Gideon Obarzanek/Beijing Dance Theatre/Dancenorth
A Quiet Evening of Dance
Melding Chinese and western music, choreography for dancers and audience, One Infinity is an inviting and inclusive work. In the space of the Merlyn Theatre, two facing banks of seating accommodate spectator-participants. Between them, a black glossy platform is sparely set with two low Chinese-style tables set with guqin - traditional stringed instruments. Music sets the tone with Genevieve Lacey’s pure and perfect recorder melody. Musicians move in and out of the space throughout the work and the focus shifts from one instrument to another, sometimes holding the floor and sometimes accompanying dancers or the audience/movers. The delicate plucking of the guqin is especially balletic as graceful, trailing fingers paused between phrases.
The dancers are broken into two groups in the first part of One Infinity. Five dancers from Beijing Dance Theater cluster amongst the audience and articulate shapes - combining to open and close like petals of a flower or the tendrils of a sea anemone. They are answered by performers from Dancenorth on the opposite side. The audience follows sequences of arm movements, led by a dancer sitting across from us. Watching our equivalent group making beautiful patterns, in surprisingly harmonious synchronicity, bestowed a sense of value on our actions that transcended “audience participation” and felt integral to the work. Our contribution created a rippling echo from the concentrated movement of the dancers.
Individual elements cohere well in this work, while feeling quite discrete and self-contained. One Infinity was strongest when the musicians filled the tranquil room with sound - each note seemed differentiated, clear and suspended in the stillness. Layers were built by adding the gentle organic folding of dancers’ bodies, or the concentrated simple sequences enacted by the audience.
Dancers from the two companies were costumed in different colours to begin - dusty warm tones for Dancenorth and cool blue-green shades for Beijing Dance Theater. This clearly differentiated each group, perhaps simply reflecting that they had rehearsed separately. Other than for these practical reasons, I couldn't see a clear purpose for keeping them segregated. When loose pants and tops were shed revealing new skin-hugging costumes, the colours became muted and more uniform and the dance also became less segregated. Interestingly, the least interesting parts of the dance were those of the performers en masse on the stage.
Even so, One Infinity is a beautiful work with elements of true immersion and gentle participation.
William Forsythe is truly one of the world’s dance greats. A Quiet Evening of Dance is a beautifully modulated journey that builds in movements and phrases, organised into five pieces across two acts. Forsythe’s work functions as a kind of poetry, contracting and expanding meaning and movement. It could equally be seen as a set of mathematical propositions, following precise rules of execution before shattering them.
Much of the dance happens in quirky abbreviated phrases that halt and pause momentarily before running on. Poses reference the dance manuals of the masters of Louis XIV’s court, where the ideal of la belle danse was grace, poise and precision. Here movements are atomised, angularised, inverted and reinvented. Forsythe’s dancers seem to portray both incipient students of the art of courtly ballet - striving for mastery - as well as being consummate transcenders of its edicts, creating their own new language. The inclusion of hip hop suggests that in a way the new is always a recombination of the old.
The Prologue starts with a birdsong score. The long white gloves worn by the dancers draw attention to the articulations of their arms. Breathing adds to the music. A woman in shoulder-length hot pink gloves and sneakers dances short phrases; her movements compressed and contained. Others come and go; jazzy sequences end abruptly. Pliés, tendus and light abbreviated cabrioles and pas de bourrés appear. Shoulder isolations and articulations enter the movement language. Two women dance close to one another separately and independently but their dance is always “talking” to the other. A couple dancing in silence alerts us to the innate rhythm of the steps and the music of the bodies.
Two male dancers dialogue to a score of bird song and enact lovely long arm gestures. They eye one another competitively, glide forward and back, landing in springy elastic plies. Long and short phrases fall in and out of synch, movements dart from fluid to staccato and back. It is somehow moving and witty and cerebral all at once. There are contrasts of composure with precariousness and audible breaths adding to the music. The dance becomes increasingly tricky and self-consciously virtuosic with elements of slapstick.
The second part of the program announces itself with the courtly music of Jean-Philippe Rameau's. The audience prepares for “real ballet”. Of course Forsythe doesn't quite oblige. The dance is more expansive but still references the elements of la belle danse in its pauses and gestures. It begins with a spirited pas de trios and finally includes all seven dancers including a counterpointed showcasing of hip hop bravura.
A Quiet Evening of Dance is a kind of love song to ballet and a reminder that however far we stray from the strictures of classical technique, it is our anchor.
- SUSAN BENDALL