Expectations were high. Gioconda Barbuto and Emily Molnar are both celebrated dancers and have the kinds of credentials most artists dream about. Barbuto completed a sterling sixteen-year run as a spirited soloist with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal in the late 1990s, during which time she began her independent choreographic life. She was then invited by Jirí Kylián to join his esteemed group of “mature” dancers in NDT3 (Netherlands Dance Theatre 3), a troupe geared to the talents of performers all in the forty-something and over age bracket. After eight years in that company, Barbuto returned home to Montréal just over a year ago. And she’s been busy choreographing ever since. The Vancouver-based Molnar, for her part, is an acclaimed dancer, who trained and performed with the National Ballet of Canada, then danced with William Forsythe’s renowned Ballet Frankfurt, before being named a principal dancer with Ballet BC.
“Lifelines”, a collaboration between Barbuto and Molnar, along with noted photographer and video artist Michael Slobodian, doesn’t have a narrative. But, what you can read into the title, even before watching a beat of movement, is that these accomplished artists’ rich lives, insights and past practices creatively converged on this project.
There is pleasure to be had watching this pluralist show. Front and centre, these two beautiful dancers possess commanding line and technique, glorious attack and a nuanced control of their contrasting bodies. At fifty, Barbuto is petite and in terrific form, and the tall Molnar, at thirty-five, is a commanding figure. It’s clear that they delight in each other’s company. Other production elements soar. Pierre Lavoie designed the intimate lighting. And Liz Vandal and Linda Chow’s costumes – layered sheer fitted tops and loose pants (Molnar dressed in a sleeved plum-coloured outfit, while Barbuto appears in sleeveless charcoal grey) – highlight the strength of the dancers’ svelte upper bodies.
The piece opens with the dancers walking casually onto the stage. We then see them in the shadows, kneeling and writing in white chalk on the black dance floor, adding to a sinewy message already written there, creating further spirals and arcs with their words and sentences. We can’t tell what is being written, nor can we determine what was already scripted onto the floor. Overall these designs look like the “lifelines” on one’s palm. Whispers coming from the sound system are equally inscrutable, and although the volume increases, the meanings remain obscured. Being unable to parse this material is frustrating, and the muted mystery, which is never revealed, shuts me out. But the image is lovely.
Another conundrum occurs with the video projections that filter in and out of the show. It looked, from my vantage point, as though there was a scaly mesh covering the lens, obscuring the image. But it wasn’t just my seat in the house that made the viewing so odd. Apparently other people in other areas of the hall experienced the same effect. I asked an audience member who had taken in the show on another night for her thoughts on the issue, and she recounted the same difficulty. I can’t imagine this is was the intent of the filmmaker, having seen the pristine nature of his other work. So it would seem that transmission of mediated images is a technical issue at the Agora de la danse. On a positive note, the videos never compete with the dancing. In fact, while the videos play, the dancers either leave the stage, or blend into the shadows in the back of the darkened stage.
Technical issues aside, I enjoyed Slobodian’s choice to focus on clasping and unfolding hands, lit in such a way that they seemed golden. (A couple of years ago, Slobodian made a short film with Jane Mappin, “Pale Fire”, that also focussed on hands). In another sequence, abstract lines effectively crisscross the screen. Later, in yet another interval, the two expressive dancers face off, literally. (Amusingly, the dancers’ height differences are erased on screen. Ah, the magic of the movies ….) This sequence, apparently created for a Bravo!Fact broadcast, explores the idea of the dancers missing each other, in the sense of seeing each other, but not, and then confronting one another. The filmmaker has shot them separately then masterfully edited the two sections together. For me, this video segment encapsulated the premise of the evening’s work – only more succinctly.
Slashing, winding limbs build as a key movement impetus in the larger piece. The duets indicate a power struggle. There are stormy moments where the Valkyrie-like Molnar, as an assured dominator/manipulator, towers over the diminutive Barbuto, whose performance is full of nervous tics and shudders. Grasping arms and lurching legs define the push and pull nature of the vocabulary. In other moments, Molnar becomes the protector, cradling Barbuto and then casting her off, though sometimes Barbuto frees herself from Molnar’s grasp. These phrases are tinged with psychosocial reverberations, and repeat over the fifty-plus minutes of the show. Once seen, however, this abstract artifice becomes predictable upon review, and reinforces the segmented, disjointed feel of the performance.
The score – a montage of uncredited works by Eleni Karaindrou, Michel Drapeau and Gordon Monahan – is dramatic, but it too reinforces the fragmentation. It feels like an evening of My Favorite Dramatic Music, one considerable piece of recorded music following another. It lacks subtlety. The big gongs in the final piece, for instance, urge us to become unsettled.
I’d never doubt the intelligence of these strong performers, though I do question why they both seem to be playing to the last row of an opera house. Dramatic emotions play out, but still … Barbuto in particular plays it way too big, with looks of anguish writ large. Choreographically, “Lifelines” is less than a fertile field. And yet even when the choreography becomes tiring, there are Barbuto and Molnar, each with an indelible presence — all expert strength and purpose — distinguishing the night and providing some real satisfaction and inspiration. Vivid performances, though, can’t diminish the wanting nature of the dance itself. Barbuto and Molnar offer movement options, but there’s no arc to the work, and this ultimately distracts from a cohesive viewing experience. We sense the passion to connect, but it still doesn’t translate, and never really moves us.