Édouard Lock’s new revisionist ballet, Amjad, has a way of messing with our heads. Those who mistakenly expect that Lock’s current choreography draws on the signature barrel turns and the sexual ambiguity of his work in the 1980s will be sorely disappointed. And for those interested to see how he has continued his exploration of the classics of the ballet repertoire, there will be expectation.
Amjad is a return for Lock to his balletic tendencies of late and his evolving exploration of pointe work. In a recent interview I conducted with the Montréal-based choreographer, he revealed his interest in what he referred to as the ironic juxtapositions of Romantic era aesthetics and parallel aesthetics operating in the Oriental worlds. A major reason he is turning to classics such as Swan Lake (1895) and Sleeping Beauty (1890) for inspiration is because he sees the ballet world as a “pivot point” that allows him to reference tradition and yet situate himself squarely in the contemporary.
Undeniably, there’s a certain mystique surrounding this serious, abstracted production. For those scratching their heads wondering about the work’s title, Amjad is a common name in Morocco, Lock’s birthplace, and one of the few names in Arabic that can be used by a man or by a woman. The key poster image advertising the show features a woman (Nathalie Gareau) covered in gold and wrapped in vines and dark shadows. The visual, Lock says, evokes the palace and the forest of the story ballets, but also the palace and the forest as expressed by Oriental aesthetics. With one foot squarely in North American realities, and yet deeply attached to references from his youth, the intersections implied in this image draw strongly on the creative power of memory and the imagination. More intellectual analogies connect power, precious metals, exoticism and sensuality as enduring symbols in a variety of Romantic visions and themes.
Lock’s company, La La La Human Steps, got its start in the early 1980s, and is perhaps best known for its dance of physical extremes. Lock first leaned toward the techniques of ballet a decade ago (although he did create a work, Bread Dances, for the Dutch National Ballet in 1988). In Amjad, he is sourcing the narratives in post-Romantic ballets; however, Lock doesn’t rely on story structure like in the classic Swan Lake. What we do see is dancing — exquisite, quicksilver dancing.
In all Lock’s recent ballets, one can detect a modern-dance base: the play with gravity, the weight shifts, the flesh and the floor, are front and centre. But there’s something else going on. Using the structure of the ballet pas de deux and the strength of this cultural reference — some classic moments from famous productions may come to people’s minds — Lock is getting at something visceral and abstract in this physical landscape. Here, ballet and modernist aesthetics are at play.
A number of years ago dance critic Max Wyman called Lock’s work a “a cauldron of cultural semiotics… or a triumph of meaninglessness.” Indicating the potential for wide-ranging interpretations, this comment speaks to why critics and audience members either embrace or reject Lock’s work.
Though Lock is not reconstructing anything — there is no plot, no characters — references to earlier works, both his and those of classical ballet, arise throughout Amjad. The choreographer characteristically plays with extreme speed and an accompanying sensory overload. As he has suggested in the past, he is interested in creating disorientation on the part of the viewer. Lock admits to wanting to alter the way we look at and experience dance. He has openly said that his concerns relate to physics. This is evident even in early electrifying works like Human Sex and Infante, C’est Destroy — where he challenged gravity with those indelible, trademark horizontal pirouettes in which the dancer launches his or her body sideways into an airborne rotation through space. Lock’s concerns with energy fields surfaced in work like Amelia (2003) (first presented in Montréal), and before that, 2, where complicated rhythmic variations, speedy footwork (that admittedly becomes redundant after a while), and split-second directional reversals of the body could catapult audiences into a state of awe.
Among the company of performers, there are several standouts. Zofia Tujaka — in regal imposing form à la Swan Queen — has her companions flock around her, quivering, not so much with a unified precision, but certainly with a sense of ensemble. New recruit Chinese-born and trained Xuan Cheng (perhaps Tujaka’s dual opposite, again shadowing the Swan Lake storyline) embraces a theatrical sensuality and attack, with a crisp, technical precision. A strong core gives her freedom to execute Lock’s quick turns, and the line, form and colour of her interpretation reveals her specific training. She doesn’t possess softness, but her physicality is personal, determined and technically beyond reproach. Refined and dynamic, her movement does not say “watch me” but draws our eye nonetheless. Keir Knight is Xuan’s Prince, and cuts a dashing, sexy presence. Feather-light Andrea Boardman dances a fierce duet with Jason Shipley-Holmes, in which he sweeps her up powerfully, drawing appreciative “ooohs” from the crowd. The other female dancers (Mistaya Hemingway and Talia Evtushensko) are classically beautiful and restrained in their own manner — more coolly direct. Slight and ephemeral dancers just don’t seem to be the point here.
As we’ve seen in previous Lock works, the male dancers tend to be the epitome of strong supporting players for his female dancers. (Let’s not forget that in the past Louise Lecavalier was the driving force of the company.) In Amjad, Lock choreographs the men to give force and muscle to the phrasing and pacing he demands from the women, and the men give those long lifts and arabesques the breadth they require. These are not the bounding, thick-thighed Bolshoi-type dancers, but smaller, scruffier, more street-wise guys.
