Friday, January 22, 2010

Making the Familiar Foreign: Hip-Hop Displaced in H3

Bruno Beltrão takes hip-hop out of its natural habitat. He transplants street dance to contemporary dance stages around the world, stripping the movement of its defining music and driving beat, and abandoning its cool attitude in favor of openness and vulnerability. He stages battles and undermines them to reveal nuanced physical relationships, and he exaggerates, repeats and abstracts the movements of krumping, popping and breaking dance styles until they take on new expressive power. By making hip-hop strange, he allows us to see it anew and hear it speak.

I first experienced this revelatory work Tuesday night, when Beltrão’s all-male, nine-member Grupo de Rua brought their US debut tour to REDCAT with H3, but the Brazilian choreographer’s been at it for over a decade now – busting open street and contemporary dance conventions to international acclaim.

Two men in loose T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers stand at the edge of the stage space and look out at us. As they search our faces, eyes lingering where interest leads, they invite us to see them at their most vulnerable – in stillness and silence. The faint hum of a passing car reminds us of the dance we came to see, but like the shiny black floor that suggests wet pavement, or the exposed back wall that evokes an alley when the dancers lean against it, this passing reference to the street only makes us feel our distance from that environment. But I have a feeling this is part of Beltrão’s plan; contrast brings all elements into truer focus.

Except for another car or two, it’s quiet as one of the men begins to move – his limbs sliding along invisible surfaces until they click gently into unexpected places or catch in sideways suspensions. His focus is down and in, and without music to drive or dictate action, we see the halting flow of movement as manifestation of a stuttering stream of thoughts. So when, with birdlike head bobbing and insistent stomps, a knee pop throws his arms into wild circles, the intimacy of the silence intensifies the abandon and reveals reckless desire within the fierce krumping.

While sneaker squeaks and techie beeps are eventually sampled in a soundscape that supports the movement, sound never drives the action. Instead of relying on music to shift the mood or speed the pace, the dancers move us to new states by sweeping the space, sprinting backwards in intersecting curves, or spinning out in compact balls like tumbleweeds – head over hands over heels. One such exhilarating wave of receding runs leaves Filipi de Morais (in yellow) and Bruno Duarte (in black) alone on stage, and we feel a rumble coming on.

Duarte issues a challenge by hurling himself through the air past de Morais, who lunges after him in a falling, flying, horizontal counterattack. But when they come within striking distance, they stand close and still – sensing and observing each other with calm and inviting interest – and then flip into a seated freeze in sudden unison. Labored breathing intensifies the interplay, but it doesn’t seem like a fight anymore. And later on, when collisions fire them into awe-inspiring jumps and diving rolls, focus is on the interaction instead of individual prowess, so it doesn’t feel much like a battle either.

When the two group up with a third, a few exchanged glances morph into a bizarre dance of heads snapping, turning, tilting in intent and urgent conversation. Without the wry smiles or humorously vacant expressions that might cue a hip-hop audience to laugh, these strange actions live as committed behaviors. And without the reassurance of cool comment or joking, the untamed energy leaves us a little uneasy. But I think this is right where Beltrão wants us; from uncertainty and unfamiliarity we see more clearly with less assumption.

Throughout H3, fully embodied actions like these boldly convey candid interest, struggle or desire. And in the vocabulary of hip-hop – a language known for its displays of strength, virility, control and humor – these honest statements seem particularly striking and brave. Such is the case in an extended duet that develops between Augusta Eduardo Hermanson and Danilo Pereira toward the end of the piece. We’ve seen Hermanson sidle up to Pereira earlier with his tiny steps and quick, quirky ticks, and we’ve seen Pereira flop into Hermanson’s space, but here the two traverse the stage in determined, committed, complementary relationship.

To the sound of digital dings and bleeps, they adjust and calibrate, stepping their limbs in calculated, mechanical action – each jab of Hermanson’s elbow or flop of his wrist causing a distinct reaction in Pereira’s hip or shoulder or foot. And even when they flap their hands and peck at each other with almost ridiculous insistence, their sincere effort makes these actions part of a moving companionship.

Of course, Beltrão’s nine phenomena are remarkable virtuosos – pulling off dizzying head spins, impossibly sustained handstands, and downrock that would floor any b-boy. But it’s because these men also reveal themselves in moments of quiet, or in awkward, earnest action, that their feats become life-affirming and their physical range approaches the scope of human experience.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Masters of Spontaneity Bring LA Improv Dance Festival to a Close

Dancers gathered at the Electric Lodge in Venice last week for the sixth annual LA Improv Dance Festival, studying improvisation in its various forms with greats from around the world. And over the weekend, in (h) improv: Collaboration Performance, those virtuosos celebrated the vitality and immediacy of improvisation in performance. With an (almost) all-male cast performing works often rooted in contact improvisation or structured as movement scores, the show also implicitly celebrates the many men who have pioneered and continue to develop improvisatory techniques. A woman sitting by me thought to bring two five-year-old boys, and their audible presence in shrieks of laughter and sudden realizations highlighted the occasion’s significance. In the grand tradition of the Grand Union and Judson Dance Theatre – often-improvisatory performance groups of the 60s and 70s – many of the acts slid from dance to theatre to vaudeville to … who knows where. I caught the final Sunday show, and therefore regretfully missed The Platt Brothers of America’s Got Talent fame, but even without their antics the show was more fun than anything I’ve seen in a long time.

