Years ago I was very taken by a book, whose name eludes me, detailing the vivid body expressions and non-verbal communication used in everyday life in 17th and 18th century Italy. I appreciated the immediacy, the vulgarity, and the physicality of these gestures. It was not that there wasn’t an adequate spoken language available to indicate you were hungry or to tell someone to shove off. Rather non-verbal expression, evolved over time, allowed the body to speak, positing itself in a way words could not. Growing up in a culture where a shoulder shrug and a head nod could denote multiple meanings, I appreciate this way of communicating.
I was reminded of that book after seeing "Alaska," a recent work by Argentine choreographer Diana Szeinblum whose troupe of four gifted dancers (she calls them “interpreters”) made their Seattle debut at On the Boards this past Thursday night, Nov. 5. In "Alaska," Szeinblum, who studied with and performed in the work of the late expressionist German choreographer Pina Bausch, set out to create a movement language that presents to the audience the body as a “tenant of spaces, as container of memories where everything that has not been said regarding a personal experience is kept.…Appealing to the memory of what was lived to find in the body the experience of what has not been revealed.”
This is pretty heady stuff, and Szeinblum’s conceptual Alaska is rather more dark, desolate and austere than our majestic, cruise-ship friendly, oil-rich, eccentric, and ruggedly individualistic neighbors many have in their minds. Rather than the magnificent vistas and outdoors, there is a large dose of the melancholy that can inhabit those who live in the near perpetual darkness of an Alaskan winter. Her movement theater is rich with performers grappling with, manipulating, flaying, and tormenting themselves and each other, clothed and barely so, maybe making up, maybe not.
There is no narrative at work here, indeed no linear exposition of the originating concept of memory and the interior landscape of the mind and body. What we get instead are a series of movement vignettes that may or may not add up as a fully engaging message to an individual viewer. This is not through any lack of trying by the four committed and excellent performers, Lucas Condro, Leticia Mazur, Alejandra Ferreyra Ortiz, and Pablo Lugones.
Three of the four are also given credit for “choreographic creation,” with Szeinblum assuming responsibility for the idea and direction. According to her, the creative process, which lasted 18 months, involved the performers taking episodes from their own lives and working to find movement metaphors, a language unique to their individual stories within the work’s overarching concept.
In the first third or so of the one-hour dance this sometimes seemed more artifice than art, as one could too clearly see the choreographic process at work, imagining times in the studio with the artists throwing out movement ideas, talking things through, improvising and experimenting with each other, and Szeinblum working to shape them to her vision. As the dance progressed the concept solidified and the work seemed less scattered.
Before the piece even “begins” and the audience is filing in, the center of the stage is lit in a square; one man, Lugones is sitting with a sign around his neck saying “estoy desperado” (I am desperate). We see the wings with chairs, the musicians, and a table with refreshments. Sometimes the movements seem a bit contrived, more theatrical than authentically felt, as when three of the dancers manipulate a fourth, Mazur, dressed only in her underwear, or when a table drops loudly to the stage, remaining on the ground briefly and then rather clumsily unhooked by Condro and carried offstage.
At other points, the segments are almost desperate and highly affecting — Ortiz bending over quickly and repeatedly, her head seeming to disappear between her legs as she hits the bottom of her arc, hair flinging down and then violently jerked back up as she rises back to standing erect; Condro and Mazur struggling to pass through spaces made by their rounded arms; or Lugones playing spoons on his bare chest, trying to impress Mazur, who simply walks away without acknowledging him.
Throughout, and very much to Szeinblum’s credit, there is live music from Ulises Conti on piano and computer, and Mariano Malamud’s lovely viola. The lighting by Gonzalo Cordova also added significantly to the emotive content of the evening with its shadings and subtle shifts.
How one responds to "Alaska" probably depends on who you are at that moment in time. Some will resonate with the emotionally charged physical performances, others will be taken with the intellectual challenge of Szeinblum’s idea and the language that has been created to express it. Some may find the whole process a bit precious, too redolent of choreography of the 1980’s, including Bausch’s own work with its segmented structure, mysterious allusions, and battles between the sexes. Or perhaps all of the above.
"Alaska" is surely worth a look though. There's a final performance tonight (Sunday), 8 pm at the always enterprising On the Boards on Lower Queen Anne.
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