by Byron Woods
It’s easy enough to say that Gaspard&Dancers posted the strongest opening bid of any regional dance company in recent years in their Sunday, December 6 company premiere at Reynolds Theater. In a region where dance in general and modern dance in particular has waned over this decade, there’s been precious little competition for such a superlative. Still, if a Durham audience gave their opening work, Anemone, a somewhat subdued response, by evening’s end the crowd was on its feet in support of choreographer and dancer Gaspard Louis and his new modern dance group.
And yet, for a dance critic—and, I strongly suspect, for Mr. Louis himself—such accolades seem, in retrospect, a bit beside the point: If standing ovations in Durham are better than the proverbial sharp stick in the eye, they still don’t always indicate if dance creators have truly achieved their artistic goals.
More after the jump.
A very promising young dancer recently asked me how I critically evaluate a dance group. A good place to start is with the goals the artists publicly set for themselves. In both an earlier interview and a question-and-answer session on stage after Sunday’s concert, Louis made no secret that he wants Gaspard&Dancers to be recognized as professionals; that they should “be able to perform not only in Durham but throughout the country and eventually throughout the globe.”
Presumably, then, he’s a lot more interested in critical commentary evaluating the company’s work in its relationship to the top row of modern dance practitioners than in easy praise which hails his work among the strongest in Durham County, or even the Triangle. As far as it goes, the sobriquet is true. It’s also clearly not his ultimate objective.
That’s why I’m going to give his work a fairly rigorous analysis here. That’s likely to be of most service to a group of dance artists who, I feel, should clearly be encouraged.
At numerous points, Anemone suggested good to very good Pilobolus—that is, after the floor-bound, reverse somersaults quoting Jonathon Wolken’s Pseudopodia were dispatched with after lingering too long at the beginning of the work. (You can see two sections from a rehearsal in the video clip, above.) Under Rich Kless and Paul Kartcheske’s atmospheric—but occasionally murky—sea-floor lighting, Anemone established an undeniable, almost hypnotic groove as the sextet shuffled itself like an animated deck of cards and recombined across the stage to Danny Maheu’s synthesized music. Repeatedly, as bodies slid, shifted and extended in a frictionless space, the ensemble suggested a protean form in constant development and reassembly.
Louis uses various Pilobolean weight-sharing techniques—processes by which dancers bear part or all of other dancers’ weight during unconventional embraces, leans and lifts—in pursuit of a fluid aesthetic that itself is also very much a calling card of his former associates.
But this dynamic was repeatedly interrupted by the rough edges of asynchronous or glitchy execution and what seemed to be a flagging level of energy. Dancers’ individual corrections were noticeable: in a troubled diagonal line the ensemble formed at one point, an awkwardly executed backward propeller lift at another, and a brief, muddied stage picture that never fully gelled before a dancer’s too-timid leap in a third.
Much of Anemone was strong. But more work was clearly needed to make this piece fully ready for public performance.
New York dancers Anjuli Bhattacharyya and Shawn Ahern more successfully embodied Deux, a modern pas de deux and a dance theater treatment of the Garden of Eden myth and its aftermath. In a striking, silhouetted opening tableau, Bhattacharyya mimed the partial devouring of the fateful fruit while perched on the shoulders of Ahern, before her contorted left arm curled slowly down to offer her partner its poisonous provender.
With that doom sealed, Bhattacharyya’s character wiped her hand across her mouth, and slowly oozed down Ahern’s form, into a pensive work about the uneasy symbiosis between the sexes since that dawn of creation.
To Kodō Sai-sō’s understated, yet martial drum score, weight-sharing here became a metaphor for darker manipulations. In different moments, Bhattacharyaa’s character was literally wrapped around Ahern’s torso or his fingers; twirling by the point of her chin, here; curled around his midsection for succor, there. Elsewhere, the inequality was reversed: In one embrace, after he briefly lifted her form, Bhattacharyaa slowly bent Ahern's upper torso back, impassively gazing at him all the way, in a lurid, slo-mo dip that left no doubt about who had the power in that moment in the relationship. In another sequence, she seemed to surf his prone figure on the floor, after casting him off with the flick of a wrist a few moments before. Throughout Deux, each repeatedly played the puppetmaster before being revealed as the puppet instead, in a dark, sensual game of eternal deadlock.
The first act closed with Chrysalis, a 2003 collaboration with choreographer Donna Scro of New Jersey’s Freespace Dance company. At the start of this theatrical meditation on birth and transformation two large lengths of elastic white fabric were stretched between two male dancers standing at left, and two others at right. Fans of the 1960s TV serial, The Prisoner, or the more recent Nightmare on Elm Street could anticipate the eerie effect these two screens ultimately had, as recumbent dancers Amanda Beaty and Erika Bhirchanna slowly extended their hands, arms, faces, and the sides of their torsos against the form-fitting fabric from behind, making them spookily visible for a moment before subsiding again into blankness.
