Sunday, 7 October 2012

Inheritor Album - 605 Collective

Inheritor Album by 605 Collective
Presented by Brian Webb 
October 5-6, 2012
Timms Centre for the Arts
Edmonton, Alberta

Choreographers and Dancers:
Lisa Gelley, Shay Kuebler, Josh Martin, Justine A Chambers, David Raymond, Laura Avery

Original Sound Design:
Kristen Roos

Miwa Matreyek

Lighting Design/Technical Director:
Jason Dubois

Inheritor Album is the second offering in this year's series presented by Brian Webb. The previous week Bboyizm was presenting urban dance performance for Edmonton, and Webb presented 605 Collective as "a different kind of urban dance," specifically an urban and contemporary dance fusion. Urban dance has influenced most dance forms at this point, finding its way into everything from belly dancing to ballet, drawing on various cadences, attitudes and levels of commercialism. This particular combination can be tricky, and if you've had past experiences with other performers, you might have simply called it suburban dance. As Webb introduced the company, he used the word "physicality" several times and explained the success of Interitor Album at a recent dance festival. And there was a sense of local pride in the introduction since two of the three core collective members are from Alberta (Edmonton and Camrose) despite the company's home base in Vancouver.

Separated into several sections, perhaps 8 or 10, the core of the 605 Collective (Gelley, Kuebler and Martin) explore different concepts of inheritance and give them each their own chapter in this album. The first section begins with a very dark stage except for a cool blue-green light, sometimes in down spots which move. The dancers randomly dart across the stage. A computer-generated circle of bright green light forms and begins to spiral. The group is in the middle. Individuals begin to run the lines of the circle, sometimes joined by the centre group. In a sort of relay, they come together but one or the other gets thrown back to the centre, watching for when it’s their turn to get caught up in the centrifugal force of the rotating spiral.

As it turns out, the 605 Collective maintains a serious edge throughout all the sections. The urban dance references act more to enhance a vocabulary of contemporary aesthetic dance forms; inversions and floor work that when performed are technically like urban dance, but with an introspective approach that changes the game. The dancers dive, spin, and are sucked into hyperspeed, then come out the other side with graceful sudden stops, glides and tumbles. Almost of all the faster movements are on or close to the floor. Arms and legs are cast outward which bodies meet with twisty shuffles and rolls, often like stones being tossed around in the action of shallow waves, occasionally coming to rest on the bottom before being propelled along the seafloor for another run. At times the dancers appear to struggle to keep up with each other in the unison phrases, but that’s part of the appeal. It is not an easygoing dance, and the movement evokes the sort of accepted burden that comes with inheritance. In other sections, the unison is randomized, with dancers starting and stopping mini phrases like popcorn. A couple of sections look like advanced versions of improv or choreography 101 such as the follow-the-leader section, and the rapid fire tableau that happen late in the piece. The follow-the-leader section starts out looking like a scorpion with the dancers attached at mostly-outstretched arms, but they detach and they move so well together that in profile they look like video feedback of each other.

At times the dancers separate and get caught up in their own sort of personal groove. The dancers stand hunched over, allowing waves of movement to progress from their feet, catching at their hunched shoulders and causing a little funky head bob. They do this for quite a long time, and the movements seem to change subtly from the groove to almost seizure-like to dry heaves and back again to groove (illness appears to be one of inherited traits in the piece). This theme comes back a couple of times and its simplicity and sense of solitude in a crowd is striking. They allow this to go on long enough to spend time looking at the way each dancer does this, and after looking at them awhile you might think of those wiggly inflatable guys at used car lots.

The dancers are dressed in generic Gap-like jeans and khakis with short sleeved shirts. It's possible it has taken you the two weeks since you saw the performance to decide how you feel about the drab attire and how it relates to the rest of the super-slick production (intense electronic music, specialized lighting and custom-designed computer animations). On one hand, the clothing makes the dancers look more boring than they are, and a there is a strong aesthetic disconnect. On the other, it's logical that the production elements are there to help our everyday heroes transcend their blandness and connect to the intangible. You might finally decide that both are true. And socks! If you ask other dancers about the socks they might say, “I know, right? I think it’s a Vancouver thing.” Most dancers warm up in socks but shed them as the feet require more feedback and friction from the floor. Somehow the 605 dancers are able to find enough traction to dig in and perform the precision floor work.

