The tenth edition of Dance in Vancouver ended yesterday with a late afternoon presentation of Marta Marta Productions' Speaking in Ligeti, a collaboration between MMP choreographer and AD Martha Carter and the Microcosmos Quartet, and set to the 1956 String Quartet #1 by post-classical Hungarian composer György Ligeti. As Carter noted in the talkback following the performance (which I was privileged to lead), she had wanted to find a way to collaborate with Microcosmos' musicians (Marc Destrubé and Andrea Siradze on violin, Becky Wenham on cello, and Tawnya Popoff on viola) in a way that reproduced the intimacy of the salon-style concerts for which they are famous, but that also made both the dancers (which include Delphine Leroux, Nicholas Lydiate, Thoenn Glover, and Tyler Olson) and the musicians equal kinetic participants in the performance.
Her solution is to take some of the improvisational energy of the rehearsal studio and frontload that onto the finished piece. With the house lights still up and only a stack of eight chairs and a ticking metronome on the otherwise bare stage, the dancers and the musicians enter together from the rear and begin warming up, casually conversing with each other as the dancers stretch and the musicians tune their instruments, all while a pre-recorded score of talking and music plays in the background. Eventually members of the two quartets start responding more directly to one another, with Lydiate moving to Wenham's cello, for example, in a version of popping and locking, and Destrubé leading (or is it being chased by?) both his fellow musicians and the occasional dancer around the stage at a steadily increasing pace, all the while playing his violin like some crazed pied piper.
At a certain point, the musicians sit down and Destrubé explains to the audience the basics of Ligeti's music, noting in particular that for all the Bartok-inspired disdain his first string quartet caused the communist authorities in Hungary, its use of the chromatic scale and its approach to harmony and tempo are actually deceptively simple. Still, in her own artistic response to that music, Carter keeps deferring the actual playing of the quartet; instead, as she again noted in the talkback, the musicians play snippets of Ligeti's post-1956 oeuvre while the dancers respond--at times collaboratively, at times more combatively, and with both chairs and metronomes (a second one having appeared earlier) becoming integral to the twinned musical and movement scores.
All of this allows Carter to prime her audience in reverse for both the sound and movement themes we eventually witness once the full string quartet is played. This happens with the musicians seated centre stage, the dancers then colouring in the conjured acoustic space with their bodies over the course of the piece's seventeen contrasting sections, which range in tone and tempo from the jovially energetic to the slowly mournful. Indeed, the final lento section sees the four dancers moving towards a thin band of light at the downstage lip of the stage, each removing one sock as their movements become ever smaller and more contained; the musicians eventually join them, inserting their own bodies--and the bodies of their instruments--between the dancers in a closing tableau that aptly sums up the compositional aesthetic of call and response that is at the heart of this unique collaboration.