Review: The Four Horsemen Project Conceived and Directed by Kate Alton and Ross Mason

Produced at GCTC by Volcano in association with Crooked Figure Dances and Global MechanicMarch 13-April 1, 2007

The Four Horsemen Project

[illustration credit: GCTC website]

Based on poetry of the Four Horsemen: Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery, and bpNichol Starring Jennifer Dahl, Graham McKelvie, Noako Murakoshi, and Andrea Nann

Animation Director Bruce Alcock ~ Choreography by Kate Alton ~ Dramatury by Ross Monson ~ Sound Direction by John Millard and Katherine Duncanson ~ Lighting Design by Itai Erdal ~ Set and Costume Design Cass Reimer ~ Production Management by Doug Morum ~ Stage Management by JP Robichaud ~Volcano Producer Meredith Potter ~ Music Direction/Arrangement by John Millard ~ Vocal Coaching by Katherine Duncanson ~ Sound Engineering by John Gzowski ~ Arrangement, Holy Thursday by Graham Hargrove ~ Research by Deborah Pearson ~ Assistant Direction by Alan Dilworth ~ Program Illistration by bpNichol ~ Assistant Production for Volcano by Roxanne Duncan ~ Production for Volcano by Meredith Potter.

Performance viewed: March 22, 8 pm
Running time: 65 minutes

First, let’s get something clear: this is not a play, nor is it a full-length production. On those two scores, I have to take it to task. I have written ad nauseam elsewhere about the tendency of GCTC and NAC English Theatre to skimp on quantity. And I have written about another tendency to substitute dance recitals or concerts or musicals for plays. That said, I liked this show. I won’t call it a play, because it was not a play: and I will not give up on saying that we need more — no: make that all — full-length plays in our seasons.

I liked it because four multi-talented performers and their tech crew brought us a superb piece of visceral entertainment virtually non-stop for the whole sixty-five minutes. I liked it because it is poetry using language at an extremely visceral level.

The program consists of thirty-some pieces, performed by members of the ensemble, working in concert with the projected animations, presumably from drawings by bpNichol. As a poet I was intrigued by the problem of interpretation of sound poetry, which was interpreted, not just as sound, but as movement and facial and body expression: not only would the performer recite the piece, but she or he would give it character as well. So a grunt might be sexy or sad, evocative or declarative.

There were echoes of Inuit mouth singing in some of the more primitive pieces which explored variations in aspirated vowel sounds. I tend to think bpNichol was the main influence is this piece, I suppose because I was not really familiar with any of the other poets.

The casting seems quite Canadian to me, with the cast being ostensibly Japanese, Caucasian, North American Indian (at least in initial costume, although Nann is actually Asian) and Afro-Canadian. One costume anomaly was that only Naoko Murakoshi did not have a change from her cheerleader type costume. I thought that the production used Ms Murakoshi’s Japanese origin in an interesting way, having her introduce and conclude the production as narrator, in what was fittingly for most of the audience an exercise in sound, since we could not understand her Japanese any more than we could hope to “understand” any of the sound poetry.

While Ms Murakoshi was pixie-like and cute, tall Jennifer Dahl was emphatic and ultimately erotic in what turned out to be a stunningly sexy and finally funny number; Graham McKelvie’s superb vocal range and physicality was an solid anchor for the group, both physically and vocally; Andrea Nann, another striking woman had her own niche as a sultry, effective bridge between the petite Murakoshi and the statuesque Dahl. If there was anything incongruous about the casting it was just that the four horsemen were all males. That was hardly consequential here, though.

The fifth character onstage was the superbly co-ordinated, choreographed moving illustrations. I presume these were computer controlled, for I hardly see how it would be possible to do something so thoroughly integrated with the actors onstage without computer controls. I presume this was Bruce Alcock’s work, although it was difficult to discern from the printed program. Whether he operated and cued the execution of the animation was not clear, either; but during the curtain calls, when the cast gestured towards the control booth, they were indicating the fifth amazing member of the cast. Well done, whoever you are!

This is a piece about sound poetry as practised by “The Four Horsemen” in Toronto in the 1970s. The group consisted of Raphael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery, and the late bpNichol. bpNichol, who died in 1988, was already a well-known concrete poet. The group started just “jamming” in improvisation, using sounds of words as effects in themselves. Concrete poetry fits this concept, as it is a visual representation of some of the elements of the sounds of words without particular meaning. Movement, added to the sounds and concrete representations, turns the whole production into an experience that is artistic and affective without being didactic. It is a fascinating exploration of the uttered by unspoken side of language.

The place of poetry in our society is unfortunately confined in popular imagination to the pretty and the shallow vague and hackneyed ramblings of the romantic. That is unfortunate, because in a production like this, we see that poetry, which is unnoticably ubiquitous in our society, can and should be acknowledged to be much more.

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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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4 Responses to Review: The Four Horsemen Project Conceived and Directed by Kate Alton and Ross Mason

  1. Max Middle says:


    I’m an Ottawa poet working in sound and visual disciplines as well as with traditional verse forms.

    Just read your review of the ‘Four Horsemen Project’. I’m planning to attend its performance this week. With the discussion that has surrounded the production, there is a new awareness of sound poetry as an art form and of the history of Canadian sound poetry.

    I work with a sound poetry ensemble ‘The Max Middle Sound Project’. On YouTube, there is a video of the ensemble performing. There are also some videos of me reading solo – 3/4 are from the Ottawa launch for ‘Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry’.

    • riverwriter says:

      Max Middle: I think you will find The Four Horesemen Project’s added visceral dimension of movement visual art and music rather intriguing. That experience made me close my eyes to focus on your sound as I listened to your five Youtube productions.

      This whole retrospective concrete and sound movement has its beginnings rather interestingly traced in Caroline Bayard’s 1989 text: The New Poetics in Canada and Quebec, which I have been reading recently.

      I noted on the Academy Awards program a chorus of voice artists provided foley for a short film clip. I am interested vocal sound as a barbershopper: I sing the baritone part, which supplies the distinctive harmonies which create the style.

      Thanks for dropping by. If I can look in on your work, I would like to.

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