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The return of Argentine aerial choreographer and dancer Brenda Angiel was the most highly anticipated event, for me, on this year’s American Dance Festival schedule. She and her company last appeared here in Page Auditorium in 2005, performing the amazing South, Wall and After and other works, and I thought that on the bigger stage of the Durham Performing Arts Center, with it taller space and better rigging capabilities, we’d see some even more thrilling pieces.
Attending performance these days is somewhat like grocery shopping. Every time you turn around, you discover that although the price has stayed the same, the content has shrunk. It started with the Hershey bars; now a quart of mayonnaise has diminished to a mere 30 ounces, 5 pounds of sugar is now 4 pounds, and you know what’s happened to the ice cream. Angiel’s company performed one work only, the 65-minute, “evening-length” 8cho. Sad to say, this is becoming a trend. I don’t know about you, but my evening is longer than that. Even as much as I love performance, I’m starting to think — is this worth it? First you deal with either the DPAC box office or Ticketmaster, and pay between $22 and $45 for ADF tickets; you get dressed, go there, park (another fee); then you find out you can’t enter the convenient door unless you picked up your tickets in advance; then you either deal with the box office again (don’t forget your ID!) or go directly to be herded through a makeshift portal as full access to the main lobby has been inexplicably roped off—all this for a performance that will get you back home by 9:30, and probably your ears will be ringing.
Angiel’s 8cho is not a bad work, but neither is it great, and at the DPAC, it is not even as good as it could be. I don’t know if the problem lies with the building, the equipment or the people in the sound booth, but it seems to be difficult or impossible to get clean sound with live music. 8cho features, in addition to the dancers, a five-piece tango orchestra that plays original music and their own orchestrations of classic tangos, milongas and waltzes, several of which are accompanied by a vocalist. The sound mix was very poor, with some instruments drowning others, and the level overall made hearing and understanding the lyrics challenging at best. In row N on the orchestra level, the volume verged on the painful; several times I had to plug my ears. Possibly there is some seat in the house where the level would have been right, but I wasn’t in it.
Since undoubtedly one reason the performance is so short is that the company, with six dancers, six musicians and three riggers, is expensive. Live music is expensive, and that is fine. But why pay for it when you can’t hear it as it is meant to be? And when the music-only segments form a good half of the work, you damn well ought to be able to enjoy them.
But back to the dancing. 8cho is about taking tango into another dimension — into the air, where there are even more opportunities for sexy play than when one dancer must keep feet on the ground. The tango is a highly charged couples dance: it takes two to tango. It is frisky, teasing, provocative, challenging on both sides, and often crosses over an emotional line into the terrain of stylized dominance and submission. Using the traditional tango steps and moves, including the ocho, figure of eight, step pattern that gives the work its name, Angiel emphasizes the component of sexual attraction and competition, and even hints at bondage by using wrist and ankle cuffs and wires in addition to the body harnesses that allow the dancers to “fly.”
Several of the dances were quite striking, while some were — can I say it? — pedestrian, although that would not describe Angiel’s own non-aerial dancing, which was delightful. The opening sequence, which begins high in the air with two women intertwined, then separating to form exquisite shapes, is the most beautiful. One segment has the couple dancing off the back wall, so you see fantastic foreshortening and unusual angles on body parts. Another clever bit suspends a man and two women high above the stage so that we see only their feet and legs (except when they flip upside down) as the women compete for the man. In another, two men on foot go after one woman, who is harnessed; they end up deciding she’s not worth it and dance with each other. If the whole thing flowed, it would be a smart commentary on the varieties and vagaries of sexual pursuit. However, there is a slight lag between each section, a slow leak that lets the energy out, so that the grand finale with all six dancers was not very grand at all.
Program repeats July 9 and 10 at the DPAC. See our calendar for details.