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Occasionally one sees something so fresh in the arts that it banishes cynicism and restores mediocrity-eroded faith. On Thursday, February 17, in Duke's black box Sheafer Theater, that something was alban elved dance company, the small, dynamic troupe from Winston-Salem led by Karola Lüttringhaus. These "wonder women" as they are called in this month's Dance Spirit magazine, made quite an impact last summer during ADF's Acts to Follow local series, but this was my first opportunity to see them. I'll make sure it won't be the last.
They performed a surprisingly lengthy program of seven dances, all choreographed by Lüttringhaus, whose work is marked by an unpretentious athleticism and a philosophic quality. Although she eschews "movement for the sake of movement" and sees character, and to some extent, narrative, as the driving forces in her work, the dances are closely reasoned sequences that exploit the physics of movement for its emotional resonance. Not pretty but often beautiful, Lüttringhaus' dances depend on the proud power and flexibility of the dancers' bodies – and their joint and mutual willingness to risk themselves. In that, as well as in some of the specific movements and techniques, alban elved is as much a circus troupe, or a gymnastics team, as a modern dance company.
The opening dance gave us an introduction to Lüttringhaus' interest in the realities of connections between people. "Half Me, Twice You" is performed mostly in the air as the two dancers eeled through the openings of a rope grid suspended diagonally across the space. Separate, ignorant of each other, the two (Lüttringhaus and Andrea Lieske, her long-time collaborator and the company's assistant director) pursue their lonely paths among the ropes until they intersect. A joyous, difficult, messy duet ensues. But then their paths diverge, and while one woman departs, the other obsessively tidies the ropes, like a housewife cleaning up behind a guest she's glad to have seen the back of.
"Alternate Reality – Larry and Henriette escape from Planet Blackwater" was performed by Lüttringhaus and the company's third member, Lena Rose Polzonetti, who were suspended by long ropes above large boxes they could just reach. Polzonetti's opening sequence, in which she spirals head down over the surface of her box like a giant phonograph needle zeroing in on the center of the record, will long remain in memory. But the piece as a whole is very funny and sweet, and I'm happy to report that Larry and Henriette escape their isolation, do not break their necks, and appear to be headed towards a better world when the story ends. I'm also happy to say that apparently we will meet them again in 2006, when their saga is scheduled to continue.
Andrea Lieske returned in "Density," an intriguing solo work made riveting by harsh side-lighting that formed the dancer's shadow, another character in the play. "Density" begins with the dancer, in trousers, blouse and high heels, folded under a long table at the rear of the stage. She moves rapidly back and forth through this tunnel-like space – crouching, wiggling, turning and twisting – until the sense of the compression on her is nearly unbearable. Finally she emerges and leaps to the tabletop, dancing in the slightly sordid manner of a woman putting herself on display in a bar. Her shadow, grotesquely distorted, taunts her like a "fun" house mirror, to which she is chained until she dives back in her private tunnel.
Lieske and Lüttringhaus returned for a beautiful duet, "At Arm's Length." Wearing simple, toughie street clothes and boots, Lüttringhaus with her wings-spread eagle tattoo on full display, and Lieske move through the patterns of approach and connection, with a series of amazing lifts, ending with a wonderful final image. One holds the other, who keeps herself in a rigid horizontal, and spins like a top as the lights go down.
"Split Second" was the evening's only less-than-satisfying offering. A solo for Polzonetti, it fell flat, even though she did some good tricks on the aerial rope. The choreography did not seem either as dramatic or as clearly reasoned as that of the earlier pieces.
The final work before intermission was "Lux Eterna," a moving dance about schizophrenia. It reminded me of Sam Piperato's tour de force on madness, Ten-in-One, seen in the same space a number of years ago. It is a tough topic – one that makes you remember that cliches exist because the patterns that make them are real. To cut through our physic defenses to the emotions underlying the stereotypes is the work of a real artist. Lüttringhaus and Lieske pierced us with their portrayal of pain on both sides of the chasm of madness.
All that would have been enough for your average dance troupe, but on this program there was still the second half to go. It was taken up entirely with Lena's Bath, a joyous contemplation of the elemental powers of water. Water is flow and change, but it is also sameness and tranquillity, and this dance explores the paradox while having a very good time. The bath is a shallow tub, more like a very large pizza pan, although it brings to mind the tubs from which Degas' bathing models rise. The other props are three silver buckets and a board (seat, bridge, diving board). Many things happen, with two dancers pairing in all possible ways while a third pursues her own adventures. Conflicts and confusions arise and are washed away. The water in the buckets is poured into the bath. At first diffident, then delighted, Lena Polzonetti takes to the inch or two of water like an otter in a creek, a dolphin in the sea, or a three-year-old in a play-pool. Lüttringhaus' struggle to get her out of the tub is like trying to get a Labrador out of the bath: each time she approaches, Polzonetti splashes and wiggles, flinging her hair out in a great arc of spray. When finally she grasps her and hauls her out, Lieske dives into the vacuum and the cycle begins again.
Altogether, it was a fine evening in the theater. If your taste runs to the adventurous and somewhat weird, danced with complete devotion, alban elved fits the bill. If you miss them this weekend, look for them again this summer during ADF.
Note: These performances continue through Sunday – see our Triangle calendar for details. Several are said to be nearly sold out, so call ahead.