KS: Well, Philip, I just saw Untitled, the newest work by Édouard Lock and La La La Human Steps here in Toronto and I did not really enjoy it. I sometimes have this kind of reaction with art I find emotionally cold and, in spite of its great beauty and technical virtuosity in all departments, Untitled struck me as being pretty much frigid. From the tyranny of the lighting design, to the stunning velocity with which Lock’s dancers tackled their solos and many duets, to the bouréeing go go dance moments, Untitled seemed all gorgeous chilly form with mostly inaccessible content. I brought my love and admiration for Lock and his company to the theatre and left feeling a bit spurned.
PS: Kathleen, I’m still in a state of befuddlement, a month after seeing this new work in Montréal. In part this is because of the complexity of the themes and the movement choices Lock presents in his dance. As the press materials indicate, Lock revisits the precision and the velocity of ballet technique, and tackles form and content in opera. Inspired by the human drama and passion of doomed love in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, the production marks La La La Human Steps’ thirtieth anniversary, and features Gavin Bryars and Blake Hargreaves’ reworking of the original scores (with music for four players: saxophone (soprano, alto, tenor or baritone), viola, cello and piano). The cast of twelve dancers plus invited guest prima ballerina Diana Vishneva share the stage with the four musicians.
In his more recent non-narrative works, including Amelia and Amjad, the choreographer revels in his superb dancers’ furious rapidity and the velocity of the execution of the movement. It’s truly a feat, and the superhuman strength that his work demands is awe-inspiring; his dances display bodies that can supersede limits we might impose prematurely. The pure speed of the movement, aided in large measure by their meticulously articulated pointe work, gets the fleet-footed dancers to an altered state of performance, and the accumulating gestures bear witness to the human body’s abstract complexity.
Separate from a discussion of the physicality, the work’s sense of experimentation – in lighting (by Lock), in stage design (by Armand Vaillancourt) and in the shots and camera movements in the suspended video projections — sets it apart in terms of beauty and originality. The video elements were directed by Lock and filmed by André Turpin (who also worked together on the screen version of Amelia) and included additional abstract, kaleidoscopic footage from Jean Ranger. As has been Lock’s wont, long rectangular projection screens ascend and descend throughout the performance.
But let’s get into the lighting. Apart from the kamikaze shifts and changes in the spotlights, and the effective use of shadow play and silhouette, were you straining your eyes? For the majority of the performance the dancers’ faces were obscured and shrouded by the dimness, or alternately their features were blasted out by the lights. To not be able to see who was dancing was frustrating in the extreme. I could divine muscled torsos and legs, but who was who was a mystery. I kept thinking that my seat, located quite a bit to the side, was the problem. But apparently this was a common complaint. Only when Vishneva entered to partner with Jason Shipley Holmes toward the end did the lighting amp up. Is this another attempt by Lock to entice his audience to move from a conscious level of looking to an unconscious one?
KS: It could be. I’m sure it was calculated on his part; Lock leaves almost nothing to chance. But what’s in it for those of us who are already there, ready and willing to look at the dance any way he would like? I have to admit the low levels didn’t bother me as much as the sense that the dancers were panting to keep up with the lighting cues. I could distinguish between them by other than their faces but these beautiful performers too often resembled puppets being pulled every which way by technical concerns rather than having time to fully embody their roles. It’s part of my larger irritation with the tyrannical aspect of Lock’s work in general, and this work in particular. Yes, it is breathtaking to watch dancers in peak form and with a sure grasp on their technique and artistry move with such unrelenting and extreme speed and precision. I got excited too. But the heart must slow and the mood must change and the work must offer more dimensions — otherwise we all might as well just be spending our spectator time and energy watching elite sports.
Now, you and I are both filmmakers Philip, so let’s unpack the substantial media content of Untitled. There were the abstract kaleidoscopic sections with or without Sandra Muhlbauer en pointe and waving her arms, and there were the amazing double portraits of Muhlbauer and Zofia Tujaka and their aged alter egos in latex special effects make-up. Besides giving everyone a moment to catch their breath, what was the real purpose of these gorgeous state-of-the-art projections? I read the video portraits as a commentary on aging, the beauty that fades, the love that dies, the fleeting quality of physical perfection and all of that. But I’m stumped about the other segments. Showing off? Evanescent eye candy? What do you think?
PS: This was another mystery for me. Yes, there were stunning sections of video content in the impeccably crafted work, breaking the mesmerizing but excessive movement. But if Lock is particularly interested in the notion of ageing and he’s portraying this theme in the films, why is it never reflected in the actual dancing as well, which offered mercurial speed and attack as its only register? It’s a dilemma that sticks in my mind. And if he’s tackling the metaphor of memory and/or mortality, well yet again, he seems ambivalent. Memory hovers, suspended, but never really lands on stage or becomes part of the action. Or are these figures on the screens caught in some limbo — illuminating a state between life and death?
It’s true that Lock doesn’t try and re-tell in any tangible way the stories of the two operas, but if he was somehow interested in the lovers and the tension that comes about in the exploration and dissolution of tragic love, at least as expressed in the music, well where’s the passion? Maybe that’s just it: he’s highlighting the furious rotations of the abandoned Dido, or a passionless Eurydice, a mere shadow of herself. My eyes are wide open, but I think that trying to grasp at the opera’s mythological figures and the other flashes of Western cultural traditions contained within Lock’s new work just doesn’t move it to a satisfying climax.
KS: I agree. But we are being rather hard on this show, aren’t we? I guess because of all the expectations associated with Lock; he’s been ahead of the curve for so long. And he regularly accesses talent and resources that many choreographers can only dream about.
Was there an exquisite moment for you in this show, when you just sighed and felt like “… that … that thing, that image … I’ll remember that”? For me it was the strange reptilian pose that Vishneva adopted at the very beginning of the piece and returned to again and again. Contained in this one torqued crouch was all of the human debt to the primordial ooze. Not refined, not even lovely, but that one’s a keeper for me. My choreographer/company crush will burn a while longer it seems.
PS: It’s a great debate, Kathleen. Ultimately, I feel it was an elegant evening, which seems like an odd adjective, but there’s a refinement in Lock’s work that is unmistakable. I can’t but salute the nuanced and precise performers. To be able to revel in the suppleness of a developpé is always a pleasure. The floating sensibility that pervades the entire piece, from the dancing to the suspended screens, is transcendent. I was also deeply moved by the live music: the fine ensemble, Bryars/Hargeaves’ use of baroque musical structure so perfectly suited to contemporary ballet, and the eminent skill in weaving the two scores together. I was also knocked out by Vishneva’s pas de deux with Shipley Holmes. Her gorgeous, swooping diagonal spiral turns were beyond breathtaking.
Along with his mastery of tiny detail, Lock is arguably without equal in his combining of neo-baroque aesthetics and contemporary entertainment. And when I have to break it down, I think he’s creating with sensitivity and insight. He’s able to spin out visual associations and link musical composition and give the hybridity a particular urgency and relevance that’s not easy, nor always instantly endearing.