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.

Gaspard & Dancers Give Powerful Concert at Duke; repeats October 19

DSC_0080Gaspard Louis, the Haitian-born dancer and choreographer who settled in Durham in 2009, presented his first Gaspard & Dancers annual concert that year. It was successful in a mild sort of way–enjoyable, but the work was a little too derivative of the Piloblean style in which he had been immersed from 1996-2001, and the dancing was uneven. Louis has continued to work the dream along with his day job as creative movement outreach director for the American Dance Festival: This year’s fourth annual concert shows Louis’ growth as a choreographer and demonstrates that he has been able to draw a skilled company of dancers around him, dancers capable of engaging and collaborating at his level of imagination and ability. Gaspard & Dancers will appear again tonight, Oct. 19, in the Reynolds Theater at Duke University.

Tonight’s concert-goers will not have the fun of seeing the company spell out a birthday message to Louis’ wife, Jodee Nimerichter (director of the ADF), in which, naturally, Gaspard himself formed the “I” in “I love you,” but nonetheless they should receive gifts of pleasure, beauty and passionate empathy.

Interlocking balance: Gaspard Louis with Kate Currin. Photo courtesy Gaspard Louis.

Interlocking balance: Gaspard Louis with Kate Currin. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

The evening opens with a premiere by Louis with the two other dancers, Kate Currin and Sebastian Alexis. Clever, physical and stylish, Rubix is an ever-shifting puzzle of parts fitted and refitted into numerous possible combinations, set to an interesting score by Paul Leary. It is the least dancey of the evening’s works, and involves much shape-making and weight-sharing in service of dramatic forms, which are intensified by Jakki Kalogridis’ excellent black and white costumes and John Kolba’s sharp lighting. Louis is adept at the deployment of lifts, inversions and corkscrewing movements that evolve into spins. In a particularly thrilling moment here, he spins, arms extended horizontally from his shoulders, moving ever faster as Kate Currin clasps his neck, her body flying outward with the centrifugal force.

The heart of the program is Louis’ Souke, which means “shake” in his native Haitian Creole language. Torn by the suffering and death in Haiti following the terrible 2010 earthquake there, he struggled to find a response in his art, even while organizing benefits and teaching crash courses in the language to those on their way to help on the ground. Not until 2012 when he was completing the work for his MFA degree in dance from the ADF/Hollins program, was he able to choreograph a coherent dance in which motion and stillness combine to convey the horror, hope and heavy sorrow. I had the good fortune to watch Louis rehearsing his ADF student dancers as he developed the work in July, 2012, but lesser upheavals in my own life prevented my seeing the finished work until last night.

The opening of Souke. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

The opening of Souke. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

From this opening moment, when one upright survivor turns to see the pile of bodies and begins to pull them up–all alive–the dance shakes and lashes you through the shocks and aftershocks, culminating in the sorrowful relinquishment of other bodies to the mound of the dead. To richly textured, emotional music with driving rhythms by Randall Love and Paul Leary, the dancers shake, waver, catch, spin, race, collapse and rise with crisp speed and an undaunted quality. The poignant emotion comes to a stabbing conclusion as the living hands let gently fall those of their dead.

ADF student dancers rehearsing Souke's final sequence, July 2012.

ADF student dancers rehearsing Souke’s final sequence, July 2012.

This is a mature choreography. It draws on Louis’ experience as a dancer, but it burst the bonds of habit with its heartfelt force; it is a beautiful example of art expressing feelings for which words are inadequate. I expect it will remain in his own repertory, and most likely be taken up by other companies. Perhaps needless to say, Louis received his Master of Fine Arts degree after presenting this work.

There follows a sexy dance so bursting with life-force that the cadmium 0range Lyrca costumes (by Melody Eggen) appear to have shredded from the energy. Andy Hasenpflug provided the magnetic music to which Louis and Kristin Taylor get elastic. Magical Cusp is from 2010, but its magic has not faded a bit–and it was  perfect to bring us back from Souke.

After intermission comes a special guest appearance by Gregory B. Hinton, performing (at age 63) the demanding 1947 Tally Beatty solo, Mourner’s Bench, which balances Souke with its deep emotion. Mourner’s Bench is tough to perform and tough, like any mourning, to watch. It’s music is the spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead,” but watching Hinton, one had to wonder if there is enough balm, even in Gilead, for all the suffering.

Fortunately, the evening closes with a lovely new work that is itself a balm. Louis, in collaboration with the nine dancers, has made something quite balletic in Annatations. The word combines the Italian “andare,” to go, with the Latinate “natation,” swimming, and makes a play on “annotations.” The music, written and played by Joshua Starner on solo cello with electronic assistance, is quite beautiful, evoking dream-states and the languid pleasure of underwater movement. Jakki Kalogridis’ delicate costumes reinforce the dreaminess, as do Steven Silverleaf’s four pale sculptures suspended above the stage–perhaps they are swimming angels. The sense of connectivity is very strong in the choreography and in the dancing. There’s an emanation of love, of relieved safety…perhaps an idea that the dead are not truly lost to us. Some of the dancing is very beautiful, including that by Alain Molina, who physically is the work’s pole star. Molina was a founding member of Carolina Ballet, but has not been seen there in quite some time. His grace and heart were instantly recognizable, and well-matched with the same qualities in Gaspard & Dancers.

Tickets through Duke Box Office, 919-684-4444.

Louis uses explosive jumps like exclamation points. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

Louis uses explosive jumps like exclamation points. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

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