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They call it the American Dance Festival, but one of the great things about it is that it is not all American. Each year, choreographers and troupes from around the world bring their very different cultural perspectives to Durham. A few become favorites, and we see their work develop over the years. One such is Tatiana Baganova, whose staggering imaginative powers are expressed by the bold dancers of Provincial Dances Theatre. On June 26 in Reynolds Theater the group presented the first of three performances of Wings at Tea, a work that had been commissioned by the ADF in 2001and was initially staged during the International Choreographers Commissioning Program concert that year.
Baganova's work has dream-qualities: Everything is Symbolic with a capital S - but often even the dreamer cannot tell the meaning of the symbols. Hyper-real and completely mystical at once, her dance-theatre is generally a little frightening as well as perplexing. (For a description of her dances at ADF in 2004, see http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2004/july/ADFStranger.html.) Wings at Tea is no exception. I have no idea what it is "about," other than the big story: the cycle of emergence, seduction, sex and death.
Driven by a powerful score by Chris Lancaster supplemented with music by Yma Sumac, J.S. Bach and Metallica, Wings begins with a long, anxiety-provoking section in which the ten dancers smoke cigarettes. The three women lounging inside a kind of open chrysalis are smoking. Men in dark suits slouch around smoking. Two other women sashay with cigarettes dangling from their lips. For a person who never goes places where there is smoking, this was bad enough, but when the couples began dancing with each other, still smoking, I could hardly bear it. It was as if, through the hazy smoke, I could see an immediate future that was going to involve burned flesh, singed hair, incinerated clothing and panic in the theater. This deep anxiety was further exacerbated by the appearance of the women's legs. They were wearing beautiful, flaring dresses, perfect for dancing, but on their feet were black low-cut socks that visually blended with the black stage floor and made them appear footless, stob-legged.
The relief when they finally ditched the cigarettes was enormous and was fueled by Baganova's use of Release Technique - essentially an extreme distillation of one of dance's main principles - which allows the dancers to achieve a propulsive force similar to that of a spring after compression is removed. The technique is not so interesting in itself, but combined with her other favored methodologies, it allows her to build a deep structure to support work that might otherwise be too whimsical. One responds so powerfully to the underlying patterns of anxiety and relief, tension, and release that the strange actions take on an inarguable logic.
In addition to the segmented "chrysalis," the stage is hung with other symbolic objects. Across the stage from the chrysalis is what appears to be a white bird, suspended from a giant hand overhead. A man reaches up and activates the bird, which then flaps and flies, making a sound like film running through an old projector. But as it spins, the "bird" reveals itself as a pig with wings. We understand that this is all happening "when pigs fly."
So, we are in an alternate reality - but one that serves as a magic mirror. A third object, a long white dress, hangs in the stage space like a headless marionette. But when a dancer wriggles into it, what is it? We often think of clothing as protection and an expression of self, but suddenly the dress seems not a wrapping of safety but a confining encasement.
We are whipped from conundrum to conundrum and from action to image to action as the music increases in intensity. These dancers are astonishing. They can eel around and over and through as if they were boneless; and whether taking prissy little steps on their stob legs, or making huge stage-shrinking moves, they are very powerful. They contract, curl, and wiggle; they drop and roll; they split and spin - and jump up and dance as if in a ballroom, except that the dancing is all lifts and inversions. Pigs are flying: all is possible.
By the time the music comes back around to its early theme, we feel like we have burned through a lifetime's mad experience. When sparks and flames are replaced with quenching sprays of water and the pig slows its flight, the relief that comes with rest and refreshment is for a few moments in perfect counterpoise with the tense fear of death. When the three women re-enter the chrysalis and the others slip behind the scrim, waiting and smoking, there is a beautiful instant when you believe that there is no Death, only Life, revealed and hidden, coming and going in different bodies.