Saturday, April 4, 2015

Dance Salad

The program for the Dance Salad festival, which is now in its twentieth year, describes it as a "variety of fresh dance ingredients by choreographers and dancers serving you a fusion of East and West contemporary and classical dance, tossed with modern and classical music, seasoned with the poetic sensitivity of beautiful choreography." This year, the companies performing over the span of the three-day festival were from New York, Texas, Australia, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Korea. The audience, too, is international; the couple sitting next to us spoke German, and I heard both Russian and French from the crowd at intermission.

Dance Salad runs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday every year, and if you go more than once, you'll see some overlap but some new things as well, as several of the companies come with more than one piece prepared. The first piece we saw was "Trompe L'Oeil", choreographed by Jiří Kylián and performed by Introdans, the company from the Netherlands. It featured two female and two male dancers, starting out in chairs as a sort of mime version of wind-up dolls, and moved through several sequences, including one in which a couple's pas de deux is interrupted when he gets a cell phone call. Much of the choreography was clever, but I had a bit of trouble with this piece because it seemed random and unconnected with itself. There were some vocal elements mixed in and we did get another hint at music box dancers later in the piece, but in the end I couldn't find anything to fasten on to, and the cell phone routine in particular didn't seem like it belonged in the piece. My husband and two friends disagreed with me, though, so clearly this is a matter of personal preferences.

We certainly all agreed on the next piece, though, which was titled "Short Dialogues". It was choreographed by Nils Christe and performed by members of the Queensland Ballet. It featured three couples dancing in individual but sometimes overlapping pas de deux, to Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Philip Glass. I should also mention that the lighting for this piece was most effective; the stage is divided by light into three windows, with the couples most often but not always remaining within their own defined space.

I knew of Philip Glass, of course, but I wouldn't have been able to place his music. Now I'll be able to, because this was absolutely haunting. The program describes this piece as "a tantilizing, sometimes unsettling, glimpse into three couples' relationships." I saw the combination of music and choreography as an assertion that love and passion can be desperate and painfully beautiful at the same time. There's a line in Shakespeare in Love in which Viola says that she wants to have love that is "unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done about it, come ruin or rapture." I saw this as the ruinous heartbreak that is still better than never having loved at all. I absolutely have to track down that music.

For the third piece, we had disagreement once again: my three companions loved it and I struggled with it. Performed by the Norwegian National Ballet, this piece was titled "Ibsen's Ghosts", with music by Nils Petter Molvær and choreography by Cina Espejord. The program noted simply that this was adapted from Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts, which was staged in 1882, and the dancers are listed as the characters Oswald, his mother Helene, her maid Regine, her father Jacob, and a local minister. It was difficult for me to reconcile those character identities with the dancers and costumes, though, particularly because the maid was dressed in a simple, flowing blue dress. Our friend, who hadn't read the program, thought she was possibly the other woman's daughter, and in the meantime I forgot that her father was her father, and viewed him as her abusive husband or lover. Funnily enough, we all read "incest" into the piece, but not necessarily in the same relationships. In flavor, I was reminded of a cross between A Streetcar Named Desire and the somewhat gothic opera Turn of the Screw. The choreography and the dancing were superb, but once again I had difficulty connecting. I did like the use of projected moving images of a young boy and girl at the back of the stage, suggesting that the young man had had a haunted childhood, and that he and the maid were childhood sweethearts.

After an intermission, the show continued with a pas de deux titled "Shadow Lovers" that was danced by Connor Walsh and Melody Mennite, guest artists and principals of the Houston Ballet Company. This was choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to Dido and Aeneas by Jenry Purcell, and was described in the program as being about "the memory of a lost love and the consoling power of letting go." One of my friends said that he thought the execution was wonderful as always with these dancers, but that he found the choreography a little flat. I disagreed; I didn't think it had the amazing passion of "Short Dialogues", but I found it beautiful, and I liked that I could simply absorb the dance and the simple story without sitting there trying to figure out complicated relationships.

I did find the next two pieces flat, however. They were also both pas de deux, one by dancers from a New York company named Armitage Gone! Dance, and the other by dancers from Semperoper Ballett Dresden in Germany. In both cases the dancing was precise and powerful but I got no emotion from them whatsoever, and there was nothing "pretty" about the movements. I don't feel that's fair of me, because by no means should all dancing be required to be pretty! But I also felt that neither piece lived up to its description. For "Ligeti's Essays", the one danced by Armitage Gone! Dance, we're told that the piece "expresses the full gamut of our complex and contradictory natures: from the humorous to the trivial and sarcastic, with passages of languorous, beautiful daydreams." The excerpt from "Workwithinwork" by Semperoper Ballett Dresden is called "opulent in its sparseness" (!) and "a lush, tender courtly duet." I did not see how these descriptions fit the pieces at all.

My absolute favorite work of the evening was the last: "Rigor Mortis" performed by Eastman, a Belgian company. It took me a while to understand the program description, which says that this was curated for Dance Salad from "Genesis", "TeZukA", and "Shell Shock". In reading further, I learned that the overall piece combined three separate works choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, "taking sections of music and movement from these pieces, and adding new related ideas." In fact, the integration was so seamless that I could not tell with any certainty where one piece ended and another began.

The piece began with one female and six (I think) male dancers with long wooden rifles; the men were dressed in different ragtag soldier's uniforms while the woman was dressed a long-skirted army nurse. There was an execution by firing squad, and the rifles were used to great effect to prod the dancers' limbs and move them in certain ways. Similarly, a stretcher was continuously manipulated, with a different dancer on it each time it was turned over, or end over end. I'm not entirely sure I'm remembering the different elements in the correct order, but that wasn't what was important; it was the overall feeling that the piece evoked, which was the horror of war. There was one absolutely stunning sequence in which the female dancer took off the nurse's uniform to reveal a white slip; she then took a brush and painted streaks of blood on her torso, her arms, and her face, dancing all the while. Her movements were anguished, but at the same time it was as though she was making love to death, like it had been courting her and she was so utterly relieved to finally give in to it. Later in the piece, the dancers held glass globes in their hands, passing them to one another in intricate sequences before one dancer used them to revive a fallen soldier and manipulate his body.

And here for me was the difference between this last piece, and the "music box dancer" and "ghost" pieces from the first act. In those pieces, I was constantly distracted by trying to figure out what was going on. In "Riger Mortis", while I would not be able to explain exactly what those little glass globes were meant to signify, for example, it didn't matter because I was so caught up in the piece that I just absorbed everything I saw at face value. There was definitely a "story" to "Rigor Mortis", but my ability to experience the story didn't depend on my ability to precisely define it. Clearly, "Ghosts" worked the same way for my companions; they got enough of the story without needing it to be spelled out for them. I guess just as no two people ever read the same book, no two people ever see the same dance performance.

We don't always manage to see Dance Salad every year, because it often conflicts with another event we attend in early April. This was our third or fourth time, and we hope to get to go more often in the future, because it's a great chance to see some wonderful dance from all over the world.

[Images: 1) Dance Salad logo; 2) Clare Morehen and Keian Langdon in "Short Dialogues", photo by David Kelly; 3) Connor Walsh and Melody Mennite in "Shadow Lovers", photo by Jaime Lagdameo.]

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