DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition
If you are a fan of Contraband, be prepared, Contraband is dead. The rowdy, rough-not-only-at-the edges ensemble that starting in the 80s tried—and succeeded— to create powerful dance theater pieces, is gone. In its stead, there is a new Contraband, though still under the aegis of founding artistic director Sara Shelton Mann. Yet it has almost nothing to do with that gloriously daring, nothing is impossible group of artists that rocked the Bay Area for more than a decade. I wish this was a case of “Contraband is dead, long live Contraband.” It’s not.
The new Contraband is more like pick-up ensemble of independent, very diverse dancers most of whom have their own ensemble, who got together to work with Mann on her latest project Monk. Yannis Adoniou is a ballet dancer; Ramon Ramos Alayo trained in Afro Cuban; José Navarrete among others is a tango dancer; Marintha Tewksbury, Kathleen Hermesdorf and Leslie Seiters express themselves through release and contact improv. They bring their own skills to this project but conceptually this Monk belongs to Mann.
At 90 minutes the newest Monk is a distillation of ideas and pieces Mann has been working at for the last half dozen years. It is sleek, manicured and well behaved, beautifully performed by its excellent dancers. But somewhere around the middle it either loses its thrust or a little bit of its soul. Distillation here didn’t increase pungency, though it did yield some glorious dancing.
In this flawed but noble effort, Mann takes on huge questions, such as the connectedness of all things through the ages. This is what she says in her program notes: “We are our living ancestors, fragments and communities of both the seen and unseen.” So when she uses the metaphor of the journey, as she does in Monk, she is not only talking about the changes within an individual’s life but about transformation as a basic principle of existence. “We are the transformation, the living matter and mind of our world,” she writes.
In previous incarnations, the carrier of those ideas was--on an individual basis—Mann herself in a powerful solo, and--in terms of human history--the figure of a hooded monk who embodies it. Both them were wanderers, both of them homeless. For some reason, Mann didn’t feel the need to include either one of these two seminal characters in her condensed and more abstracted Monk. Instead, somewhat problematically, she worked with extraordinarily different dancers, each doing what he or she does best, do communally embody, as she says, “one person’s journey lived through different bodies.” Matthew De Gumbia’s elaborate and elegantly assembled video panels—many of them human faces—underscore that intent.
Monk opens gently. Railway station announcements softly filter into the Yerba Buena Theater as the audience files in. One of De Gumbia’s pregnant images, a giant thumb print, is projected on the empty stage. It speaks of personal uniqueness, nevertheless, it is made up of hundreds of individual lines that have to come together. Then Peter Whitehead, as a wandering minstrel, sits down at edge of the stage to urge us to “listen to the sound of your still beating heart.” It’s lovely, muted yet exhortative. It is also the last live music in the next ninety minutes though, it must be said, Whitehead and Norman Rutherford’s suggestive collages of found sounds and instrumental and vocal music was more than serviceable; it had passages of great beauty, complexity and fragility. And it always connected to the dance. (Albert Mathias contributed main percussion tracks; Andrew Kushin additional sampling).
When the lights come up, a kneeling Navarrete, in red shorts, throws dice and readies himself for what “life” will bring by donning boxing gloves. Confronted by Hermesdorf, the closest to the Mann’s own seeker figure, she taunts him with her lacy white shawl into a “bull fight.” Defeating him, her cape becomes his shroud. Yet even as she mourns him at his feet, he begins to crawl out the other end of the covering. A few minutes later Hermesdorf repeatedly rolls across the floor mummy-like wrapped up in the same shroud only to have it unravel and release her. These look like images of reincarnation, and they set the background for surprise encounters, unexpected trajectories and harmonious interactions that, despite a rambling center section, keep Monk pretty much on track.
When Monk is at its best, Mann’s choreography yanks opposing impulses together like so many ricocheting atoms. The clashes—mostly one to one-- set off sparks both beautiful and funny. The constantly shifting encounters usually are quite short but each one ends with an exclamation point.
Tewksbury, an athletic whirlwind, crawls towards a nuptial encounter with the balletic Adoniou with a tigress’ docility. Hermesdorf tries to get to Adoniou with a back flip; he stops her with his upheld arm. Tiny Seiters, who seems to undergo her own transformation from a boy to a girl in the piece, somehow ends up perched on top of Alayo’s shoulder. He barely seems to be aware of her weight. At another point he attempts to throw off Tewksbury who ends in his arms and then on top of him. Repeatedly, Alayo’s long powerful legs serve as launching pad or resting places.
Hermesdorf stomps the prone Tewksbury awake for a lusciously athletic duet of flips, and hugs, and falls. Theirs is one of the piece’s most successful partnerships. At its conclusion Hermesdorf rolls around a lit square as if she had won a contest. The blind-fold duet, now between Alayo and Hermesdorf—two very different people trying to find each other—looked shorter than when first seen and not quite as touching.
Mann also allows for individual solos to highlight each dancer’s “fingerprint.” Adoniou’s is a windblown solo of jetés in which he chases and is chased by squares of light. Alayo, a tall muscular dancer engages his scooping arms and articulated shoulders into torqued descents that felt both powerful and fragile. Repeatedly he tries to bore his body into the earth only to wheel him across space as if tracing the sun’s trajectory. Navarrete, a suave and skilled social dancer, tries on both male and female roles through clothing. Hermesdorf, who in the beginning, plants a rose—a beacon of love?—ends up by using it as a punching with which to try to knock out a partner. Yet for all the different impulses, they do amount to generating something akin to communal ecstasy.
Towards the end, Navarrete’s dice fall all around him, the sound track looses its specificity and becomes closer more like a rumble. Or maybe a moan or deep breathing. The dancers gather to kneel around Hermesdorf’s lit candle. Spread across the stage’s apron are bread and wine, a bowl of fruit and a plate of sweets. “Feast of Souls” was the sub-title of one of Monk’s earlier incarnations. It seems appropriate for this Monk as well.
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