Forming a dance company must be one of the most difficult undertakings in the arts. The costs are enormous; the obstacles many. It is not hard to understand why so many aspiring choreographers present work with few dancers, and in oddball venues, or why so often their bold ventures dwindle after two or three years. Yet Durham choreographer Gaspard Louis continues to keep the dream alive and growing. Last night–the program repeats tonight, 9/19–Gaspard & Dancers presented its sixth annual concert in Duke’s Reynolds Theater. The program features the premiere of both Louis’ Tota Pulchra Es (You Are All Beautiful) and the music for it, by William Banfield, the Mallarmé Chamber Players performing. Next weekend, Gaspard & Dancers will have its New York debut at the Pace University Schimmel Center, where the company will perform Louis’ Haitian Trilogy.
Although that Trilogy ends with the powerfully positive L’Esprit (performed on the 18th with crispness and smiling sass–Taquirah Thompson and Rashidi Lewis both were particularly fine), the three works together surely took an emotional toll on their maker, even while giving him the relief of expression for his feelings about the terrible Haitian earthquake. The first segment, Souke (Shake), is also on this program. Followers of Gaspard & Dancers will have seen this piece by the Haitian-born Louis at least once before, but the performance this time is the strongest yet. The quality of the dancing makes the sudden falls and the sad piles of bodies even more poignant than in earlier versions. The two bookends of the Trilogy, on this program, sandwich not the souls of the earthquake dead swimming through purgatory on their way to redemption in Annatations, but a bubbling little duet.
Danced by Gaspard Louis and Imani Simmons, Magical Cusp is a delicious little balancing act between a man and a woman, both dressed in cadmium orange (costumes by Melody Eggan) set to bubbling music by Andy Hasenpflug and lit with his usual pizazz by David Ferri. Imani Simmons is perfectly delightful–a small woman with lots of hair, she is spritely and sensuous at once, and next to Louis with his smooth head, powerfully developed musculature and intense presence, she seemed like a Monarch butterfly flirting with a jaguar. This happy piece made a good transition from the gray dusty wreckage of Souke to the unquenchable L’Esprit.
All that comes after the intermission. First, the Mallarmé Chamber Players, in the pit, perform, opening with the andante movement from Brahms’ Violin Concerto in A major (op. 100), then Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor, “Nicht zu schell.” The Brahms was a bit on the wan side, but the Mahler was rich, with the piano notes cool and radiant against the harmonious braid of warm strings. Then Julia Thompson switched from page turner to percussionist and the first notes of William Banfield’s new work sounded as the curtain rose on the dancers en tableau.
Tota Pulchra Es is itself beautiful–and completely lacking in conflict or suffering. It seems as if Louis needed to make something purely lovely after the long travails of the Trilogy–something “calme, luxe et volupté.” The poses are graceful and the dancing between them is pretty, as are the costumes by Mahalia Stines, especially the women’s floaty skirts. All is buoyed up by Banfield’s score, and kept from pulchritudinous excess by his sly and slightly acerbic beats in the complex percussion set-up. The dance showcases the strengths and elegancies of the dancers, as well as their witty humor–and their enjoyment of dancing. In a mad world of incomprehensible conflict and struggle, a dream of beauty embodied in beauty feeds both those who make it and those who receive it.