Jacob & Nova was a program pairing new works by Jacob Zimmer and Nova Bhattacharya, two choreographers approaching contemporary dance from very different backgrounds. Dramaturge, writer and theatre director Jacob Zimmer crosses disciplines into dance with Story Dance Radio, while choreographer and dancer Bhattacharya continues her blending of bharatanatyam with western idioms in Red and Yellow.
The first-ever dramaturge in residence at Dancemakers, Zimmer makes his official choreographic debut with Story Dance Radio. The title of the piece reveals Zimmer’s desire to explore storytelling through movement, yet at times Story Dance Radio succeeded more as a runway show of ’70s-inspired fashion than as a dance piece. It opened with a long sequence of dancers walking, running, strutting and swaggering back-and-forth across the stage in a variety of retro outfits. When not walking or running, the dancers often posed with each other and lounged on the bench or against the back wall as though starring in Calvin Klein advertisements of the period. Several times the piece returns to this theme of walking/running, suggesting that the scenes take place on the busy sidewalks of a city. However, as not much new ever happens on these sidewalks, it becomes somewhat tiresome.
While the choreographer himself is old enough to have remembered the ’70s (he alludes to this in the program notes), his experience of it was mediated through the radio. What results is a heavily nostalgic dance piece, a yearning for an idealized time of free love and groovy music. The problem with nostalgia is that it is the adoration of a non-existent and frequently superficial past. Of course, Zimmer is not alone in this inclination as we live in a very nostalgic age, with popular culture constantly referencing and reiterating previous periods.
Sitting on the left side of the stage, a radio DJ, played by Christopher Stanton, provides the soundtrack to the piece, which includes well-known hits by The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and The Velvet Underground. While the addition of a live DJ was an interesting part of the concept and staging, I was disappointed that he was using modern equipment. Though it would have been trickier to cue and play vinyl records, the hiss-and-crackle of real vinyl would have added some authenticity and intimacy, which the piece lacked.
From time to time, the late-night DJ punctuated the scenes with short introductions for his next music track. He tells of brief romantic entanglements, echoed in the coupling and un-coupling of the dancers. Yet, both the DJ’s narration and the duets themselves are emotionally void, with little evident passion expressed in either movement or words. When these entanglements dissolve, no lasting regret is expressed. Much like the lyrics of popular music, there is a generic quality to the choreography of these duets and trios. These dances do not have the vitality of a real individual’s story being told; instead, they aim to tell a common experience.
Dancer Robert Abubo is the odd-man-out in many of these relationships. He hangs to the side of groupings and is left behind from the party. Clearly this is Zimmer’s most autobiographical character, as it is the one most affected by the radio broadcasts. From scene to scene he returns to a crouched position, with his left hand dangling down, just skimming the floor. It is a gesture that suggests an electrical grounding, as though he is letting an electric current flow through him. The dancer has become the radio receiver of the broadcast frequency. He detects the transmission and converts it, from Zimmer’s memory into movement. It is this character that shows Zimmer’s promise as a choreographer. With this character he demonstrates that if he explores beyond the level of collective nostalgia into his own personal memories of a particular time and place, he can find an honest choreographic voice.
In the second half of the program, Nova Bhattacharya’s Red and Yellow begins with these two colours. Dancer Kate Holden waits in dim light, expectant at centre stage. She lightly tosses a handful of yellow powder into the air, which hangs in a billowy ochre cloud above her head, seemingly suspended in the ether of the stage lights for longer than what one might expect gravity to allow. Quietly she stands as the yellow powder gently sifts down onto her and the floor. She follows the yellow with red powder, swiftly throwing open her other hand with more energy, spreading scarlet pigment in a sweeping arc on the floor. Now the pace has quickened, with the other dancers mimicking her gestures, taking turns to release their own explosions of colours in swoops of arms.
As the piece progresses, the audience may begin to notice a delicate perfume in the air since the yellow powder is in fact the spice turmeric. The turmeric’s peppery aroma envelops the audience. In a bigger auditorium, the audience might miss out on this aromatic experience in Red and Yellow, but here the intimate stage and small seating area at the Dancermakers’ studio is used to full advantage, with the fragrance bringing the audience more emotionally in touch with the work. As the most primal of the senses, smell is well known to have a deep connection to memories. So in each of us, the turmeric scent may evoke different personal emotions — for some exotic and sensual, while for others it may be familiar and domestic.
Similarly, Bhattacharya presents choreography that is abstract and asks each of us to bring our own symbolism and meaning to it. As with earlier works, Bhattacharya draws some of her gestures from classical Indian dance traditions. Yet, she transposes these gestures through an improvisational process, where they become released from their narrative meaning and open to other possibilities. For instance, mid-way through the piece Pierre-Marc Ouellette performs a solo, his hands flowing in a sign language all his own. Fingers touch palms, then his heart and forehead. With his gestures, he anoints himself with residual red and yellow powder.
The drawback of this very abstract and open approach is that I was left wondering about Bhattacharya’s intentions. While the opening scene had strong visual impact, as the piece progressed it felt increasingly unfinished and unstructured, like watching a free improv class.
Working in an abstract form does not necessarily mean that the artist should relinquish control over shape and structure. In fact, more so than narrative works, abstract art requires clear composition since in abstraction “form is content and content is form.”
One of the standout moments that hinted at a compositional arc was when Simon Renaud balanced for a long time on one foot with arms extended into the air. While other dancers moved around him, Renaud appeared to hang in the air, suspended like the cloud of turmeric at the piece’s opening. I yearned for more clearly shaped moments, like this one, in Red and Yellow.