Successful 7: Gaspard & Dancers

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The Gaspard & Dancers ensemble in their Portrait costumes, at play outside the Bryan Center, September 29, 2016. Photo courtesy Gaspard Louis.

 

Since forming his company, Gaspard & Dancers, Gaspard Louis has presented an annual concert in Duke University’s Reynolds Theater. The seventh annual presentation began last night, and continues tonight, September 30. It includes two new works that are the finest yet of Louis’s oeuvre.

The new duet, Forbidden, set to music by Arvö Part (recorded by Angèle Dubeau and her string ensemble La Pietà) is danced here by Louis himself, with Justin Tornow. Although longtime viewers will note some similarities to Louis’s Deux, Forbidden is more evolved choreographically and emotionally, and brings to the forefront Louis’s equalization of powers between the sexes in his dances. In Forbidden, each supports the other; climbs on the other; is lifted by the other, in a long slow series of intensely charged movements under mysterious dim lighting (Tiffany Schrepferman). The piece highlights Louis’s strength and control, and his ability to seemingly root himself into earth like a tree–and his still-extraordinary suppleness. Justin Tornow is one of the most interesting dancers working in Durham, and her beautiful form and astonishing balance are fully exploited here. She is also very strong, and although she looks small and delicate next to Louis, she lifts him in one of many ravishing sequences. From its opening image–Tornow perched atop the standing Louis–with its delicate hand and arm movements, onward through tenderness, twists, and improbable overcomings of weight and gravity, Forbidden is lovely and unsettling. I do not know if race was a factor in Louis’s casting of Tornow for the female role, but visually the contrast between his very dark gleaming skin and her pale pearlescence heightens the emotionality of the dance.

The evening closes with the other premiere, Portrait, for which Louis took inspiration from the visual artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat (whose father, like Louis, was Haitian-born), and which he developed in collaboration with his dancers. Set to a highly textured score by Andy Hasenpflug, rich with urban sounds, the dance is supercharged with energetic line and shape-making. It swoops, its scrawls, it scribbles over itself, making and revising its own story-self with an insouciance echoing Basquiat’s. It is helped along by the colorful, asymmetrical costumes by Jessica Alexander and Kristine Liwag, and Tiffany Schrepferman’s sharp lighting, but on the 29th, it was the dynamic dancing that made it electrifying.

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Gaspard & Dancers’ Taquirah Thompson and A. J. Guevara rehearse Gaspard Louis’s 2016 Portrait, included in his 7th Annual Concert in Reynolds Theater. September 29, 2016.    Photo courtesy Gaspard Louis.

 

Louis has gradually assembled a strong group of dancers, most of whom have now worked with him for two years or more. This was the first time I felt they had melded into a true ensemble, keyed to Louis’ vision. Earlier in the program, the core group of six had reprised Louis’s 2009 Anemone (set to intriguing music by the late Danny Maheu) and made it gorgeous and enticing, whereas in Gaspard & Dancers’ first concert Anemone had been pretty but had felt too derivative of the Pilobolus pieces that Louis had danced as a member of that company. The stronger dancing of this ensemble highlighted the graceful balletic sections that open forth after the dancers roll onto the stage and unfurl themselves. Especially notable on the 29th were Taquirah Thompson and A.J. Guevara, who were particularly exciting when they danced together, their happiness in the dancing radiating into the audience. They stood out as well in the excellent reprise of Louis’s 2015 Tota Pulchra Es, with its wonderful music by Michael Wall. Again, the very good dancing of the tight ensemble revealed the strength of the choreography more fully.

The program also includes a charming piece danced by a passel of Gaspard Louis’s young students from his day job as leader of the American Dance Festival’s outreach program, Project Dance. DanceX15 is adapted from a section of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas and the children bring humor and joy to a piece that adults easily make dull and exasperating. Although their skills were not all at the same level, and this group was not quite as perfectly drilled as the Central Park School for Children students who danced it at a previous G&D concert, their pleasure in the movements and in performing for an audience was even greater. They reached dance’s most vital achievement: to make us feel, with joy, the life coursing through us.

