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.

YOU ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL: Gaspard Louis Premieres New Work

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.

Heidi Morgan and Rivkins Christopher in one of Gaspard Louis' joyous moments. Photo: Robin Gallant.

Heidi Morgan and Rivkins Christopher in one of Louis’ joyous moments. Photo: Robin Gallant.

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.

Tota Pulchra Es. Photo: Robin Gallant.

Tota Pulchra Es. Photo: Robin Gallant.

Gaspard & Dancers Deeply Impressive in 5th Annual Concert

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.

The Gaspard & Dancers company premiered L'Esprit in Durham, NC.  Photo: Robin Gallant.

The Gaspard & Dancers company premiered L’Esprit in Durham, NC. Photo: Robin Gallant.

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.

L to R: Christopher Bell, Frankie Lee, Amanda Maraist . Photo: Robin Gallant.

L to R: Christopher Bell, Frankie Lee, Amanda Maraist in L’Esprit . Photo: Robin Gallant.

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