Company E at the John F. Kennedy Center by Luella Christopher

GENERATIONS: POLAND – FOUR GENERATIONS OF DANCE AND MUSIC

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
March 16-18, 2016

By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.

Quirky, somber, provocative and epic. These terms describe, respectively, the four works – “Who Let the Dogs Out?”, “Dirge”, “Didi and Gogo”, and “Air” – presented by Company / E in a distinguished evening of concert dances for the stage featuring Polish choreographers and composers. Profundity of the subject matter built steadily throughout the performance in the Family Theater of the Kennedy Center. The trajectory paused briefly for the announcement of Pola Nirenska awards* halfway through the evening.

Perhaps the most venerable segment of the program was Rima Faber and Carrie Wilcox’s somber reconstruction of “Dirge”, the second section of a four-pronged work known as the Holocaust Tetrology by Pola Nirenska (who lost 75 relatives and friends during the Nazi occupation of Poland). This death march dated from 1981 and premiered locally at Dance Place in 1990. Faber reprised the role of the mother that she danced 25 years ago. To the plodding chords of Ernst Bloch, Faber led the procession of women (Alicia Canterna, Tara Ashley Compton, Kathryn Sydell Pilkington, Kyoto Ruch) and a child (Abby Leithart) through a series of weighted and grounded movements typical of the German expressionist style of dance favored by Nirenska. Deep bends of spread knees, lower body dips toward the floor, arms clasped and outstretched in an upward direction dominated the choreography. No doubts emerge as to the fate of the women in this powerful narrative.

Just prior to “Dirge” was the U.S. premiere of the quirky “Who Let the Dogs Out?” (2011) by choreographer Lidia Wos
to an original score by Marcin Brycki. With a fondness for the personal, melancholic and humorous, Wos admits to a penchant for fantasy and a disclosure of new body angles and positions. In his first composition for dance, Brycki runs a supportive gamut from sound art to jazz and mainstream pop.

The piece begins with the dancers (Vanessa Owen, Robert J. Priore, Kyoko Ruch, Gavin Stewart and Pilkington) wearing neck cones for an extended period. This writer latched onto an image of dogs subjected to post-surgery devices intended to keep them from scratching their stitches or scars. Chairs and tables abound, gravitating and repositioning around the stage. It’s a wacky narrative, requiring the audience to suspend belief.

Poor Fido and friends – reduced to swaying back and forth, crawling about awkwardly and assuming contorted positions! Floppy, jerky, taut. Many of Wos’ movements seem to emanate from torso and waist with torqued wrists. From seemingly strange-sounding plucked strings, the music abruptly becomes spastic – like a misbegotten clock. One “dog” drags a manual typewriter (complete with a piece of paper inserted in the roller) back and forth on the stage to instrumentation that includes a hand-cranked noise-maker, poorly tuned piano, squeaky strings and electronic bass. Two of the male “dogs” are roughing each other up or just ruff-ruffing when a female “dog” thrusts a desk phone with a very long cord at one of them. Her action produces quizzical looks. As with the typewriter, no one recognizes this antiquated device.

At this point, I’ve decided that these “dancing dogs” are mimicking the incomprehensible world of humans.

The third piece of the evening, “Didi and Gogo”, captured my vote for provocative choreography and heralded a world premiere for Company / E. Robert Bondara’s roster of choreography includes one of my all-time favorite percussive, dissonant musical scores made for ballet, “The Miraculous Mandarin” by Bela Bartok. Bondara, at the height of his career as a performer with the Polish National Ballet, demonstrates a synchonicity with the composers of his region. This piece is a lyrical but also technically difficult duet for two male dancers. Music by Pawel Szymanski ranges from “sensuous sound play to metaphysical musings”, but without a monotonous musical line.

Interestingly, the same movements seen in Wos’ “dogs” set the tone for “Didi and Gogo” – particularly swirls from the waist and torso. Walking, free-falling and a grounded version of a fish dive ensue. Next, one man swivels the other on his shoulders, simulating a classical pas de deux. Whether the men (Bondara and Stewart) are friends or lovers hardly matters. Their personal and bodily interaction as well as movement execution are engaging and technically demanding.

Last on the program was “Air”, a world premiere spearheaded by co-artistic director, executive director and choreographer Paul Gordon Emerson in collaboration with his dancers (Canterna, Owen, Pilkington, Priore and Stewart) of Company / E. The work also featured an onstage vocal ensemble, the Washington Performing Arts Children of the Gospel Choir, with their guest director Mark Francis and soprano soloist Michele Fowlin.

Familiar with Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony entitled the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, this writer immediately recognized the musical strains. Were they meant to replicate that composition from the 1960s among his works of “sonorous expressionism” so powerfully evocative of the Holocaust? A little research confirmed that Emerson – working with performer, composer and choreographer Stewart – indeed transformed the second movement of Gorecki’s Third Symphony from an orchestral to a choral work. Using the free serial technique characteristic of the post-Bartok era, Emerson states that he wanted to “bring forward-looking young voices to remembrance and a path for the future”.

The sinuous quintet of dancers delivers epic references to the Holocaust yet is almost submerged by the ethereal chorus – especially the eerie, piercing musical narrative sustained by the soprano soloist. Emerson’s choreography achieves an extended tableau with bodies continually wrapping around each other. Eventually, it focuses on one female who is carried aloft by the others. Is she dying? It would seem so, given the musical context.

Tellingly, program notes for the evening’s four works – especially those referencing the Holocaust – omitted a revelation of the choreographers’ intentions so that the audience was directly drawn into its own realization and absorption of them. Emerson’s ability to provide optics on significant moments in history through dance and music constitutes a true gift.

*Outstanding Achievement in Dance: Erica Rebollar; Lifetime Achievement Awards to Deborah Riley and Douglas Yeuell.

Copyright 2016 by Luella Christopher