Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ballet BC's Program 1 at the Queen E

Because Richard and I were attending the world premiere of Marie Clements' and Brian Current's new opera, Missing, last night, we had to trade our usual Friday night Ballet BC tickets for replacement seats on Saturday. It was the final performance of the season-opening Program 1 for the company, and for it Artistic Director Emily Molnar featured the return of two familiar Ballet BC choreographers: resident choreographer Cayetano Soto; and Johan Inger, whose Walking Mad (the piece with the big wall), was a crowd-pleaser back in 2012. In style and tone the works could not have been more different. Nor my reaction to them.

Soto's Eight Years of Silence was first on the program. A dark and moody piece set to a mournfully elegiac musical composition by Peter Gregson, it opens with Brandon Alley (I think) standing alone and centre stage. He (and the rest of the company, as we shall soon discover) wears a shiny, leather-like leotard that hugs his body, almost like an exoskeleton one would see on a lizard or a turtle. From this position of stillness he moves suddenly into a sharp and contained solo, kicking out one leg and then raising it into the air while windmilling his arms around his head and about his torso. Midway through this another male dancer appears upstage and falls effortlessly into unison with the movements being performed by Alley, who eventually cuts short his dancing and walks off stage. This pattern of a new dancer falling into step with and then almost erasing away the movement of a previous one continues with the entrance of the first female dancer, and for a time I was quite taken with the conceit.

But, as with everything in this ponderous and bloated work, it goes on far too long. Soto has structured the piece episodically as variations on a theme, which means there is a lot of starting and stopping, with dancers--at first individually and then in duos and trios--spending a lot of time walking on and off stage in a kind of slouchy zombie mode before they hit their marks and launch into a new movement pattern (for all of their extraordinary talents as virtuosic movers, Ballet BC dancers are among the worst walkers I have ever seen). Occasionally Soto mixes things up by throwing in a blackout and surprising us with the apparition of an unexpected group formation, and as the piece progressed the partnering became more complicated and visually interesting. However, dramaturgically there is frankly no accounting for the decision to bring down the curtain half way through the piece; first of all, if you are going to do so while two of your dancers are still moving in unison, and thus focalizing our attention on their lower limbs and feet, then you had better ensure that they are in sync (last night they were not). Then there is the fact that, per force, most in the audience will assume that the piece is over. Unfortunately, it was not. Nor was there a radical shift in scenographic design or kinetic composition when it came up again: just the same wash of chiaroscuro lighting and the same washed out movement. Consequently, I was even more bored during the second half than the first.

By contrast, I was fully engaged from the get go by Inger's B.R.I.S.A. First created for Nederlands Dans Theater's Company 2, the piece has two things going for it from the very outset: a musical score set to the songs of the great Nina Simone; and an arresting design feature in the form of a shaggy brown carpet that covers the stage. Indeed, these two design elements combined to suggest to me a cross between Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs and Pina Bausch's famous Rite of Spring, with its dirt-strewn stage floor. The latter reference may not be so far off; for, whereas Bausch's work culminates in a sacrificial death, Inger's B.R.I.S.A. opens with a symbolic image of rebirth. As the curtain rises and the lights come up, we see two or three dancers shuffling their feet back and forth along the carpet, motoring from side to side like blown up ants in the sand revealed through the lens of a telescope. But we also notice that there is a large bump in the carpet in the middle of its upstage lip, and sure enough one of the dancers soon drags the body of another out from underneath it. This act of rescue seems to send a new current of libidinal energy throughout the ensemble, and one of the pleasures of the piece is to watch the dancers successively release their hips and sway their pelvises to the contagious rhythms of Simone's songs, often falling into simple but infectiously joyous bits of group unison.

However, just as the heat on and off stage starts to ignite, Inger decides to cool things down, with one of the female dancers moving downstage right to catch the cooling breezes of an offstage fan. Curious, the other dancers soon join her. But then the fan suddenly cuts out, which leads to some conceptual hilarity as the various members of the ensemble compete for the use of a red hand fan that Peter Smida somehow magically produces from about his person. From there, things ramp up as first rival hair driers and then leaf blowers are retrieved from offstage. All of this might have devolved into mere shtick had the accompanying movement not also been so effective, the various wind producing devices, when directed at different nether regions of the body especially, helping to initiate some surprising currents of movement--as when, for example, Smida and Christoph von Riedemann, lying on their backs on the carpet, lift their pelvises and begin a lively routine of Cossack-style air kicks. Eventually the carpet gets rolled up, and with it one of the female dancers.

But this is not her, nor our, ending. There is a final danced coda that, fittingly, concludes by shooting the breezes on stage out into the audience. And on the warmth of this particular zephyr Richard and I exited contentedly into the cool night.


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