Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Emerging Choreographers Present Promising New Dance

This past Saturday evening, audience members crowded inside Diavolo Dance Theatre’s steamy performance space, a cavernous warehouse-turned-blackbox-turned-oven, to view new and revisited dance works by Alyson Boell and Deborah Rosen. Produced by Boell as her first solo venture outside of The GreatFruit Collective, the show hung together well – composed of complementary and thematically consistent works and punctuated thoughtfully with a palette-cleansing soundtrack between pieces. The performance was long, and started late, but careful consideration of these elements (and some delectable refreshments) helped keep our attention off our sweaty backs and brows and on the dancing.

Rosen’s Giunone – Italian for “Juno”– opened the show, and Giunone herself begins with ethereal vocals grounded in a strong physical presence and finely textured breathing. Laine Proctor’s steady calm in this role communicates Juno’s subtle power as the goddess of love and marriage and protectress of women. Inside the safe assurance of her strong and constant influence, a chorus of women lilt, twirl, and commune with one another. Their dance could lie hidden inside Botticelli’s Primavera, just barely obscured by new spring growth and echoing the gentle, circular embrace of The Three Graces. However, the light, careful, gentile quality and unison that prevail throughout the work need more contrast to remain clear over time; moments when individual women emerge as unique voices with hard edges or labored efforts compel with their complexity.

In Rosen’s premier, S.O.S. / Sleeping on Snow, Proctor’s role shifts somewhat to that of bard narrating in a dreamscape populated by a ragtag band of night travelers, evocative paintings on rice paper by Jessamyn Lynn Pattison, and glowing red paper globes. S.O.S. captures something of the mystery, ephemerality and changeability of dreams as dancers meet, hoist one another up overhead, roll down another’s body, fall into unison, and part again. As in Giunone, constant dynamics and pervasive unison grow dull over time, but dancers come alive and commit to movement fully and memorably in solo – particularly toward the end when the dream takes a darker turn. There are some lovely moments of interaction between bard and dreamers, as when Proctor leads a blindfolded sleeper through the space, and in future iterations I hope Rosen delves further into the possibilities of physical and aural relationship between vocalist and dancers.

Based on Alyson Boell’s title – Say the Body Is Like This Lamp – I expected matter-of-fact exploration of our physicality, pedestrian carriage, and task-like energy. But a publicity statement that identifies Carl Jung’s psychoanalytical theories as inspiration for this dance offers explanation for the dark struggle danced to grating strings that followed intermission. Although a bit blindsided by the gravity of this piece, I generally admire work that deals with big, serious subjects. Few choreographers dare to handle weighty issues with the earnestness and honesty they require and without the protective distance of irony.

While on the subject of my own dance preferences, I also hold that such human struggle is best communicated through actual struggle against physical limits. In Lamp, several intensely physical duets and solos work powerfully to convey the exertion of confronting our inner shadows; early on, unpredictable momentums and free-flying limbs propel Wen-Chu Yang and Christopher Anderson through one such duet. Later, a concentrated section of unison effectively toes the line between physical support and abuse, as dancers catch and hurl their partners by the head. Elsewhere in the piece, however, the movement is often too careful or harmonious or performed with too much ease to communicate this kind of psychological turmoil. With editing and development, the potent elements and wonderful oddities of Boell’s piece could together compose something powerfully jarring and strangely compelling. The numerous balls of yarn, for example, often placed and draped inexplicably, intrigue when dancers light candles and wind the stuff around each other’s limbs, trunk, hands with disturbing and perhaps deranged indifference.

Altogether, the night gives promise of much to come from these two choreographers. I’ll look forward to it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dealing with Death Together

In their newest work, Crossing the Bridge, Leonix Movement Theatre Ensemble gives us the opportunity to reflect on the forms, ceremonies, feelings and desires of death in a way that we can’t when it strikes in the context of our own lives. Without the usual guilt and regret, and with resignation to the sad end that will come for our wonderful narrator, David, we calmly observe those experiences that we’ve stumbled through before, bleary-eyed, when death claimed a loved one: the tragedy of attempts to make every moment with the dying quality time; the terrifying and exhausting experience of waiting for breathing to stop; the bizarre instantaneousness of the switch from life to death; the blessedly onerous, distracting, and concrete task of arranging a funeral. I was lucky enough to see the final L.A. performance of Crossing on Friday, August 14 at the Electric Lodge in Venice.

The gifted Leonix ensemble tells the story of David’s journey to death through smart, down-to-earth dialogue and ever-changing physical relationships. Our understanding of David’s final destination colors our first glimpse of his healthy life, a dance of dinner preparation with his lover, with special poignancy. Cooking in parallel with David’s sister Kate and her boyfriend, the two men wind around each other to open drawers, wash hands, chop vegetables, and steal tastes with tenderness and pleasure – limbs intertwining effortlessly to coordinate tasks symbiotically. Here we view life with an awareness of death, seeing and loving the beauty in every mundane gesture. The two couples return to their dinner dance after David’s AIDS diagnosis, and we feel the change. Now halting hesitations, distracted gazes, and overly energetic compensations disrupt the process, and dinner is left unfinished.

More abstract, sometimes dream-like sequences dominated by inventive and expressive movement convey the disbelief, incomprehension, and horror surrounding death. Invasiveness and indignity push David’s initial hospital visit from ridiculous toward frighteningly carnivalesque as he is manhandled mercilessly by human x-ray and MRI machines. Later on, the unreality and injustice of a fatal prognosis appear as a death sentence handed down to David in People’s Court – a hilarious TV courtroom complete with sniveling stenographer, bombastic and salacious judge, and fantastically inappropriate back-up dancers.

Evidence of strong direction by Erin Schlabach and Jones Welsh, Crossing demonstrates elegant economy throughout, but particularly in its transitions – more miraculous transformations than segues. Especially exquisite are the actions of the chorus as they care for David in his last days, as one merciful organism: breezing through to tuck him into bed, forming and softening their bodies into a chair to accommodate his languid form.

David and Kate's utterly human relationship, fleshed out beautifully both in words and movement, grounds the work through all of its imaginations and exaggerations. The realness of their interactions in particular, and the wholly earnest, sometimes awkward nature of the ensemble’s movement in general, say, “We’re not experts at this business of living and dying. We’re just doing it. We look and feel silly and frustrated and uncomfortable sometimes.” And I think this quality is a large part of what drew us to our feet when the lights came up.

In post-performance discussion, the appreciative, articulate audience offered plenty of insightful suggestions for change, especially to the end of the work. I suspect this great variety of conflicting opinions reflects not simply our diverse aesthetic preferences, but our very individual modes of dealing with death – with space and silence, with activity, with verbal reflection, with physical expression. This proliferation of ideas and desires for a revised Crossing surely indicates our need for the work, our desire for this dialogue, and some understanding that engaging with death brings life into truer focus.

Crossing the Bridge continues with performances tonight in Seattle, and August 21-30 at the Indianapolis Fringe Festival. For all of you Los Angelenos who are sad you missed it, please check out the Leonix website http://www.makingfacesproductions.org/leonix/ and blog http://www.leonixtheatre.blogspot.com/. Be sure to catch them the next time around.

Other responses to Crossing the Bridge: