Vertigo Dance Company at BlackRock Center for the Arts by Luella Christopher

By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.

Vertigo Dance Company
BlackRockCenter for the Arts
Germantown, Md.
October 22, 2015

Vertigo Dance Company, founded in 1992 in Israel by American-born Noa Wertheim and husband Ali Sha’al, gave the local Germantown audience at BlackRock Center for the Arts a rare treat of spirited, jocular contempomodern dance. The company is taking “Vertigo 20”, a dynamic theater piece with “moving parts”, on a 20th anniversary tour of the United States. “Vertigo 20” is not always the same work but demonstrates fragments of earlier repertory works such as “Birth of the Phoenix (which took place in an earth-packed tent), “Mana” and “White Noise.”

The popular “White Noise” was described by choreographer Wertheim in The Jerusalem Post (Jan. 2, 2013) as a “clash between inner calm plus the body’s total dedication to the forces of gravity and the racket that surrounds us”. In an online version found on the company’s website, Wertheim’s dancers boldly climb on stools and allow their bodies to fall straight back, to be caught by other dancers. The choreographer in her opening lecture (see below) states that she strives for fluidity, even when allowing her dancers to spiral in and out of control.

“Vertigo 20” was commissioned by Fondazione Campania dei Festival and Teatro Festival Italia. It looks and feels European, with a touch of Fosse (Wertheim was born in the United States). One fetching online version at the website with a male dancer swinging his female partner back and forth like a clock was filmed in the snow.

A raucous musical score by Ran Bagno supports the tribal or carnival-like atmosphere with its fierce, syncopated drumbeats, whistling, blatting French horns and tinkling piano. Dancers move in wide circles and parallel lines that variously suggest a merry-go-round or marching band. They decorate the scene near the end with white balloons that are planted on the floor, encircled and left on the vacated stage. Hints of master filmmaker Frederico Fellini – “8 ½” and “Juliet of the Spirits” – surfaced for this writer before even learning about the company’s Italian connection.

Many of Wertheim’s moves are simple – slow crossover steps in relevé (half-toe) for both men and women in a circle. An extended signature moment springs from a “Fosse amoeba” (closely packed group configuration), though it is more of a diamond shape with just enough space between the dancers to see each one of them. Distinctive strong circles of the lower arms repetitively finish with hands in front of the torso, palms facing front and fingers splayed, as they accent downbeats at thigh-level with alternating feet that “mash” the floor.

The dancers break apart and circle the far corners of the stage, moving in wide second (open) positions. Backs to the audience, they execute one-legged jumps, back foot dropped and softly flexed behind the body. They form pairs again, slither upstage and strike another tableau. Several faces sprout broad grins that are quickly retracted. The audience is virtually ready to join the circle or line, cheering or roaring and maybe even grabbing a balloon.

Bits of repertory introduced the evening’s longer work with Wertheim interpreting and acclimating the audience to both her intentions and her technical vocabulary. Dancers in pairs swish through plié positions (backs to audience), swift floor rolls and spirals of those carried aloft, sometimes male by a male. The choreographer likes to work from the inside of the body, which she emphasizes is mostly water.

In a second introductory teaser, the dancers move in parallel lines, chugging back and forth on a low plane. It reminded this writer of the opening of “Reshimo”, defined as the imprint of a past impression left within the body or self. A lone woman walks on the backs of others, free-falls and glides from one to the other. (“Reshimo” was performed in its entirety by the company at American Dance Institute one year ago.)

Wertheim uses contact improvisation, which she views as feats of balance rather than strength. With her dancers softly chanting to a syncopated beat, she shuns the severe for the light-hearted and even takes a swipe at “white” classical ballet. One female, for example, slouch-walks onstage and poses in fondu, a swan-like image in a low, open fourth position with back arched. My only regret was the relative brevity of the program. Others stood up to leave the house when it seemed to me that the company had just reached an intermission.

The black-box space at BlackRock Center for the Arts is ideally suited to the mounting of a work like “Vertigo 20”. It is smallish and extremely intimate. All the rows in the audience – less than a dozen – are close to the stage. The ceiling is fairly low and the lights sharply focused. This space is often used for musical groups brought to BlackRock. John Lee, my daughter’s partner, performed last April with a raised stage ON the stage of the black-box in a cafe setting in which the audience could even order drinks. As a highly prized venue and artistic jewel of Germantown, BlackRock deserves to be much more widely utilized for dance.

Copyright © 2015 by Luella Christopher