As an audience member it’s hard to keep track of all the sections of Inheritor Album, and there’s nothing in the program that delineates them for us. Each section is almost a separate piece, which led to a heated discussion among audience members after the show whether or not people should have applauded between them. Each section has its own slow build and its own resolution, the lights going to full blackout with a bit of space before the start of the next with no continuation of one narrative to the next. However, movement themes do return, and the pacing of each section is similar, the album tied together with sound and visuals. But the lack of continuity is occasionally almost humorous; the dancers who all seem to collapse or even die a slow death in one section, appear exactly the same in the next section, completely unscathed.

The computer-generated lighting graphics are successful in complementing the dance rather than the very usual problem of interfering with it. Sometimes the design creates fascinating puddles of light under the dancers, tracking their movements. Other times intricate webs (or spreading bacteria) sprout from dancers as they strike curious poses on the floor. Sometimes the graphics add a layer to the design, and sometime they are more literal, such as in the woman-against-the-crowded-world solo as graphic buildings grow up around her and crowd her visually into a corner. While the light graphics are visually interesting and effective, they don't come close to fitting on this particular proscenium stage, bleeding way onto the walls, floors and ceiling of the space. That might seem like a contemporary shrug to traditional rules, however it frequently threatens to remove us from the psychological space of the piece.

The electronic/computer music score is intricate and intense, utilizing some interesting and harsh real-world sounds. One section begins with the dancers in rectangles of light as we listen to an industrial-strength hammering sound. Kristen Roos provides rich textures and pulses rather than the beats and bass we often expect to accompany many urban dances. Some might think the music is too loud. It is not.

Inheritor Album is a dark piece, except for the last section which seems to open up the sky. The lights are up to maybe 6 instead of 3, and for the first time just on the warm side of cool. The dancers engage in an optimistic sort of urban-meets-country line dance that covers huge amounts of space, possibly an homage to dances the choreographers inherited from Alberta. The light darkens again slightly as the dancers are once again together in centre stage, caught up in their personal groove. A sonar-like wave of light repeatedly wipes the stage from top to bottom. The group systematically disintegrates as the dancers walk off stage one-by-one. The last dancer remains for a moment, but in the waves of light we continue to see the shadows of the other dancers, standing like ancestors as the last dancer walks off stage.

Please see Kelsie Acton's review of 605 Collective's Inheritor Album at Sound + Noise.

In The Upper Room - Alberta Ballet

Great Masterpieces of the 20th Century
Alberta Ballet
Northern Jubilee Auditorium, Edmonton, Alberta
September 21-22, 2012
7:30 pm

This concert makes sense.

The program title though, is oddly generic. It seems to be an appeal to concert hall patrons who might be afraid of words like "modern" or "contemporary," but are very pleased to buy tickets to attend not just regular masterpieces, but great ones. It leaves out the fact that it is so very specific to the United States, and even more specific to New York City, and even still more specific to just two choreographers, George Balanchine and one of his most ardent followers, Twyla Tharp.

It's worth a dive into Tharp's autobiography Push Comes To Shove to understand the chemistry here:
"For all my adoration, or precisely because of my adoration, I saw Balanchine only three times over the years. For a long time I had steadfastly refused to take advantage of offers to be introduced, fearing I would simply burst instantly into tears. However, when I was in Nashville with Misha (Mikhail Baryshnikov) for the taping of The Prodigal Son, it had happened......I turned around and there was Balanchine. I had no time to think; I simply bowed.....then Balanchine bowed, saying he was a great admirer, and I bowed saying, No I was a great admirer..." "Several years later, Balanchine was in the hospital. I went twice.....The second time, he was very I just left what I had brought for him - a Walkman with a favorite cassette of mine, one of Mozart's last works, the Adagio and Rondo in C for Glass Harmonica. After that, I got together with a friend and we made sure that every day from then on there would be a small, but different, flower brought to his room. I read of Balanchine's death when I was flying back from a film location, in a New York Times that had been left on an empty plane seat. For the next year, every morning I went into the studio to work, I could not keep myself from crying. I missed Balanchine terribly--the thought that he would not be making any more dances, that he would not be springing into an incredible late blossoming...that I was now completely alone in the studio. I imagined making a dance to his memory, but the thought was ludicrous. He was embedded in every step I did."

In The Upper Room debuted in 1986, three years after the death of Balanchine. Quintessentially 1980's, the ballet is a fusion of many types of movement; ballet, jazz, modern, tap, boxing, and archery. The original Jennifer Tipton lighting design was used; modern lines and angles creating the illusion of moonlight coming into high-ceilinged, room with floor-to-ceiling windows. And costumes based on the original Norma Kamali design were used as well: combinations of black and white striped baggy pants with red leotards, bare-chested men in jeans and running shoes, and red ballet skirts with red pointe shoes.

