Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Brothers Rocco: Boxing and/as Dancing

DanceHouse ended its 2013-14 season last night at the Playhouse with the final performance of Rocco, choreographed by Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten of ICKamsterdam. The work is loosely inspired by the Luchino Visconti film Rocco e i suoi Fratelli, in which the recently demobilized title character (Alain Delon) and his boxer brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), having moved to Milan from the south with the rest of their family in search of a better life, come to blows over their mutual love for the beautiful prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot). Not that you need to know any of this to appreciate Rocco as a work of dance-theatre.

That's because Greco and Scholten use the metaphor and the movement vocabulary of boxing to explore not just the themes of comradeship and competition between brothers, but also the physical parallels between the pugilistic and the virtuosic dancing body. In both cases, it would seem, one must always be on one's toes.

This was certainly the case with our four performers last night (Dereck Cayla, Quentin Dehaye, Christian Guerematchi, and Arnaud Macquet). As the audience files into the theatre, two of them are already in their respective corners (red and blue) of the boxing ring that dominates the stage, legs splayed wide on their chairs as they smoke herbal cigarettes and attempt to stare down their opponent. Additional on-stage seating allowed select members of the audience a more intimate view of the proceedings, which begin with a countdown and then the sound of a bell. However, the men in the ring don't immediately move. Instead, two additional dancers, clad all in black and sporting boxing gloves and giant mouse masks descend from the two house aisles, punching the air and skipping their feet and occasionally pausing to spar with a spectator or two. Eventually these two "shadow boxers" climb into the ring, meet in the centre and promptly collapse onto the mat without even throwing a single punch.

Another bell rings and round two begins. This is the cue for the dancers in the red and blue corners to now engage each other. It is in this sequence, which unfolds in a slowly widening circle under a single spotlight that gradually expands its visual reach, that Greco and Scholten anatomize (quite literally) the kinesthetic links between dancing and boxing. What surprised me, however, was not the expected focus on fast footwork and virtuosic timing; rather, it was when the choreography was slowed down and the dancers, often with their backs to each other, carefully and precisely extended a leg and let it pulse on the floor, that I was able to see dancing's and boxing's shared bodily language of preparation, extension, and release.

Our shadow boxers come back in round three, in which the stakes are raised choreographically and conceptually. Gradually shedding their masks, their gloves, and their outer black costumes, the dancers enjoin each other in ever more complex unison movement and ever tighter clinches. I confess that after the surprising lack of direct bodily contact in round two between the dancers in the red and blue corners (remedied somewhat by the witty gender play that accompanies a later lipsynched musical duet), I was waiting for some explicit partnering to take place. We get that in abundance in this final section of the piece, and as the dancers whipped each other around with lightning speed, the sweat flying off their glistening torsos, I was reminded of two things: first, that boxing, among the most "macho" of sports, requires of its participants a bodily intimacy that necessarily approaches the eroticism of dance; and second, that at the end of a boxing match and at the end of a dance piece, all the physical training and mental preparation essentially boil down to one thing: endurance.

This last point applies, as well, to the audience. At the end of Rocco I was both exhausted and elated.


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