Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pilobolus Dance Theatre

Pilobolus Dance Theater defies categorization. Known for their physical feats and visual treats, they've created their own brand of modern dance. The company, now in its 39th year, visited Madison, Wisconsin last night and in the vast Overture Hall, they presented an athletic, inventive, diverse and sometimes thought-provoking concert of six works.

Upon occasion, Pilobolus dances carry a message. But most often they provide high entertainment value. Their stylistic assortment started off with the rough-and-tumble Redline, made in 2009 in the Pilobolus traditional collaborative spirit---by numerous choreographers. Starting in a stiff straight line, then slowly swinging their heads, then arms, then legs, six dancers progressed downstage. Random hunched over walking patterns evolved into an explosion of hurtling bodies. Dancers sporting red and black wrestling shorts and boxing boots ran at each other at top speed and launched themselves over backwards, airborne, in between athletic break dance riffs.

Hitched (2009), depicted the story of a newly married couple friskily chasing after each other at first, then with linked arms in an undoable knot, exploring every possible way of separating themselves from each other. Crawling in, around and through each others arms in unfeasible contortions, the tiny Eriko Jimbo and lanky Christopher Whitney worked hard to escape their bond and finally did briefly break the link. In this moment of separation, years seemed to pass. The couple slowly and delicately returned to an embrace, and each wrapping one leg around the other, they exited together, alternating their hobbling steps, sharing each others weight.

In Dog-ID, also a newly minted work, a cartoonish shadow puppet display created an Alice-in-Wonderland feel. Dancers Nile Russell and Annika Sheaff moved behind a screen, revealing only their shadows, with Sheaff brilliantly transforming herself into a dog (yes, a dog!) complete with playful paws and wagging tail, and even a tongue that licked the hand that petted her.

The weakest piece on the program, Rushes (2007) suffered from stagnant dark lighting and slow moving surrealist action. Throughout, half a dozen dancers manipulated a dozen chairs, occasionally to great effect. In a Busby Berkeley-inspired moment, they circled with the chairs facing out, gently lifting each one with a wave effect as they passed downstage. Unfortunately, this dance closed the show and the appealing moments were few and far between. When the minimal action was completely halted for a tiny projection of random images on a video screen, even the captivating idea that followed, of movement mimicking the grace of ice skating, could not save it.

A more suitable ending would have been the engaging classic 1971 Walklyndon. In this farcical romp, the full company paraded the stage clad in yellow unitards and blue gym shorts, as if headed to some retro health club for a workout. They manipulated each others paths, bumped chests, ran on each others prone backs, and jumped over and under each other, all without breaking their stride.

By far the most compelling piece on the program occurred early in the evening. The gorgeous ritualistic Gnomen (1997) featured a quartet of sleek and powerful men, each taking turns being manipulated and seamlessly lifted by the others. In one seemingly incomprehensible moment, Whitney balanced on his head, feet pointing to the air, suspended only by a man on either side holding his wrists. Then lifted and carried by the wrists, Whitney maintained his inverted position without flinching, drawing a collective gasp from the audience. Jun Kuribayashi’s turn to be supported, defied physics. Frozen overhead with his body horizontal, he was supported on either end—one dancer at his head, one at his feet. When a third dancer stepped underneath and supported him at the hips, the other two walked away. As if levitating, Kuribayashi effortlessly remained horizontal slowly being pivoted by his lifter. Later, his three supporters guided him gently to the floor. Then arm in arm, they lifted him with their flexed toes and swung their legs side to side, gently rocking Kuribayashi like a baby in a cradle. As the piece ended, quietly the four men acknowledged each other with a simple bow of the head.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Alonzo King’s dances don’t depict simple stories. In fact, there was nothing simple about his LINES Ballet performance on Saturday at the Wisconsin Union Theater. King built a rich detailed movement vocabulary brought forth by ten exquisite dancers in the two full-company works presented.

A brief hopeful solo opened the first piece, Signs and Wonders, originally created in 1995. The lone dancer rippled his spine and with swirling gestures moved as if he had no skeleton. Yet as others joined energetically fusing the inventive loose contemporary arm gestures with the rigid torso and legs of classical ballet, the piece moved in no clear direction. Throughout the nine sections, an intriguing style of physical juxtaposition emerged and the dancers took this style with ease. Able to create an awkward tension in their bodies through distorted shapes, they flexed their feet, angled their arms, held parallel leg positions and moved through impossible lifting sequences, all with the fluidity and obvious strong training of classical ballet. But the choreographic lack of repetition and absence of any sense of relationship between or among the dancers in this piece, made it difficult for the eye to latch on to any one thing in particular. Each section seemed a random grouping of miscellaneous energetic dance movement, albeit executed with detail and cleanliness.

When visual relief from the busy frenetic feeling finally came via a liquid duet (the program did not specify who danced this duet), disappointingly the woman moved from one linear pose to another being manipulated and lifted by a male partner who displayed as much conviction as moving a piece of furniture. He literally just stood behind her, walking from place to place, strictly the facilitator of her balletic balances.

To King's credit, the piece did not last too long, and although beautifully danced, the ending brought a feeling of relief. This may have been in part due to the irritatingly high sound system volume which made it uncomfortable to listen to the traditional African music soundtrack.

King redeemed his choreographic reputation in the second piece, Dust and Light. This recent piece, made in 2009, is a collaboration of sorts partnering dance with the intricate angelic Baroque music of Arcangelo Corelli and Francis Poulenc, and the edgy transformative lighting and stage design by Axel Morgenthaler. Together these elements created an inviting and carefully crafted world, both eerie and beautiful at the same time. Again a series of short sections (15 here), King found a way to fuse it all together as dancers repeatedly walked crouched over in a squat en pointe, or one by one slowly dragged themselves across the stage like injured gazelles sometimes folding one leg in at a time into a ball, then hurling themselves splayed out on their stomachs.

The dance evolved with each fall being restored by a seamless lift, an idea skillfully echoed in Morgenthaler's backdrop of a slowly descending black curtain which unnoticeably rises again. In a breathtaking duet section danced by Corey Scott-Gilbert and either Laurel Keen or Caroline Rocher (again, the program was unclear) the two traded lifts, promenading in off-balance poses, manipulating each other by the head then by the shoulders, sliding and shifting like mercury over each others backs. And later in a male pairing of Brett Conway and Scott-Gilbert again, the two oscillated and lifted with a rare combination of grace and power, supporting each other through a fusion of traditional ballet partnering and sinuous grappling. Staying connected like playful Siamese twins, their silver Romanesque-type pleated skirts gave this section a stylish modern gladiator feeling.

In a radiant surprise ending, at last a relationship between all of the dancers became evident. The full company celestially emerged from the wings, rising and falling together like liquid silver in a shocking bright white light. Repeating a pattern of sinuous floorwork, they took angelic departures one by one until a lone dancer rose and spun in attitude into the dark.

If a theatrical structure or theme emerged in this evening, it was that King keeps his duets intimate—dancers in close proximity to each other-- rarely creating any tension across the stage space. By contrast, his trio groupings often appeared as three random dancers whose only relationship was that they shared the same stage space. Throughout Dust and Light, brief trios of disconnect mixed with a series of close-proximity duets punctuated by minimal solos and duets that appeared downstage of the action. Unlike Signs and Wonders, in this inspired dance King's mesmerizing movement invention effectively crafted an exceptional ethereal world.