Sunday, September 29, 2013

All Over Underland

Deadlines everywhere, demanding my attention, so just a short note on the opening of DanceHouse's new season at the Vancouver Playhouse this weekend.

In his artist talk prior to last night's performance of Underland, Stephen Petronio talked about the formative influence of Trisha Brown, with whom he danced in the early eighties. Among other things, he said, Brown provided him with a model for successful artistic collaboration across disciplines. And while, as Petronio went on to note, his "full table" approach to choreography and scenography is very different from Brown's minimalist aesthetic, seeking out talented musical and design collaborators has been a trademark of Petronio's work since he established his own company in 1984.

Underland, for example, is set to the music of Nick Cave, and features costumes by Tara Subkoff, of Imitation of Christ fame, and video projections by Mike Daly. The cumulative effect is a Gesamkuntzwerk for our paranoid, post-9/11 age, bleak in tone, possessed of a raw, almost furious, energy that threatens to spill over into violence (to the self and to others), but also filled with small, achingly beautiful, moments of grace that are shattering in their combining of abjection with a kind of exaltation. Underland, as Petronio has conceived it, is a "place," materially submerged and mentally subconscious, signaled by the choreographer's own opening descent via a ladder into the stage space in the work's prologue, marking his progress with a pen (or is it a knife?) on the surface of his arm. What then follows plays out like a scratching at the wound that may have festered as a result, each subsequent sequence adding a tear or rent to the thin membrane that separates one world from another--something echoed in the deconstructed costumes by Subkoff.

But it is Petronio's whirling, complexly off-kilter, and gravity-defying choreography that is the driving engine of this piece. His dancers (all superb) throw themselves with such force into a signature horizontal arm extension, head toss and torso twist--and they travel with such speed across the stage while doing so--that one marvels at how fluidly they right themselves, bending into a deep plié or rising vertically on their toes before launching into the next impossible "tilt-a-whirl" sequence (coincidentally Cave's song "The Carny" yields some of the most jaw-dropping movement in this respect). Indeed, one of the rich pleasures of Underland is how seamlessly Petronio combines the classical and the contemporary in his choreography, with the partnering between Barrington Hinds and Natalie Mackessy to Cave's "Stagger Lee" a notable stand-out for its sheer physicality and the almost hostile toughness with which Mackessy throws herself into Hinds' lifts.

However, the work is not without tenderness, as when the quartet of Davalois Fearon (riveting throughout), Gino Grenek, Jaqlin Medlock, and Joshua Tuason enact a moving tableau vivant to "The Ship Song." The choreography here is more controlled and contained; it is about seeking out and maintaining our sense of connection--our touch--with another. The four dancers, even when momentarily separated, are in constant search of the hand, the limb, the lips, the bit of skin that marks not the boundary but the bridge between bodies.

It's another way of looking at the ladder Petronio descends at the top of the show (and, indeed, in Daly's video during this sequence we see the choreographer's on-screen avatar navigating a rope bridge). And it's definitely what was created with the audience at the end, a collective exhale and explosion of applause greeting this brilliant reach across different realms of artistic and sensory experience.


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