Thursday, February 24, 2011

KCDC at Chutzpah!

Every year The Chutzpah! Festival, Vancouver's annual showcase of Jewish Performing Arts, programs a very strong dance series. Last year, for example, Azure Barton, the Canadian phenom who's taken New York and Broadway by storm, came to the Norman Rothstein Theatre with her company and wowed the crowd. This year, the international headliners are the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, overseen since 1996 by Artistic Director Rami Be'er, and on a par with Ohad Naharin's Batsheva Dance Company in terms of both national and international reputation.

Be'er refers to himself as a "total creator," responsible, in his mostly evening-length pieces, not just for the choreography, but also the design, the lighting, and the choice of music. If in Ekodoom, the piece KCDC brought to this year's Chutzpah! Festival, those elements didn't necessarily cohere into an intelligible whole, they nevertheless offered time and again expressive artistry of a technical sophistication and an emotional depth that was breathtaking. As with Batsheva's recent DanceHouse appearance at the playhouse, KCDC gave audience members something to look at even before the house lights went down: a female dancer, naked to the waist and with her skin covered in dark, muddy make-up, straining against the confines of a tiny square box--from which there appears to grow some sort of fruit tree. It was an arresting visual image, and one that went on for quite some time as the sold-out crowd slowly settled into their seats.

What followed after the house lights went down was a series of physically intense and imaginatively powerful scenes, often featuring the full company of 15 dancers, and each exploring not just the roots of violence and conflict, but also possible routes toward reconciliation and healing. Most striking in this regard were two mass movement motifs that grab our attention at the start of the piece: one featured four columns of upstage dancers moving in aggressive unison downstage and striking poses of supplication and apparent torture/distress, punctuated every now and then by individual bursts of violent, thrashing movement; the other took the form of an assembly line of the entire company moving jerkily and mechanistically to pulsating electropop, like army inductees going off to war, or prisoners to an internment camp. These two movement sequences recur at the end of the work. However, rather than the assembly line marching the dancers off the stage, and leaving us bleakly pondering their fate, at a certain point (and the piece did feel like it had more than one ending) the line itself starts to fragment. As the music soundtrack proclaims "Everybody gets a little lost sometimes," the dancers one by one break free and slowly drift apart physically--but expressly in order to come together emotionally and socially. Some of them kneel on the floor, others remain upright, and one stands on her head. All but the last begin, one by one, floating their hands up across their torsos and in front of their faces, a gesture at once of purification and of prayer--and one that repeats, most assuredly, what must never be lost in our global wandering and return.

The entire piece, to which I cannot do justice in this brief review, was a mash-up of styles (contemporary/jazz, ballet, Israeli folk dance), and frequently of tone. I don't think everything worked seamlessly, but there's no denying that all the KCDC dancers are phenomenally strong. For the first 15 minutes or so, I was struggling to get a grip on the piece generally, and the choreography specifically. But by the time of the second pas de deux, in which the male dancer (the one with the tattoo on his upper thigh) blew my mind with his technical proficiency and physical intensity, I was totally hooked.

Kudos to everyone at Chutzpah! for adding once again to the vibrancy of Vancouver's contemporary dance scene. I look forward to next year's offerings. In the meantime, it's on to the Vancouver International Dance Festival next week.


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