Photo by GiuIio Lapone, courtesy of the AT&T Performing Arts Center.

Theater & Dance

TITAS Command Performance Impresses Despite a Few Odd Choices

Two world premieres by Beijing Dance Theater director and choreographer Wang Yuanyuan were among the stand-outs.

On Saturday, Titas nominally wrapped up its 2016-2017 season (there will be one final performance by Canada’s Ballet BC next month) with its annual Command Performance at the Winspear Opera House. This is, often, one of the most exhilarating round-ups of the year, a chance to see breathtaking numbers in the vein of the company’s mission, which remains to invigorate our dance scene with the work of international choreographers.

It seemed an odd choice, then, to begin with an Alvin Ailey solo piece. I get it—there is the title, “A Song For You,” a gesture of good will to open this gala event. And yet the number, which premiered in 1972, felt dated, a series of contained reachings that didn’t reach for much. And while a recent evening of the current Alvin Ailey company’s work (TITAS’ most recent performance) was humorous and flirty, precise and breathtakingly athletic, this piece from their older repertoire felt flat, particularly to open a line-up in which numbers must work well as stand-alone sparks. Later numbers from Momix and Beijing Dance Theater were brilliant in such a format.

And so the evening began, in some ways, with the second number, from Beijing Dance Theater’s Wang Yuanyuan, avant-garde in its choices of music and lighting. Two dancers, who play out a pas de deux to the backdrop of searing techno music, roll a plain white length of tape across the stage. Their trajectory follows for the next four minutes this artificially created directive, a journey whose reminder is before you, but whose point you forget as the duo moves across the stage, almost exclusively intertwined, with a flexibility at once so controlled and unbridled that you lose track of which limbs are which, legs resembling arms as they invert and contort around each other. The world premiere is titled, slyly, “Walk Alone.”

The third piece, by Momix, was jaw-dropping in the way Momix numbers often are. One man, a table, a Houdini sort of act. When it opens, you do not know what you’re looking at, and only gradually do you make out a torso, the same muscular torso that will become a body, moving: leverage, cantilever, feats of sheer athleticism. At one point, the dancer vaults over the table in a series of gravity-defying arcs; there are yoga-like balances and the fan-kicks of capoeira, which resolve into arabesques. Momix is all about dance less as choreography and more as a concatenation of movements that push the boundaries of what we imagine a body can do. Another Momix piece involved a dancer on a mirror, her body reflected in spider-like multi-limbed illusions, the sheer blistering visual brilliance such that it was hard to recover; Momix pieces, which toy so with your sense of perception, always draw the biggest audience reactions, and this show was no exception.

A program built of solos and duets, many of them pas de deux, had at its center the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Heigi Tomassen. It seemed an odd tonal shift, fluttery adolescent love, sweet and tender and very strange given the dark, thrilling Momix spider-woman piece which had come before. But it is a set-up, you realize, if you choose to see it that way, for what comes after: another piece by Yuanyuan. Claustrophobia sets in with a back screen drawn to a low horizonline and all the more because in this seeming pas de deux the two dancers seem to always face front. The female dancer is a doll, looking not at her partner, but straight at you. (And both of them are wearing what amount to plastic sheeting over male briefs.) The pieces is provocative and audacious, utterly immediate and urgent, down to the last move in which she locks into his arms in a surprising twist. It’s another world premiere from a choreographer who has drawn mixed reactions for her work in China, both acclaim and outrage for her forwardness.

Lesser moments included a piece set by Russian choreographer Yuri Possokhov, that was avant garde in its use of arial harnesses. The dancers in “Inverted Duet” looked like jellyfish, their movements diffused, a product of the leveraging of their bodies in space. The loose, shapeless costuming only accentuated the impression. If anything, in an entirely arial piece, I kept thinking how much the floor organizes shape and line. This fight against gravity didn’t register for me as a flight of grace.

A commissioned piece set by Bridget L. Moore had too many elements. Amidst a host of other references, navel-gazing runway vamping felt like a distraction from what was truly excellent dancing. The lighting choices were awkward, the duo of male dancers moving out of the spotlight and into the shadows as they circled one another, creating visual lacunae that started to become distracting. The whole mechanism of staging was far too apparent, reaching for a drama it didn’t need or warrant. And what drama? A fashion runway and its world of power games. African dance. Or a paso doble. Power sagas were overlaid on what could be very good dancing on its own.

The same was true of the final piece, by young choreographer Dwight Rhoden. Only here, the culprit was the music. SMU dancer Albert Drake’s athleticism was tremendous, but the music, driving and relentless, was doing all the escalating of tension which the movements themselves should have done, and the dancing was relegated to background. My blood pressure rose and nothing else, a shame for a final number.

Ultimately, TITAS continued in its vein of pushing and searching. Their message is clear: it is not a time for the unchallenging. And that felt right for many reasons.

TITAS just announced their new 2017-2018 line-up. You can find the schedule here.