At what point is surrender a sign of wisdom and not defeat? The distance from active pursuit to passive acceptance is pretty wide, but it’s not always clear which is the better strategy. Joe Laughlin, in “dusk”, choreographs the tension between action and reaction, between pressing forward and being swept back, in a series of introspective scenarios that are gems of light, sound and — most of all — dance.
The hour-long work opens with a vignette that sets the tone: five dancers, standing closely together upstage, collapse in a gentle wave to the ground. Then the miracle happens, the moment of grace: time halts its determined forward march and the scene rewinds. The dancers reverse their collapse and return to where they were at the beginning.
It’s something film and video can do easily, as in Coldplay’s 2002 “The Scientist”. The four-minute music video reverses the forward motion of singer Chris Martin, whose character imagines going back in time to avoid the reality of a car crash, transforming his everyday movements — walking down a street, jumping a fence – with a bit of wizardry in the editing suite. Here, in live performance, Laughlin is working within real parameters of physical possibility and the force of gravity, realizing his vision solely through the strength and elegance of dancers Katherine Cowie, Tara Dyberg, Kevin Tookey, Jeannie Vandekerkhove and Matt Waldie.
Well, not completely. The lighting and sound designs are both strong in and of themselves, and also in terms of how they support the choreography. There’s no set, just a dark, bare stage, with James Proudfoot’s lights creating shafts of colour that cut through the gloom. These ethereal spaces create enough of a set, and they appear and disappear at exactly the right time and place to either bathe the dancers in vibrant pink or cool blue, or to more minimally highlight the tops of their heads, shoulders and arms.
Composer Jesse Zubot (who currently tours with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq) has created a contemporary sound score that is similarly nuanced: hot when the violin strings, bird song or high, spacey hums sound; colder when more industrial noise predominates. The vocal section by Swedish group The Knife features barely intelligible phrases that flit in and out of consciousness: I think I heard “frame of mind” and “I’m watching the seaweed dance”.
During these vocals, first Cowie and then Dyburg have solos of control and abandon. Cowie, at the centre of Proudfoot’s cross of mauve and emerald green light, jiggles her entire body, punching out her arms and legs like something is exploding inside. Dyburg appears at the other side of the stage, contained between two light shafts, and that’s when I heard the seaweed phrase, which made sense of the long lanky drifting of her limbs, her torso, her whole body, like she was a strand of complicated sea life in the ocean.
Kate Burrows’ costume design, like the sound and lights, is exactly right for the piece. The dancers are simply clad in charcoal pants and grey tops, the change to satiny mauve later in the piece adding a subtle sensual note to the work’s overall texture. There was one confusing element in their appearance, though: the heavy scarlet lipstick worn by the women, a detail visible in more brightly lit sections. The lipstick stood out, perhaps, because the movement itself was not gender-specific: “dusk” is not about fitting into socially constructed roles (being a woman, the one who wears lipstick and is lifted, but does not lift, for instance), but about our shared humanity.
The program note mentions “some significant losses” in the artist’s life, presumably a reference to the serious heart problems of a couple of years ago. It happens: whether through a specific physical failing or the fading powers of old age, a kind of dusk comes to our lives. “In the declining light,” writes Laughlin, “we reconcile the memory of what was with the reality of what is.”
As an artist, however, Laughlin is working at full power. He has a large body of imaginative and distinct work behind him, including 1995’s “Scaffolding”, in which the dancers roamed a large metal scaffold with maximum upper body strength, and 2008’s “Timber/Timbre”, when they were firmly grounded in baroque-styled elegance. There have also been some peculiar misses: in 2004’s “Grace”, billed as a New Media Duet and a collaboration with artist jamie griffiths, the media dominated the dance, while 2008’s “Sleeping Booty” was a well-intentioned but too simplistic “meditation on gender stereotypes” inspired by Valerie Steele’s book, “FETISH: Fashion, Sex and Power”.
But who cares about the misses, if they helped propel Laughlin toward his thoughtful, masterful “dusk”? Whether in solos or ensembles, the movement flows across the stage like calligraphy — instead of the hard push forward of typed words on a computer screen, there are the intricate stylings of ink off a quill, all graceful circles and vibrant lines. In “dusk”, Laughlin gives us richly designed dips and curves, twists and flurries of movement, occasionally with the dancers in unison but mostly on their own in the dark and intersecting with each other seemingly by chance.
Only the ending felt predictable: Vandekerkhove’s long solo takes up a little more space, butting right up against the front row of seats, but the movement itself is the same dense, full-body flow, while the others stand watching upstage, barely visible in the shadows. “Dusk” needed a choreographic full stop, an active resolution to end our immersion in the uncertain state between light and dark. A return to the precise magical optimism of the opening vignette may not have been possible, though I confess that is where my thoughts return whenever Laughlin’s fine, introspective elegy comes to mind.