One reason I love the American Dance Festival is that every year there is at least one company you’ve never heard of from some unlikely place doing something that sounds like it could be terrible — and it turns out to be marvelous. This year it is RUBBERBANDance Group from Montreal, Canada, being presented at the DPAC through Saturday. Choreographer and co-artistic director Victor Quijada, originally from Los Angeles, has created, is continuously creating, a new hybrid dance form that combines the energy of hip-hop, street dancing and martial arts with the grace of ballet and the irreverence of modern dance. You have not lived until you’ve seen this powerful combination in action in Dr Ib Erif, reigniting the fire in Stravinsky’s Firebird (L’oiseau du feu), the six dancers flipping in and out of cones of light (Yan Lee Chan) on the dark stage. Screw the story ballet and all its glories. Here is a dance that gets right to the heart of the music.
And that is only the first segment of Loan Sharking, an hour-long work that, for which Quijada re-appropriates choreography he’d previously made for projects and commissions, combining the parts and pieces into a new dance, in much the same manner as Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin has done with his DecaDance. The fierce vitality of the work also recalls Naharin, but Quijada seems less ego-driven and more humbly humane in his examination of human relationships. The dancers are people moving together — not partnering bodies traversing an artful stage-space. They look at each other. The rubber band of their plastic energies, supremely elastic, binds them and frees them. They dare danger to reveal passion.
All the six dancers are strong in technique and personality, but Victor Quijada and co-artistic director Anne Plamondon rivet the eye when they are on stage. All dancers look bigger than life when they dance, but Quijada, who is already a big man, becomes a giant. It is uncanny. The large bones and blunt angles of his face seem to expand; his back broadens, his arms and legs become even longer. Whether breaking on the floor, kicking and spinning, or testing the upper air with balletic jumps and lifts, he emanates a dark lyric passion that can turn faster than a backflip from ferocity to tenderness.
In the dance’s second section, Quijada, Daniel Mayo and John Welker perform a hilarious ballet (Quijada’s past includes time with the Feld Ballet and with Twyla Tharp!), Soft watching the first implosion, to Antonio Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in A minor, a ballet that mocks nearly every trope of the form, cocking it into a self-deprecating, but not unbeautiful version of itself.
The third section, Attempt #2 at Reinventing the Hip Hop Routine, set to The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s classic jazz “Take Five,” lets the three women strut their stuff. Plamondon, Louise Michel Jackson and Lila-Mae G. Talbot use all their b-girl moves with some exquisitely timed jazz shimmying in a little story of the elasticity of friendship. It was especially swell during Paul Desmond’s (who actually wrote the music) alto sax solo.
But all this is prologue to the second act — a dance that is truly theatrical. Blessedly, the only talking is a brief cell phone bit that works into the story line of one of the three couples. Punto Ciego Abreviado, a 30-minute condensation of the 90-minute original, is dance theater for adults. (It reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s famous comment about George Eliot’s dense, character-driven work: these are novels for grown-ups.) Quijada and Plamondon again lead, and their intensity floods the theater. Such was the level of desire being silently examined that I longed to be in the dance. Normally the observer position, outside the action, is the place for me, but I mentally leapt into Quijada’s long arms, to be wrapped and then rejected; returned and scooped and inverted, chastened and coddled and danced away forever.
The music for this piece is by Jasper Gahunia, and includes samples, several passages where the uneven beat and scratch of a needle at the end of a record is the only sound, original compositions and silence. I thought it was quite wonderful. The recording is available through www.rubberbandance.com, and the website is worth visiting, too, for its lengthy high-quality video clips that give you a sense of the action and imagery of the RUBBERBANDance Group, though to experience their glorious physicality, you will have to go live.
RUBBERBANDance Group continues the 25th and 26th at the Durham Performing Arts Center. See our calendar for details.