Upper Room is a strange name for a dance piece. Dance is about movement and not about static space.
On the other hand, perhaps the title is not so out of place as space is crucial to Oper Graz ballet director Darrel Toulon’s latest work. The Wilder Mann studio theater where Oper Graz ballet will work for the next two years of Next Liberty renovations is very special.
The space is exceptionally wide and very shallow. What this wide space means is that everyone in the audience as first to third row seats. In the front row you are so close to the dances you could reach out and touch them. Or as in Upper Room, feel the wind of a pillow flying in the hands of a pirouetting dancer across your nose.
Upper Room: pillows, pillows, pillows everywhere
notice the breadth of the stage: this is only about half of it
The great advantage of this stage is the possibility to work with multiple independent dance units at the same time. It’s easy and even desirable to have as many as three different sets of action informing one another at the same time. For choreographers who want to control the audience’s eyes and minds, the opportunity to have multiple action at the same time is frustrating. For those who accept its potential, multiple centres of action is very liberating and very modern.
We live in a world of intense sensory input: billboards, cellphone, radio, television, telephone, street traffic, computer all compete for our attention at the same time. We are constantly making choices of what information to absorb and what information to discard. Wilder Mann is a contemporary stage for contemporary dance.
Toulon’s Upper Room is an evening length work divided into two distinct parts. Part one and part two include entirely different costumes and entirely different stagings. The only unifying element is the music of singer Vesna Petkovic and violinist Boris Mihaljcic.
Including live music is a wonderful decision. Live music brings dance to another level and Petkovic and Mihaljcic offer powerful performances which visibly infuse the dancers with energy.
One could argue that also unifying the two pieces is that in both parts a single metaphoric prop is central to the work. Part one focuses on metal frames, about the size of a large door or a single bed. Part two focuses on pillows, large white pillows on which to lay your head for sleeping.
In part one, the dancers lie inside the metal frames, walk through these frames, observer one another across these frame and jump through these frames. At times there are up to five frames on stage at a time worked each by a pair of dancers.
Even more striking are the costumes in part one: each dancer is wearing a bob of shiny bronze hair. Each wears dark silver pants. The men are naked from the waist up, the women in small tube tops. The look is very androgynous. As is the dance.
With the strange wigs and clothing, I felt a certain alienation and otherness from the dancers. As they all look identical and different from us, it’s like watching another species live out their lives and feelings. This alienation creates an interesting distance and encourages scientific observation. At one point, Michael Munoz’s wig flew off in a powerful duet and we could see him for the next fifteen minutes as himself: the impression was enitrely different. If the dancers looked more human, the emotional text would be far more powerful as we could identify with them as individuals and not conceive them as a group.
Much of the dance is pairings. Sometimes two women will live an intimate relationship, sometimes a man and a woman, sometimes two men. There is a very disturbing near rape scene of a woman trapped in her frame. Upper Room Part One takes a very violent look at human emotions. Vesna Petkovic’s dark Serbian songs echo and lead the action. That most of us are not able to understand the words is intentional: Upper Room Part One is about emotional text and not about literal metaphor.
Towards the half hour mark, Swiss dancer Sarah Schoch makes a very dramatic entry in a long red dress and a baroque coiffure. Moving with abandon, Schoch reveled in her moment in the light, kicking her long legs high. Her intervention was a delight in itself but I didn’t entirely understand its place in an otherwise very disciplined exploration of the frame metaphor.
Another highlight is the solo by and duets including Bostjan Ivanjsic whose physique is in magnificent form. When Ivanjsic is center stage he dominates the other dancers who struggle to keep up with his presence. On the other side, after the summer pause, Michál Zábavík has returned with a spare tire more suited to a sedentary man ten years his senior.
Among the premiere audience, some suggested that part one with the frames could make an entire evening of dance. I’d agree with that. One might be able to cut the score back to minimalist elements, leaving most of the explicit text behind.
When we reenter the theater the dancers have taken our place and Vesna Petkovic is enthroned on a mountain of pillows. We surround her as she sings. Five minutes later, the dancers being to guide us back to our places one by one. The confusion and role reversal here is very powerful. I wondered why Toulon chose not to develop the switch further by creating multiple circles of action from which spectators could move from one to the other before sending us back to our seats.
Once we are back in our places, the dancers each take a pillow to caress.
Part two is an exhiliarating voyage through violence and tenderness. But by the time it windes down after forty odd minutes, the work with pillows feels like it has run its course by the time. Pillows have been used as a giant bed, as sleeping companions, as hurled weapons, as instruments to suffocate friends, as dance partners. After watching part two you will never doubt the importance of pillows in our lives.
You don’t perceive it as you watch the show, but dancing with pillows limits the range and precision of dance. A pillow is an object constantly changing form and weight balance. Unlike the frames which are stiff and certain contexts with which a dancer can work carefully.
Sarah Schoch and Laura Fischer face off with pillows
The pillow piece feels more like a great fun experiment than the normally deep work of Toulon. There is some very good work with focused light in the hands of the dancer. Dianne Gray is particularly adept in lighting the other dancers dramatically while managing to stay low to the ground and move smoothly with the action. Newcomer Challyce Brogdon danced near my place and danced with discipline and flair as did compatriot New York native Serge Desroches. There is a particularly charming catfight between Areti Palouki and Agnès Girard.
Near the end, Vesna Petkovic breaks out in Fran Landesman’s 1959 Beat classic “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men”. While the duet between Serge Desroches and Ruo Chen Wang is powerful, the change of musical language grates after a full evening of song in Serbian.
Upper Room opened exactly one month after rehearsals started. The normal period of development for an evening lenth work is anywhere between six weeks and three months. With Upper Room, you feel that you are watching a work in progress. All the elements have been found but not worked through to the end. It’s like a half-finished sculpture where you can see the grand lines of the form, but the expression has not been finished.
My hope is that Toulon if he revisits to Upper Room will return to the frame metaphor and the very groundwork he has done for a one act evening length piece. He could retitle it very simply “Frames”. While the pillows piece was more fun and valid as a technical experiment, it remains more a divertissement than a work of art.
Upper Room can be seen 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 29 September and closes 2 October 2011 at Jakoministrasse 3/5 in Graz. On October 19, in the same space the single evening Tanz Nite 2 will take place.
Toulon and the Oper Graz ballet will be creating a ballet of on Henry Purcell’s majestic baroque opera of Dido and Aeneas in May. Purcell’s music will be performed live so this is not an occasion to miss.
Photos except Pillows, Pillows, Pillows by Werner Kmetitsch
Video & Pillows, Pillows, Pillows by Alec Kinnear