Theater archives

Opening the Cage


If you want to dance in Montreal, you’d better not bruise easily. For years, audiences have been gasping and wincing as members of companies like Edouard Lock’s La La La Human Steps and Ginette Laurin’s O Vertigo launch themselves into the air or plunge floorward. Body slams against body. An embrace looks like a brush with sudden death. In Bagne, which played the Joyce in early October, Pierre-Paul Savoie and Jeff Hall of PPS Danse have discovered an ideal theme for abusive ecstasy: imprisonment. Never has the term “slammer” seemed so piquant.

The long duet can be performed by two men (Savoie and Hall) or two women (Carole Courtois and Sarah Williams). Bernard Lagacé’s clangorous metal set assembles within the proscenium arch the materials of a jail—chain-link fence, locked gates, a tiled wall, a catwalk, two cells whose barred doors become cots, a rec yard. But these are not literal. The prisoners can slip through gates and out of cells, and the supposed wall turns out to be a curtain of squares that look like mother-of-pearl when the light hits them just so. The prison may be of the inhabitants’ own making.

What is fearsomely real are the ordeals of getting around this nastily gleaming jungle gym, the viciousness and rare tenderness of the performers’ encounters with each other and their environment. Near the beginning, the two (I saw the male cast) clamber on the high gates between the audience and the rest of the set. The music that interrupts crickets and barking dogs (score by Ginette Bertrand) has the marching zest of a medieval parade, and the men respond to it as such, laughing as they jockey (in a carefully wrought dance pattern) for position on the fence and staring into the distance. Minutes later, they’re slamming each other into that same barricade, which is miked to jangle. Savoie yanks on Hall’s ears. Lanky Hall jams his finger into Savoie’s mouth until the smaller man gags.

We come to understand the guys’ sly ploys, the rage that erupts from confinement, the make-do eroticism (Hall rocking Savoie from under his cot, its iron bars between their bodies), and, above all, their isolation. They touch the fences that confine them, and the metal comes alive, whipping them with sound. It’s a shock when Hall plunges headfirst off the catwalk and hangs by his feet, first to be toyed with by his fellow prisoner, then coaxed to consciousness. However, one flaw in this drastic and powerful work is that you usually can see what’s coming. The men have to unhook this and unlatch that in order to make the necessary transitions, thereby telegraphing “New effect ahead,” and subverting the flow of fury.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a pigeon the same way,” says my companion, blinking as the lights come up after Jennifer Monson’s The Pigeon Project at P.S. 122, which closed last week. Just wait. Monson’s five-year “Bird Brain” project will track and study the migrations of gray whales, songbirds, geese and ducks, and northern wheatears—an enterprise involving elaborate technology, diverse sites, and “creative linkages” between artists and scientists. Observing trained pigeons from a New York rooftop is only the beginning.

There is nothing obviously mimetic in this dance for three women (Astrud Angarita, Ermira Gorou, and Alejandra Martorell). What Monson has so beautifully expressed in dance terms are patterns of behavior, of flight, of response. You could watch it not knowing the title and simply see three fine performers in a dynamically charged, slightly mysterious array of activities—now serenely intent on some goal, now flocking impulsively, playfully, combatively. For a few seconds, digging their chins into their shoulders, they become avian chorus girls.

It’s a warm night, and all the windows are open. The three women wear black or gray pedal pushers and vests that give them a slightly puffy look (costume concept by Jonathan Berger), and the soles of their feet are stained blue. Standing in one corner, slowly lifting one arm, swaying slightly, turning a bit, they seem to be feeling the sun on their skin, or casting for the direction of a breeze. James Lo’s score punctuates their hovering with intermittent, soft bird sounds. I can feel that wind, that warmth. The women respond to bleak white light with gusts of energy, rushing and frolicking across the space; when the light turns suddenly green, they quiet down. A thunder crash sets them fluttering. On tiptoe, they spread their wings, but they also fly prone—arching up, and twisting to catch the draft. At one point, Gorou, crouching and jittering, seems to become a rooftop cat on the prowl.

Barb Monoian’s stubby feather bundles suspended from above, and bird mobiles by her and Noelle Kalom that throw blurry shadows, plus Berger’s ship-turntables spinning badminton “birds,” seem somewhat extraneous, if witty. But Lo’s score and Lenore Doxsee’s lighting pungently evoke the atmospheres Monson is exploring. Small lights even fly slowly across on wires, altering the terrain below. The loveliness of this piece goes beyond Monson’s high level of invention and the three dancers’ sensitivity. The Pigeon Project tenderly, respectfully, and unpretentiously hymns earth’s creatures and the forces about them.

A malfunctioning clock lands me, panting and furious, at St. Mark’s Church October 8 in time for only the final minutes of Painstake, Luis Lara’s half of a Danspace program shared with Jeremy Nelson. But I do get to watch the ingenious set by Lara (now calling himself Malvacías) as it’s turned around and utterly transformed. For Pain-stake, the beige cardboard wall is painted with curious glyphs and black false openings; for Nelson’s Flats, the designs are sparer and blockier. Nelson’s dancers—himself, Luciana Achugar, and Levi Gonzalez—wear checked pants and oilcloth vests decked with pockets and little packs, as if to say this dance requires survival tactics. And among the bagpipes of David Watson’s score are sounds that vaguely resemble rattling trains.

Nelson makes fascinating movement—a combination of rag-doll looseness and knife-edged precision, awkward and graceful at the same time. Sometimes I think of giraffes. The choreography’s mainly about setting marvelous dancers to work in intelligent, variegated patterns; it tells its own story, whether that story is about Achugar focusing close around her own body, as she’s being stirred by winds, or Nelson and Gonzalez jabbing and scooping around each other—alike, yet so different. No plot, just designs and rhythms that conjure up the experience of living.