Photo courtesy of Bruce Wood Dance on Facebook.

Theater & Dance

Bruce Wood Dance’s Season Opener Is Political and Profoundly Human

A commissioned premiere capped off captivating past repertoire, setting a confrontational, powerful piece on an accomplished company.

While every dance company in Dallas was ending its season, Bruce Wood Dance opened their season of two programs (the second falls in November) with Embrace, performed Friday and Saturday at Moody Performance Hall. By turns lyrical, mysterious, and powerfully political, it featured artistic director Joy Bollinger’s Carved in Stone; the Dallas premiere of Bruce Wood’s 2004 Dark Matter; and the premiere of Forbidden Paths, an intoxicating, riveting work set on the company by choreographer Garrett Smith, who has gained acclaim for his work for the Norwegian National Ballet (he made waves with his male dancer in a black tutu, his forms undulating and modern, marked by an expressiveness not often seen in ballet). He has set pieces on the New York City Ballet and the Bolshoi and was here exploring his first political work.

Bolllinger’s Carved in Stone, which debuted in 2016, establishing her as one of the most evocative and lyrical choreographers on our scene, opens on half-ruined Doric columns, ushering in a hush and timelessness that feel monumental. The company’s dancers—clad in flowing garments that graze the floor and expose the ovals of their backs—inhabit the stage, like columns themselves. Their musculature is both archaic and mortal; their presence feels like a Greek chorus. So opens a piece that is grandiose and profoundly human. As it moves into sinuous group sections and duets, alternating between rhapsodic and lush choreography and stillness, it is suffused with a haunting grace that tends to weave through Bollinger’s work. Based on Bollinger’s thoughts about her growing son and aging father, Carved in Stone is about time, healing, human interaction with the environment, the power of habit and thought, the fluidity of formation and dissolution. With tremendous tenderness and lyrical poetry, Bollinger plumbs the profound beauty and mystery of the process of taking shape, emerging. Ultimately, 24 dancers stand with arms outstretched, their backs once again to the audience, their silhouettes timeless, arms undulating subtly and synchronously—not like stone, but rather like breath.

Wood’s Dark Matter opens on a masked character, who ushers the viewer into a magical dream world. Playful, expressive, full of Wood’s deeply ingrained sense of humor, and set to Prokofiev’s violin concertos, the piece involves business clothes and suitcases as props. Various dancers take up the physical mantle of the “other,” its ambiguous, masked, hunched shape a cypher that moves you deeper into a world where dancers are dragged across the stage, the ensemble moves at times with mechanical, cog-like, train-churning motion, a ball rolls by, and the facelessness of masks evokes not anonymity, but otherworldliness. The piece introduced the “skimming” that Wood would develop, male dancers in duets, rather than lifting their partners, drawing circles or other shapes with their feet on the floor. The work demonstrates Wood’s interest in the constructed visual world: the world of caricature (a thread that would point the way to groups like Pilobolus and others). It is also an example of his commitment to being, above all, human.

Finally, as a climax, Bruce Wood Dance presented Smith’s Forbidden Paths. Smith’s piece emerged out of his dismay at the legal restrictions placed on dance in countries like Iran. It is dedicated to those who cannot dance without fear of repercussions. For the piece, he enlisted the dancers to create with him, sculpting short phrases that translated into gestures, linked together into choreographic phrases that became the fabric of the piece. This kind of approach, which works well on a company whose members have creative spark and autonomy, seems to have lent both the momentum of a co-created piece and a vulnerability that is affecting and tangible.

In opening, two dancers in black hoods that leave them looking like shadows, almost touch in a circle of light, then retreat at the first jangling of music, as though burned. Joined by others, they will surf the sound, break into a series of duets—male-female, male-male. Covering their mouths, half obscured like phantom shadows, they will sculpt the air and each other. There is a hypnotic quality to the circularity of their movements as they touch, react. At one point they will kneel, hands bound behind their back. They will also loose each other’s bonds. Lifts full of tenderness and power are also somehow full of questioning. There is danger and exquisitely expressed defiance. Joy and vulnerability coexist. In one particular pas de deux, Seth York holds Lauren Hibbard in the air, hung like a star. And I almost cry. The imagery is powerful, the tone in turn tender, erotic, jubilant, defiant. The piece builds to a climax, the whole company stomping, facing the audience, their costumes stripped to the transparency of bandeau. Their stomping, which resonates after silence descends, beats a powerful and political tattoo of hope.

The music is a living character in the piece. Patched together from disparate sources, it feels organic, in synch with the dancers’ adept tonal shifts. Shamss Ensemble (a Sufic and classical Iranian percussive music group) is utterly stirring, their “Whirl of Divinity” and “The Glance of the Beloved” hypnotic, the dancers moving as though the sounds conjure them. The sources range from classical to contemporary: a modern Iranian band, Pallett Vagabond, with cello and guitar and accordion; the incredibly quiet piano piece “Nyepi,” by Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds, like a healing balm; Kronos Quartet in a moment of static noise; a kyrie eleison. The rhythms are tricky, full of accents and down-beats; they give a lot of texture to work with. And throughout, the dancers perform the tonal shifts with grace, control, and unbelievable precision.

Forbidden Paths, danced flawlessly, felt exhilarating and deeply right. “Let us be vulnerable and jubilant,” it seems to say, “Let us be honest and resilient.”

Bruce Wood Dance has just announced that it will be performing at the Joyce Theater in New York as one of four regional companies selected. (This is somewhat like being asked to conduct a service in Notre Dame or the Hagia Sophia.) Are we surprised?

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