Midway through Édouard Lock’s Amelia, performed by his Montreal-based La La La Human Steps, I began to envision it as ballet dancers’ hell, where they’re doomed for eternity to repeat the same eight or 10 steps at nearly impossible speeds, unrelated to the accompanying music (David Lang’s score for onstage violin, cello, and piano, with Lou
Reed lyrics sung by Nadine Medawar). A stroboscopic effect in John Munro’s lighting fragments the first slashing, windmilling gestures, imprinting each millisecond on your retina. The dancers’ lower limbs need no technical assistance. A spectator’s eye can scarcely keep up with legs rapidly flicking from bent to straight. Spotlights further splinter the action by blacking out on illuminated dancers and beaming down in another place, where these performers—or others—appear almost simultaneously. Lacy metal screens periodically descend to veil the stage action and intermittent video projections of a beautiful, lost-in-space female dancer.
Lock has said he was inspired in part by a transvestite he once knew and that he’s contesting gender stereotypes. The men wear trousers and jackets, the women see-through black tops, short shorts (costumes by Vandal), and pointe shoes. However, gender issues are raised only in glancing, superficial ways, mainly in a duet for the Valkyrian blonde Zofia Tujaka and Billy Smith, in which both sport black suits and pointe shoes, and in another duet for Jason Shipley-Holmes and Bernard Martin (one of the few that hints at feelings). In all the partnering, one person (always a man) grasps the waist of another (most often a woman) and twists her or him back and forth while the manipulee shoots one leg in all directions. In Lock’s earliest dances, performers hurled themselves into the air, horizontal and spinning, to be caught by others a risky distance away. Amelia is rigidly vertical, and any horizontality is about pose (a siren-like reclining), not about falling.
The performers (Andrea Boardman, Misteya Hemingway, Keir Knight, and Chun Hon Li, in addition to those mentioned) may find the work stimulating, but zest isn’t part of Lock’s plan. This is dance for the cyber age. Fascinating at first, icily brilliant in its virtuosic minimalism, trendy in its black-and-white palette, Amelia shocks the eye. Not far into the 90-minute, intermissionless work, the hammering repetition and lack of contrast become numbing, and the brilliant dancers inevitably begin to look like figures in your basic arcade video game, flashing through no-win wars while waiting for the coins to drop.
Like Amelia, Rear Light, choreographed for the Beijing Modern Dance Company by its deputy artistic director, Li Hanzhong, and his wife, Ma Bo, takes place in a gleaming monochromatic environment. All 13 dancers wear black trousers, white shirts, ties, and sometimes jackets or trench coats. Some of the action takes place on a huge structure that resembles silvery bleachers minus seats and sprouts trees of lights that shine out toward the audience. Unlike Lock, however, Li and Ma allow irregularities to disrupt standard behavior and let unison yield to individual expression, in the process creating brave and resonant passages. However, Rear Light becomes muddled or drawn-out at times, and at a few key moments the movement goes choreographically limp—relying on the emotion in the music, Pink Floyd’s 1979 The Wall, to keep us involved.
Only in the last decade have contemporary-dance companies like the BMDC appeared in China, and their difficult mission has been to refer to cultural roots and current issues while utilizing, but not aping, the Western techniques they’ve been exposed to. Rear Light obliquely addresses concerns in China today (freedom of expression, disaffected youth, commercialization, the wars men start). If there is little that seems overtly “Chinese,” that may be because the company leaders, Zhang Changcheng and artistic director Willy Tsao, and the two choreographers wish to suggest that these issues are universal.
The choice of music is startling. However, Pink Floyd’s drastic sound effects, snatches of old-timey song, post-Vietnam references to war, and the apocalyptic builds typical of 1970s rock somehow fit a fundamental theme of Rear Light: the contrast between concerted action—marching in patterns, semaphoring in unison—and racing around, falling, and bursting into loose, wide-reaching, individualized dancing. Some of the allusions to war are obvious: Men hold women who point their legs like rifles. Others are more inventive: A spotlight descends until it almost touches the ground, scattering a crowd and felling one man. (This “bomb” is also swung as if in a dangerous game, and during the sardonic song “Bomb ‘Baby’ ” people takes turns cradling it.)
The choreographers want very much to involve us. Dancers enter through the house and line up onstage to present tickets for their places in the “bleachers.” Near the end, they re-enter in mildly gaudy attire and pull spectators onstage to join their discoing. But then they start falling and dragging at the volunteers’ hands as if saying, “Help me up.” It’s a bright idea, if awkwardly realized (in artistic terms, the dancers don’t really want to recover, they want us to see them struggle). Their impromptu partners’ responses cross cultural boundaries; one woman keeps stepping in place and swaying her hips to the music, immune to the disaster before her, until a victim grabs her hand.
Polly Motley has little in common with the steely virtuosos of La La La Human Steps or the emotion-driven warriors of the Beijing Modern Dance Company. This is not simply because she’s a soloist, but because she’s a quiet woman. Her Dancing the Numbers took me back to the 1970s, where settling down to watch people slowly and sensitively explore a space and small, intricate changes within their own bodies was a satisfying way to spend an evening.
Motley is a mature woman as trim as a girl. Her small-boned body makes her appear vulnerable, despite her strength, but so does a certain softness in her gestures and a questioning gaze. She bases the timing of her solo’s sections on the Fibonacci numeral series, in which each new number is the sum of the two previous ones; but that’s for her to know, not for us to see. She does hint at the numbers immediately after she has walked into St. Mark’s wearing a snowy tanktop and wide-legged, interestingly cut black pants, and looked us over as if in unstated greeting. “One,” she says, raising an arm very slowly. “One.” “Two.” As she repeats her gesture, she complicates it slightly, makes it more three-dimensional. After a while, Paul Geluso begins to introduce spare sounds into her world: pattering drums, her own voice, bird song, crickets, running water, the rumbling of a train, the whoosh of an airplane, tinklings, woody tones.
Dancing the Numbers has a hushed elegance, perhaps because everything Motley does seems carefully chosen, whether or not she’s improvising. You don’t wonder why she holds her hands like an open book and speaks for some time, getting subtly louder and faster, in what might be Hawaiian gibberish. You don’t question why she lies prone and seems almost to struggle, or worry when her feet stick to something invisible on the floor. She stands on one leg for a long time like a resting heron. She deconstructs what might once have been a Javanese court dance.
Her movements are always supple yet controlled. Soft. She inserts her arms into the air as if it were a delicate garment. Yet subtle variegations in design and tone color her movements. There’s a thick, knotted green rope on the floor, leading toward the altar platform. She never acknowledges it, but when she finishes she’s at the foot of the steps.
Your eyes behave differently when confronted with work this intimate and unpressured. And you put your expectations to sleep, grateful for small, lovely surprises.