Arts review: Jacques & James is intriguing and intelligent

Jacques and James is a thought-provoking, beautiful, and entertaining combination of dance and storytelling. 

Being that this combination is generally risky at best, it is no small feat that these performers display a surprising level of ease and confidence in both realms, making for an intriguing, intelligent performance.

The night is split into two pieces – the first a 25 minute piece by James Gnam, followed by 50 minutes from Jacques Poulin-Denis.

There are some common themes in both pieces – both Gnam and Poulin-Denis weave personal narrative in their dancing.  They are also both, thankfully, natural storytellers, capable of dancing and talking at the same time, avoiding the awkwardness of most dance/theatre hybrids that starkly separate monologue and movement.

They also both involve themes of injury and the struggle of the performer to keep a show afloat.  Both feature instances of powerful repetition that highlight these difficulties.  As we watch both Gnam and Poulin-Denis relive moments of failure over and over again, we are reminded first of the immense challenge all performers face of repeating the same movements night after night, as well as our own tendency to mentally loop the moments we wish we could do over.

James Gnam teams up with Montreal artist Jacques Poulin-Denis for Jacques and James, an evening of entertainment that blurs the lines between dance, storytelling and theatre.

James Gnam teams up with Montreal artist Jacques Poulin-Denis for Jacques and James, an evening of entertainment that blurs the lines between dance, storytelling and theatre.

Similarities aside, the content of the two shows are incredibly different.  In James, Gnam shares at length about his experiences dancing in the Nutcracker Ballet, a show he has performed over 300 times.  There is a faint whiff of a David Sedaris-style wit when he spouts lines like “dancing in socks is like fucking in socks”, points out how much of these performances involved skipping foolishly across the stage, and relives a terrifying moment backstage when music is played for a solo he has not prepared.

When he breaks through the humour, however, he gets to the heart of what a male dancer’s role is in classical ballet.  He re-enacts the duet between Cavalier and the Sugar Plum Fairy, but without a partner.  As he moves through the famous duet, describing his movements as he goes, his role becomes clear: the Sugar Plum Fairy dances and he assists.  During the dramatic crescendos in the music, Gnam mimes lifting his partner into the air, his eyes focused only on her, just as the audience would.  It becomes painfully clear that the training, passion, talent, and skill of the male classical dancer are devoted entirely to giving his female counterpart the opportunity to shine.

Jacques has an entirely different feeling.  Titled Cible de Dieu/Target of God, it can be summed up by a line Jacques throws away towards the end: “the show must go wrong.”  Difficult to discuss without giving away the playful mystery that sets up the events in the show, I will simply say that Poulin-Denis is a gifted performer who manages to blend his movement and storytelling almost seamlessly.  Gaining the audience’s trust quickly, he actually manages at one point to have us sing the Fur Elise for him, broken up only by laughter, as his downtrodden character soldiers on through his performance.

In fact, Poulin-Denis takes themes of self-pity and self-victimization on in a way that is surprisingly free of self-pity and self-victimization.  Alternating between his character’s attempted performances as a balance artists and intense sequences where he dances as a boxer getting beat to a pulp, he illuminates the struggle of finding balance, and the unbalance that must exist in opposition.

As a whole, Jacques and James achieves what so little dance/theatre hybrids do these days: it creates a holistic performance that makes you feel with the performers, and it makes you think.

Jacques & James continues at the Firehall Arts Centre through December 7, 2013.  Visit http://firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.

Andrea LoewenAndrea is a theatre-maker, yoga instructor, writer and ally to the LGBTQ community in Vancouver. She spends her days as the Communications Manager for Pacific Theatre, and is Co-Artistic Producer for Xua Xua Productions, a founding member of Les Petites Taquines Dance Theatre, and the marketing chair for the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards Society. She writes a weekly column for VancouverisAwesome.com and freelances as a yoga instructor and choreographer. When she has some down time she enjoys some green tea and quality time with her cat, Miss Gertie Marie.

Follow Andrea on Twitter or find her online at http://www.andrealoewen.com.

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