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Screening Dance

by Joseph Campana
November 14, 2009
Houston, TX
La Danse: Le Ballet de L'Opera de Paris, dir. Frederick Wiseman
Cinema Arts Festival Houston
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet
Houston, TX 77005
November 12, 2009

Trey McIntyre Project
Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas
Houston, TX 77002
November 13, 2009
Dance is an art that depends on the presence of live bodies, bodies whose graceful and strenuous efforts seem tantalizingly close but out of reach. But several decades of experimentation with dance and video plus a weekend of arts programming in Houston proved that dance is alive and well on the screen. Friday was a homecoming for the Trey McIntyre Project. McIntyre studied at the Houston Ballet Academy and was appointed Choreographic Associate by Ben Stevenson years before setting out on his own as a choreographer and later forming a company now in its second year. A program that culminated with a stunning combination of live dance and a film set in Glacier National Park was very much at home in the midst of a burst of cinematic activity.

Houston's first annual Cinema Arts Festival, which screened Frederick Wiseman's La Danse: Le Ballet de L'Opera de Paris and screened outdoors at Discovery Green, The Red Shoes, introduced by Tilda Swinton and accompanied by a performance of Stanton Welch's Blue by Houston Ballet II. If that weren't enough, the experimental theater group FrenetiCore, which happily seems to be a new stop on the Dance Film Association's Dance on Camera festival, with screenings of a variety of short films of and about dance.

Wiseman, practically the American father and grandfather of documentary cinema, is known for lengthy works of almost pure observation. His films include almost nothing in the way of commentary, subtitles, or even narrative structure. Clocking in at 158 minutes, La Danse is a lot to take in. The film tracks the Paris Opera Ballet "behind the scenes"—from executive meetings to rehearsal with a range of choreographers to actual performances. The footage, often hypnotic and compelling, begins in the underground bowels of the theater and ascends to the airiest of arabesques in the studios.

Viewers are treated to sneak peeks at Wayne McGregor's virtuosic Genus, an overwrought and unintentionally funny Le Songe de Medée by master choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, and the abrasive camp Catholic satire of Mats Ek's La Maison de Bernarda (among others). It's hard not to fall in love all over again with Paris, with the Paris Opera Ballet, and with the company's most passionate and witty advocate, artistic director, Brigitte Lefèvre. La Danse is perhaps best sampled at home on DVD, however, to allow time to stop, rest, and contemplate. A great ballet that is 50 minutes too long is still too long, even if those extra fifty minutes are beyond reproach.

Not length but brevity was the watchword of the Trey McIntyre Project's Houston debut. The company opened with the oldest of McIntyre's compositions, Like a Samba, which was set to familiar and seductive songs by Astrud Gilberto. Each song was a sketch of a different variety, with the limber and youthful dancers sculpting different moods on the stage. The most compelling of these were the group pieces. While the dancers attacked solos and duets, in truth this was the least compelling choreography in spited of exuberant performances by Dylan G-Bowley, Annali Rose, John Michael Schert, Ilana Goldman, and Brett Perry. McIntyre was at his best, here, when most slyly theatrical. At the opening, squares of light illuminated and brought to life the bodies of dancers testing out the samba with a camp swivel of hips, a cheeky smile, and a fluid sweep of arms. Like a Samba was wonderfully cinematic as it began and end, thanks in part to the elegant lighting design of Michael Mazzola. But the merely pretty balletic moments in the center seemed too sleight for the music and left one hungry for something more, something with the fierce movement of a social dance. In other words, something more like samba.

The second work, (serious), may have tried to bracket its graver subject parenthetically, but in spite of yet another excellent musical selection (this time a score by Henry Cowell) the piece was a somewhat leaden accumulation of gestures built out of unknown anguish. And while the dancers energetically act out undiagnosed forms of estrangement, their movement vocabulary seems, again, too limited for the magnitude of the music. Improbably, it took Shape, set to music both subtle and exuberant by Goldfrapp and Polphonic Spree, to bring the program to life. When Lauren Edson emerges on stage at the beginning of Shape with two very large red balloons under her shirt, there's no way not to laugh. And McIntyre has a fine sense of humor. But this is an earnest game played in Shape, as viewers come to understand that the joke is on all of us who assume our bodies to be static in shape. As Edson elegantly maneuvers on stage with her improbable enhancements, Rose appears with two red balloons attached to her hands and G-Bowley with a red balloon strapped to his head. Haven't we all had those days when parts of our bodies seem too heavy or too light? Something about the ways these balloons altered or obstructed the casual elegance of highly accomplished dancers made for an unexpectedly compelling performance that wore lightly its intelligence about our experience of the flesh.

The Sun Road, with music of Paul Simon, Young Grey Horse, and Nina Simone, was the cinematic and choreographic climax of the program. As dancers roll out from underneath a large screen on the stage, we begin to see images of those same dancers interacting with the alternately lush and denuded landscape of Glacier National Park. The struggle with and against this landscape was fascinating and different even when the same gestures were performed on film and in front of us. Explosive solos punctuate shots of the dancers amongst trees (in cocktail attire), hovering too close to the edge of cliffs, or lying in the brutally cold snow as icy waters flow nearby. The alternation between moments of frenzy and moments of barren, beautiful contemplation were particularly effective in the male group constituted by Jason Hartley, Perry, Schert, and G-Bowley. And Chanel DaSilva was incandescent in a gorgeous red gown struggling amongst the evergreens. A few moments—both on stage and in the film—seemed too awkward, even naïve with respect to the gorgeous texture of the rest. And the piece ends an abruptness too weird to be effective. But clearly McIntyre constantly complicates and challenges some of his own balletic instincts for simpler forms of beauty, and this struggle was invigorating to watch.
Trey McIntyre Project

Trey McIntyre Project

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown


Trey McIntyre Project

Trey McIntyre Project

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown

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