Worth the Drive? Ballets Jazz Montreal's L.A. Appearance

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Seeing a dance that’s set to music to which you’ve also choreographed is unsettling in the same way hearing a song can remind you of a cheating ex. So I was not poised to enjoy “Zero In On,” a duet choreographed by Cayetano Soto. The piece of music in question is “The Opening” by Philip Glass, and it’s beautiful, prickling your skin of its own accord. Its tempo is quick, and notes seem to spill forth continuously, faster than you could gather them up. Soto’s movements followed this temporal guideline too closely–never resting, never carving out their own rhythm aside from the tumbling eighth notes–and the mimicry was a missed opportunity.

The program notes drew my attention to the division of space: about ⅔ of the floor was covered with white marley atop the normal black stuff, limiting the space the dancers appeared to be confined to (later, the female ventured onto the black). An upturned rafter bisected the white-floored space diagonally, and 6 lights suspended from it lit the stage. I did especially notice the way Soto played with space–how far the dancers were from one another and when this changed. This was a nice treatment, but it didn’t inspire any visceral reaction.

The vocabulary was so put-on that it came off bland: the use of splayed fingers which seem to be in vogue, deep lunges with lifted (‘forced’) arches, swaggering walks, and too many highly extended legs. But during one repeated move, the woman balanced on her knee with both toes drawn in as if she were stopped mid-air in a pas de chat, and the man promenade-d her in that position. If there was anything to steal here, it was that motif.

There is not much worth driving through rush hour on the 405 for; however, the next piece on Ballets Jazz Montreal’s program at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts was.

In “Kosmos,” by choreographer Andonis Foniadakis, a dancer dressed in black pants, a black top and a large jacket began to swing her arms, slap her own body, and stomp in utter silence. Somehow the frantic gesturing translated into crisp, clear movements and an articulate rhythm. After a single phrase, other dancers added on in perfect synchronicity with the sound, but their bodies were moving differently. Two to three groups of counterpoint, with at least two dancers holding each phrase in unison at one time, went on to characterize the work.

What was body-rocking fast for what seemed like an exhausting period of time became lush and fluid in later sections. In a partnered trio, a female dancer surrendered completely to her two male partners, being manipulated and dragged through the space in myriad ragdoll ways. It stood incomplete contrast to the blade-sharpness of the opening sections, and it struck me that nothing done in the duets could be achieved by a single dancer–in other words, each feat involving two or more people required two or more people. Everything in Foniadakis’ world, it seemed, happened for a reason.

As the piece went on, I found myself trusting this new-to-me choreographer. Moments where normally my critical mind might turn on, as when the high speed continued untempered for a little too long, I paused, uncertain of what would transpire. Near-impossible for me to follow musically, mathematically, and logistically (and yet these elements were each, clearly, front and center), the piece did that which great dance does–it got me to stop trying to follow, and instead allowed me to sit back and enjoy. Not cracking the code became a freedom and luxury. I let my chills take over, my gut wrench, and my eyes play over the movements, mesmerized.

Long hair, jackets, and limbs flipped at high speed, obscuring faces and personalities, leaving bodies and movement in precise correlation to one another. It wasn’t about the dancers; it wasn’t about me; it was about this ruckus-producing vision and sound. The syncopated, percussive rhythms were unpredictable and yet perfectly matched by soaring bodies, rolling bodies, bodies striking shape after shape after shape. I got lost in it.

The closing scene made use of projection which filled the entire backdrop and floor with moving, dappled lights–tiny spots of green that played over everything. And “everything” was the cast, dressed now in nude-colored undergarments, having ditched their jackets and black pants gradually during the dance. It was lovely to see light projected not onto a screen or back wall as usual, but onto three-dimensional, living bodies–the stuff we’d all braved LA traffic to see. The smushed-together, downstage-oriented “screen” moved steadily into various symmetrical tableaux, like a paper banner cut into the shape of bodies holding hands.

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