Eventually, the women were borne—and then rolled out—from their elastic pods, but not before a quartet for men was significantly marred by awkward, asymmetrical execution, including rough reverse assisted standing somersaults and pairings in which two younger company members crawled awkwardly over one another.
The point is this: once an aesthetic of smooth, legato movement is firmly established in the physical vocabulary of this and other company works, any sudden sign of physical stress, roughness or awkwardness, asymmetry or asynchrony punctures the work, and reads as a mistake. Such moments were repeatedly visible in Anemone, Chrysalis and the evening closer, InnerCurrent.
This was disappointing since the winged constructions the dancers ultimately gave the transformed women, as gratifyingly kinetic butterflies, were particularly striking in this work—although at the end it seemed the ensemble was rushing to cram one more visual transformation in before the curtain.
The atmospheric solo, Kenbe Pa Lage (Hold On, Don’t Let Go) painted a story of estrangement and loss on Anjanée Bell at the beginning of the second act. Under Kless and Kartcheske’s dappled, smoky lights, Bell roamed the stage, her character’s movements divided between a search for the lost beloved and depictions of the effects of that loss. In the most moving of these embodiments, Bell’s character seemed to mime drawing water from the ground to moisten and wash her cheek and forehead, before lifting the hand away and behind her body, her head lifted to the sky.
I note that the comparatively modest economy of physical expression was effective in telling this tale—until, that is, a sense of plateau descended in mid-work.
Sequences in Kenbe Pa Lage went on too long without adding much information or reinforcement to the character’s plight. By mid-work we sensed, correctly, that we knew the story: the beloved would never appear, and the character would continue to search and mourn, which she did, with little appreciable change in the emotional dynamic. With no surprise, innovation or build in plot, character or movement vocabulary, we eventually lost interest. In particular, we sensed no need for the awkward musical addendum, that sounded as if it were tacked on at the end, when a markedly different guitar piece broke from earlier music by Sigur Ros, while the rest of the staging dynamics remained unchanged.
The company premiere closed with the collection’s earliest composition, InnerCurrent, a 2002 collaboration with Donna Scro. The fast, but stunted movements in the opening prompted a “Pilobolus for beginners” remark in my notes, before a weight-sharing trio for men was repeatedly marred by grimaces, hasty corrections and other indications of the clear stress they underwent as they attempted to lift and share each others’ weight.
I take no joy from this observation. What the men were attempting to do was quite difficult, and deserving of respect. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that the passage was still too rough for performance the night we saw it. Unfortunately, if Louis wishes this work to appear on the national stage, work remains to be done on it.
I can, however, celebrate the truly touching pas de deux between Louis and Jessica Pike toward the end of the piece. Almost like a demiurge, Pike’s character lingered tenderly behind Louis bent form at one point, her arms beneath his arms urging them to lift again, her leg behind his, prompting one more step: a very warm, and most convincing moment between two dancers, before a joyous, kinetic final ensemble section which led to a sudden, thrilling end.
What, then, is the takeaway from all of this?
Gaspard Louis is still in the process of developing an artistic identity distinct from his former colleagues in Pilobolus Dance Theater, with whom he worked for nearly ten years. At its best, his most recent compositions suggest some of Pilobolus’ strongest work. At less than best, the repeated struggles we witnessed in various weight-sharing exercises indicated a group not yet fully trained and seasoned in the techniques Louis leans heavily upon.
This is unsurprising, given the relatively thin rehearsal schedule Louis has pursued with the company to date. Subsisting only on a regimen of weekend rehearsals—culminating with a Wednesday evening run through and a three-day Friday-to-Sunday blitz during show week—the real wonder here is that the group got as far as it did with such technically forbidding material.
Does that regimen produce professional-level performance? The clear answer is no—or, at least, not entirely. If this group had held daily rehearsals during show week, would the material have been stronger in their premiere? The likely answer is yes. By how much? That, unfortunately, remains anyone’s guess.
But something tells me that these are ultimately the wrong questions to be asking. Clearly, Louis has a talented group of dancers. Just as clearly, they need more rehearsal and development, on a regular basis—and, in all likelihood, fewer of the marathon sessions that seem to have taken a toll on their energy at points in Sunday night’s premiere. Leaving too many details until show week is a prescription for exhaustion—as likely an explanation as any for at least some of the difficulties this brave crew faced.
Is the company’s work worth it? The answer is yes. But if the world is ever to see what Gaspard Louis truly has in mind, changes are needed.
Frequently in theater and dance, an artist’s blind spot magnifies the moment they step into a work. Given the difficulties present in the pieces Louis performed, the choreographer should examine his future on-stage roles very carefully. It’s unclear if someone had ever adequately stepped in to be his offstage eyes when he was on stage in two works Sunday night.
Enough critique – at least for now. The warm response the group got from their audience indicates they’re going in the right direction. Now, here’s hoping that they take the necessary steps they need to actually get there.