The Jungle Room, this year’s endeavor of Passion and Performance’s Production Class, hits stages this weekend in Victoria and Duncan, and next month in Kelowna. This piece, with show assembly, story creation, and theatrical direction by Rachel Paish, and choreography by Rachel Paish, Carlene Brick and Jocelyn Johnson, is a full-length narrative dance piece which blurs the lines between physical theatre, concert dance, musical theatre, pantomime, and cabaret. Set to the music of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, the show is dynamic, engaging, inventive, and full of strong performances.
Passion and Performance is a Victoria-based dance studio with new locations in Sooke and Duncan, owned and operated by Rachel Paish. The studio is in the business of giving its students and community unique learning and performance opportunities, and this production is certainly no exception. This show is the culmination of the studio’s second annual Production Class, which is an experience where students get to experience auditions, an intense rehearsal process, feedback and note-taking, and finally performing, which, this year, includes a tour to Kelowna.
I was able to enjoy a preview of the show in the form of a full run-through during one of their final rehearsals. All twenty of the dancers are students at Passion and Performance, and enrolled in this past summer’s Production Class. They immediately and uniformly conveyed that they all have strong stage presence, awareness of character, and confidence as performers. The group’s strength in this area was felt through the whole show, as was the presence of the music by Postmodern Jukebox.
When asked about this music choice for the production, which is comprised entirely of retro-inspired covers of pop songs from various eras, Paish answered, “I went through and curated all of the song selections and blended them myself to create the story and characters.” While none of the dancers sing or speak during the performance, the singers of Postmodern Jukebox stand in for their voices, like the subtitles in a silent film.
Laura Jurek, who shares the role of Robyn with Emily Tackaberry, adds, “I loved the idea of doing a vintage style show which was more similar in format to a ballet than a recital.” Indeed, the full-length narrative of the show, combined with the fact that there are characters who convey the story with their movements and facial expressions, causes the piece to read like a ballet or an extended physical theatre work. Many of the songs are recognizable hits, covered in a jazz-age style, which adds a dream-like and nostalgic quality to the performance.
One of several strengths in Paish’s concept for this piece is her ability to take archetypes and stock characters, use them for inspiration, and ultimately transform them into believable, nuanced characters. All of the classic character types from film and theatre are present: the heroine (Jen Thorndale’s Haley), the ingénue (Laura Neithercut/Emily Tackaberry’s Robyn), the tempter/temptress (Claire Gayton/Joelle Maclaren’s Von), the damsel/hopeless romantic (Kennedy Cullen’s Sara), the narcissist (Annabelle Fortin’s Mykal), the villain (Cindy Foggitt’s Ariana), and her henchman (Karissa Crawley’s Casey).
However, through Paish’s careful direction and the clever and clear choreography by the trifecta of Paish, Brick and Johnson, these archetypes get turned on their head, spun around, and eventually fleshed out into complex, mostly rootable characters. Cullen’s Sara, for example, starts as a woman longing for romance and morphs into a delightful mixture of a Chaplin heroine, a vaudeville comedian, and “the best friend” character found in every romantic comedy who has way too much patience.
All twenty performers in the show identify as women. Accordingly, two of the lead characters and a handful of the ensemble are played in various degrees of drag. One character, Gayton and Maclaren’s Von, is gender non-conforming.
When asked about the inspiration for Von, Paish explains, “There have been some incredible people who have come into my life who have non-conforming genders. I wanted a character who had the confidence and swagger of my non-conforming, androgynous, masculine presenting friends. Their authenticity to be who they are and true to themselves is incredibly inspiring, and as an artist and choreographer, they have really lent themselves as muses in creating Von. I wanted all my characters to be flawed, so Von has their moments, as all the characters do, but I love the way Von owns their space with confidence.”
The choreography doesn’t shy away from highly sexual content for Von and their love interest Robyn, as well as similar content for other pairings such as Ariana and Casey, Sara and Mykal, and the folks who play their corresponding choruses. The version of Von that I saw was Gayton’s, and she successfully approached the role with a remarkable level of power, energy, and bravado. The fact that Paish, her fellow choreographers, and the twenty performers are willing and able to use dance and physical theatre to create this believable atmosphere and universe of people of various genders with intertwining motivations and needs, is impressive and commendable.
Perhaps the most ingenious device that this team uses, is the notion of the lead characters having a “corresponding chorus.” In addition to playing patrons and performers at the eponymous Jungle Room, ensemble members are mixed and matched to represent the inner thoughts and desires of the lead characters, as Paish says “sort of like a Greek chorus.”
Paish continues, “the shape of the chorus morphed into giving students the opportunity to shine in the genres they do best, do big group numbers and to be a part of different styles.”
In several instances, the ensemble dancers support and enhance a duet or solo that is happening downstage. There are several great examples of this throughout the production, but one key example is the bedroom scene “Young and Beautiful” where Kristal Weening and Jessica Calder act as a cheeky and fearless chorus for either Gayton and Jurek, or Maclaren and Tackaberry, depending on the performance, while the other pair of Gayton/Jurek and Maclaren/Tackaberry round out the ensemble for this number (this duo are the only characters in the show that are double cast and vary between performances). Another great example of this chorus concept is early in the show where ensemble members Weening and Lori White echo Cullen’s expressive, yearning movement in “I Want You to Want Me.”
While an effective narrative tool, this type of ensemble work is also a learning experience for the participants.
As ensemble member Brittany Heath confirms, “A highlight for me has been having the opportunity to really challenge myself as a dancer to try a bunch of different styles of dance and to have the opportunity to really push myself beyond what I’ve ever done before.
“Some members of the cast are natural performers and slipped into their roles seemingly effortlessly,” Heath continues. “I identified those students fairly early and have done my best to channel their performance energy whenever I can. Other cast members, I’ve watched grow and evolve into their characters over the course of the summer and I’ve been learning right alongside them. It’s been a great experience of osmosis and mentoring!”
One of those more natural performers that Heath refers to, Jen Thorndale, shares similar sentiments: “I was drawn to the project because I thought it would be a great way to push myself. I just got back into dancing this past year after taking the better part of the last decade off, and this seemed like a fun, and a little bit crazy, challenge. The highlight, bar none, has been getting to know the other dancers, choreographers and Rachel.”
Thorndale’s favourite section to dance, and arguably one of the strongest in the production, is set to a retro cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” In this piece Thorndale’s emotional, dramatic and athletic execution of this contemporary choreography works to convey Haley’s pain and inner turmoil, but also her resolve and self-awareness.
There are too many other highlights in this production to list them all, but it would be remiss to neglect Foggitt’s portrayal of Ariana. She saunters freely between a caricatured, exaggerated version of evil, and something much darker and more disturbing, as though she is at once channeling “Hexadecimal” from the 90’s television program Reboot, and any of number of Jessica Lange’s scheming characters from American Horror Story.
In the same way that its performers are asked to create layered and complicated characters, the piece itself is a complex combination of dance genres, including but not limited to jazz, tap, contemporary, burlesque, and chair. With its nostalgic music, captivating story, thoughtful and progressive characters, and bold approach to choreography and storytelling, this production is absolutely worth catching whether you see it this weekend in Victoria or Duncan, or next month in Kelowna.
The Jungle Room is showing tonight, Friday, September 21 at Metro Studio Theatre, Victoria, at 7pm and 9:15pm, and Saturday September 22 at Mercury Theatre in Duncan at 7pm.
Next month, catch The Jungle Room on Saturday October 20 at Kelowna Rotary Centre for the Arts at 7pm.
Tickets are available at www.passionandperformance.com