Gaspard Louis achieved a critical plateau last week on his trek up the mountain towards success for his modern dance company, Gaspard & Dancers. The company presented its 5th annual concert in Duke University’s Reynolds Theater, and a great deal of the potential evident in the Haitian-born Louis’ earlier concerts was realized by the company as currently configured. The program on Sept. 25-26 featured the premiere of his newly-completed L’Esprit, the final section of his trilogy concerning the devastating Haitian earthquake of 2010.
Louis, a former Pilobolus dancer, has now been choreographing long enough to have found his own style, and has had the tenacity to hold his dream of a first-rate company before him as he has struggled, like all dance artists, to raise enough money to bring his vision to life. In previous years, he has relied on local and regional dance talent (which is not inconsiderable), but this time, he auditioned dancers from afar, and hired the chosen ones to work with him full-time for a solid month before the performances.
On the 25th, audiences finally saw what Louis has had in mind all this time. This was the third time I’d seen part one, Annatations, and at least the third time I’d seen the central component Souke (Shake), which I also saw in development on students at the American Dance Festival in 2012. But seeing them performed by this tight ensemble of very strong dancers was an entirely different experience.
Louis demands not only strength and agility, not only lyricism and grace, but honest emotionality. His trilogy deals with matters of the spirit and those of the flesh, and is remarkably free from intellectual gaming and aesthetic artifice. Opening with the beautiful Annatations, with its watery travels and ethereal risings, moving to Souke, in which the world falls down and the beloved dead are reverently tended, and closing with L’Esprit‘s clarion call to live again, and dance, Louis’ Haitian trilogy is no slight undertaking. Both dancers and audience must open to the pain, as well as the happiness, of this life and death. Whatever your spiritual beliefs may be regarding non-bodily life on the other side of the veil, it is impossible not to respond to the life-force pulsing through the post-earthquake L’Esprit, in which the dancers light up our spirits with their joyous motion to Afro-Caribbean jazz beats and soaring trumpet.
Like all successful choreographers, Louis understands that the dancing alone is not enough–the stage pictures must be powerful, the lighting must make them more so, and the costuming and any set must reinforce the dance without calling undue attention to themselves. The music must both drive and serve the dance. In the Haitian trilogy, John Kolba has devised (with Jennifer Wood on Souke) three very different lighting designs that emphasize the different states of being, and Jakki Kalogridis’ costumes are excellent, especially those for Annatations, which have a lovely relationship with Steven Silverleaf‘s hovering angels (perhaps they are arche-angels). Randall Love and Paul Leary made suitably fractured, unnerved music for Souke, and cellist-composer Joshua Starmer has made a haunting and very beautiful piece for Annatations. You can hear it on or download it from his site. All this is by way of pointing out that the collaborative skills Gaspard Louis developed as a member of Pilobolus are working to his, and our, benefit in his role as choreographer and company director.
In addition to the trilogy, the concert on the 25th and 26th included Louis’s 2002 duet, Deux, which he danced with the powerful Kristin Taylor. It is rich in interesting lifts and carries, but more affecting for its nuanced look at a man and a woman in love and occasional conflict. The big surprise, though, was the opening number. In his day job, Louis is outreach director for the American Dance Festival, and in that role, he teaches part-time at Durham’s public charter grade school, the Central Park School for Children. He has worked with some of these children, now in 4th and 5th grades, since they were in kindergarten; they were joined by younger ones in Dance x 19. He taught them an adaptation of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas! And it was wonderful. Unlike the professional dancers who performed the work at ADF in 2011, they hadn’t had the playfulness trained out of them. And that offers another key to Gaspard Louis’ appeal: he just won’t quit working toward his dream of a national-level modern dance company based in Durham, NC–but he won’t quit playing toward it, either.
If you would like to help Louis take it to the next level, you can contribute to the company (a 501c-3 not-for-profit organization) through the website.