Gaspard Louis unveils new work and old in two shows at Duke's Reynolds Theater | Arts

Gaspard Louis unveils new work and old in two shows at Duke's Reynolds Theater


Gaspard Louis and dancer identified as "Kate" - ROBIN GALLANT
  • Robin Gallant
  • Gaspard Louis and dancer identified as "Kate"
Reynolds Industries Theater
Oct. 18–19

A shaft of light breaks through darkness and smoke, illuminating a heap of bodies. Still for a moment, soon they shift and roll over each other, roiling like the vanishing smoke. They help each other up, weighted bodies rising smoothly as if on a film wound in reverse, and they start to dance. Muscular whirlwinds, they whip through space in swooping turns and athletic sprints, leaping only to fall, falling only to spring again. They touch and lift each other almost by instinct, colliding in quick ecstatic bursts, propelling each other up and then apart. Each fleeting contact warms the air: we in the audience breathe in this possibility of heroic and heartfelt human action.

This is Souke, Gaspard Louis’s 2012 reaction to the 2010 earthquake in his native Haiti. This dance works in a mood and mode that resonate now: in a world where old orders have tumbled, a humble, local, loving collaboration seems to offer our best hope. We’d like to see ourselves as we do these dancers, rising to the occasion, bold in meeting, fearless in loving. It’s easy to sink into this vision of humanity.

But if you pay closer attention to this dance, you may begin to see that the particular invocation of disaster and recovery, of events in Haiti, comes largely from the program notes, the thunderous music (by Randall Love and Paul Leary), the sculptural lighting (by John Kolba and Jennifer Wood), and a few moment of dance acting—Souke’s opening, for example, or its symmetrical ending. Otherwise, the dance proper remains almost constant throughout this piece and across the three other works by Louis in this evening-length concert. Whether the subject is disaster, love, the afterlife, or an abstraction, Louis sets groups of dancers swirling over the stage at a fairly constant speed, with few pauses. The same steps occur over and over: lifts that show off the straight ballet-trained legs of his female dancers; side-lifts, with one dancer teetering over the shoulder of another; tight knots of cause and effect in which one dancer goes up, another falls over, the third flings out, and so on.

Underlying all this motion is a devotion to flow: everyone bounds and rebounds, carrying the momentum from a leap into a fall into a floor spin that leads them back up again, without stalling. This is heart-catching when it works, but it’s fraught with problems. If one dancer is ahead of another going into a lift, the earlier dancer must stutter to keep moving, instead of simply stopping and waiting. Fake cause and effect abounds. The dancers must manufacture momentum whenever they run out, which happens all the time, because they’re people, not physical principles.

Altogether, the ideal of flow strikes me as less humanistic than mechanistic; the perfect exemplar of flow is not a person, but a perpetual motion machine. This is the ideal haunting the premiere Rubix: in this abstract dance, every time one dancer had to wait for the other two to form some complex design, I couldn’t help but think that a row of metal balls would do it better.
  • Robin Gallant
  • Souke

Pause for a moment, though: Louis includes, in this concert, Tally Beatty’s 1947 Mourner’s Bench, performed by Gregory B. Hinton. Mourner’s Bench is a modern work, clearly Graham-influenced, that makes do with a very small movement vocabulary—a few arches and reaches, and a shaking hand—to express a desire so great, a need so strong that the body cannot contain it. Hinton, in his 60s, gives a stirring performance that is much less about assembling steps or virtuoso technique than it is about revealing human vulnerability and reveling in human desire, even when that desire might destroy us. To put it another way: he and Beatty don’t mind a ragged edge.

Louis has dancers and choreographic spells that open towards that same vulnerability. I couldn’t stop watching Maurice Dowell: he’s loose lightning, yes, but he can also regroup right on stage. I loved watching him let a swell of motion die down before he unleashed the next. In Magical Cusp, from 2010, Louis and Kristin Taylor put their moves to work imagining a paired struggle—of man and woman, or dream and life, or yin and yang. When he swings her up and her pointed foot spears the air above their heads, the aesthetic is more than pretty; it’s a weapon or an instrument for knowing more and going farther.

Speaking of going farther, the hubbub in the audience and the comments I heard beforehand suggested that, in its fourth year as a company, Gaspard and Dancers is still evolving. On this showing, the next installment will be interesting to see.  

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