes an emotional leap and plunges into the deep end to find the stakes, the audience will too. 

In contrast, the technological integration of the piece is incredibly effective. The use of photography, video, music, animation, and physicality is so seamless it really becomes a character in itself. Amato’s live music composition brings a beautiful layer to the piece and Sean Tyson rigging work adds an explosive physicality. All in all this is a technological masterpiece. My only concern is a few of the video choices, namely the peep-hole characters as seen through the door, which seem too false and contrived in this world of honest story-telling.

Yoon’s direction is also inventive and strong. She masterfully balances the complex technical elements with simplicity on stage. The pacing of the piece is well-timed and the transitions smooth as glass. The energy, however, is a little tentative off the top and it isn’t until around the mid-way point that the audience is really sucked into the world. Nevertheless, by the end the stories are engulfing and the images provocative. The final moment of Smith walking down the hall into vastness resembles something like an asylum, mirroring the disturbed nature of his inner turmoil. 

The end result: a piece that asks us to look deeper at our own lives and the price of our privilege. PHOTOG successfully breaks down society’s disassociation in world affairs, packing an emotional punch stronger than words. Unfortunately even that might not be enough to knock us out of our complacent attitudes. 
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Urbanvessel Deconstructs Gender One Punch at a Time in Voice-Box, Review by Cara Spooner

I thought it very appropriate that the rehearsal space for the boxing opera Voice-Box was a children's ballet studio. I could only imagine that between Nutcracker rehearsals, girls in pink gauze may have peered in to see the fierce women of the urbanvessel collective boxing while singing about “slug fests” or doing push-ups. I wish I could have been there when those young individuals were struck by curiosity. I wish I could have asked them what they thought about seeing women box and if it made them feel tough or cool; if they felt taller or stronger, more empowered, or if it made them feel conflicted or confused or even scared. I would want to ask them why they felt the way they did and what they thought contributed to their reactions.

Originally commissioned through the Fresh Ground new works series, Voice-Box is the latest production by the Toronto-based collective being presented this week as part of World Stage at Harbourfront Centre. Singers/composers/improvisers/boxers Vilma Vitols, Neema Bickersteth, Christine Duncan, and Savoy Howe team up with Juliet Palmer, Julia Aplin, Anna Chatterton, Teresa Przybylski, and Kimberly Purtell to create a show which is part boxing match, part opera. The singers move between choreography, voice work, and boxing within a constructed boxing ring rather than a traditional stage. The piece is broken into four rounds and includes fractured narratives and story lines as well as real boxing.

I knew before arriving at the Voice-Box open rehearsal that the idea of gender portrayal is still something many people struggle with and that the show is an attempt to illustrate some layers of this complex notion. I've thought a lot about “toughness” and what it means to be “feminine” or “not feminine” and subsequently what it then means to be “masculine” or otherwise. In a way, I am amazed that we are still surprised by the supposed roles of men and women. Haven't we moved past classifying gender in such a narrow scope? Can't we forget about focusing on how these are women boxers/singers and just enjoy the extremely physical and emotional nature of these two forms together in space? Can't they exist as a group of highly trained individuals who have set out to explore something within the particular frame of this stage/ring?

But as much as I'd like that to be the case, it’s not possible. We can't ignore the fact that these deeply ingrained gender structures still exist or at the very least are transitioning out of an incredibly long-lived past history (which ultimately shadows the notion of contemporary women today). The entire piece is extremely self-aware of the gendered nature of the performers; in a big way, their gender is the point of the piece. The performers have tea parties, flirt, fight in tutus, skip rope, apply make-up black eyes, and perform slow motion boxing choreography. They sing and smile while portraying stereotypical feminine women as well as butch women or any classification in between. The tongue in cheek tone of the piece seems to slip to the side of humour and stylized suggestions of “real” boxing and “real” women.

But there were also moments when dipped into something deeper. I wanted to see the heartbreak and exhaustion of what I can only imagine would occur at a boxing match or training gym. I wanted to hear them sing and feel their (and my) guts vibrating. I wanted to hear their stories and to be held by the performance, drama, and spectacle that I knew these two forms are able to provide. I felt this urge inside of me to see them fight and sing and live while still being seen as “feminine” because I am under the impression that “feminine” or “masculine” are only things we each construct by simply being who we are and existing in the world. We each get to define what gender means for us.

The elemental similarities of spectacle, drama and skill found in the theatre and the sports ring were closer than I anticipated. We as audience members know our place in the theatre; we know our traditional role. We also know our role as a spectator when attending a sports game. I loved the conflict of these two roles (and their consequential social codes) being butted up against each other in Voice-Box. I loved that fight within myself when considering I know how I should behave.

I've heard about Savoy Howe's gym The Toronto News Girls and the incredible Shape Your Life boxing program for victims of abuse that is affiliated with it. I've heard about how this is one of the only women and trans friendly spaces for people to explore boxing and it makes me proud that this place exists in Toronto. It makes me proud that people like her are doing the work they do.

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