Tuesday, September 1, 2009

El Colegio Del Cuerpo at California Plaza

Surrounded by the bounty of water in California Plaza this past Saturday evening – smelling its cool damp, hearing its lap and slap in pools and fountains – one could only feel the beauty and peace of this place in stark contrast to the fires blazing on the hills to the north. The Grand Performances free summer concert series gathers Los Angeles residents together in the heart of downtown to share in the performing arts, and it felt a special refuge in this place on this night. Such efforts to bring the arts to a wide population resonate with my own hopes for dance, and the origins and mission of El Colegio Del Cuerpo – a Colombian dance ensemble that trains children from the poorest barrios of Cartegena to become members of the company – are truly thrilling. The company is a testament to the power of art to combat poverty, and while great dancing and thoughtful, innovative choreography characterized much of the evening, aspects of the concert detracted and distracted from its strengths.

The opening work, introduced by the company’s co-director Álvaro Restrepo as a collage of excerpts from their repertoire, makes wonderful use of the particularities of the Watercourt stage and must have been shaped significantly for this particular venue. The entire company of dancers begins slowly, skimming the stage in diaphanous gowns glowing sapphire, emerald, gold, crimson. As their minimal gestures intensify to sharp, accented and unpredictable flexes, these percussive movements seem to throw columns of water upward, creating a mesmerizing relationship between human and fluvial action. The company’s investment in this particular performance communicates great respect for audience members; El Colegio Del Cuerpo recognizes the beauties and possibilities of our shared space and gives us the opportunity to celebrate them together.

As dancers repeat the subtle flexes and shifts of weight, I feel my attention wane and remember the challenge of performing in such a boundless space. The meditative energy of their deliberate, ritual-like movements dissipates not only under the night sky, but in the running of restless children, the pacing of latecomers in search of empty seats, and the casual comings and goings of a free, outdoor performance. Now gathering the folds of their gowns, they reveal strong legs and feet, stomping and scuffling in clear rhythm, and I enjoy this wonderful contrast to the softly flowing skirts. When they descend into the pool below, their arched torsos and odd flinches resemble the flutterings of water birds gliding along the green surface.

A quick dimming of the lights and, stripped from burkha-like robes down to briefs and bras, dancers enter the stage one at a time, performing leaps, turns and flips. Although generally impressive and well executed – like one woman’s miraculous, blind flying tumble over a partner’s shoulder – the solos and duets of this section lack craft and coordination. The movement also often needs more follow-through, but moments when finely articulated waves ripple through the dancers’ torsos enchant with precision and control.

Following intermission, Marie-France Delieuvin’s
The Other Apostle begins promisingly with an intriguing solo; the male dancer seems magically transported to each curious position, unbound by the human necessity of transitions. He fades, and as interlocking gears in a clock, two men place and replace each other, their ticking limbs creating dynamic exchanges and subtle weight shifts. These opening sections captivate, but recorded excerpts from Jóse Saramago’s novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ that identify individual dancers as Jesus or Thomas, and program notes infused with the sacred feminine lingo of pop lit warn of the heavy-handed, often maddeningly literal nature of the work.

Although well crafted, beautifully performed movement continues through much of
Apostle, the poorly written, poorly translated, or poorly read text so completely dominates the dancing and our minds that it eventually becomes impossible to appreciate any of it. Repetition of compositional forms, false endings, and the sheer length of the work don’t help either. Often functioning as straight narration, Saramago’s words limit Delieuvin’s work and our imaginative capabilities by telling us what to see on stage. I must admit that after enduring the overbearing text and trying hard to appreciate the dancing for at least an hour, I gave up and left early.

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