by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN Contributing Writer
Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
Choreography by Amy O'Neal
ON THE BOARDS
The University of Washington's World Dance Series has been bringing important dance troupes to Seattle for decades - I know because I've been a subscriber for more than a dozen years, and have had the great pleasure of seeing performances by American companies like Pilobolus, MOMIX, Mark Morris Dance Group, Urban Bushwomen, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and the all-male Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo - to name the best of the great and emerging groups I've seen at Meany Hall.
The World Dance series also gives its subscribers a chance to see companies and choreographers from far-flung places - the fabulous Grupo Corpo from Brazil, Shen Wei Dance Arts from NYC and China, Sydney Dance Company from Australia, Cie La BARAKA from France, the astonishing Black Grace from New Zealand (an all-time favorite of mine) and, to name a recent favorite, the Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan - in which a Zen monk stands still for the entire elaborate program while a gentle shower of golden rice buries him to his shoulders - so weirdly intriguing and transcendent.
We long-time subscribers have also been exposed to Spanish flamenco - an entertaining and important genre brought by Noche Flamenca in 2000, the Ballet Flamenco Eva Yerbabuena in 2003, and Noche Flamenca again in 2006 and 2014. An evening of flamenco generally consists of cante jondo singing, flamenco guitar accompanied by the cajón - a box that a drummer sits on to play - and palmas flamencas - percussion hand-clapping, all to support female and male dancers who perform the classic Seguidilla, Tango de Malaga, and other styles of Gitano or gypsy-origin dancing. You know what this dancing is like - complicated foot stomping, elegant wrists describing circles (flores) above the head, tiered skirts whirling, the proud and passionate enactment of deep feelings. Think of Carmen clenching a rose between her teeth and you have the conventional version of this very serious and skilled genre of dance.
The wonder of 'Antigona,' Noche Flamenca's story-dance of Sophocles' tragedy Antigone, is that all the familiar tropes of flamenco are deployed in fresh ways to make the old - and the ancient - seem new again. A clever use of masks transforms the virtuoso guitarist, Eugenio Iglesias, into a figure of tragedy, while the cante jondo singers Jose Jimenez (Tiresias), Manuel Gago (Creon) and Emilio Florido (Master of Ceremonies) sing out the story line for the dance characters - Soledad Barrio (Antigona), Juan Ogalla (Haemon), Salvador Rivilla (Polyneices) and David Thomas (Eteocles).
This narrative melding of dance and song was supported for an English-language audience by detailed program notes, projected texts on a backdrop, and, most amusingly, an English-speaking dancer, Marina Elana (Ismene), who chattered away like a Valley Girl to catch the audience up on the complicated feuds of the house of Thebes. Her comic turn was matched by the Master of Ceremonies, who introduced the characters like a circus barker. I found this humorous approach to tragedy helpful and funny, though one of my companions found it incongruous and somewhat condescending to the audience. The light tone changes quickly, however, as the unfolding story of Antigona, who defies King Creon to bury the body of her brother Polyneices, unfolds in a brilliant sequence of virtuoso dancing. I was also very impressed by the Greek Chorus of five female dancers who use simultaneous flamenco movement as emphatic comment on the central drama. Movements that are usually deployed by soloists take on the character of italics when performed in a unison group.
What Noche Flamenco's artistic director, Martin Santangelo, has discovered in 'Antigona' is an essential relationship between two very old and profound Mediterranean art forms. The 'passion' - in the sense of suffering - that characterizes flamenco dancing and singing is a perfect match for Greek tragedy. Wailing voices, extreme poses of the arms and torso, complex stamping of the heels and balls of the feet, and dramatic confrontation of dancers match the gravity of Greek drama, which addresses the extremes of human conduct and belief.
So imagine seeing something as profound and dramatic as 'Antigona' on a Saturday night, and then seeing something as ebullient and modern as Amy O'Neal's 'Opposing Forces' the next Sunday afternoon at On the Boards. This re-thinking and refining of the hip-hop genre begins with two b-boy crews facing each other down in a competitive show of physical strength and machismo. O'Neal's use of the classic dance-off is a clever device to remind the viewer of b-boying's origins in street gangs while familiarizing the audience with the full vocabulary of this style. As each crew sends a dancer out to top his competitor's last move - whether toprock (vertical leaps, aerial spinning) or downrock (horizontal floor work) - the audience becomes familiar with hip-hop's range of motion, so that they can appreciate the variations, experiments, and refinements of O'Neal's choreography in the rest of the program. In this she reminds me of Mark Morris - always my touchstone of great choreography - who educates the audience to the dance as the dance progresses. With both of these choreographers, dance moves go beyond individual virtuosity to the world of ideas, which are then used to develop new meaning once the audience has learned the vocabulary. Like Morris, O'Neal understands that dance is not so much entertainment as engagement with the audience - spectacle as tool rather than objective.
For example, Ben Zamora's intricate floor design in On the Board's arena-style theater consisted of white tape on a black background in what appeared to be a decorative pattern, but which became, as the dances progressed, integral parts of the choreographic meaning. Together with Amiya Brown's clever lighting, O'Neal used floor space to contain and contextualize movement. In one dance, a man is in an invisible box, like Marcel Marceau's classic mime, as a child's voice coaches the dancer on how to behave in the box. The audience suddenly realizes that part of the floor pattern defines particular spaces as the dancer moves from box to box, accumulating more dancers in confinement as he goes, until the final imaginary box is bursting with dancers in an intricate sharing of entrapment.
My favorite episode was a unison core of dancers - as in the Greek Chorus of Noche Flamenca - in which five dancers moved through floor quadrants like the gears of a human clock, followed by three dancers who held each others' hands, knees, feet, heads, and shoulders, always connected, in every possible permutation of a trio. It reminded me of Balachine's 'Apollo' in which the logic of each movement causes counter-movement, each gesture growing from the last in a collaborative construction. O'Neal transforms the b-boy language of competition into a language of cooperation and creativity while allowing her dancers an even greater range of expression. O'Neal's work conjured up the idea of Balanchine and Morris in my mind, yet it was neither referential nor an effort to fuse other dance styles with b-boying. Instead, she is discovering what three linked people can say to each other and to the audience about human connection, while expanding the possibilities of her chosen dance style.
Toward the end of the program there is an invitation to audience members to get up and dance - and for the first time we see women breaking with the men in celebratory unity. They are, one suspects, the students and friends of the awe-inspiring dancers in the program: MozesLateef, Fever One, Brysen Angeles, Alfredo 'FREE' Vergara, and Michael O'Neal, Jr., dancing to the varied sound and musicscapes of WD4D aka Waylon Dungan. I, for one, would like to have seen b-girls participating in this exploration of hip-hop - especially since Amy O'Neal is a woman making it a hyper-masculine dance genre. In her program notes, O'Neal explains her approach in 'Opposing Forces' as 'setting aside the innate posturing of Hip Hop culture with a nurturing and feminine approach' in order to see masculinity 'for what it can be, instead of what society tells us.' This is an interesting and important experiment, that might be informed by flamenco - another hyper-masculine dance culture - that has somehow incorporated women equally, or even more prominently, with male performers. But b-boying dates from the early 1980s while flamenco dates from the eighteenth century. Let's hope it doesn't take hip-hop that long to put women into starring roles.
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