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Letter from London, 5-16: Like the....
New Menageries from Phoenix Dance Theatre

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2008 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Under the directorship of Javier de Frutos, who was appointed almost two years ago, Phoenix Dance Theatre, from Leeds in northern England, has had an electrifying make-over. Phoenix is a company whose past is distinguished but not untroubled. Since its origins in the 1980s as a politically assertive 'black' dance troupe, the company has gone through several reincarnations and has always struggled with issues around identity which have sometimes got in the way of artistic integrity. Now, however, under de Frutos, Phoenix is comprised of a group of ten dancers, picked from around the globe; the director is quick to point out that these new dancers have been chosen because of their outstanding performance skills rather than the color of their skin.

For London, de Frutos put together a program, seen April 28 at Sadler's Wells, which combined the old and the new: two works by de Frutos himself, of which one, "Blue Roses" was a premiere, and two by Jose Limon. Inspired by selected passages from "The Glass Menagerie," by Tennessee Williams, "Blue Roses" is carried by a (highly sought-after) recording of Williams himself reading. The playwright's slow, clear, educated American accent, tinged with a faint southern drawl, carries so much gravitas that the choreography follows respectfully in its wake; but the crafting and staging of movement highlights the subtleties of the text and brings it evocatively to life without being distracting. De Frutos's ultra-articulate physical language, never too literal but always suggestive could not be better suited to elicit additional meaning from Williams's text.

Michael Hulls's lighting bathes the stage and characters in a faded blue wash that evokes the sense of claustrophobia, frustration and increasing pessimism that is shared by the characters in the play. Having Amanda (the mother) played by two dancers (Josephine Darvill-Mills and Tiziana Fracchiolla) dressed identically makes her into a monstrous character, yes also reinforces her vulnerability and desperation. Her double personality serves to multiply both her own and her family's tragic situation: desertion by her husband and being stuck at home with her dependent sickly daughter Laura (Clemmie Sveaas) in a small, closed world (St. Louis during the 1940s),╩which offers few prospects. Her only hope is to get her burdensome daughter married off, and this manic desire fuels her absurd behavior towards the Gentleman Caller (Franklyn Lee), played out in gibberish movements and coquettish gestures. Her robust, flirtatious, pushy activities contrast starkly with the depressed limpness of Laura's. The dancer who plays her detached son Tom, Dane Hurst, is suitably agitated, restless, eager to run for his freedom, but caught by his feelings of responsibility for his sister. His body language finishes off what the lines of the written text begin to say. What is so great about "Blue Roses" is how the rhythms within the choreography tease out the pathos of Williams's play and complement the tone of his understated voice.

Limon's solo "Chaconne" and ensemble piece "The Moor's Pavane" were directed and reconstructed by Sarah Stackhouse, a former principal dancer with the Limon Dance Company. "Chaconne," danced by Bradley Shelver in the cast I saw, was incredibly powerful in its killer combination of mathematically structured yet impassioned music (Bach's Partita #2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin) and radiant performance. Shelver, a sleek technician and former soloist with the Limon company, has performed the solo before and inhabits the choreography like a second skin. His groundedness and strength combined with suppleness and softness result in a centered yet fluid mobility which is spellbinding: the lilting swings in the arms, the manner in which the body falls through positions but always recovers on the vertical. Shelver interprets the music with an intelligence and sensitivity that allows it to lead him and his quiet presence is never shaken by the emotional intensity of the score; this makes him shine. The way in which he embodies Limon's technique clarifies for me what Limon brought to the male dancer in the 1940s: a whole new palette of movement possibilities and emotions that were free from limiting macho displays of technique.

In "The Moor's Pavane," rarely performed outside of the Limon Company, the four dancers excel in their Renaissance characters. The Moor's paranoia and uncontrollable jealousy, his girlfriend's despair at being misjudged, and the malicious conniving of the other courtiers are conveyed physically by Limon's expressive vocabulary. This includes emotive undulating back bends, as well as deep lunges and falls arranged around the vertical formality of the 16th century court dance, the Pavane. Such contrasting dynamics correctly interpreted by the dancers convey the universal tragedy of the Moor (danced by David Mack). While it is a challenge for dancers trained in modern times to internalize the nuances of a choreographic style dating back 400 years, the Phoenix dancers do this convincingly.

De Frutos's "Paseillo" is a frivolous upbeat portrayal of clandestine encounters, tiffs and peccadilloes which supposedly take place in a steamy Venetian square in the early 1900s. The Edwardian style of costumes and Mozart choral work, Litaniae de Venerabili Altaris Sacramento, K243, give this work for seven dancers the whiff of a Merchant Ivory film; however, the treatment of the sound recording, with its sudden breaks and crackles, the fragmented choreography and deconstructed set design keep any such traditional associations at bay with a welcome postmodern spin. By including three panels to mark out the square in which the fleeting meetings take place, but also behind which other more secretive interactions happen, de Frutos invites both dancers and audience to be utterly voyeuristic. Everyone seems to be spying on everyone else, but through the commotion and bustle we can gradually see some more obsessive relationships developing. Different degrees of amorous behavior emerge in the swift rhythms of "Paseillo": languorous collapses into another's arms, erotic rubbing together of bodies, a spiteful duet of rejection. Overall, "Paseillo" displays de Frutos's skill in peeling off layers of decorum to reveal the basic nature of human beings through an idiosyncratic and poetic physical language.

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