Dancers in nothing but boy-shorts, minimalist lighting, an empty stage. Much has been made of José Navas’ transition from a choreographer who crafts dance with a theatrical aesthetic to a more mature artist whose work is subtle, even ascetic. In discussing last year’s piece, “Portable Dances”, Navas made it clear that he had reached a stage in his career where he had to reach deeper inside to make dance that was purer, more about the body and its interaction with space, and less about spectacle. “Anatomies” continues that trajectory. This is a piece that honours the dancer’s ability to compel an audience into an internal voyage without the distraction of props, costumes or other effects. As such, “Anatomies” provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the very ideas that Navas himself seems to be grappling with: the co-existent abilities and vulnerabilities of the body, and how these things can be presented through ambiance, an almost meditative state rather than through a heavily laden narrative.“
Anatomies” was created for five dancers, including Navas himself, who engaged the dancers in a series of movement and improvisation exercises that became the foundation for the architecture that he then spun into a complete choreography. Dancer/interpreters Mira Peck, David Rancourt, Ami Shulman and Jamie Wright worked with Navas on creating an organic gestural language — each dancer worked alone on his or her phrases — and then each segment was given a letter or a number. From these disjointed possibilities, and with the help of video technology, Navas built a collage of gestures into a structure that he played with and re-arranged until it became “Anatomies”.
The use of space and light at the beginning of “Anatomies” felt stark, at times almost clinical. The white lighting, white floor, white shorts on the dancers, and the lack of music created a harsh ambiance that was not softened throughout the duration of the first section, “Anatomy One”. This section included all five dancers and quickly fell into a fairly repetitive choreography whose aesthetic was technically sharp, highlighting each dancer’s immense physical agility. While the quality of this section was not as emotionally charged as later sections, it did provide a provocative springboard into the next “Anatomies”.
I found that the subsequent sections had more developed spiritual or emotional content. “Anatomy Two” featured the three women, and established a more heightened emotional connection among the dancers and between the dancers and the audience than the first piece. The lighting created an almost ghostly shadow-land that seemed all the more mysterious in combination with Alexander MacSween’s abstract and distorted soundscore in the background. MacSween’s composition was made in part by the dancers having read text in Russian (a language that none of the dancers knows). That was recorded and then mixed to create what sounded like it should have been a comprehensible narrative, but was, in fact, indecipherable.
There was both an emotional and physical strength in “Anatomy Two” that came of the dancers’ technical and expressive abilities. A lovely, if all too ephemeral moment, where each dancer was doing her own solo in her own circle of light, made me think of that beautiful girl you see dancing by herself at a club — the one everyone wants to fall in love with. Perhaps this kind of moment was the most effective aspect of “Anatomies”: its ability to evoke beautiful ideas.
“Anatomy Three” took me out of this pleasantly meditative state. A duet for the male dancers, this section had a slow motion, tentative aesthetic that evoked process and the fragile state of creation. Navas and Rancourt are both physically powerful, but the combination of the two in this segment was delicate, suggesting vulnerability.
By contrast, Anatomy Four was supple, fluid and strong. A solo for one of the female dancers, it continued and developed the mood from “Anatomy Two” and was the most focussed and perhaps the most emotional section of the work. To me, Navas’ choreography is most moving when it creates images with an abstract quality that transcends literal interpretation. The use of near-stillness in this section allowed for lingering moments in which the body was not just a human body, but took on the appearance of forms suggesting emotion as much as shape, such as the freedom of arms spreading as wings. Against red lighting, the choreography also conveyed a weightiness of spirit that was captivating. The movement vocabulary returned to technical precision, but then took that repertoire, stretched it, and distorted it to a level of abstraction. The meditative quality carried it and invited me on a quiet, reflective journey. This section epitomized, for me, what Navas may have been striving to achieve by exploring pure movement.
The final Anatomy, number five, completed the circle with all five dancers returning to the stage. Navas’ use of unison mixed with individual movement in this section made me consider questions about individuality and conformity that became particularly relevant in view of the neutral costumes that had the potential to strip the dancers of their identities. Following “Anatomy Four”, which showcased the power of the individual, in “Anatomy Five” the dancers effectively became a group, a force that transcended the limits of the body and the individual.
It is risky to create something as simple as “Anatomies”; the price of simplicity is that all the possible faults are laid bare. Still, when one has the courage to do this, the result can be breathtakingly profound. While the aura of spectacle still occasionally lingers in Navas’ choreographic style, which tends toward action over reflection and precision over expression, if he can keep distilling his choreography and drawing out the purity, and divesting himself of anything extra, Navas’ explorations with “pure movement” will continue to captivate.