Fusion forms

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  April 23, 2008

Mysterious figures wearing mismatched costumes (the choreographers and Stephanie Lanckton and DeAnna Pellecchia) glimmered and went invisible in a 12-foot room with a scrim for a front wall. Kathy Couch’s atmospheric lighting and projections caught them crouching inside the room, suspended on its roof, hanging from the ceiling and clambering up one perforated wall. Perhaps at random, one or two of the figures slipped out to wander through the stage at large or lurk indecisively near a ladder of neon.

Sometimes I thought they were just experimenting with how their simple moves — hip wiggles, shoulder stands, folded shapes — would look under the lighting activity. Other times the movement suggested dramatic encounters. Characters seemed to stalk other characters, capture them, partner them in shadow duets. A woman ricocheted off the walls; I thought of Lillian Gish trapped in a closet in Broken Blossoms.

A program note informed us that the collaborators used a film script to make the piece, but I saw it more as a collection of scenes from German expressionism and silent movies than as a connected narrative.

Behemoth, choreographed by Cardone, filmmaker Alla Kovgan, and designer Dedalus Wainwright, seemed nebulous as “an evocation of a color organ.” Musicians, artists, and mystics throughout history have tried to correlate light and sound. Father Louis Bertrand Castel’s color organ, one of many such experiments, used colored glass and a complicated apparatus to create visible music when the organist operated the keys.

Two big objects hung over the stage, suggesting the vertical structures of organ pipes. Projections flickered over them, but they didn’t emit specific colors. Jessica Rylan sat at a console and produced a series of irritating electronic noises — steady-state screeches and yowls and static. Alissa Cardone roamed the space, making spidery gestures, wearing a mini version of an 18th-century ball gown. Sometimes the sounds seemed to propel her, sometimes not.

Midway through the piece, she and Rylan exchanged places. Rylan walked around self-consciously with a microphone, like a modern-day lecturer. She might have been saying something informative, but the noises drowned her out.

Last weekend, the New Zealand company Black Grace visited the Tsai Performance Center for two evenings sponsored by the Celebrity Series. The group of six men — joined by four female guest dancers on this tour — draw their movement material from modern dance, popular culture, and the members’ collective Pacific Island heritage. Artistic director Neil Ieremia choreographed all seven short works.

The core language was introduced in the first piece, Fa’a Ulutao, a display of unrelenting male power. The lexicon of punching, thrusting, galumphing, thigh slapping, stamping, sudden spins into the air, and running-falling-rolling stemmed from the tradition of warlike dances with which Maori tribesmen threatened their colonial enemies. Black Grace doesn’t use the grotesque face painting associated with Maori folklore, and its dance comes across less as an aggressive act than as a ritual of tightly bonded brothers.

There were two soft moments in Fa’a Ulutao: a suspension with floating arms, and a full stop when the men began what looked like a ballet port de bras. These lapses anticipated the contemporary influences on the group — Euro-American dance, hip-hop and rap, even the Christian church — but the basic vocabulary remained in place, extending into acrobatics and virtuosic body-music.

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