Mary Ellen MacLean is rehearsing her new play, Velocipede, in the Dalhousie Arts Centre. Studio Two is a large cavernous cube. A metal grid is suspended from the ceiling, just above a catwalk which wraps around the room. Far below on the studio floor, about 20 cycles are parked, a herd of rust, rubber, chrome, paint, leather and kickstands.
There’s a black unicycle, a sky blue CCM tandem, a cherry red homemade punnet, which is also a bicycle built for two, but instead of one behind the other, two riders travel side by side. There are several tricycles, one of which is acid green with a tiny black and white banana seat and red handle grips.
Most of the bicycles are old one-speed coaster-brake beauties. Sturdy beasts. We gave them hero names like Trigger or Bucephalus, or pony names like Paint or Champion. We rode them on crusades, over to the next neighbourhood, into the woods, down to the water. Bicycles were somehow sturdier then, solid frame, one gear that never failed and a pedal brake to be feathered back lightly or stomped on. They had two-tone saddles and handle grips just waiting for streamers. A couple of cards clipped to a back stay with a clothes pin and clicka-clicka-clicka, we were ready to take on the world.
Mary Ellen MacLean remembers all of this well from her early days in Dartmouth. “I have always loved bikes,” MacLean says. “My first bike was a hybrid, constructed by my brothers. It had a banana seat, monkey handlebars and long forks.” MacLean’s eyes sparkle at the memory. “Up by the fire hall we’d bomb down the hill. Five or six girls would be on the ground and we’d jump over them. It was really fun for me and the boys.” About the same time MacLean realized she was into girls. “I would fantasize about kissing,” she says, “and it would be girls. It was very clear to me. My older brothers would have their girlfriends over and that,” she laughs, her voice squeaks higher, “was grrreat!”
In 2001 MacLean brought a remembrance of those early days, her play Frankie, to stages across Canada (including Festival Antigonish and Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre), and to TV on the Bravo network. In Frankie MacLean played eight characters, including the lesbian Frankie and the drag queen Joey.
Now Velocipede, a dance-physical theatre hybrid, focuses in on girls, women and bikes. Seven actors and dancers, costumed in jeans and oxford shirts in various shades of blue, use bicycles as extensions of themselves—they ride them, spin them, hurl them around.
As she rehearses in jeans and a lime tank-top, MacLean’s muscles stand out. Her arms are shaped and ripped. She and her fellow dancers look like a pack of determined delinquents. Some, like MacLean herself, are tough-cookie tomboys. Some are girly girls, but the kind of girly girls you don’t want to cross, who have been to camp and love their bikes.
MacLean demonstrates slow motion walking, as she pushes a bike. It’s perfect. Forty-two years of moving her body—high school athletics, hockey on backyard rinks and 20 years with Jest in Time—make MacLean one of the great physical movers and shakers in Halifax. She and the others try the sequence a few times. A slow motion walk in several directions ends abruptly; the women lift their bikes from the ground and, now synchronized, go through movements that look strangely similar to soldiers on parade when they twirl, upend and present their arms. The sequence ends with the dancers facing their bikes, straddling the front wheels, holding the bars up as the bodies of the bikes swing slowly in front of them like giant dildos.
MacLean will be joined by Sarah Williams, Halifax actor Martha Irving and four dancers from Mocean Dance—Carolle Crooks, Sara Harrigan, Alicia Orr MacDonald and Sarah Di Quinzio. MacLean calls them collaborators, and in the rehearsal process every dancer continuously refines her movements and makes suggestions.
In another sequence the dancers watch themselves in a huge mirror as they practice a complicated lift and transfer. They’re in a line, passing along a horizontal, rotating Orr MacDonald in an impression relating to Rosie the Riveter propaganda during WWII, one of several historical sequences.
“A big thing for me,” MacLean says, “is what bikes have done for women in history, first during the Suffragette movement and then again in the 1940s while the boys were overseas. The bike was the first time women got on a machine and propelled it ourselves. It changed what we wore. We opened our legs on these wild wonderful inventions.”
At lunch break the dancers relax, but keep playing with movment. They try out tiny bikes. They sit, legs splayed impossibly wide. They practice spinning and tossing wheel rims like they’re baton twirlers. They snap and toss brassieres in the air, working to simulate the flames of a fire. MacLean chows down on a salad and potato chips. A huge puppy named Radio arrives for a visit and wants to play. MacLean is now an imp. She goes down to the wood floor on her hands and knees, ass in the air, crawling and moving, rolling and tussling. Sarah Williams, the dancer and videographer from Montreal, tinkers with an upended bike. She has powerful hands and developed forearms; over and over she swings an arm in an arc to keep a wheel spinning. MacLean leaps onto one of her favourite bikes (“Except for its goody girl pink colour—ugh. I call it Joanne.”) a small one with monkey bars and a banana seat. She peels around the room and stomps on the brake, demonstrating the art of burning rubber. Black arcs appear on the floor.
Live Art is the company which brings in much of the hot contemporary dance we get to see in Atlantic Canada, so it makes sense it is presenting the premiere of Velocipede, but this isn’t the first time MacLean has brought a bicycle to the stage.
In 1993 Jest in Time presented Sleeptracks in Halifax and across Canada. In one scene MacLean played a very uptight government worker who dreams she’s a triathlete, and MacLean was able to mime perfectly the Lance Armstrong type of crouch cycling on an imaginary ten-speed bicycle. MacLean has taken that section, played with it and put it into Velocipede. And gone further.
“The idea of dancers on bikes, using bikes, throwing them around is a powerful one, “ she says. “In Velocipede we use the bikes to create impressions of different times and places. I want to take what is an everyday object and see what happens when you put it on a stage. And for me, women on bicycles are really sexy.”
MacLean urges me to try riding the tandem and the punnet. I have never been on either. The tandem is a long sleek beast. MacLean makes me ride in front and then behind. We spin around. Then we try out the punnet. I am on the right, MacLean is on the left, and it’s the oddest feeling to be so much in sync with someone else while on a bike. It’s hard to yield. The corners are adventures. MacLean is exhilarated. She laughs out loud. “It’s like making love.”
Velocipede, May 25-27 at the Sir James Dunn Theatre, 6101 University, 8pm, $13 -$20, 494-3820