Rubberbandance: Gravity of Center

Posted: May 21st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Rubberbandance: Gravity of Center

Rubberbandance: Gravity of Center, Purcell Room, May 3

photo: Jocelyn Michel

photo: Jocelyn Michel

In his essay on the relationship between language and style, Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes makes the case that literary style, having its origin in the ‘biology and biography’ of the writer, is a profound transmutation of these two elements through the medium of language that can carry man ‘to the threshold of power and magic.’ What strikes me in this notion is that style, be it literary or choreographic, is not a category, nor is it a conscious application of rules; its value is in its transformative force. Without such a force, style is as arbitrary as the words or steps or gestures that happen to comprise it. In dance, as in other performing arts, style is multiplied by the number of creative inputs and in the case of collaboration between dance, music, lighting and set design, the confluence of styles has the potential to drill down to our very core.

Victor Quijada’s work is an interesting study of language and style. His ‘biography and biology’ bridges forms of street dance learned in the ciphers of Los Angeles and contemporary forms of classical ballet in the companies of Twyla Tharp, Elliott Feld and Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. One can see these dual origins in his steps, but he transforms them with his dark, passionate persona into a style that can equally delve into the sub-currents of his life or strike a vein of laughter and light, as it did in his recent work for Scottish Dance Theatre, Second Coming.

Gravity of Center is an altogether darker work — it has some of the bleakness of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — that deals with the dynamics within a tight-knit group of five itinerant souls on the edge of survival: the tensions, jealousies, frustrations, violence, rejection and redemption. The style Quijada has created to express this is not simply illustrating a story; it is the story.

The narrative is contained within a small sphere of activity, perhaps an evening’s sortie; certainly most of it takes place in what appears to be night. A group that feels its way hesitantly across the stage is an image Quijada used in the opening of Second Coming, though there the narrative breaks up into fragments, whereas Gravity of Center keeps the action in a tight grip; it is almost claustrophobic, to which is added the seemingly inevitable smoke to make it all thicker still. Each of the five performers incorporates a single universal virtue or vice like characters in a contemporary morality play. Quijada is the patriarchal leader of the group; Elon Höglund is a grudging, brooding brother; Daniel Mayo is a gentler, more virtuous soul who is keen to prove himself, and Emmanuelle LêPhan is a free spirit, attractive and attracted, who is the cause of most of the tensions between the alpha males. Anne Plamondon is cast in the role of mother, healer and compassionate one whose patient efforts and wisdom keep the group alive. It is the interplay of these five characters that makes up the psychological drama in Gravity of Center.

Quijada likes to play with theatrical conventions. At the beginning it is the audience that is bathed in a blue light while the stage remains dark (lighting design and technical direction by Yan Lee Chan). Even the exit lights in the Purcell Room seem dimmed. The only indication of something happening on stage is the sound of squeaking shoes on the rubber floor to Jasper Gahunia’s desolate soundscape that seems to grow out of the Russian steppes and evolves into an eclectic sampling of musical forms from Stravinsky to Chopin to Piazzola. When the lights allow us a first glimpse of the figures rising from the floor, they look like a band of giant marauders but it is not long before the band splinters into micro conflicts. Quijada’s dancers take risks; although we know they are not going to walk off the stage and hurt themselves, they come perilously close to disabusing us of our certainty. It means split-second timing, and it keeps our attention (and the dancers’ attention) on the edge. It is a quality that infuses everything Quijada does and it heightens the sense of animality in Gravity of Center: the prowling, pushing, elbowing, and kicking out at the air; the cartwheeling backwards over each other, the scorpion kicks and the writhing around each other like serpents; the bullying, cajoling, and the constant searching for dominance and survival. At one point, as the dynamics of the group get out of hand once again, a voice behind me whispers, ”God, this is not going well.” Plamondon’s lyrical qualities are the antidote, the balm to the wounded souls, the compassion to the blind outbursts of rage. If there is any narrative within this volatile scenario, it is that Mayo’s character, the runt of the group, is ready to prove himself. Plamondon senses he is better off alone (or he comes to the same conclusion), and with her blessing and a little pushing, he disappears over the edge of the stage for a period of time only to be ‘found’ later by Plamondon’s maternal, sensory instincts. The core of the work is a series of tactical exits and menacing entrances, solos, duets, trios (notably between Höglund, LêPhan and Quijada), quartets and unison quintets focusing on the constantly looping dynamics of the group. Quijada’s challenge here is to find a conclusion. There are a couple of blackouts and an edging toward a point of no arrival, but in a sense these are five characters in search of an ending; it arrives by the theatrical convention of the lights going down (for the third time) rather than by any sense of finality. In fact there is a very real sense that the action continues through the night and into the following morning.

As such, Gravity of Center constitutes less a narrative than an essay. Second Coming coalesced into a spark; this one bubbles in the background, waiting to draw those gestures and signs and symbols into a coherence that has a life of its own rather than describing how it is going to get there. It is a style in search of its true form.