People in Black

Lyon Opera Ballet and Wally Cardona Quartet at Jacob’s Pillow

Earlier in the century, opera-house ballet companies had a reputation for stodginess. Their choreographers and dancers juggled Carmen and La Traviata. George Balanchine at the Met and, later, Antony Tudor, couldn't sandwich more than an occasional ballet evening into the opera seasons. But in Europe, the last 25 years have seen a change in the state-run opera houses' commitment to dance. Only at the very beginning of her tenure in Wuppertal did Pina Bausch have to create dances for operas. These days, gilt-and-crimson theaters may house very innovative contemporary choreography.

Since 1991, under the direction of Yorgos Loukos, the Lyon Opera Ballet has commissioned or acquired works from risk-taking choreographers in Europe like William Forsythe, Maguy Marin, and Jean-Claude Gallotta, as well as American postmodernists as diverse as Lucinda Childs and Bill T. Jones. The program that challenged the superbly adaptable Lyon dancers' cutting-edge chops at Jacob's Pillow in July featured two pieces by Jirí Kylián of Nederlands Dans Theater, and one each by two younger choreographers with companies of their own, the British Russell Maliphant and the Australian Meryl Tankard.

Kylián has always been versatile. His 1991 Un Ballo, to two pieces by Maurice Ravel, is a study in peculiar elegance. Beneath a grid of lit candles, 10 dancers—puffy skirts for the women—perform with frisky politesse. But they're a bit kinky, these courtiers, even though they're as patterned in their maneuvers as wallpaper shepherds and shepherdesses. In the end, the women lie on the men's bent backs and hoist their skirts for us.

Matthew Winheld and Joanna Kotze in the Wally Cardona Quartet's Morph: Live Remix,
photo: Mike Van Sleen
Matthew Winheld and Joanna Kotze in the Wally Cardona Quartet's Morph: Live Remix,

Stamping Ground, on the other hand, is a dark, sleek, rather Forsythian piece in which six dancers display a strong focus and a venomous energy. Dressed in severe black and entering one by one through invisible gaps in a shiny black plastic curtain, they assert themselves in solitary solos, wary as animals trying to scope out a water hole. In the long silence before Carlos Chavez's Toccata Para Instrumentos de Percusíon begins, they slap their bodies or stamp their feet. Marketa Plzakova's solo features predatory undulations and knotting arms. Miquel De Jong's arms hang loosely when he capers. But even looseness seems controlled among members of this handsome tribe, and their encounters—say, when two men swing a woman as if her legs were the clapper of a bell, or two people bounce another like a ball—are stylish exercises in virtuosic hostility.

Maliphant's Critical Mass is warmer and spongier, although no less stark. Wearing blue work clothes, Benoit Caussé and Mikaël Pomero meet in a square of light. To a variety of mostly industrial noises, mostly by Richard English, the men touch, lean, reach, catch each other in a phrase of rhythmically precise moves. They do it again and again—getting faster, slipping out of sync, starting and stopping. High voices sing, and they branch out. A bit of Latin dance music catches them up; they get playful. The piece is very satisfying, engrossing, as it builds to glancing contacts and lifts. At some point it began to seem long, although by then I was too enamored of these hardworking, single-minded guys to mind much.

In tackling Ravel's famous Boléro, Tankard bound herself to the music's inexorable rhythm and fiercely escalating heat. She seemed less secure in the last wild melee, when the music is snorting and bucking, but her idea was ingenious. (Because of an electrical storm, the piece had to be canceled two nights, so I've watched it only on video.) We never see the 11 dancers in the flesh, only their shadows. They appear in silhouette behind a three-part screen onto which intriguing patterns (by Régis Lansac) are projected. And, depending on their distance from the light source at the back, they can be tiny or enormous. Women in bell-shaped black skirts who bourrée steadily across, moving their arms in soft but doll-like ways, are swallowed up for a second between reaching the end of one panel and reappearing in the next.

Tankard creates some entrancing images. Three huge flamenco dancers wielding fans and snaking their hips are replaced by three men in hats, lighting cigarettes; suddenly the women re-materialize and give them hell. Big curling hands lord it over small dancers. Three women dance headless for a while. There seem to be two protagonists: a woman in a short dress and a man who sinks into deep lunges and crouches. They keep missing each other, then connecting, and they are the last onstage. At its peak, the music seems to be hurling everyone around the way wind would attack paper dolls. It's a provocative piece, flesh-and-blood performers doing intricate behind-scenes maneuvers to create a shadow reality. I'd like to watch it from the back.

Meanwhile, down at the Pillow's Doris Duke Studio Theatre, the Wally Cardona Quartet inhabits a world that lofts audience expectations high. To experience Morph: Live Remix, we sit on all sides of a space defined by light (by Roderick Murray) and three overhead metal structures (by Douglas Fanning with Maneswear Cheemalapati). Video designs and images of the ongoing dance are projected on one corner of the floor, and large shadows move on a wall (credit Maya Ciarrocchi). Spectators are encouraged to shift around—to sit on foam pillows close to the action, even in a peninsula that penetrates the dance.

With his compelling Trance Territory (2000), Cardona began to investigate rave, primal ritual, and their connections. In the premiere, he, Joanna Kotze, Kathryn Sanders, and Matthew Winheld, like DJs, remix learned material at every performance, morphing smoothly from one segment to another. The result is both compelling and oddly distancing, the strenuous movement a blend of the sensual and the near robotic. You get the impression that the dancers' arms are always straight (even though this isn't really true), moving from the shoulder the way their legs swing from the hips. Their demeanor remains cool, even though their frequent stares upward hint at apprehension. Consensus figured in Trance Territory; it rarely does here.

In a duet that occurs in a rectangle of light off to the side, the atmosphere heats up. Sanders scrabbles on her belly while Cardona runs around her. As they approach one another with stiff arms wheeling, you imagine they want to embrace, but fear they can only intersect. Then, when they're nose to nose, Cardona bends his elbow to grasp Sanders's hip; the effect, aided by the new sound of water lapping a tub (courtesy of Plexus) is almost thunderously erotic in contrast to everything else .

In this humming, buzzing, ticking world, the dancers rest amid spectators, stalk around, thrash. I think of dolphins, of giraffes, but only briefly. The dancing and the physical setting are rife with implicit drama, but the structure thwarts it. We sit very close to Morph, yet remain apart.

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