writers on dancing


Humanity and Hope
in a Slick Postmodern Void

Dance on Camera Festival
Millenium Stage
The Kennedy Center
December 1 & 2
, 2004

by Christopher Correa
copyright © 2004 by Christopher Correa

The Dance on Camera Festival brought out a bouquet of works from around the world, some of which bore the freshness of the first dewy spring rose, some of which had the mildewed must of old potpourri you find in the back of a drawer long unopened.

First on the bill were two versions (one filmed, one live) of “Deep Surface,” by the Washington-based ballet choreographer Vladimir Angelov. A septet drawn in the abstract but based on a very real time and place, the piece examined the fragility and miracle of human life. A reaction to the events of September 11, 2001 (it was originally created in 2002), Mr. Angelov's vision remained detached enough so as not to leave too many uncomfortable seats in the theater. No less moving, though, were the means by which he filled the screen with fluid, histrionic movement: it depicted something terrible had happened, and his dancers smartly pantomimed the immensity of fright and hurt.

But the unerring sense of recovery is at the heart of “Deep Surface,” which is as thoughtful a title as it is a dance. In the direst of circumstances, Mr. Angelov posited, no matter how heavy the pain, no matter how close to penetrating it comes, what lies beneath the surface is stronger and ultimately uplifting—what lies beneath is the human spirit.

“Fly,” an incongruously-titled film by the New Zealand choreographer Shona McCullagh, opened with a potentially lightweight theme. An aging, bearded man (he looks like Father Time’s stunt double) gazed paternally at a young boy plumed out with makeshift wings, trying to take flight across a rolling green field. For all the swirling camerawork, Ms. McCullagh’s piece—inspired in no small part by the story of Icarus, and grazing along that otherwordly trail of filmic territory recently plowed by her fellow Kiwi, Peter Jackson—felt strangely earthbound. The relationship between the man and boy was clumsy and freighted with visual double entendre. When the airborne is finally achieved, the concepts of “escape” and “breaking away” (the film’s own proclamations, not this reviewer’s) acquired disappointingly uncomfortable tones, mooring any flights of fancy down to reality.

A Canadian work called “Horses Never Lie,” performed and conceived by former National Ballet of Canada soloist Caroline Richardson, demonstrated a seductive eloquence that thinned as it progressed. She did suggest an equine at first, digging up the dust with arched knees and feet, puffing into the camera. The ideas quickly ran their course, and what was left onscreen was an interpretive dance of conventional proportions. But, the photography artfully captured the crags and cambers of Ms. Richardson’s every sinew and knotty limb—even if it did look like a Chanel commercial directed by Robert Redford. (But, then again, doesn’t all footage of galloping horses look like that?)

The French director Benoit Dervaux filmed the Nigerian choreographer Heddy Maalend’s “Black Spring” like a documentary about dance, using a similar technique that Wim Wenders employed with “Buena Vista Social Club.” The performers Simone Goris and Serge Anagondu spoke directly to the audience, prodding and teasing us to pay attention to their art, which, to them is a way of life. She laid down on a twilit beach, curled in a fetal position, and rolled her stomach to the sounds of the tide lapping at the shore. He stomped around with ferocious dedication to the steps, making phonic harmonies with his feet and the whisks and hand shakers that provided the only accompaniment to speak of. “I can see you are serious about African dance,” he flirted. Then he really let go, picking rhythms out of the ether and absorbing them into his constitution.

The guiltiest pleasure on night one was "Burnt," a German short about an office populated by surrealist, Tim Burtonesque worker drones. Clad in streamlined black suits, a pair of gentlemen parried and jousted with elbows and knees as they tried to climb the corporate ladder using each other as rungs until one ended up literally walking all over the other. A leggy office shark in stilettos slid across the floor and tiptoed along the broomstick-thin banister all the way down a hell-plumbing spiral staircase.

