Saturday, March 1, 2008

into the darkness

Feb. 20, 2008 reprinted with permission

If it was a perfect night for an eclipse -- and those who crawled out around 9 p.m. say it was -- it was no less perfect an evening for dance from Spain. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Wednesday in San Francisco, luminousness flowed from the stage as the contemporary Compania Nacional de Danza made its San Francisco debut in three physically daring works on themes of violence and addiction and the irrepressibility of beauty.

Although this is the company's first trip to the city, dancegoers may be familiar with the work of director Nacho Duato from his time at Nederlands Dans Theater.

Lured to the Dutch company by director Jiri Kylian in 1981, the native Valencian spent his next nine years refining his movement idiom, ultimately serving as resident choreographer for the troupe. More than two decades later, his style contains echoes not only the work of Kylian and Nederlands Dans Theater's other resident choreographer, the probing Hans van Manen. It also has hints of Alvin Ailey style, which he studied as a young man in New York, and of the comic grotesque classicism evident in some work by the Cullberg Ballet of Sweden, where Duato danced in 1980.

The result is a kind of polyglot language with roots deep in early modern dance, shapes that have the heft of European expressionism made anxious by the ruptures of postmodernism. Add to that ballet's scalpel-sharp clarity and soaring loft, and the results, even when not wholly successful, are as sensuous and mysterious as a full moon following an eclipse.Wednesday's Program A teemed with eerily beautiful incidences of brutality and human cruelty, although Duato's complex optimism was vanquished by neither violence nor inhumanity.

"Castrati," set for eight stunning male dancers, opened the program and was perhaps the most disturbing, and the most beautiful, of the three works. Designed for men in black corseted dresses, black wristbands and various kinds of underwear, the stunning group flowed and broke and stormed the stage in endless canon forms, oppositions and block movements.

This was a monastic community, initiating a terrified novice (the soft, lovely Stein Fluijt) in order to create another feminine-voiced singer for a church that long prohibited women to sing. While Fluijt's bloodied hands at the dance's end was unnecessary overstatement, it was mutilation for God's glory €" that of singing exquisitely pure music, exemplified by Antonio Vivaldi's vocal work for countertenor.

The evening's last piece, "White Darkness," was Duato's investigation of a drug--cocaine or heroin, say--and its impact on the individual and collective soul. Set to a compelling score by Karl Jenkins, the dancing was packed with superbly crafted and feverish group athleticism, juxtaposed by deliciously edgy couplings and crowned by the sinuous linkages of Africa Guzman and Randy Castillo.

Here, Duato used the spill of white flour, a motif of Japanese butoh dance, as an inverted metaphor, signaling death rather than rebirth, darkness rather than light. Though beautiful, especially raining down and vanquishing Africa Guzman, the motif was forced to work where the movement itself ought to have spoken.

"Rassemblement," a substitute for the intended "Arcangelo" (its sets didn't meet fire standards), was a cri de coeur for human rights, and a noble effort to portray the plight of Haitians. But after 50 years of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the wealth of complex, African-inspired dance in the United States, the work had a stock quality, and felt underserved by the lovely but too-linear songs of Toto Bissainthe, a literalism the splendid dancing could not undo.

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