The contrast between tall and small was explored in triplicate in ‘Fading Shadows / Returning Echoes’, a concert of duets for Yvonne Ng and Robert Glumbek, presented by Ng and her company Tiger Princess Dance Projects. With poignancy and precision, the program of three works featured the dancers’ strengths and vulnerabilities, both personal and archetypal. Ng is, by all accounts, a tiny woman with flowing, waist-length hair, while Glumbek is solid and intense, and strikingly bald. Choreographers Glumbek, Dominique Dumais and Tedd Robinson all use the obvious physical extremes between Glumbek and Ng to different ends, from platonic and parental through manipulative and desolate to quirky and otherworldly. Glumbek himself begins onstage in his premiering work, ‘A tale begun’. A spotlight reveals him standing alone in silence, chopping with the side of his hand, bending and whacking his chest, which makes a plastic clunk that draws attention to a harness built into his vest. There is a tone of struggle to the solo, perhaps an assertion of independence, but whether it is within himself or against an outside force is as yet unclear. Glumbek leaves the stage and returns in darkness. A steady, graduated piano melody arises and he appears with Ng strapped to his back, an alien extension of his physical architecture. She is so small that even when Glumbek is standing upright, her stretched legs do not touch the floor. A curious two-in-one duet unfolds that is nurturing yet parasitic. Glumbek is aware of, and by turns careful or reckless with, his female charge, fettered by her presence yet enamoured. The coupling is slightly disconcerting to witness. Glumbek whirls Ng around with apparent effortlessness, making her (an adult woman) look childlike as she positively sails through the air. She moves herself on his back as well, with a queenly confidence and absolute trust in her host’s strength, asserting her presence and dependent independence.
The costuming is clever. I am never worried for Ng as she seems securely attached to Glumbek’s back, but her harness (like a rock climber would wear) is not overstated. When Glumbek eventually releases Ng, she dances an exploratory solo – hopping, pivoting, skipping – cheeky and innocent as a child. He leaves slowly, disinclined to go, though he appeared to find her a burden while she was reliant on him. When Glumbek returns, he draws Ng from her playful solo and a sort of tango arises between them. She runs from him with an invitation to follow, then climbs up his body like a jungle gym, just as a child with her parent. Through this chase Glumbek is by turns supportive and restraining, keeping her flamboyance in check. Ng is aware of her audience but Glumbek is concerned only with her. She looks through the window of his hands, then sails, suspended on his legs as if seeing and experiencing the world through his eyes. There is a definite father/daughter air to this piece. By the end of the work, it is clear to me that Glumbek’s initial struggle was both an inner and an outer one: to maintain his independence while honouring the presence and reality of the new being so integral to his very self. Ng seemed simply to be taking it all in: her environment, herself and her relationship to Glumbek. An uneasy energy is immediately apparent in the snapshot opening of Dumais’ premiering work, ‘Fading Shadows / Returning Echoes’. Arranged on and around a single chair, Glumbek and Ng present a series of instant portraits punctuated by blackouts. These pictures tell of a marriage or similar relationship of many years, heavy with intimacy and disappointment. Ng shudders, pants and bears down on Glumbek’s head, yet we have the sense that he is the dominant one through his intense scrutiny of her.
A square of light reveals both Glumbek and Ng on the lone chair and he holds her in a counterbalance as she leans away. Dumais plays with the obvious physical differences between her two subjects, unravelling a duet of balance and counterbalance with Ng at a raging and pounding disadvantage against Glumbek, as he tosses and pulls her compact form through the space. I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was witnessing the private struggles of a well-established and highly dysfunctional relationship. Even so, there are small moments throughout the work that demonstrate an underlying affection for, or mutual dependence on the other, from a glance across the space to a stroke of the chin. Outside these fleeting connections, prevailing winds of hurt and control dominate the work, as the violence between them ebbs and flows. Ng is often doll-like, manipulated by the powerful Glumbek. He pushes her face into a smile and she pushes her smile down. He is possessive, his hands ranging over her body, testing its flight capabilities with breath-catching thrown lifts, though always keeping hold of her wrist or body. He rocks her in a mix of comfort and containment. She seems both smothered by the attention, the constant barrage of lifting and grabbing, and exhilarated by the wild ride. She eggs him on with a coy glance, baiting his possessiveness, asking to be chased and carried. Ng displays a manic trust in Glumbek’s physical strength and attention to her, hurling herself off the chair into his sitting form on the floor. Another time, she calmly steps from the chair onto his waiting hand as if it were a solid wooden step. Her heads nods and pounds uncontrollably and he offers his hands to receive the fury. Glumbek lifts Ng off the floor by her ankle where she writhes and flails in a fit.
The work ends desolately, with Glumbek sitting in the chair and Ng walking slowly from him, a final act of quiet defiance and separation. He follows his partner with his eyes and drops his head into his hands as if admitting defeat. A single rock graces the stage for Tedd Robinson’s ‘Stone Velvet’, evoking a barren landscape or perhaps the stony path left by a retreating glacier. A rolling Bach score supports and guides the two otherworldly beings that Glumbek and Ng have become. The two artists have performed this duet on another program but chose to remount it for obvious reasons: it is eloquent, charming and in sharp contrast to the other offerings on the program. Ng observes the solitary stone, moving cleanly with the music. Glumbek enters on a diagonal, travelling towards her. He moves in a stilted, wobbly manner, eventually performing a frenetic, thrusting dance of mating or greeting around her. She shoos him away with flaps of her hands, which he imitates as he leaves. Sidling back, he repeats his invitation and she seems somewhat overwhelmed by his affections. They move away from the rock into a duet packed with continuous tiny jumps, tight changes of direction and gestural specificity with hands and arms. This work is by turns hilarious and poignant. Both the dancers commit to their mysterious characters, imbuing them with curiosity and innocence. There is a wonderful sense of play prevalent throughout ‘Stone Velvet’. Both robed in red velvet tube skirts, Ng has a sheath of velvet across her mid-section while Glumbek sports a muff of the same cloth around his neck, leaving his torso bare. The artists reveal their impishness in this work, but they never mock themselves. As they twinkle and bob through the space, their absolute involvement carries the audience along with them, and we often laugh out loud for the sheer charm and ridiculousness of it.
Robinson has worked an intricate choreographic score, regularly assigning a movement for each of Bach’s innumerable notes. The dancers lift and drop each other, bow and prance, performing movement that has an ageless, court-dance-meets-woodland-elves feel, all wrapped into one simple, rollicking encounter between two quirky beings. Throughout ‘Fading Shadows / Returning Echoes’ I could feel the packed audience around me become fully absorbed in the work. There was a remarkable stillness throughout the evening, peppered with collective breaths, giggles and sighs. Each of the works was just long enough to argue its thesis without harping on its point. And while Glumbek and Dumais capitalized on the obvious physical imbalance between the performers, they generally did so with conscious choice and purpose. In interesting contrast, Robinson placed them on more even footing. Glumbek, with his powerful physicality and his intense confidence of spirit, is a solid, satisfying performer with fluid technique. Ng’s delightfully delicate frame and cascading hair belie her surprising physical power, and with complex layers of character and emotion she wholly captures her audience.