Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Radio and Juliet

A contemporary ballet titled “Radio and Juliet”, as in the Edward Clug choreography for Slovenia’s Ballet Maribor, conjures images of the theatrical Shakespeare classic love story. Clug’s 40-minute dance piece indeed alludes to a theatrical story by way of a large-scale, slow-moving black and white video projection (uncredited in the program). Footage of huge close-ups of a solitary woman in an empty apartment interspersed with brief interludes of men performing flashy edgy gestures, sets up an intriguing story, and evokes questions, building hope that the upcoming dance might answer them. Who is this isolated woman? Juliet? Where is she? Why is she alone? What is her relationship to these men? The music of Radiohead begins to pulse and the live company of dancers enter one by one introducing themselves with a simple walk downstage.

The piece then erupts into full-on energetic dance, exquisitely performed with great precision by seven strong dancers-six men and one woman. Clug’s movement derives clearly from ballet, but he’s evolved a vocabulary of quick angular arm gestures paired with stock still leg positions and stiff slicing torso work. Somehow through this strange mix of movement, he manages to give us glimpses into a story—a fight, lovers meeting, a death. In the beautifully designed fight scene of men spinning and jumping, barely touching each other but with their flailing black suit coats, we sense the violence and danger not through physical contact, but through the speed of movement and the proximity of the men to each other.

Throughout, Clug’s style suits the men best, as we never really see the soft femininity of the Juliet character. She performs the same continuous fast-paced arm gesture/stiff-legged movement, even after she meets her “Romeo”. It feels as if the lack of range in the Radiohead accompaniment has kept Clug from deepening the choreographic texture. When the lovers meet at a masked ball (men wearing surgical face masks covering their noses and mouths), their first kiss happens so quickly and in near darkness, that the moment is diminished. The lovers duet that follows, lacks emotional shift in movement quality, remaining speedy, linear and slashing, rather than reflecting the care, emotion, and perhaps awkwardness that two first-time lovers might express.

A bit later, for the first time, Clug does shift the dynamics, during a solo from which one dancer “dies”, then comes back to life. (This could be the fated Tybalt, although he does not perish by Romeo’s hand.) Here is finally a softening curving of torso and arms, and a completely new emotional expression. This haunting solo comes to a close with the powerful image of the man being lifted limply by three others, held up by his suit coat and pants.

In another lovely moment toward the end, we see the Romeo and Juliet death scene in photographic stillness. In a flash of stark light (no lighting designer listed in the program) Romeo appears upstage holding his sleeping Juliet. In another flash, it’s a fast forward to Juliet center stage holding a limp Romeo, and in a third tableau, Romeo has died, and Juliet prepares to ingest her poison-in this case a sour lemon.

There are clear connections to the classic story. Lovers meet, there is a fight, a masked dance, a marriage, and in the end of the piece, the lovers seem to die. But jarring and confusing choices jolt away from a straight-up contemporary interpretation. Here, the men are all generic (even interchangeable in a wedding processional moment) and it’s not clear who is who, except the Romeo figure. Important theatrical moments are vague, as in the brief first kiss, and the fact that it is in a nearly hidden far upstage corner that an “apothecary” presents Juliet with the deadly lemon. And the absence of anything representing a balcony scene leaves a void in the emotional journey of the central figures. After the lovers meet and dance together, the video returns with an image of a stoic Juliet in a bathtub. Rather than feeling and expressing the joy of having a lover, she seems to want to wash away the experience. What are this Romeo and Juliet going through to be with each other? Where is the conflict that keeps the lovers apart? Clug does not explore these questions, and the result, albeit entertaining, is a missed opportunity to communicate any sense of the basic and strong human desire for love.

NOTE: This particular performance in the Capital Theatre, was marred by starting fifteen minutes late, and allowing numerous latecomers to be seated in the front sections giving those who paid for premium tickets, an obstructed view during several sections of the piece (particularly in the beginning of the love duet). The Overture Center could do it’s patrons a favor by reserving a back row for latecomers in cases when a show does not have an intermission. The hefty ticket price, brief performance (about 30 minutes of actual live dance) and disturbing latecomers unfortunately colored the experience of this program.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Marching into Sunlight

When advertising suggests that a dance concert by two university professors-with excellent support and resources-will be of epic proportions, the expectations are high. In this case, professors Robin Becker of Hofstra University and Jin-Wen Yu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison created dances based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America" by David Maraniss.

These dances were apparently derived from and inspired by the book's topics of the 1967 bombing of Sterling Hall at UW and the Vietnam war--hefty subject matter, which would have been better served in the hands of master choreographers. In this case, a way-too-long performance (clocking in at 2 hours and 30 minutes) came nowhere near expected hype, and to use the word of the audience member next to me, was "offensive".

Becker's piece "Into Sunlight", suffered from dim tiring lighting, designed by Burke Wilmore, and continuous slow sustained movement. The piece began to drag almost immediately, and there were very few moments of relief.

Becker dressed her 15 dancers in 1980's lycra onesies, and for no apparent reason, separated them into two groups--dark clad slow-moving dance company members and lighter clad slow-moving student dancers.

Section after sedate section dragged on and Becker seemed to explore only one emotional side of war---a smooth, nurturing, dated modern dance-looking side. Why she did not explore more of the fire, physicality, and harsh edge to the subject matter, remains a mystery. She clearly had some excellent dancers who would have been up for the task, and the contrast would have enhanced her snail's pace perspective.

To her credit, the piece did have overall compositional structure, and a few highlights. A men's trio, which began as a raw physical fight, evolved into caressing beautifully shifting lifts. And in one duet section, a young man sat stock still as a woman climbed and rolled over him, balanced on him, and in a final moving gesture, placed his arm across her shoulder.

Yu's disappointing "Marching into Sunlight" displayed absolutely no sense of the subject matter whatsoever. His trivial treatment of such a monumental topic felt embarrassing. Painful to watch, Yu seemed to have lost any concept of theatrical form, use of space, and movement invention. Throughout this haphazard dance, the question "why?" constantly surfaced.

In short, with a backdrop of hanging textured fabric on which busy video images were projected, Yu featured a quintet of untrained dancers randomly running around in camouflage pants, executing gymnastic rolls. (Why?) This was followed by a group of young women in lingerie tossing underwear up into the air. (Why?) Then Yu appeared in the piece, clad in suit and tie, descending a rope ladder. (Why?) More of the same continued for way too long, and the women's group appeared again wearing school-girl uniforms and white blouses. (Why?) The group paraded around with plastic army helmets in their hands. (Why?) And the piece concluded with Yu running out onto the stage wearing a baggy white Chinese jacket, and standing on a helmet. (Why?)

It's agonizing dances like this that make audiences scratch their heads, and never return to see modern dance again. Why should they?