To round out the program, Louis invited Ronald West to bring his company, Black Irish, to present a sort of preview of his forthcoming work, GOWN. SOUNDbites began very poorly indeed with a long taped monologue (before curtain up) of very little import, a confused rant to do (I think) with the fashion business and eating disorders. There are a great many “movement artists” for whom dancing is not enough, and who inject speaking into their works; there are not very many, however, who have developed the skills to do this well. Before subjecting an audience to such a screed, the artist needs to develop his or her editing skills, elocution skills and the ability to speak properly into a microphone–and the words need to be interlocked with–necessary to–the movement, and vice-versa. I was unable to ascertain the connection between the speech and the dancing, which was set to a choppy edit of “sound bites” from half a dozen popular singers and bands. There were, happily, some strong movement sequences (some with violent interactions), and some compelling dancing, especially by Steven James Rodriguez Velez, Natalie Morton, and West. We’ll look forward to seeing the finished work in 2017.

Tickets for the 8 pm, Sept. 30 performance of Gaspard & Dancers 7th Annual Concert are available from Duke Box Office. If you go, be aware that this is Homecoming Weekend at Duke, and budget extra time for getting into the parking deck if you must take a car.

The Wonderful World of Disney? See the dark side in Manbites’ Season Opener

Manbites Dog Theater opened its 30th season (!) last night with a strange, compelling little play with a big long title: A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, by Lucas Hnath. Got that? Hereafter to be referred to as Walt. The play was first produced at Soho Rep in 2013; at Manbites, it is a co-production with StreetSigns, and is directed by Joseph Megel.

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Derrick Ivey as Walt Disney in Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, directed by Joseph Megel. At Manbites Dog Theater through Oct. 1, 2016. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

It is not beside the point that Hnath, whose age does not seem to be anywhere on the internet, but I guessitmate to be 30ish, grew up in Orlando, Florida. There’s no doubt that would make for a different view of Walt Disney than that of a child who grew up conflating Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite, and who looked forward all week to “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights.  I suspect that Hnath’s is an accurate portrayal of the man who Disneyfied America: In Hnath’s play, Walt Disney is not a benign character.

Instead, he’s a casually cruel narcissist, or perhaps more accurately, a megalomaniac. The play’s characters are Walt, his brother Roy, Walt’s daughter (unnamed) and her husband Ron, and they are played here by a tight foursome of some of the Triangle’s strong actors, led by Derrick Ivey. Director Joseph Megel, in his inimitable way, coaxes maximum human feeling out of the cerebral script–and quite a few unexpected laughs.

As its title indicates, Walt‘s device is to cloak itself as a reading of a screenplay: everyone flips through pages in big black notebooks, and the shot directions form part of each speech, many of which are chopped sentence fragments. Although Hnath uses the characters to make larger points about families, personal power, imagination and mad ambition, legalized theft, the inorganic making of sanitized pretend-places, the immortality of ideas and the inescapability of death even for the “most important” people, Megel disallows caricaturization. Never are his characters mere signifiers for the playwright’s abundant ideas.

Megel has many fine qualities as a director–pacing, timimg, tone, choice of material and actors–but it is his insistence on the humanity of all the figures on the boards that is most important to the power of his work. Like Manbites’ artistic director Jeff Storer, Megel has a heart big enough to encompass the realness of all sorts of people–while turning them inside out and revealing their pitiful flaws and awful fears, along with their strengths and glories.

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Elisabeth Lewis Corley, left, as Roy Disney and Derrick Ivey as Walt. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Derrick Ivey continues to surpass himself. He exudes charisma, even as his Walt reveals the nastiness behind the public persona, and he contrives to look just like Disney. Elisabeth Lewis Corley, despite being undeniably female, gives an affecting performance as Roy Disney, Walt’s bitterly loyal make-it-happen man and kicking post. The excellent Lakeisha Coffey is under-utilized here, but sizzles in her key speech, and David Berberian is wonderful as her sweet but dumb husband. Victoria Ralston reinforced their characters with telling costuming. The excellent set by Sonya Leigh Drum is augmented by Joseph Amodei’s video and sound design, and Andrew Parks’ lighting.

Walt is another don’t-miss-this production from Manbites–and a well-timed cautionary tale about a forceful man with outsized ambitions and a bottomless well of self-regard.

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David Berberian, left, as Walt’s son-in-law, and Lakeisha Coffey, right, as Walt’s daughter, with Derrick Ivey as Walt Disney, on Sonya Leigh Drum’s sharp set at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney runs through October 1, 2016, at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham. Tickets here.

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