Before Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theater, the last time I had seen Rachel Meyer and Darren Devaney dance together was five years ago, during a rehearsal for my piece at San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. We were all summer students there, and I had applied and been accepted for their Choreographic Residency, which paired student choreographers with other dancers in the program. I’m unsure which of the Summer Intensive gods had smiled upon me to assign such wonderful dancers to my work, but Rachel and Darren were both impeccable technicians and instantaneous learners, with two of the most pleasant personalities I’ve encountered in a studio.
Choreographer Alex Ketley mentored the whole process, but he, unfortunately, never got to see our work. No one did. In a sour twist of fate, Rachel swung herself into our next rehearsal on a pair of crutches with a cast entombing one leg, bringing the whole shebang to a screeching halt. It happens. The Intensive continued. Our lives all continued. I used the material from our beginnings for my Senior Choreography project at my college, and it later moved to the Inside/Out Stage at Jacob’s Pillow, launching my professional choreographic career. I saw Darren again out East a couple times–the dance world is tiny, and we have mutual friends. Rachel recovered, of course, and three or four years later she surfaced on a poster for Ballet British Columbia. So when the company came through, I marked my calendar.
The first two works on Saturday’s program demonstrated the spectrum, from forboding to funny, that contemporary ballet tends traverse to in tone; they also introduced the company as a skillful group in which Rachel and Darren, perhaps thanks to my own bias, still stood out. Jacopo Godani’s A.U.R.A. (Anarchist Unit Related to Art) was dark and industrial: harsh lights in rows overheard shone onto lines of dancers performing counterpointally and in unison. 48nord’s dissonant score left room for rhythms to be layered on top of it–the dancing and the lighting were equally musical, and came together with the sound to form a collaborative score, a complete audio-visual experience. The effect was geometric, with all of the underlying natural beauty that mathematics intrinsically possesses. The costumes, also by Godani, were minimal and uniform for both men and women. Dancers wore royal blue briefs with spiderweb-y strips of fabric running the length of their torsos and arms; stylistically splayed fingers completed the image with the costumes of several broken, fraying wires, or of each arm a vector exploding into fifths.
Aniel, by Artistic Director Emily Molnar, contrasted from A.U.R.A. in several aspects. The stage was brightly lit and appeared bigger when filled with bodies in brightly colored, closely fitting satin dress clothes. The choreography became more gestural, veering into the slapstick, complete with conga lines. Purely classical footwork disrupted the funny dialogue building amongst the group: a subresaut here, a jeté there. Meanwhile men manically kissed their biceps and everyone grooved, deadpan. The dancers scooted around the stage like wind-up toys, heads wobbling, the men in ties, and the women all buttoned up. Did a deeper meaning lurk beneath this incandescent staging? Could there be some clock ticking ominously within, threatening an apocalyptic ending, if not ruined composure? Brave New World popped into my head, with Mad Men trailing close behind. However, these references might be more reflective of my own imagination than the work itself–perhaps I’d been watching too much television. Ultimately, the dance crescendo’d into a typical finale-type ending, the opportunity for a more surprising finish lost. A dancer in extremely green pants blew us a kiss, and that was all.
The curtain rose before the second intermission ended, and the backdrop had been removed, revealing the bowels of the stage itself–a convention which hearkens to Forsythe and other postmodernists. A single dancer walked onto the stage. Audience members were still milling about the house, talking, obviously accustomed to their usual cue: first, house lights dim; then, collective hush. Rachel joined the first dancer, drifting in from stage left. The two stood next to each other, rocking from side to side, performing a syncopated step TOUCH, step TOUCH. The “TOUCH” was a flexed and supinated foot that met the inside of the opposite ankle. More dancers joined from offstage, entering through the house and the wings, utterly compelled to join in this simple, rhythmic walk-in-place. A warm-up? A ritual? Darren drifted past our row as the lights finally dimmed, his focus unblinking, and then climbed up onto the stage. A scrim descended behind the company, and with all of the theatrical pieces now in place, the company’s engaging final presentation of Petite Cérémonie, choreographed by Medhi Walerski, began.
The dance unfolded episodically, wherein the play between broken convention and certain basic laws of dancemaking became as fun to watch, from a choreographic standpoint, as the dancers themselves were. Entailed in the program as a collaborative piece, the work focused on men and women, their “different brains,” and “boxes and wires trying to connect, to create a congruent image.” In section after section, the work retained a cohesive structure. Elegant costumes by Linda Chow–black suits with white shirts for the men and black dresses for the women–established a simple color palette from which neither props nor lighting detracted. The step TOUCH upon which the work had been founded recurred in each development, often with gestures or facial expressions added to it; it was also performed sitting down.
In one section, a male dancer juggled three white balls while speaking, trying to pinpoint the difference between men and women. “Men have one box in their heads that is filled with absolutely nothing,” the jester posited. Another man stood by, armed with a huge, crane-like microphone, which he held overhead. When asked for his opinion, the man holding the microphone only shrugged. Just behind them another pair of male dancers performed fluidly arcing movements in unison.
In another section, two men partnered each other to a pulsing, steady beat, and then, halfway through, retrograded the entire thing.
In yet another, several women performed a gestural phrase with measured femininity while men crouched before them holding flashlights, silhouetting the women’s figures to scary proportion onto the backdrop.
Later, couples partnered while the dancers all talked among themselves, supplanting the mostly classical score with the din of speech. It hearkened back to the beginning, which had been innocently accompanied by the audience’s talking.
The dancers themselves retained a strong sense of unity throughout the work, which helped hold it firmly together. Individuals gracefully transcended the unit in solos and duets, and then melted back into the whole seamlessly. It was during this work that I got to see Darren and Rachel partner each other again, and as they moved mercurially together I meditated on their history–my little unfinished duet and all the duets they’ve probably shared since. All of the dancers in the company were unique and compelling to watch, but to be tied to the dance through these friends of mine, even in some small, probably forgotten way, was for me the cérémonie of the evening. Meanwhile, Walerski’s choreography was the evening’s standout.