Thanks to Lisa (and Erik, for being out of town), I had the wonderful fortune to see two dance ensembles recently: La La La Human Steps and Ultima Vez. It was a joy to go with Lisa and Ying, who both love dance.
First, some thoughts on Human Steps: the show itself attempted the deconstruction of certain classical ballets, including The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle (I think). Naturally, narrative is eviscerated. What is singular about Human Steps is the precision and speed of their steps; they take the smoothness of classical ballet and quicken the movement: there are no lingering pliés, and every pirouette is more of a taut snap than a luxurious rotation. What might be construed as a “modern” style, however, seems to me an actually fairly conservative (and appreciative) interpretation of classical ballet.
For example, partnering: traditionally, the male dancer is, in the words of a ballet teacher of mine, the stem on which the rose blossoms. His purpose is to let his partner glitter, to make her movements ever more effervescent and effortless. In the Human Steps pas de deux that I remember, my eyes went directly to the woman: her speed, her flickering arms, her beautiful line.
The blossoming rose
Of course, to execute such choreography so quickly, the dancers had astonishing technique. The point of Human Steps is, I think, not to reject classical ballet but to tighten and streamline it. The male dancers do a fair amount of seemingly rough manhandling of their partners, but in the mad tempo of the choreography, this was necessary and not so much an artistic innovation.
Although the first half hour or so was stunning, my interest waned a bit as the performance progressed. One can be impressed by magnificent technique and the novelty of their mechanistic style for only so long. The live musical accompaniment gradually stole a good amount of my interest, despite my continued admiration for the athleticism of the dancers. Perhaps here is a clear departure from traditional ballet: to a large degree, I feel that classical ballet concelas the athleticism of the art; many a teacher has shouted at me for “showing effort” or “making it look like work” during class. On stage, yards of tulle and handfuls of rhinestones disguise the muscles of a ballerina. Yet the Human Steps women were unapologetically athletic, as shown by their revealing yet oddly asexual costumes; it was as if someone had taken one of Balanchine’s neoclassical leotard ballets and injected it with steroids and black leather.
I mentioned to my ballet teacher that I had seen them, and he expressed admiration for their dancing, but observed that they must get injured constantly. “Amazing,” he said, “but it’s so bad for their bodies.”
So! A good transition to Ultima Vez. The thing that the two companies share in common is probably the astonishingly short careers of their dancers. Although the Human Steps dancers might destroy their joints slowly over time, the Ultima Vez dancers looked like they could end their dancing in one fell swoop.
Ultima Vez did not attempt any narrative or reach for any meaning that I could discern. What it did manage to do, however, is to keep danger and violence in the periphery of every movement and gesture; one step in the performance, for example, involves dropping female dancers on the floor. Another act has dancers tossing heavy (stone?) bricks to and at each other across the stage, which undoubtedly resulted in a lot of pain during rehearsals. We were sitting in the first row, so when the dancers were taking their curtain calls, I could examine their legs closely: they were covered in cuts and bumps.
Yet Vandekeybus manages to bring whimsy into his choreography, and make it cohere with the ballet’s violent edge: there was a chair hanging upside down from the ceiling, and dancers would struggle with each other to sit on it. Another act involved a man attempting to keep a feather afloat while dancing, eventually blowing it into the audience (and spitting on me).
Ultima Vez was a total delight; whereas I felt like I “got it” (never a good sign) pretty quickly for Human Steps, Ultima Vez was a continual mystery and surprise throughout the program. The costuming was simple and straightforward, and the dancers themselves a motley and interesting lot. I appreciated the diversity in body types, though the average Ultima Vez dancer tends to be stocky and well-built.
I was surprised to enjoy Ultima Vez as much as I did. I tend to roll my eyes at modern dance (and most modern art, music, and culture, frankly) as an exercise in poor technique and self-absorbed pointlessness. Yet I was touched by how Vandekeybus suggests at moments of humor, transcendence, of rage, of vitality. Neither performance stretches to make an “argument” or tried to tell a story per se, yet Ultima Vez gives us much more to think about, to chew on, to replay in our own minds.