George Balanchine once said, “Put a man and woman together on a stage and already you’ve got a story.”
The business of gender notwithstanding, duets have indeed become the backbone of contemporary ballet. Only most of them don’t tell stories. John Alleyne’s Sex is my Religion stood out in Ballet British Columbia’s program of four dances at the Joyce, because he uses duets as conduits toward expression rather than as exercises in clever partnering.
I’m not sure what Alleyne is getting at in Sex is my Religion, but for starters it’s not sex and it’s not religion. I think the story is about the volatility of intimate relationships and the nature of intimacy itself. The dance’s small, muted shifts in climate suggest that subtlety and intimacy are synonymous. There are no confrontational storms among the four couples. Rather, a woman presents an arm or shoulder to her partner as if to ask, “How will you receive this move?” And the extent of choreographic development triggered by the gesture gives you a reading of the couple’s compatibility. For the moment. Because the dynamic keeps changing: there are dead ends, flickers of
defiance, and many, many separations. But even the separations seem part of a continuum— this despite the choppy sonorities of Linda Bouchard’s commissioned score.
Although the pleasure/pain factor is not as clear as it might be, not once did I detach myself from the goings-on and think, “My, what a clever way to begin a pirouette.” Alleyne and his eight dancers had me immersed in the feelings of the dancing all the time.
There, below, by James Kudelka, is the perfect refutation of Balanchine’s theory about storytelling. A series of duets for five couples, it’s a mindless exposition of lifts and turns executed with seamless flow. Dry ice— lots of dry ice— provides the climate. Mark Godden’s Conversation Piece, which couldn’t decide between farce and tragedy, and Serge Bennathan’s brief duet, The Fall, were also on the program.