Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Zenon Dance in the Balkans

Walking down Hennepin Avenue on a Sunday afternoon you're likely to see some interesting people. We found ourselves walking behind a smallish man with curly hair holding a young girl by the hand. They were dressed as if on their way to a picnic—he might once have been a roadie for the Lovin' Spoonful, to judge from his appearance— and I was idly concocting slightly melancholy scenarios on the order of "divorced man finishes his shift at popcorn stand to take daughter to story-time at the library" as we followed the couple down the sidewalk, along the way passing any number of flashy restaurants we'll never see the inside of.
The reality was cheerier and less prosaic: "Man takes daughter to see wife on stage at Zenon Dance Company spring performance." As it happened, we were going to the same show, and we followed them into the lobby.
I haven't been to a modern dance performance since I reviewed one or two for Twin Cities magazine back in the 1980s. I enjoyed them then, but we'd gotten into the habit of spending our entertainment dollars elsewhere. We were attending the Zenon performance because a friend of ours is a member of Mila, a Balkan choir that was providing the music for the first number.
And that number was simply great. Bulgarian harmonies are a little weird to begin with—dense and dissonant—while the articulation is usually crisp and sometimes chirpy. These six barefoot women dressed in simple black outfits filled the auditorium with sound, leaning confidently into rich, throaty chords that most of us seldom hear. (It took me a while to figure out that the choir was also expertly miked.)
The sound alone sometimes carried the force of a Greek tragedy, condensed into a few plangent wails. The addition of dancing lightened the mood. The dancers appeared to be wearing glowing gunnysacks; their movements were dreamlike and incomprehensible. At times they held thin golden branches above their heads, which brought to mind notions of stag-hunting but also of Eleusinian mysteries and pagan fertility rites. I got to thinking about Jason and his Argonauts, who sailed from Greece to Bulgaria—or somewhere in the Black Sea—and returned home with the Golden Fleece...and also Medea.
The performance might have meant more if I'd been able to memorize the song lyrics about village life in the Balkans provided in the program. Then again, the impact might have been diminished. In any case, the music and the movement were well-suited to one another and the entire piece, choreographed by Wynn Fricke, was mesmerizing.
 The last piece on the program, “Coming Home," was hardly less engaging. Composed and choreographed by Osnel Delgado, it, too, had compelling music and drew on folk sources. The flair was Cuban, the theme was baseball. A full troupe of women and men frolicked across the stage in brightly colored muscle-shirts and tights, doing stylized imitations of a pitcher winding up or a batter awaiting a pitch. The music was twang-guitar, rhythmic and repetitive, buoyant and boisterous, and it all had the flavor of a whimsical spring New Yorker cover come to life.
Sandwiched between these number were two post-modern pieces that were far less successful. In “Molten Substance,” choreographer Luciana Achugar set four women with hair down over their faces to fiddling with their jeans to the rhythms of a drummer (J.T. Bates) seated behind them on stage. They kick them around, wear them on their arms, and eventually put them on without using their hands. It took a long time, and it reminded me of an out-take from that 1950s daytime TV show Beat the Clock. In this episode, no one won. I ended up enjoying it, but I think the one-minute TV commercial of a woman seen through an upstairs room putting on her jeans using her hands might be better.
Perhaps I missed the feminist subtext?
In retrospect, "Molten Substance" seemed like a minor triumph. The piece that opened the second half of the show, “Inside Wrinkles,” was truly dreadful. It was mentioned in a local review that the choreographer, Chris Schlichting, likes to use repetitive vernacular movements rather than stylish dance movements in his work, the result being an "intricate webs" of rubbing, flexing, pointing, strolling, and gyrating motions. The piece was definitely intricate. Whether it could be said to be interesting is another matter. To my eyes, the only impressive thing was that the dancers could remember all the monotonous, mechanistic, and otherwise unattractive steps they were required to do during the lengthy silent routine. Whereas other numbers on the program sent me to the Black Sea or a Cuban baseball field, these "wrinkles" called to mind the insane diagrams drawn by medieval alchemists in their attempts to summon evil forces to do their bidding.
Though I know little about dance, it strikes me that such post-modern pieces must be especially interesting to jaded insiders who are tired of all the brilliant work that's been done in the modern dance field during the last quarter-century. It was shrewd of the program coordinator to begin and end with the richer, more musical, and more rewarding numbers.

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