Monday, March 29, 2010

'Bricklayers' in Santa Monica

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on March 9, 2010.

When Trisha Brown and her fellow dance rebels of the 1960s and ’70s began using movement “scores” – directions that require performers to solve problems in the moment of performance – in lieu of “set” choreography, the shift was both aesthetic and political. By redistributing the choreographer’s power of artistic decision to the dancers, scores encouraged audiences to see performers as thinking community members and to question the authority of the art establishment. In 2010, however, when the score is an established choreographic device and Brown represents, willy-nilly, the present dance establishment, it’s hard to imagine the revolutionary spirit this method once carried.

In Bricklayers With a Sense of Humor, performed this past Saturday (March 6th) at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Arianne Hoffmann continues the work of this breakaway dance generation by challenging the authority of the now-conventional movement score, reinvigorating the form with political significance, and re-asserting the power and responsibility of the performer. Inside a series of scores that govern with varying degrees of control, Hoffmann and her fellow movers discover, struggle, delight, suffer, resist, obey, and rebel to thrilling and unsettling ends. While the most restrictive scores yield intriguing results – by giving the performers a clear force to push against – the success of even these sections depends on the movers’ individual decisions. The performers’ willingness to stretch or break out of each structure when necessary ensures both artistic interest and the well-being of the group.

From the very first score, the stakes are high and the problems are real. “It certainly is harder to breathe.” Hoffmann narrates her sensations from the bottom of an ever-growing pig pile, with understated humor and concern that builds with the number of bodies on her back. We chuckle nervously as she allows four movers to climb on before panic creeps into her voice: “I’m having trouble speaking, and it makes me think it’s too much … pressure.” The women immediately peel themselves off in response to her alarm, and our breathing deepens with hers.

Recalling Trisha Brown’s “line up” experiments, these bricklayers – in brown, red and powder blue polyester shirts tucked into high-waisted bell-bottoms – negotiate individual power as they seek to maintain their equidistant arrangement in a sideways-facing horizontal line. Steps taken by the women on the ends trigger a flurry of checking and correcting in the middle. But then Rebecca Pappas has had enough and holds her ground with a solid fist raised at Audrey Malone’s back. This resistance seems to fuel Malone’s fire, and she raises a fist to stop Angeline Shaka from invading her space. The battle of wills eventually rams them all into a heap against the wall … a much more glorious end than the initial calibrations suggested!

Tehya Baxter emerges from the wreckage, performing a regimented hand dance and parading through the space with clear paces and sharp quarter turns to the tubas and trumpets of the Ex-Post-Communist Community Brass and String Bands. Her focused, blank stare breaks now and then to flash us a wide, forced smile. Contrast this controlled march – disturbing in its lack of individual choice or expression – with Hoffmann’s sprawling solo danced with a microphone in her pants. This woman enjoys her personal freedoms.

At first it’s just a game: Ally Voye tries to stand her ground while Audrey Malone tries to push her over. But soon this score leads to the violation of individual freedoms and bodily rights. Malone’s efforts grow violent, and Voye’s pinched face and flailing arms betray real distress, until she collapses to the ground. Malone panics because this noncompliance keeps her from following the directions, and she yells at Voye’s lifeless body – trying insult, mockery, and coercion to get her up off the floor. When the others enter and conduct sound experiments on Voye’s insensible form, digging a microphone into her belly and manipulating her legs to produce muffled thumps, it’s awful to watch, and it looks like the decision to break from this score might fall to the audience. A performance has never brought me so close to taking action, and this might be the work’s greatest tribute to Hoffmann’s predecessors.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Alberta Ballet Performs Joni Mitchell's 'The Fiddle and the Drum'

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on February 26, 2010.

A man steps forward into bright light, and we are confronted with his flesh – tinted the sickly green of camouflage or radioactive glow. Joni Mitchell’s voice rings out a mournful melody: “And so once again … My dear Johnny my dear friend … And so once again you are fightin’ us all….” Dancers emerge like spirits, piling up behind the first soldier, and the body count rises. In Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum, performed by the Alberta Ballet last night (Feb. 25) at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, the intimate and fleshly physicality of live dance speaks in eloquent combination with Mitchell’s music.

Alberta Ballet Artistic Director Jean Grand-Maître, whose work as director of choreography for the Vancouver Olympics has recently brought the company international attention, collaborated with fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell on the creation of Fiddle in 2006 and 2007. Since its completion, the work has been performed throughout Canada and released on DVD, but last night’s sold-out performance marks only the second stop on the ballet’s first United States tour. The tour continues at UCLA’s Royce Hall tonight and Saturday, Feb. 26-27.

The Fiddle and the Drum derives its structure and inspiration from 13 of Mitchell’s songs that play back to back, mostly lesser-known works released in the ’80s and ’90s, and from Mitchell’s glowing green, apocalyptic artwork that appears projected on the scrim. The themes they suggest – warnings that we are hurrying our own destruction by waging war and abusing our planet, lamentations that rail against the exploitation and hypocrisy that facilitate this destruction – are ones that have concerned Mitchell throughout her career. But the rhythmic drive that pushes the action through much of the evening may surprise those expecting the sparser, solo guitar sound of her early work.

Out of the somber stillness of the opening, “Sex Kills” jolts the 29 dancers into sudden action, propelling them into superhuman postures with mechanical speed and precision. Here, silvery overhead light gilds the sharp edges of legs and arms as the lethal limbs slash and strike through shadows. As Mitchell sings, “And sex sells everything … sex kills,” we see human physicality as beautiful and dangerous; here we are the instruments of our own destruction.

Tension in the contrasts between songs, and sometimes in the jarring contrast between dark lyrics and bright sound and rhythms, affords opportunities for the dancers to embody the opposing human potentials for creation and destruction, tenderness and aggression, artifice and honesty. When a sensuous, gentle, ecstatic duet follows “Sex Kills,” for example, its deliciously unfurling limbs and curving spines counter that grim vision. And in “The Beat of Black Wings,” the ironic marriage of sickly sweet instrumentation with tragic story finds apt physical expression in the juxtaposition of a shiny-skirted, flag-waving chorus line with three young, fearful soldiers intent on the work of war.

The Fiddle and the Drum sometimes wanders into physical interpretations that seem forced, false, or glib – like the little girl who frolics among the grown-ups and offers a peace sign at the end. But with songs like “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Grand-Maître crafts a richly nuanced relationship between the people on stage and the cataclysm we hear approaching in the lyrics and sirens, and that we see in the bombers and skeletal faces of Mitchell’s images.

In this section, a parade of strong, straight legs thrusting out like bayonets seems to confirm the imminent danger, but swinging, leaping, exultant movement bolsters the feeble hope that the lyrics suggest. And moments of exquisite beauty – like the couples rotating in parallel onto an empty stage, women held aloft in a shaft of golden light, turning with the flowing waves of sweet guitar melody – resist the pattern of war with a defiantly peaceful physicality, and remind us of all we stand to lose.

Ticket information for tonight and Saturday’s (Feb. 26-27) performances of The Fiddle and the Drum is available at UCLA live.