Though the heavenly upper room is implied, Tharp refers to her upper room more as an enormous attic, where treasures are stored and may be visited. The dance is often symmetrical or chiral with a great deal of intense, if stoic partnering. Alberta Ballet dancers were mostly able to recreate the tight rhythms built within the movement phrases and at the same time maintain the precise looseness so specific to Tharp's style. From this looseness, the dancers then surprise us with sharp leaps that dissolve into turns that seem so relaxed it's hard to comprehend where the momentum is coming from. The turns and lifts and near-drops are breathtaking, managing to convey a sense of urgency and importance without angst or unnecessary acting. With the driving score of Philip Glass which he wrote for Tharp, the dance is one of a sort of post-postmodernist resplendence.

For Tharp in the 80's, creating dances that utilized all of her own skills (Balanchine ballet, tap, jazz, modern) became a kind of signature for her. In this piece it is notable that on the same stage we see bare feet, pointe shoes and sneakers, which was somewhat radical at the time. In fact she was possibly the first to put shoes back on the barefoot modern dancers. She herself had been choreographing to everything from Bach to Sinatra, making dances for her own company, for film, for Broadway, yet also choreographing for Joffrey, American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet.

Tharp says in her autobiography that In the Upper Room is the only work she has made that no matter where it is performed it gets a standing ovation (the Alberta Ballet performance being no exception). And it does get a fair amount of airplay by ballet companies around the world.

Tharp originally choreographed the piece on her own company. After it received some acclaim, she set it on American Ballet Theatre. At the time, New York Times dance critic Arlene Croce skeptically welcomed it as a definite improvement on Tharp's failures the year prior. In 1987 she wrote, "Unlike Fait Accompli, In the Upper Room will probably last a couple of seasons."  However, if you look today at the ABT schedule, it's on the bill this very weekend, 26 years later.

Alberta Ballet, when commissioning the ballet to be set on them, must have a member of the Twyla Tharp Foundation evaluate and train the company (in this case, Elaine Kudo). They then must spend three intensive weeks in rehearsal. Alberta Ballet doesn't have the typical look of a neo-classical company (the extremely tall and lithe Balanchine dancers we are accustomed to) but the dancers did quite well with the bolder, precisely and purposefully off-balance demands of Balanchine and Tharp. Aside from the dazzling steps and slithers and lifts, there are moments of stillness that must be abrupt and startling. If you had a favorite part, it might be when three male/female couples are dancing in a diagonal row, and after much back and forth in a kind of athletic and playful flirtation of turns, swivels, lifts and dips, the couples finally release themselves into each others arms. Just as instantly, their arms and bodies then repel each other like polar ends of magnets and they stand suspended for a moment, locked in a disconnected embrace as the next dancers materialize from the darkness behind them to take over the building inertia.

Early in the dance, a down spot on the dancers appears when an invisible lamp string is pulled. As the dance builds with entrances fading in and out from the abyss outside the hazy performance space. The dance ends with the angles of light reducing back to that little light, a single dancer jumps up pulls the lamp string, landing on one leg as the last note reverberates and the light goes to blackout. After so much complicated and charged movement, this simple pantomimic gesture becomes sublime.

This program may not have succeeded in reaching a contemporary dance, music and art audience, in part because Alberta Ballet might be more concerned with maintaining their more traditional audience rather than reaching out. In the program notes it states that these Balanchine and Tharp works changed the way we think about dance. Artistic Director Jean Grand-MaƮtre says this:
 "Audiences might think, 'wow, you produced a highly successful Swan Lake, you've made it!' But I think that people should also realize that it takes just as much hard work and sacrifice to do justice to the works of Balanchine and Tharp."
Of course this is a true statement, though the problem with this is clear to a contemporary audience, who, already grasping the complexity, importance and the spectrum of aesthetics in  post-postmodernism will think of a 66-year-old Balanchine ballet to Paul Hindemith (The Four Temperaments) and a 26-year-old Tharp ballet to Philip Glass as decidedly historical, if completely relevent. Alberta Ballet seems in this case to act as an educator, an important role of any regional professional company. But for those of us who see our culture as not even just having recently entered the 21st century, we might feel a disconnect with those who are still afraid of the twentieth.