Saturday, May 8, 2010

Tasting "Excellence"

[Photo: "Only Sleeping" by Subcircle and Geoff Sobelle]

A recent meeting at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage posed the question “what kinds of formats provide and encourage evaluative critical feedback that promotes excellence?” It’s obvious that most everything you see can be developed further in a variety of ways. Sometimes a choreographer has a blind spot, sometimes not enough time, or both. And sometimes excellence will elude even the most thorough worker. There’s a mysterious component too: the ineffable brilliance factor, impossible to manufacture.

How thrilling then to see a dance work, or even big hunks of a dance work, that are beautifully considered, clearly the product of prodigious intelligence, and breathtakingly executed. Two such experiences in one week leave this viewer delighted, relieved, as though drenched with rain in a dry time.

Pennsylvania Ballet demonstrates itself alternately as being top drawer or nearer second string. In mounting William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” the Ballet has taken on a work that crackles with brilliance throughout and pushes the dancers to unimagined heights. Forsythe plays between the pedestrian and the meta-virtuosic. Shambling entrances or casual shifts in space are ‘breathers’ that just whet the appetite for more of his whippet swift distortions of traditional ballet line. Formations recall the studio dynamic of ‘in-betweens’ – a line far upstage with each dancer in a different resting pose, a cluster to the side that forms and reforms before the “hit it” moment. And when they do hit it, the action is perilous: partnering with leans at precipitous angles and thrown weight. This was Forsythe before his work strayed too far from the ballet lexicon so every stretch away from the familiar is illuminating, delightful. And the dancers, thoroughbreds that they are, lap up the challenge. I have never seen principals like Zachary Hench, Riolama Lorenzo, Julie Diana, Amy Aldrich move so big, so fast, and so wild. It goes so far beyond even the most virtuosic turns I have witnessed at PA Ballet in the past that I’m left dazed, an adulating fan.

On quite another end of the dance spectrum, Niki and Jorge Cousineau, known collectively as Subcircle, in collaboration with Geoff Sobelle, have mounted an exhilarating synthesis of projected video with dance, text and original music - “Only Sleeping.” This is one of those works where a long history of collaboration and time to chew on multiple possibilities before settling on finalized images have resulted in moments of exquisite complexity. You read intelligence from the get-go. Sobelle appears on video only, a Magritte-like everyman, a counterpart to Niki Cousineau’s everywoman/mother (we learn on audio). Mike Kiley’s music has a rock sensibility and uses a wall of voices for intensely cinematic moments.

In a set resembling a living room with two doorways, a window, and an expanse of wall serving as a large projection surface, “Only Sleeping” relates a tale of parallel worlds, a fantasy of being swept from one’s life into that of another. The lightly sketched story line is given a sense of place through video imagery of hallways, empty rooms, and an expanse of ocean. It mines earlier works by Subcircle (“Somewhere Close to Now” above all) with a live performer in perplexing circumstances involving changes of scale and orientation.

The piece has knock-out transitions that shift nearly imperceptibly from the offhand and conversational to the theatrical (like Forsythe’s switches from preparation to full out execution). The interrelationships of multiple projected video images are orchestral in their density. Layered over time they conform to or thwart expectation, as when after seeing a door open multiple times to reveal Sobelle behind it in some quasi-pedestrian but indescribable activity, the door finally opens to reveal another door and another and another, ad infinitum. “Only Sleeping” is like that, opening out to new ground, who knows precisely where.