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Reynolds Industries Theater
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North Carolina
Durham, NC
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Gaspard & Company’s Portrait Uneven Yet Enjoyable

by Amanda Abrams
October 6, 2016
Reynolds Industries Theater
125 Science Drive
Durham, NC 27708
(919) 684-4444
The lights dawned on crouching bodies rolling towards the center of the stage. Dressed in flowing turquoise, they gradually unfurled themselves and came to vertical, then began a series of lyrical unison movements punctuated by tricky partnered lifts. Feet were pointed and phrases were cleanly executed.

So began “Anemone,” the first company piece in Gaspard & Dancers’ Portrait, their 7th annual concert at Duke University’s Reynolds Industries Theater on Sept 29. The choreography in that piece, by Gaspard Louis, wound up characterizing half of the show: light, fluid moves that were invariably pretty, almost balletic, combined with intricate, interesting lifts. The meaning of this piece, like many of the others, was never quite clear, but that didn’t necessarily matter; often it was possible to create meaning or even a narrative without explicit clues.

“Tota Pulchra Es (You Are All Beautiful)” was an example of that. The company’s three women and two of its male dancers, all dressed in something resembling street clothes, began as a tableau, frozen in the middle of pedestrian interactions. A male dancer arrived and brought each person to life by blowing on them, and then the dancing began. Much of it was lovely but unmemorable. The middle section, however, stood out: couples performed duets, each to a different type of a music and with a slightly different style; a couple dressed in red had a joking, playful style that particularly stood out. But often the choreography moved too fast to be fully appreciated.

In contrast, both the music by composer Michael Wall and the lighting design by American Dance Festival veteran David Ferri created a mood that gave the piece a deep sense of meaning—sometimes melancholy, at other times relaxed and personal.

Three of the show’s pieces featured that type of lyrical dancing. The other three, in contrast, were completely different—from each other, as well as from Gaspard’s characteristic style.

The performance opened with “DanceX15,” a section from Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s “Rosas Danst Rosas.” The curtains parted to show 15 empty metal chairs that were soon filled by young dancers ages 8-14—presumably students in the American Dance Festival’s outreach program, which Gaspard directs. Wearing plum colored leotards and black pants, they danced in and out of various formations with clean, exact movements that were invariably on the beat. These young ladies had obviously rehearsed extensively. More interesting than their movements, however, were their facial expressions: too young to have learned how to hide their emotions, the girls were variously determined, charming, serious, and embarrassed. It was fascinating to observe.

A second unusual piece was “Forbidden,” a duet featuring Gaspard and Durham dancer Justin Tornow. The piece began with Tornow seated on Gaspard’s shoulders, both with their arms out and looking together like an ancient Indian goddess. From there, the piece became a slow and lyrical—but oddly inexpressive—duet between the two. The movements seemed like they could become luscious, but never quite got there. Tornow’s head rarely fully released backward, for example, even when the rest of her body was arched toward the sky. When she finally let herself fully explore the movement, the effect was almost pornographically intimate and sensual, in an uncomfortable and yet satisfying way.

The show featured a guest artist, Black Irish, a troupe from Raleigh that describes its style as “contemporary hip hop.” Dancers (including choreographer Ronald West) performed “Soundbites,” a piece that, if the initial voice-over was any guide, was about eating disorders and society’s fixation on thinness. It was never clear how that meaning was reflected in the choreography, but it didn’t really matter. The dancing—high-energy and audience-focused—served as a palate cleanser to Gaspard’s style.

Not that there was anything wrong with his choreography. It was just a little too evenly paced, and sometimes simply too pretty, to really express something authentic—which is, of course, ultimately why we watch dance. Still, the skilled choreography and talented dancers made for an enjoyable evening.
Gaspard & Dancers’ Taquirah Thompson and A.J. Guevara rehearse Gaspard Louis’s 2016 'Portrait.'

Gaspard & Dancers’ Taquirah Thompson and A.J. Guevara rehearse Gaspard Louis’s 2016 "Portrait."

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