Liberation of mind and body
BECKET - In the preface to her book “Afterimages,’’ the great dance critic Arlene Croce tells her readers that those indelible images in the mind’s eye are all that one has after seeing a live performance. It’s been two years since I saw Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève perform Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Loin,’’ and not only can I still “see’’ the breathtaking floorwork that is the Belgian choreographer’s signature, I can still feel its intensely visceral sweep.
Apparently I’m not alone: The world premiere this week of Cherkaoui’s new dance, “Orbo Novo’’ (“New World’’), was preceded by much anticipatory buzz. The excitement was enhanced by the fact that the New York City-based company performing the work at Jacob’s Pillow is the much-lauded young company Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. The troupe serves Cherkaoui well, providing him with strong dancers as well as eclectic personalities tenacious enough to tackle the work’s quirkiness.
The piece uses as a starting point neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book “My Stroke of Insight,’’ in which she describes the stroke she suffered in 1996. Though it took her eight years to recover, she took a dire situation and turned it into life-changing - and life-affirming - research. The dancers recite portions of Taylor’s text ruminating on the different functions of the brain’s left and right hemispheres; despite the harrowing topic, the words and their charmingly deadpan delivery make for some surprisingly funny moments.
The main metaphor of “Orbo Novo’’ is entrapment - in one’s mind, in one’s body. Designer Alexander Dodge’s imposing cage-like structures are broken into panels that can be moved by the dancers, so the structures sometimes suggest prison walls, with some on the outside and some in, and at other times the panels fit together to enclose dancers, becoming the prison building itself. At one point the unsettling image of twin towers is evoked, with dancers’ torsos dangling out.
The twist of the metaphor is that at no time is anyone actually trapped; the panels are gridded in squares that are large enough for the dancers to snake or squeeze their way through.
Most arresting is the way the dancers interact with the panels. They climb, they drape, they hang: They look like bats swinging upside down, or apes in a zoo, or spiders scaling a web. Near the beginning, a woman is pulled halfway out, leaving her body horizontally squirming. This contact improvisation of sorts could be explored more.
Instead, too much time is spent setting up the metaphors. Themes are stated, and then overstated, resulting in a few uncomfortably earnest moments, most conspicuously in Szymon Brzóska’s original score. The music - well executed by the Mosaic String Quartet - is often beautiful but occasionally overwrought.
Indeed, though “Orbo Novo’’ is too long (perhaps by as much as a third), more of Cherkaoui’s choreographic mesmerism would be welcome - particularly those stunning group phrases in which it’s unclear where the movement starts or stops in the dancers’ bodies, in which the dancers meet the floor as if it’s water. Martha Graham showed how many parts of the body can contract, and Cherkaoui instructs us in the multiple ways the body can undulate. The stage becomes a mosaic of S-curves as the dancers throw aside conventional transitions and preparations. Up and down, rise and fall are both wild and soft, like the tossing of a stormy sea.