Wednesday, February 21, 2007

So there's no dance in Pan's Labyrinth

Okay, so there's no dance in the stunning new film Pan's Labyrinth. But dancemakers can be inspired by its structure, especially now, when dance often seems to have lost its ability to use movement and space with deep purpose.

Pan is a terrifying and beautiful fairy tale about evil, rebellion, and redemption through fearless goodness, and it is a brave, timely film that never shrinks from vivid physical violence and disturbing, even unpalatable mystery. When the crisp fascist Captain Vidal kills two innocent villagers, for instance, he does it with a sensual precision, and that precision seems to emanate from an absolute and efficient cruelty almost too horrifying to contemplate. He is the inhuman in human form, the earthly equivalent of the denatured monster we meet dwelling underground and woken by young Ofelia, the Captain's stepdaughter.

Ofelia is del Toro’s heroine, and like Psyche she is sent on a mythic mission with several seemingly impossible challenges to meet. One of them is to draw a door anywhere in her room with magic chalk and enter the underworld beyond. She is told to reject all food and drink, no matter what, and to use a magical key to uncover a knife before the sands of a minute clock have all fallen. But Ofelia is human, and she eats enchanted grapes at the monster's table. As in all fairy tales, terrible events are suddenly unleashed: the monster comes to life.

This is not your run-of-the-mill bad guy. This is a vilely embryonic but ancient creature who is a physical blank. He has no eyes in his head. His eyeballs in fact sit on a dish on the table until he is conscious and can slip them into slits in his hands. He then lurches up from his chair to hunt down his young prey. He holds his palms against his head; he waves them in the air. The monster is a seeing brain stem, a cognizant physical force driven to track and consume the naive, the weak, the unsuspecting. The Captain is just as elemental, precisely as evil, and it makes the mind and soul squirm to be reminded that such people are in our midst.

As a storyteller and moralist del Toro's power resides in the fact that he makes us feel those forces through a journey to multiple physical and metaphysical levels. He moves us from place to place, takes us down into assorted underworlds, up into the confinement of Ofelia's pregnant mother, out into the woods, deep into a labyrinth. In each place different forces, often competing, are at work.

The camera catches the Captain in his enormous quarters shaving, for example. First we circle him. Then the camera sneaks up; suddenly the image stutters, lurches. Next the camera apparates to the other end of the room, eye still on the man. The effect is vertiginous. The Captain himself seems to have power over the camera while being oblivious to it, and it is one of the ways we discover that he is the devil’s double.

While choreographers can’t make audience members omniscient, they can manipulate the meaning of space. Librettist Theopile Gautier and choreographer Jean Coralli made Giselle’s village clearing in Act I a forest glade where dangerous enchantments take place in Act II. More recently, Angelin Preljocaj delineated the powerful and the powerless in his Romeo and Juliet by the kinds of steps they performed and where they performed them: the oppressive Capulets danced like Cossack soldiers across the stage while the mischievous Montague boys resembled raucous street urchins from West Side Story, darting in and out of the dominant space. Tere O'Connor establishes the archetypical amid the banal in Lawn by appearing as a hag on film, like Madge from La Sylphide, or Nature herself, darting behind trees, running out on to a large lawn, capturing lost plastic bags and napkins, while dancers on stage move with jarring dreaminess. The upshot is that each world penetrates and reflects the other, disturbing us as dreams disturb us.

Such layering isn’t the exclusive domain of loosely narrative dance, either. Merce Cunningham establishes interpenetrating realities in Ocean by arraying the dance in concentric circles. There’s the circle the dancers move in below the ticket holders, the circle (or quasi circle in Berkeley’s case) the audience inhabits, and then the upper loop where the musician encircle the entire action. Symbolism is rife here, alluding to far more than brainy movement by preternaturally adept dancers. Each stratum establishes a different realm of time and space. The dancers are at the center of a well of time, revealing our mythic beginnings with African kick steps and leading us on a journey that is hypermodern and yet ancient. The musicians allude to a sphere beyond time. We, the audience, are sandwiched between the two, which, in a nutshell, describes the plight of being human.

Last month Ellis Wood Dance performed Hurricane Flora: Inferno at the Cowell Theater. While she tapped the primal feminine with stunning abandon, Wood’s dance phrases were often too lax and unpatterned to fully harness her volatility and make it legible on multiple levels, especially competing with Ed Rawlings’ elegant video of sky and leaves. What if Woods had alluded to the actual structure of the hurricane Flora of 1963, which had depressions, convergences, a center, cyclonic loops and a calm eye? Wood might have gained eloquence had she constricted the women in space the way she constricts herself to a single spot in Stella, then sent them looping fiercely. Such limitation paradoxically leads to boundary defying resonance. Jose Limon, for instance, is able to communicate Judas’ impending betrayal in The Traitor by taut expressive opposition, his movements circling in, coiling, snapping. In Viktor Pina Bausch creates a host of associations by tightly constraining the actions of a female chorus. These women transform Odette’s iconic preening into the despondent and obsessive tics of apron-clad drudges, and the effect is both tragic and hilarious, transcending any single historical moment, or any particular group of women.

Because he shows the mythic dimension of fascism and its earthly cost, del Toro is able to invent a man who is more than a mere man, someone who can’t be reduced to a political struggle, an Oedipal wound, or a characterological flaw, even though all those things obtain. The filmmaker settles for nothing so complacent or cozy. Those who do--the mayor and priest and their consorts who sit at Vidal’s table and agree with every utterance he makes--are complicit in the Captain’s crimes.

The question for dancemakers is how to make the private resonate beyond our narrow personal boundaries? How to include the individual inferno in the public storm and vice versa, and do it through distilled action? And is that storm healthy or about to kill us?

For del Toro the answer is unequivocal--if Ofelia doesn’t take up her mythic tasks, which again and again require her to place herself in spaces so constraining that they are almost suffocating, an ancient fig tree--the tale’s tree of paradise-- will die. Sure, the future of the world doesn’t depend on choreographers adeptly expressing our contemporary plight. And we already see that if dance can’t do it, other arts (with Latin film in the lead) will take up the challenge. But because the body is the centerpiece of human existence, dance has a direct link to the primitive as well as the sublime. It may be time to look at The Green Table again and to take a page from Graham’s Into the Maze.

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