We start in a sun washed downstairs studio with WHOOSH, a tribute to the late Merce Cunningham, by the much-acclaimed, LA-based Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble. A former member of Judson Dance Theatre and a prolific choreographer still, at 80, Mr. Perez is a local treasure and an essential part of the festival. That said, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that this, my first chance to see his work live, was a little disappointing. In WHOOSH, six dancers walk, run and stand still; they put on and take off clothes; they make small, sharp gestures; and they stare straight through us and each other all the while. It’s a minimalist, postmodern performance style that needs the most intriguing steps or arresting timings or the humanity of humor to reach an audience, and this performance of WHOOSH didn’t have quite enough of these things to reach me. (Perhaps live musical performance by Steve Moshier’s Liquid Skin Ensemble at the October premiere infused the dance with very different energy.) But I smile when I picture Jamie Benson smirking from center stage, turning in a faun-like parallel profile to press hips forward and slide hands over his torso, and Cunningham’s silly, quirky stunts in works like Antic Meet come immediately to mind.

“On.” Lights come up suddenly to reveal a shirtless, shoeless Charlie Morrissey, standing by a chair, a pink shirt, brown shoes, and a box. Eyebrows rise and lips reach into a round, effortful “Off.” We giggle in the dark as the simplicity and literality of the work’s title (ON off) becomes clear. “On.” He’s still standing next to the chair, but the shoes have moved toward us and we’ve caught them mid-stride. “Off.” We can’t help but chuckle some more as we wait in blackout. “On.” The shoes look a little sheepish when we discover them in first position. Then it’s Morrissey looking sheepish, in the shoes, in first position. He plays teasingly with our expectations and responses – next foiling illusion by calling the lights “on” to catch himself in the act of repositioning the box, or tapping and sliding around in the shoes in both light and darkness. Because he starts so small, the full-bodied, tripping, bumbling tumbles and odd suspensions that wash across the space halfway through are an unexpected delight. And when he joins us in the audience, watching to see what these mischievous objects will do next, it’s a supremely satisfying end.

MEN. ALL men. SEVEN of them. I don’t remember the last time I saw seven men command a stage together, and I get the feeling Scott Wells’ dancers know the striking effect they have in Call of the Wild. With swaggering but endearing showmanship, they assert their manliness (or boyishness) by squatting into grunting, sumo-style displays of strength and … falling apart in sniveling tantrums. They hurl themselves into flying, free-falling collisions and launch into running dives over and into each other only to beg “pardon” and insist, “oh no, please, you first” a moment later. They offer encouragement and guidance to a rolling, sliding, pivoting duet, and they feed the fire of a wrestling duel. Embodying a complicated masculinity with open commitment and gusto – often through the dynamic and nuanced practice of contact improvisation – they win us all over. One dancer shared in post-performance discussion that he first met Wells, and dance, in a contact improv class, and Call of the Wild captures much of the awkwardness, hilarity and revelation that must have accompanied those first encounters. It’s a joyful piece, and as for the closing strip-down to tighty whities and beaming smiles … well, I guess that joke never gets old.

But thank goodness Stefan Fabry and Mitra Martin restore some order, restraint and maturity with Dos Muertos, a duet that brings partner-based, improvisatory Argentine tango to the stage. As they clutch close – hands pressed against smalls of backs, eyes dropped – we feel their world shrink. Costuming and positioning draw our eyes to her, bare back rippling and pearly slip swishing over swiveling hips, the balls of her white heels skimming the floor in soft, steady steps as Fabry and Martin move toward us. A pause, and she circles her left foot patiently, pawing cat-like and waiting to catch the scent of the dance. A felt decision, and they fall out into space again. Recorded conversation repeatedly halts the music’s pulse and breaks the couple’s physical connection, leading them into isolated contemplation or failed attempts at reunion. After the show, we learn that the recorded dialogue grew from frustrations encountered in the creation of Dos Muertos – in modifying the tango for presentation to an audience. Transitions in and out of these interruptions seem forced in performance, but the subtleties of the pair’s dancing and the complexities of their investigation make the work fresh and alive even as I write.

Eyes rolled back in shadowy sockets, jaw clenched, chest bulging behind black spandex, Magus the Extraordinary utters a mighty, guttural, shrieking groan. Glaring down at the lifeless form before him, the marvelous Magus (Jones Welsh) extends rippling fingers over the shrouded body, and it begins to rise. The sorcerer’s eyes grow wide, his mighty hands draw the figure to sitting, and as shroud slips away, his not-so-trusty-one-man-band-sidekick (Will Salmon) blinks blankly in bright stage light. “HaHAA!” As the sleepy Salmon – in too-small red jumpsuit, cockeyed fez, and instruments hanging and clanging around his neck – stumbles up from his slumber, our illustrious illusionist flashes a toothy grin and a swing of his inky cape. A crease appears between his dark brows as the cape catches his elbow, but he beams reassuringly at us, hands on hips and pelvis thrust forward, and the cape makes it around on the second go. With a furrowed forehead and sharp nod toward his ruby-suited friend, Magus indicates that it’s time to get control of those swinging cymbals and rattling tambourines. The music-maker obliges with a rousing jig on his recorder, and Magus prances blithely, until the recorder somehow falls and rolls behind the curtain and we lose the player to its pursuit. Magus Extraordinary is an outrageous sideshow, a brilliant partnership, a merry mix of truly impressive feats and impressively coordinated missteps. It’s an absurdly, hilariously good time.

And after that, what could follow? THE END.