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Rachel Levin
California Dancing
Performance Reviews
Special Focus
Theater Reviews
United States
Greater Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA

Rosanna Gamson/World Wide — Tov

by Rachel Levin
March 20, 2010
(Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater - in the Walt Disney Concert Hall)
631 W. 2nd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Remaining performances March 24-27, 8:30 p.m.
It's an all too familiar saying — "wild horses couldn't drag me." Through our idiomatic lexicon, we've preserved the notion of the wild horse as perhaps the only force that falls short of the human will. In "Tov," which premiered Thursday night at REDCAT, choreographer Rosanna Gamson explores this unusual tie between the spirit and condition of man and horse in a dance/theatre piece at once wrenching and tender.

The inspiration for this pairing of the equine and humanistic comes from Gamson's own exploration of her family history; her ancestors were Jewish horse traders from Szczecin, Poland. Gamson became fascinated by the story of the tarpan, an extinct species of wild horse that breeders attempted to revive in the 1930s in Germany even as the nation was putting in place its "final solution" to exterminate the Jews. Both the fate of the tarpan and the fate of Polish Jewry were deeply intertwined with the eugenicist ideologies of the Nazis.

In telling the tale of the tarpan with movement, spoken word, and vocal music, Gamson employs the "theater laboratory" ensemble techniques of Jerzy Grotowski to break down the barrier between the audience and the performers. REDCAT's usual stadium seating facing the stage was rearranged so that only three to four rows flanked each side of a performance space that extended the length of the theatre, placing the performers at eye level with audience members. This created a keen sense of intimacy. As the piece began with performers seated around a table lighting candles and chanting Hebrew prayers, it felt as if one was seated among them.

The melancholy chants served to usher the audience into the mood and motifs of the world created by a cast of seventeen, including three performers from the CHOREA collective, a Polish theatre group. At the opposite end of the performance space from the table of singers, a stream of fake snow fell in one corner, while a ribbon of salt crystals cascaded softly in the other — evocative of an unseen power on high that delivers the cold of winter and a trail of salty human tears.

Within and around these sites of snow, salt, and candles, the dancers moved with unmistakable horse-like quality, snorting, stomping, shivering, and at times seeming possessed with feral energy. Wild horses are creatures that feed off the energy of one another, such that if one startles, the whole pack is off in a gallop. The choreography implied a connection between such equine kinesis and the "groupthink" tendencies of mankind that underpinned the atrocities of the Holocaust. It also called attention to the fragility of serenity in both horse and human, how interdependent we are on those of our own kind.

Narrator Paul Outlaw, reciting Gamson's text, served as a compelling guide throughout to help the audience make sense of these recurring visual and kinesthetic motifs. Though in the end the tarpan species could not be revived, he tells us, its genetic material may have survived, a conclusion that points to the show's thematic core. As a whole, the richly textured performance leaves one with a sense of sorrow for the void created by human destruction — the extinction of a species, the slaughter of a people — but also with a sense of hope, that a trace of an unshakeable life force carries on. In this way, Tov's very personal narrative of Gamson's family history becomes at once universal.

Photo © & courtesy of Steven Gunther

Photo © & courtesy of Steven Gunther

Photo © & courtesy of Steven Gunther

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