Dancin’ in the Streets

Pragmatic Dance in the crosswalks.  Photo: Abigail Wallace.

After an entertaining –  if rainy – kickoff event, the dance festival came to town in earnest on Saturday.  Dancers came from around the world and gathered at 2200 Westlake to play in the crosswalks, weave through sculptures, and otherwise entertain the passersby.  In addition to performances there were dance classes offered all day for the first time this year. Highlights included a high-speed solo by Switzerland-based dancer Laurence Yadi (a reflection of a solo performed by her partner Nicolas Cantillon the night before), a slow-mo ninja battle with audience cameos by RandAll Dance of Seattle, and high-energy West African dance and drumming lead by Benin-born Etienne Cakpo.  New this year as well was a delightful “art loop,” where audience members formed a parade and visited neighborhood dance installations as dancers transformed everyday buildings, bike racks, staircases, and sculptures into stages.

Of course, the main attractions are the theater concerts at Raisbeck Hall (tickets may be found here).  To date I have attended the first weekend of the Inter/National Series shows.  Due to some last-minute visa trouble the festival lost a promising Finnish group, which necessitated a program change for Saturday and Sunday nights.  On Friday I was treated to the aforementioned solo Listen & Watch danced by Cantillon of  Compagnie 7273, as well as Soul of Africa by Cakpo’s company Gansango.  Saturday and Sunday’s lineup began with an excerpt from Rhythm Divine by Astad Deboo of India, followed by Houn Lanyi – Coming Together choreographed by Manimou Camara and Yurek Hansen, and concluded with Compagnie 7273’s Romance-s.  Both shows were very strong, although for my own reasons I preferred the second show to the first.  I will write about Compagnie 7273 specifically in another post because I have a lot to say about their performance of Romance-s.  The rest of the work I will write about now.

Astad Deboo performing “Rhythm Divine.”  Photo: Abigail Wallace.

Astad Deboo spent most of his solo inside a round plastic shell.  He began onstage in the fetal position pictured above, so he entered the space in darkness already cloaked in plastic.  This meant the audience could hear the rustling of the plastic as he situated himself, which created an atmosphere of interest before we saw him in the light.  His movement was at all times incredibly specific and detailed, and often slow.  The dance’s relationship to the music was unclear to me as the dance and music didn’t seem to meld or match.  The music began with didgeridoo and transitioned into saxophone with a period of rhythmic drumming in the middle.  I don’t remember the falling action in the music or the dance very clearly, and I think that has more to do with the fact that this was an excerpt than anything else.  In a full performance of the piece, it would transition differently and be more memorable, I’m sure.  I do remember that Deboo ends roughly the same way he began, curled up in the plastic circle.

Viewing the dance as a cycle, it becomes very hypnotic.  There is the possibility for endless repetition in both the music and the dance, something Deboo plays with through his use of spirals and spinning.  At first I saw the plastic as a cage, as something to escape from.  As the dance progressed, Deboo carefully extracted himself from the plastic with delicate spiraling torso and arm movements.  Once freed, he explored his immediate open space with waggling eyebrows, articulate fingers, and subtle isolations.  However, it wasn’t very long before he voluntarily picked up the plastic and put himself back inside.  He then began a series of spins, which reflected the light off the plastic eerily.  The voluntary return surprised me the first time I watched the dance.  I had expected him to stay free of the plastic.  Then I considered other meanings for the plastic: home, safety, familiarity.  What if the plastic isn’t a cage, but a comfort?  Or what if it’s better to be in the cage you know than in a freedom you can’t understand?  What if the freedom is just another cage to which you can’t see the limits?

Camara and Hansen’s Houn Lanyi – Coming Together provided a glimpse into the worlds of two vastly different dancers.  Camara is of West African descent and Hansen is from Boise, Idaho.  Though they don’t share anything in the way of dance training, onstage the two are magical together.  Their styles complement each other perfectly: the power they exude as they leap and tumble through the space, the muscles that flex and extend with incredible speed and precision, the magnetic stage presence and the obvious friendship between the two men, it all works together to make this an unforgettable dance.

If I have any criticism for Camara and Hansen it has only to do with the length – or in this case, lack of length – of the piece.  As it turns out, they choreographed it in a matter of days at the behest of the festival director.  It is a preview of a much longer dance to come, a sampling of the potential in the idea.  And what a rich idea it is, made more so by the power and beauty of the two dancers.  The piece definitely needs fleshing out to make it truly great.  I would like to see longer solos by each man to further develop his particular aesthetic and vocabulary, as well as a more deeply investigated “relationship building” phase where the two gradually come together before erupting in the ultimately joyous experience of taking on parts of each other’s styles.  If this description intruiges you, if you’d like to see what this becomes, keep your eye on this festival because the extended version will likely be part of the lineup next year.

The first soloist in Gansango’s “Soul of Africa.”  Photo: Abigail Wallace.

Soul of Africa also felt much too quick.  Gansango did a wonderful job of featuring each artist involved in the production, but I could have watched them dance, sing, and drum for ages.  The dance began with a soloist in traditional dress with white designs painted on his bare chest and arms.  As he danced, he used his body for rhythms and the white powder dissipated in bursts when he hit it.  He eventually made his way to the drum pictured in the spotlight.  This segued into a gorgeous acoustic performance by a female singer, who happened to be the only woman in the show on Friday.  She was followed by a tragic and yet hopeful solo set to narration about an almost-lynching in the deep South.  I think the narration was a piece of fiction, although I do not know for sure.  It had the feeling of a dream, as the young man in question is lead up to the lynching tree in a manner similar to Jesus being lead to the cross, and then saved at the last minute by someone who calls out “He had nothing to do with the rapes.”  As the crowd turns on a dime to let him loose, we are reminded of the utter capriciousness of humanity, and forced to ask ourselves how much we’ve changed since then.  The closing number was a lively, colorful dance with a man dressed in a large, circular, and shiny cloak that he spun as he twirled and leaped.  Taken as a whole, the piece doesn’t seem as if it should fit together, and yet it does, as each part illuminates some essential element of the black experience and – as befits the title – the soul of Africa.

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