Dance performances are by their very nature collaborations: dancers, choreographers, costumers and scenic designers working together. Perhaps no component is more critical than music, which sets the tone and inspires the movement. What a paradox it is, then, that the music for most contemporary dance is prerecorded, broadcast as if from a boom box. “Royal Road,” which made its world premiere on March 9 at Luna Negra Dance Theater’s spring program at the Harris Theater, restores the musicians to their rightful place at center stage quite literally, with the Grammy Award–winning jazz ensemble Turtle Island Quartet playing on stage in the midst of the dancers.
“Royal Road” takes its title from Sigmund Freud’s statement that “music is the royal road to the soul.” Indeed the role of the musicians is so central to the piece that they nearly upstage the dancers. Yet despite the importance of the music, “Royal Road” begins, like many contemporary dance pieces, in silence, as dancer Mónica Cervantes makes her way across a paper path laid sheet by sheet by four men in black. Those four prove to be the quartet members: David Balakrishnan, Mark Summer, Mateusz Smoczynski and Benjamin von Gutzeit. The musicians move nearly as gracefully as dancers, but if the streaks of white on their temples didn’t tip off the audience that they weren’t dancers, their role became clear once they seated themselves under a fluttering chandelier of more white paper and picked up their instruments to play “Variations on my Father’s Footsteps” and “Ashwattha,” both composed by quartet member Balakrishnan.
The sheets of paper overhead and in a circle at the feet of the musicians are musical scores. Further emphasizing the importance of the music, at one point dancer Cervantes turns her back to the audience to face the musicians, like a child entranced by the notes coming from the vibrating strings. The paper trail across the front of the stage is different. Although it might not have been apparent to the audience, these sheets represent Labanotation, a technique for chronicling dance movement.
“This wonderful opportunity to work with Turtle Island Quartet made me rethink our relationship with music, the relationship between music and dance, and how both disciplines have the capacity to go beyond words or ways of codifications,” choreographer and scenic designer Fernando Hernando Magadan commented in the program.
Magadan’s classically based contemporary movements, enlivened by spiraling corkscrew lifts, fit the distinctly American music, Aaron Copland brought into the 21st Century. That both Magadan, who choreographed two pieces in the program, and Cervantes, who choreographed the third, are Spanish — thus giving the program its name, “Made in Spain” — seems beside the point, especially since none of the three pieces demonstrated Luna Negra’s characteristic Latin accent.
The evening opened with Magadan’s “Naked Ape,” created by Magadan in collaboration with multimedia artist Harmen Straatman for Nederlands Dans Theater in 2009 and performed by Luna Negra in 2011. The program stated that “Magadan explores how the human capacity and need for physical interaction may be challenged by the insensitivity of new media and technology,” and although more often than not I find little correspondence between a choreographer’s stated intention and what I see before my eyes, in this case the program description proved true.
“Naked Ape” is all about disconnect. At times the movements seem unrelated to the music by Mexican electronica artist Erik Truffaz Murcof, J.S. Bach and the Icelandic-American duo Jónsi and Alex. At moments dancers freeze in place while the music goes on; at other times they flail, attempting to regain their balance. Dancer Eduardo Zuñiga manipulates the bodies of the others — Christopher Bordenave, Nigel Campbell, Mónica Cervantes and Kristen Shelton — winding up a dancer’s arm like a clock, repositioning bodies and jerking limbs about while explicating his doings as in a product demo. Adding to the sense of disconnect, the dancers, all but Zuñiga clad in filmy white garments (costume design by Tomoko Inamura), look as if they have shed their skins, with illuminated white suits standing on their own at the sides of the stage.
In between “Naked Ape” and “Royal Road” came “Presente,” its title a play on the concept of time as well as gifts. Cervantes choreographed the world premiere to the elegiac music of Max Richter’s recomposed variation on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” If “Naked Ape” is about disconnect, “Presente” is all about connections, as they dancers interact in a series of arching movements and contained jumps. Like an hourglass reinforcing the theme of time, a white tube suspended over the stage slowly drains a pile of black granules onto the floor. Cervantes designed the costumes, unflattering socks and skivvies, with topless dancers providing perhaps too much distraction from the choreography.
Luna Negra Dance Theater: “Made in Spain”
Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr., Chicago
March 9, 2013
Photos: Cheryl Mann