“Burnt” was directed by Holger Gruss and staged by Vera Sander, and represented the most elegant synergy between movement and film capture since The brothers Wachowski and the fight coordinator Woo Ping’s work on the first “Matrix” movie. Part of the sleek allure must be credited to the sound department, whose contributions made every ruffle and crinkle of the powersuits audible, adding a texture that the music couldn’t approximate alone. Without too many unnecessary optical effects, “Burnt” matched “The Matrix” beat by beat in creating a warbly fourth dimension not on a computer screen, but by the ingenuity of choreographic derring-do.

Night two brought another dyad of variations on the same choreography in CityDance Ensemble artistic director Paul Gordon Emerson’s “Falling into the Sea.” The live performance featured Bruno Augusto and the filmed one had Robert Sidney, jr., both playing the same role. Melissa Greco starred in both. A passionate, if occasionally cold-blooded pas de deux, Mr. Emerson’s work proved a smart fit to Ms. Greco’s sleepy, transfixing body language. The choreography was inspired by, and reminiscent of water. Arms waded above waists as the dancers swam around the stage (and on the screen), finding the currents that pulled the pair together and forced them apart.

“Pretty Big Deal” was a small movie with epic performers: three hydraulic excavators whose effusiveness and grace made them the charmers of the night. They also seemed to boast more personality than the human dancers at times. The machines spun around, pliéd and even partnered each other with whimsy and care. And the conclusion was a corker: the overgrown Tonkas managed to evoke an image akin to Giselle and Prince Albrecht’s final bows before she lowers into her grave.

A strident French piece called “LeP/Tit Bal” was loud, bouncy and altogether irritating. A man and woman sat making hand gestures and babbling the lyrics of “C’etait Bien,” while oranges and milk rained on them from above. The effect was of watching an extended European commercial whose product shifts from curiously to tiresomely undeterminable.

CityDance’s Ludovic Jolivet provided the always interesting (if not completely expressive) Ms. Greco another opportunity to spin yarn out of threadbare material. A couple (who have not met, but are connected spiritually) interact (so to speak) with each other on a park bench. Mr. Jolivet costarred. He would raise his hand, then vanish, while she materialized, aping the movement. There wasn’t much there, but Ms. Greco and Mr. Jolivet are thoughtful interpreters. (His limitations as a dancer are the polar opposite of hers—he hasn’t got a dancer’s body, but he’s a comic performer with enormous personality.)

Closing the Dance on Camera festival was Mr. Angelov’s “Edge of Dreams,” a fascinating near-fiasco (some might call it brilliantly ludicrous) that was the unmistakable work of an artist. Even when he got it all twisted around, Mr. Angelov’s hand was always steady; what was on screen was exactly what he wanted. Ambitious (perhaps too much so) as anything he has staged up till now, “Edge of Dreams” followed a young man (played by Rasta Thomas) who finds himself trapped between the real world and the dream world. His means of survival is to vault into the subconscious of people before they wake.

The piece was actually a collection of the choreographer’s works, cobbled together as a narrated-through whole. “Axiom,” featuring a delectably acrobatic Ellen Rippon, was bizarre enough when it was an individual work to qualify as well, a nightmare. Dancers robotically maneuvered around, wearing silver face paint, and haunting the dream tripper out of the mind of his latest landlord. When he stumbles into the psyche of a napping tramp with a bee on his nose, the piece blissfully metamorphosed into a comedy, thanks to the music from “Flight of the Bumblebee” and Mr. Thomas’s boundless energy. He twisted and flipped around, embodying everything that comic pantomime represents.

A hazy mise-en-scene involving a concert cellist had less momentum than what preceded it. “Edge of Dreams” was frustrating and too clever by half. But it also displayed some surprisingly conservative direction: a crane camera shot descending a line of steps, while Mr. Angelov’s ensemble moved past each other in tightly intersecting rows was especially graceful.

Mr. Angelov’s works were appropriate bookends for the festival. One presented a world on the brink of despair, the other provided a vision of a future whose surface has the rosy shimmer and humanity of a people in a state of self repair.

Photo:  Vladimir Angelov's "Axiom."  Photo by Paul Emerson.

Volume 2, No. 46
December 6, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano


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last updated on November 29, 2004