On Wednesday night I got to see Helge Letonja’s Steptext Dance Project perform The Bog Forest at Agora de la Danse. If memory serves it is playing tonight as well and tickets are cheap. According to the press fodder it’s about immigration. I’m not so certain I would believe that, but despite me not being able to see how it is about immigration I was pleasantly surprised with the performance. One reason I might not have been able to see how it is about immigration is quite literally because it is very dark. Both on a physical level and an emotional level.
Let’s start with the physical first. According to (again) the press fodder Laurent Schneegans is the person responsible for the lighting. Personally I would have given him the title of person responsible for the darkness. The piece is roughly comprised of three (or maybe four) sections and the first one and the last one take place in pretty much an unlighted black box. Now normally I’m not a big fan of not being able to see the dancers, but in this case it wasn’t that bad; a) there wasn’t that much dancing going on (to be more precise, a lot of moving, but not a lot of dancing) and b) given the name of the piece it was obvious that the lack of light was in order to add to the atmosphere.
At the beginning everybody pretty much had their face covered by something or other, whether it was an actual mask, or just a very large hood that then caused shadows, it was difficult at the beginning to figure out who was who. Although after the fact (and with judicious use of the press fodder, I can confidently state that) Christian Wolz starts out with some kind of chanting and Konan Dayot does some staggering around like a busted marionette. I wrote in my notes “a bunch of staged abstract tableaus in the dark.” And more than 24 hours after the fact, I still stand by that statement.
As an introduction to the performance it is effective. Very spooky. They use lighters, have flashlights aimed towards the audience and in general do just about everything you can think of to make you think that you’re in some kind of bog (or for the North American’s in the house a swamp – or if you want to get technical, both are wetlands although swamps tend to have trees, and bogs veer towards treelessness) you know the kind of place you imagine while you’re listening to Dale Hawkins or Lighting Hopkins. But the beginning of the performance as a means to understand that The Bog Forest is a “crossroads for six individual destinies…” I’m, not so certain.
The second part starts with a bang – well not actually a bang, but the aftermath of a bang with a humongous cloud of smoke hanging over the stage. It takes a while to dissipate but continues to add to the swamp-like atmosphere despite the lights actually being turned up and being bright enough so that I could see the dancing. Quite a cool effect, especially since the Agora de la danse is such a small space. At some point I’m going to have to bone up on my “how-to-make-a-large-cloud-of-smoke-in-the-dark-without-any-light-or-sound” notes because I sure as shootin’ had not clue how that cloud of smoke was able to get there.
With the aid of the light it actually became possible to not only identify the dancers (who were generally quite accomplished, if not really really good) but also since they were identifiable; recognize them as individuals. According to my notes there was the “Chinese Couple,” “Blondie,” the “Other Woman,” “The Turkish Guy” and “The Rabbit Guy” (who to be honest, wasn’t a dancer, but was the singer, Christian Wolz). Writing while they are performing doesn’t leave me an awful lot of time to think about suitable titles. Although in the case of “The Rabbit Guy” I could have gone with “The Singing Guy.” But since he carried around a rabbit for the better part of the first part and then that very same rabbit gave “The Other Woman” some sort of epileptic/hysterical fit. I went for the slightly more descriptive title.
The Chinese Couple were I-Fen Lin and Wei Meng Poon. They did a kick-ass duet that started with each of them on a separate square of straw (one stage front and left, the other stage back right) which went through a progression where Mr. Meng Poon removed Ms. Lin’s shirt and did what I called a “dance of tension.” (At some point I’m going to have to do my darnedest to memorize “Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet,” my vocabulary sucks the big one when it comes to describing how people move). But this one was where it appeared that there was an equal amount of pulling by both of them so as to keep everything in an equilibrium, more based around brief poses rather than a continuous series of movements.
Not quite the Ab Lounge, or i-Shape but close, and now that I think about it more, I’m certain that there is probably some yoga involved as well. Anyhows, after he takes her shirt they talk in what I presume is Chinese, which turns into an argument, at which point Mr. Meng Poon returns Ms. Lin’s shirt, they reconcile and then she starts coughing while he starts either crying or laughing.
Even with identifiable characters, I’m still not certain what it has to do with immigration…
Prior to the argument over the shirt Ms. Lin and the “Other Woman,” Emilia Giudicelli, have a very graceful, extremely well done, but unfortunately all too short duet. While watching it I was struck by how well they performed together. I’m not certain, but I don’t think they could have been more synchronized had they been doing it together nightly for the past 5 years. There were also two quartets where everything seems right with the world, not quite line dancing, not quite Jazz Dance, not quite Modern Dance either, but very very satisfying. If I remember correctly “The Turkish Guy” (who is actually Brazilian) Leonardo Rodrigues is not quite dancing in counterpoint to the other four, but is dancing on his own in opposition to the other four.
The three other tableaus that were notable were when The Rabbit Guy, Mr. Wolz, hummed around The Turkish Guy, Mr. Rodrigues, in effect making him move as a consequence of the; quote, sound waves; unquote, emanating from his mouth. Think of a leaf on the wind or a piece of cloth in a pool or a river. In retrospect it could be considered a variation on a theme that was started with the “dance of tension” and is continued towards the end when all five dancers join in a game of “keep aloft.”
The set is mainly made up on one side (actually one third) what looks very similar to a miniaturized version of “Lipstick Forest / Nature Légère” by Claude Cormier at the Palais des congrès de Montréal. Branches and twigs instead of trunks, orange instead of pink and suspended curtain-like one on top of another instead of planted on the floor like a fence. But close enough. The other two thirds is made up of some sort of net that has a lot of plastic bags attached to it. Depending on the light, or the lack of light, the plastic bags can kind of look like leaves, handkerchiefs, plastic bags or just something sort of spooky. Or maybe that was just me anticipating Halloween. But, one of the plastic bags becomes the object of the game of “keep aloft,” whereby the dancers try to keep the bag in the air by blowing on it.
The third notable tableau was when “The Rabbit Guy,” Mr. Wolz starts to draw on “Blondie,” Mr. Dayot’s back. It’s notable in that everyone is on stage and no one stops moving, but my eye was riveted on Mr. Dayot’s back, ignoring everything else. Which leads me to believe that whatever dancing was being done wasn’t particularly compelling, because the drawing itself wasn’t all that hot – but the process of drawing was extremely compelling.
Overall, I was impressed, not so much by the narrative or the theme, but by the movement. Mr. Letonja does have a very specific dance vocabulary (which I’m not certain I would be able to learn at this late stage) rooted in movements from nature, like the wind or water and he does translate it extremely well for humans. I’m certain it makes complete sense in his head how it relates to immigration and immigrants, but that didn’t translate to me sitting in the audience, maybe next time I need to go to the performance that has the talk afterwards where they explain everything, although to be honest, all I really would want to know is how they got they cloud of smoke up there, but I’m rambling now, so let me stop.
At the risk of repeating myself, it is the movements taken from nature and reproduced by Mr. Meng Poon, Ms. Lin, Mr. Dayot, Mr. Rodrigues and Ms. Giudicelli that truly make The Bog Forest something wicked-cool.