As an aside, in terms of Romantic ballet, we know that the male dancer essentially disappeared from the ballet stage in the early nineteenth century, representative of a “new moral and aesthetic canon”, suggests Lynn Garafola, in her book Rethinking the Sylph. In the ensuing decades, few male dancers were of service; those who maintained a status did so mainly due to their technical abilities. Audiences just didn’t want to see men on stage dancing, preferring to gaze at a more feminine display of both virtuosity and sensuality. The supposed effeteness of the decorative European ballet tradition seemed to doom the male danseur. The arrival of Nijinsky and other male dancers of the Ballets Russes in the early 1900s didn’t make audiences feel any less anxious, but a change did occur: female dancers, people soon realized, looked even better when supported by the male. Or, put another way, there was little resistance to these developments, and the device flourished.
The element of gender interaction in Amjad, though present, is not Lock’s focus, nor the crux of the work. Indeed, Lock does go further than in past works in his exploration of relationships, and he seems to find pleasure in placing the men in relationship with each other. It comes about through a subtlety of gesture, in extended sections of simply male duets (the other male dancers are Bernard Martin and Dominic Santia). It’s exciting to see Lock — who is so recognized for displaying the masculine aspect of women in previous dances — highlighting the connection between, even the fragility of, his men. There’s something fascinating about watching a man dealing with the minutia of movement. We saw this when Lock choreographed Billy Smith dancing en pointe in Amelia. In Amjad, Santia dances a sensitive solo en pointe.
The men first enter wearing black suits, partnering the women who are dressed in black bustiers (costumes by Vandal). However, for long stretches the men are bare-chested (a first in Lock’s work) and this exposes their gestures in a more obvious and Romantic manner. The bare chest relates to the Romantic representation of excessive passion, and the notion of being reduced to nakedness to learn humility. It also fits into the discourse on the Romantic era surrounding the strict roles of acceptable behaviour and the animalized, extreme personas represented in literature, poetry and painting.
In Lock’s view, the Romantic era was exclusionary. The norms and bounds of society were quite rigid and what wasn’t accepted was transposed and expressed, at least in artistic terms, as something that was not human, and was located in a place that was beyond the pale of judgment. In a very rigid society, ballets like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty or literature like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, reflected a kind of freedom. They permitted a way to extend beyond the endorsed codes of the society. Lock adroitly said in our recent conversation that “we are (living) in an exclusionary society right now,” though in his new ballet he isn’t making explicitly political statements.
Apart from the physicality in Amjad, the audience can delight in the sense of experimentation in lighting, set design and the shots and camera movements in the suspended video elements. Abstract projections directed by Lock and filmed by André Turpin, who worked together on the screen version of Amelia, open the evening. Rushes of red and white silk, pearls and red, pulsing flesh, among other images, ascend and descend on circular screens throughout the performance. Those who can recall earlier shows (Exaucé/Salt comes to mind) know that Lock has used circular screens before, and might find the reiteration a bit passé.
Lock has often worked with film in his theatrical productions, and lighting designer John Munro structures his contribution to Amjad based on dynamic camera technique. Munro shifts our point of view continuously, and abruptly, as we watch the same section progressing. The light layers the dancing and looks like faceted puzzles of smoke and mirrors. The design does not follow the action; abrupt and brittle, the lights snap on and off. Dancers enter and exit the darkness of the stage. Shrouded wings leak out to a world we don’t see.
Dance, as always, is the fulcrum, but sculptor/artist Armand Vaillancourt’s decor integrates fully into the work. Elongated metal screens with insect-like patterns flank the stage, evoking the forest metaphor. They rise and lower throughout, book-ending sections of movement.
Live music composed expressly for this work, by Gavin Bryars David Lang, and Blake Hargreaves and incorporating piano, cello and viola, sets the mood. Eighty-five percent of the compositions are by Bryars, who clearly draws on Tchaikovsky’s intentions, using the intricacies of the composer’s structures and the melodic lines of his compositions, and underlining essentially how contemporary some of his work was. Audiences know these musical references: Tchaikovsky is one of the few composers who is recognizable to people who have never even seen or heard of ballet. The composers also pick up on the strangely filmic, strangely resonant quality in Tchaikovsky’s music. In fact, there’s a distinct cabaret sound to some sections of the music.
Amjad clocks in at around one hour and fifty minutes — and Lock doesn’t give us intermissions to digest his thick offering. All around me, people were sinking into their seats, many falling asleep. Afterwards in the lobby I heard someone say: “It was interminable. The length of the piece puts so much strain on the dancers.” Another commented, “It was so repetitious. You have to admit, it was a bit of an indulgence.” They nevertheless roused themselves out of their slumber at the end (which incidentally comes with a thunderous clap in the music), and helped in the standing ovation, but their blatant concerns about Lock’s latest ballet can’t be dismissed.
I suppose the issue is the extent to which people are willing to believe in Lock as an artist. This latest work exploits a cool distance almost throughout, and his concepts about Romanticism will probably escape most watchers. On the other hand, the production boasts great dancing and some stimulating artistic collaborations.
Amjad is both carefully controlled, and split-second in its development, shifting from en pointe breathtaking speed, grace and precision to the more wayward, loose-limbed dance that refers back to his earliest group pieces. Lock’s ultimate focus — on the importance of the body – persists as a theme in his choreographic development. That he’s still extolling the legitimacy of dance as a social metre of the times — and here, I’m thinking back to his “exclusionary society” comment — is what makes me keep watching.