The Turtle Island String Quartet is on the house sound system, flirting with dissonance before the tension slingshots the musicians through their four-part polyphonic puzzle.
Meanwhile, on stage in Warner Auditorium at Durham School of the Arts, dancers Jennifer Pike and Robert Thurston-Lighty are partnering—a modern dance term used to describe a situation where one dancer is bearing part or all of the other dancer's weight. As Thurston-Lighty lifts the lithe young dancer into the air, no strain can be read on his face or his half-nude form as Pike's character beams in serenity and triumph, her left arm curled in almost a bodybuilder's semicircle of strength, her right hand reaching upward, seemingly to pull down the sky.
It's a difficult enough maneuver to execute with this much grace at the start of a dance practice session. But we're now into hour five of a marathon rehearsal as emerging choreographer Gaspard Louis and his dancers work to prepare for their professional company debut, this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in Duke University's Reynolds Industries Theater.
The core ensemble of eight dancers includes Louis, who is replacing a dancer who left the group earlier in the year. With their various commitments—including college courses for an East Carolina University undergraduate who drives 100 miles to each session—the group has been rehearsing once or twice a week for the past half year. The Thanksgiving week off has taken a predictable toll: Louis' choreography is interesting, but the stitches are showing in a number of places as the group strives to sharpen its edge.
And yet an unlikely harmony permeates this room as five hours segue into six; it's clear these people are very happy to be here. In its way, that is as unlikely as what takes place after the dancers enact each work. The choreographer doesn't immediately descend on the scene with scores of notes and corrections about the rehearsal performance. Instead, the dancers on stage close in and minutely analyze what they just did. The insights crackle back and forth across this circle as the performers give each other high-speed feedback, critique, support and suggestions on how to adjust and solve the difficulties they've just encountered. If, as Thurston-Lighty suggests when we talk, the group feels like "one organism on stage," here they're at their most synaptic. To an outsider, it's the secrets of the beehive. Only when the group has finished its extensive self-analysis does Louis begin his remarks.
When beginning a piece, the group later notes, Louis hints, suggests and insinuates more than giving direct orders, often utilizing indirection more than direction.
If it seems an improbable way to begin a professional dance company, it's no less improbable than attempting it now, at this uncertain point in the economic life of the country. Experience shows that funding a dance company isn't the easiest proposition in the best of times.
But Gaspard Louis has an interesting sense of timing. After dancing and co-creating dances with Pilobolus for 10 years, he went into banking, earned good money—and got out just in time to avoid the collapse of 2008. And other factors qualify as potential secret weapons. He has confidence in his work, an assurance that seems well-founded despite the roughness in the afternoon rehearsal. And Louis not only has talented dancers. At this point he clearly has an ensemble that has bonded into an enviably positive, productive—and quickly learning—organism. "For a brand new company, I'm thinking that might be rare," notes dancer Erika Bhirchanna.
Dancer Anjanée Bell, who heads the Bellan Contemporary Dance Theatre, observes, "When starting a company, one of the struggles is finding artists who can meet you intellectually and artistically. You need people who 'get it' so you don't have to talk it to death."
Louis knows that these are not the best of times to start a new company. "But when the passion is there, you just can't fight it," he notes as we talk at the end of a long afternoon. "You go." He estimates he's put $10,000 of his own money into this self-produced premiere. "If you don't try it, you never know," he observes in a Creole-inflected voice. "So I'll give it my all. We'll take one day at a time and see what happens."
It shouldn't be surprising that strong choreography is coming out of a one-time Pilobolus dancer. Its artistic directors routinely collaborate with company performers. By being given various creative problems to solve, the dancers wind up generating a significant amount of the material we see on stage, a fact that has been reflected in the credits for every Pilobolus piece created in recent years.
But Bhirchanna finds that Louis has progressed beyond those roots. "What Gaspard does is not straight Pilobolus technique," she says. "The lyrical dancing he brings into the flow of partnering makes the work graceful—truly moving."
For dancer Sarah Adams, who heads the dance program at Durham School of the Arts, what she terms the playful physicality of Louis' work "has a life behind it. It's challenging. It's also what you wanted to do as a kid: swinging through the air, flying."
Choreographers refusing to specify what a work's about is certainly nothing new. But what Louis calls "structured indirection" has a specific effect, according to Thurston-Lighty. "It gives us the opportunity to find connections ... to sense, explore and learn from one another's bodies. We find the movement in each other. To make it successful involves listening to that connection, so to speak."
Louis interjects, "It forces you to get to know each other, to find ways to interact. It's like speaking to somebody else. We're speaking with each other—but we're having the conversation with our bodies. I've found that to be much more useful."