Saturday, April 6, 2013

Spellbound casts its spell

A moment of stillness in Downshifting.

You don't have to be a dance critic to sense immediately the appeal of Spellbound Dance Company; Italy's leading modern troupe (currently re-branding itself as "Spellbound Contemporary Ballet") boasts dancers with a startling level of technique, led by an artistic director (Mauro Astolfi) with a signature style and a taste for high concept and big ideas.  These virtues were all evident only minutes into the company's current Celebrity Series appearance (which closes tonight at the Schubert). What took longer to register was a slight frustration with Spellbound's final statements; the company holds you spellbound all right, in a sexily urbane kind of daze; but by the end of the night, you may find that, like a sleepwalker, you've wandered far afield and been left without a map.

Still, for many the sheer pleasure of watching Spellbound in action may be enough; and no one could argue the company isn't easy on the eyes - I had a hard time not just leaning back and ogling blonde punk angel Michelangelo Puglisi, for instance (and I've got nothing against hunky Mario Laterza or Giacomo Todeschi either!). What's more, there was a frank, nearly-sexual sense of physical contact between these men which is unusual in the uptown dance world.  As for the alluring women - Maria Cossu, Marianna Ombrosi, Alessandra Chirulli, Giuliana Mele, Gaia Mattioli, and Sofia Barbiero - they were likewise sexually self-aware players (no ingénues here), with knowing personae that were, perhaps, more complex and streaked with pain than their male partners'.  Although surprisingly, the women (Alessandra Chirulli was a stand-out) cut their sharpest profiles in their more sardonic moments, as in the brand-new She is On the Ground, a sunny stretch of Italian sex comedy (set to the ironically sweet accompaniment of viols) that was not only the most successful dance of the concert, but also reminded you why this country was the home of commedia dell'arte.

Elsewhere the program was more somber; Lost for Words (excerpts above), for instance, seemed to eloquently circle questions of frustrated communication without, ironically enough, ever quite coming to a point itself.  A key problem was that while the soundtrack for Words was largely a spoken text about withdrawal, the choreography was more concerned with struggle.  Like much of the international dance community, artistic director Astolfi is focused on bringing to the swiveling, unstable vocabulary of break and street dance the formal rigors of ballet; and at this, he and his company succeed brilliantly, minute-to-minute.  Long passages of Lost for Words are thrilling free-for-alls, full of dodges and pops in which the incredibly flexible dancers lock and interlock and "flare" while cantilevering off each other; sometimes they seem to be manipulating each other like puppets (in what I took as a key piece of symbolism), at others they're practically moving through each other in morphing waves of physical form.  

At its best, the sheer virtuosity of all this is dizzying, but it's dogged by the perennial problem of street dance; like many a b-boy or b-girl, Astolfi conjures a potent attitude, but struggles to shape a statement.  He's a master of improvisatory group dynamics (indeed, Spellbound was initially devoted to improv), but teases only disconnected vignettes from the heaving tide of the work, and his penchant for leaping between musical styles, and to spoken word and back - all while maintaining a sense of choreographic independence from his accompaniment - only means the dance has even more trouble coalescing.  Indeed, you could often feel Astolfi trying to maintain a kind of distance between "pure" movement and musical structure - which years ago was a totem for the Cunningham/Cage crowd - but frankly, I thought he could simply use more of the discipline that musical structure can provide. Still, Lost for Words is heavy with a potent, if vague, sense of tragic poignance (and of course its very theme is the inability to truly communicate, isn't it).

The same issues haunt the more low-key Downshifting, although this time around longer narrative strands do hold us in their thrall, and connections seem to be growing into something like relationships by the end of the dance.  Over its course, a group of twenty-somethings - partly dressed, and partly undressed, in a mix of casual attire and pajamas - seem to "fall" out of their orderly existences, and begin to grope toward some kind of transcendence, and each other, in a series of interlocking duos and trios (it seems the dance was once done in nudie pink tights - we didn't get that in uptight Boston, too bad!). Like Lost for Words, the piece seems poised between frank, physical contact and a kind of inner, lovelorn sigh.  There's a deep theme there, I think, that could be more than enough to build a company around - and Mr. Astolfi certainly has the company already (and in Marco Policastro's striking, architectonic lighting, seemingly designed to recall the heyday of Italian futurism, there's a signature look to his staging, too).  Which is why we look forward to falling under Spellbound's spell once again sometime soon.

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