Monday, August 18, 2008

Dance of the highest degree

While in the Berkshires last week I stopped by Jacob's Pillow to catch a performance by Stockholm 59° North, a group of principals from the Royal Swedish Ballet who have devoted themselves, in their spare time as it were, to the modern and postmodern repertoire. The performance made me very hungry to see this ensemble again. The company offered a premiere, Cicada, which proved honorable but slightly disappointing, from Cristina Caprioli, as well as two amusing pieces (Apartment and Pas de Danse, both 2004) from the former enfant terrible of Swedish dance, Mats Ek, and a creepily rousing grand-guignol finish, Castrati (2002), by Nacho Duato.

Cicada proved beautifully detailed, but ultimately belabored; make no mistake, Ms. Caprioli is a master choreographer, but this melancholic exercise - to a droning, doubly-minimalist score from Kevin Volans for two pianos, went precisely where we expected it to, and the exquisite phrasing of the dancers couldn't distract us from that. (One complaint - the program left us slightly in the dark as to who, exactly, was dancing what; luckily, the ensemble was equally skilled across the board.) By way of contrast, Ek's two pieces were lively, full of surprise, and emotionally up-to-the-minute (even if Ek himself is 63). This master's roots are in theatre, and both his dances told clear, quirky stories of what I suppose you could call modern romance. In Apartment, a sweet twentysomething pauses before her lover's apartment, pondering her relationship with him; and somehow in their ensuing pas de deux, Ek subtly reveals both her beau's charming immaturity and their unfortunate co-dependence: at the finale, she wound up carrying him offstage on her back. The effect was sad, but still bemused; Ek has both the sympathy and the distance of a great clown, or mime. Pas de Danse was even tougher on the modern male: its central sad sack was immune to the charms of his own girlfriend, only warming up when both were confronted by a happy country couple (their entrance, right through the back wall of the Ted Shawn Theatre (photo above), was a wonderful coup de théâtre). His former gal wound up waltzing off with the happy bumpkin (no fool she), which only led him to once again begin blowing his nose - sending his new, potential partner off on tiptoe, as again, the crowd chuckled ruefully.

Laughs were few and far between in Duato's Castrati, however, which dealt directly with, yes, castration - particularly the practice popular in the 16th and 17th century, in which the Church smiled on the emasculation of its promising boy sopranos, promising them careers both in the choir loft and beyond, on the burgeoning concert and operatic stage (yes, Catholics were abusing boys way back then, too; some things don't change). Fittingly, Duato costumed many of his men in priestlike robes, which gave them a menacing air of vaguely feminine vengeance - and set these cassocked birds of prey dancing to Vivaldi (the Four Seasons composer was himself a priest, and wrote music for an orchestra composed of abandoned or crippled children). This dark squadron was balanced by a group of strangely nymph-like men in feminine corsets - the castrati themselves, we assumed, beckoning to, and even tempting, the intended victim with the promise of their beauty and artistic power (the castrati, or at least the most successful of them, played an important role in the development of opera; you can hear a recording of one of the last singing here). Duato balanced these opposing forces admirably, and built the piece to a cringe-worthy crescendo with a sense of sweeping, inexorable command. It's rare that dance truly shocks and horrifies, but Castrati managed to do just that - and gave proof positive of the startling range, skill, and sheer fearlessness of Stockholm 59° North.

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