The noted choreographer Jack Cole once had advice for an aspiring young dancemaker: don’t try to make works that take on the biggest topics you can think of; rather start out making intimate dances on themes you encounter in your own life. His acolyte took this advice to heart — until learning that one of Cole’s earliest dance creations was a panoramic epic entitled “The Bible.”
I thought of this while reading the program notes before last Thursday’s (March 3) evening-length performance at U.W.'s Meany Hall of “A World in Itself” from France’s Compagnie La Baraka. (The program is repeated this Saturday night, March 5 at Meany Hall.) “Through dance and music this new ballet would like to explore the birth and the development of the world….each of us is an indefinitely spreading universe, a secret melting pot in which the history of the whole cosmos keeps happening.” Yow! And in only 70 minutes. The Bible seemed like a piece of cake.
The first section of the dance “aspires first to dream of the Big Bang…from nothing came everything.” This revelation might not serve a choreographer well as the audience sits and awaits (at least those who read the program notes) how the dance will pull off the best big bang for their bucks. Yet for the most part choreographer Abou Lagraa (the company’s founder and artistic director) made it work, with movement that combines sinuousness and fidget, with the heavens exploding and coalescing, all performed beautifully by his company of seven. Particularly impressive was a solo by Amala Dianor, whose rail-thin body and loose limbs twitch and lift at the center of an agitated cosmos of surrounding dancers.
I looked forward to seeing Compagnie La Baraka for two reasons: the marketing played up Lagraa’s multi-culti outlook — he’s the French-born son of Algerian parents and has close artistic connections to North Africa, and his company includes performers of several different nationalities. I was also intrigued that the dance was created with the collaboration of the Debussy String Quartet, based in Lyon, who played live on stage. A work about the creation of the universe seemed to deserve music of the spheres, and the technically excellent quartet performed pieces by modernists John Cage and Anton Webern, as well as J.S. Bach.
The marriage of music and dance is a partnership at the core of humankind, yet as with any coupling there are dissonant notes to be heard from time to time, some louder than others. And volume was a central problem for this performance.
From the very first tappings on their instruments and atonal scraping of their strings, the Debussy String Quartet was too loud. I saw musicians playing their instruments, yet all I heard was an amplification of the sound they appeared to be making. I understand how loud pairs with Big Bang, but not for the whole evening. This was especially perplexing in Meany, a hall noted for its fine acoustics.
The dynamics of the Cage, Bach, and Webern (performed in this order) were quite different from one another, but it was the coloration brought to them by the player’s performance that gave them an intrusive sameness. Adding this to the volume level gave the music an almost trance-like drone over the course of the evening, inducing a certain somnolence in this listener. Christophe Germanique is credited as the “sound manager” in the program, so one can assume that the volume was very much part of the evening’s design.
Laying aside the issues with sound, Lagraa’s work reveals him as an ambitious and gifted choreographer. His vocabulary is resourceful, and his kinetic inventiveness combines his movement in novel ways that don’t wear on the eye. He has assembled a fine company of performers to interpret his work.
I like the problem that the choreographer set for himself — the creation of the universe, and its on-going resonance and re-creation within each of us. The former undoubtedly lends itself to movement, as some say that the origins of dance are in part indebted to the terpsichore of the heavens. The internal part is more difficult, and Lagaa represents them best in a series of duets and quartets, often accompanied by striking lighting from the designer Gerard Garchey, at times so dramatic it is almost a dance in itself.
Of particular note were the company’s three women in square pools of light, as if specks of dust adrift in a sea of cosmic nothingness. That same geometric lighting motif is used in combative then loving duets for the company’s four men. A woman enters (the excellent Nawal Lagraa, the choreographer’s wife), an Eve who is treated with hostility by this quartet of Adams. It was one of several points in the choreography when the three women of the company seemed to be secondary to the men. In addition to dancers Dianor and Lagraa, Oliver Tida Tida was another standout.
Abou Lagraa’s movement style is a lovely blending of Western ballet, contemporary dance, and other cultural motifs, and it is generally an easeful and pleasing mix. However, there are some points when locking and breaking moves from African American vernacular dance, and Brazilian capoeira jump out at the viewer, and one wishes they were a bit more blended into the whole.
Lagraa also sees the musicians as part of the choreography and has them move about the stage, entering and exiting several times over the course of the evening. How he visualizes their music both adds to the piece and at a few points detracted from it.
Often the sound is an underscore for the dance like the eternal rhythms of the universe; at other times it is punctuation for what might otherwise be run-on dance sentences. In a few segments the music is stark counterpoint to the dance. In one case a rough and tumble male duet seems so detached from the music that I wondered if it was independently made in the studio with no kinship to the score with which it was eventually paired.
“A World in Itself” closed with its most stunning moments, a magnificent solo of turns and rounded movements performed by Anthony Couroyer. He dances within a circle of light, a brilliant orb that both contains and connects all that is inside and without, bringing resolution and a resolute coherence to all that has come before.