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Flash Review 3, 11-6: Gender-Blinded
Only One Chromosone for Les Ballets Jazz Choreographers: Xcellence

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2001 Sandra Aberkalns

NEW YORK -- Women choreographers have been given the short end of the stick for far too long, and it seems that in this country at least, it may not be changing any time soon. However, within the global dance community hope springs eternal. So it was that I headed out Sunday for the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, where Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal presented a concert that focused on quality rather than gender. Of the six works presented, four happened to be by women. However, more importantly, this program acknowledged that men and women are equally capable of crafting works that are visually engrossing, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally satisfying to both sexes, while celebrating the unique perspectives each gender naturally brings to the art form.

All of the choreographers represented in this program have prestigious pedigrees: Crystal Pite/Ballett Frankfurt (Forsythe), Patrick Delcroix/Nederlands Dans Theater (Kylian), Nicolo Fonte/Compania Nacional de Danza (Duato), Dominique Dumais/National Ballet of Canada, and Mia Michaels with her own Miami Movements Dance Company. While their mentors' influence is like a soft breeze occasionally wafting through the work, make no mistake that these choreographers have a clear idea of who they are, what they want to say, and how they are going to say it.

The quality of the performance didn't stop with the choreographers' contributions but extended to all areas of the production. The dancers are incredible-not only technically but also artistically. Daniel Ranger's lighting designs enhanced the mood for each piece. Last but not least, to have three original music scores (by Owen Belton, Michel Cusson, and Albert Sterling Menendez) was the final icing on the cake. Music that was not only interesting for its own sake but was danceable to boot -- pinch me to make me believe I didn't dream it all.

In light of the article I had read just a few hours earlier, the first work on the program, "Two Dances for Jane" (Pite) couldn't have been a better choice. The lights come up on a couple, with the man (Louis Robitaille, BJM's artistic director) standing with his back to the woman (Cherice Barton). In the first scene the woman has something to say, and she is saying it rather emphatically, but he isn't listening, much less acknowledging her presence. In the second scene the music is more soulful. As the man walks slowly across the stage, the woman is still trying to get a response -- any response -- from him. One moment she stands behind him shaking her hands at his back in frustration, the next she cuts in front of him in an attempt to physically stop him. When that doesn't work she places her head on his chest to listen if he even has a heart. There is a poignant humor in all of this -- a little like that of Chaplin. You laugh because it hurts.

"Excerpts from Short Works: 23" was also by Pite. Forsythe's influence was more strongly felt in this piece. Not only were the wings pulled up exposing the cables, electronics, and brick walls, there was something familiar in the way that the joints (an elbow, wrist, or shoulder for example) initiated the movement. Each scene, whether it was a solo, duet, or group work was quite intense and dramatic. Pite also has an interesting way of moving groups across the stage while integrating or extracting people out of those groups.

Delcroix's "Sous le rythme, je" begins with five men enclosed in white sacks desperately trying to break out -- to be born. Their first rhythms of life, as they kick and punch their way to freedom, are quite primitive. Just as the men succeed the stage goes dark. When the lights come up again, five woman are sitting on an elevated platform behind the men, each holding an instrument. This scene begins rather simply with one woman playing a rhythm and one man interpreting that rhythm with his body. Eventually the five men move as one and the power of these men moving in unison is quite potent. As difficult as it is to tear your eyes away from the men, you must: The women are not only extremely graceful in how they manipulate their instruments, but are also playing without scores! In the middle of the piece the men form moving sculptures which are not dependent on the masculine virtues (brute strength) but seem to be more about surrender, vulnerability and delicate balance. At the end of this section the men sit in a circle and it is their turn to beat the rhythm on the floor with their hands for the women to dance to (while remaining on their narrow platform). In the end the women join the men with their different rhythms merging and diverging.

Using simple black cubes, as props, the dancers in "Floating World" (Fonte) either defy gravity or indulge in it. In the footnotes for the piece Fonte refers to " energy that could propel you, in every sense, into another world, another reality." This statement made me realize how much the dancers had been pushing the proverbial envelope in movement terms during the entire concert. Several times, in this piece alone, if you were quick, you could spot the dancers catching themselves. Those moments where how little or how much energy generated at any given moment will determine whether the dancer is able to finish a movement exactly where they want/need to or whether they have overshot it. I've always liked watching dancers who are willing to take risks -- to undertake the movement so full out that anything can happen.

"Lulling High" (Dumais) made me think of my niece and nephew for some reason. I'm still not sure where this duet came from or was going. Even though the movement was beautiful in itself, it seemed to me to be a dark and dismal world that this young man and woman inhabited.

A social statement on the state of relationships today (no commitment or deep connection) was also the theme for "No Strings Attached" (Michaels). However, this piece was sizzling, cool, and smooth all at the same time. It was the pack on the prowl ("West Side Story"), the hot broad with a heart of stone and a lot of attitude (Barbara Stanwyk in "Double Indemnity"), or "cool cats" a.k.a. beatniks/witches (Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak in "Bell, Book, and Candle"). The dancers were able to simply cut loose with this work and have a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the stage wasn't miked so it was very difficult to hear (and understand) what the dancers were saying when they spoke. A human ladder formed on which the dancers clawed their way to the top only to topple off the other side once they got there. Then there was the woman who actually ran up the front of a guy's torso to finish on top of his shoulders. Great choreography, dancing, and music -- it's all in there.

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