It’s nice to be surprised by an evening of dance, though the more you see, of course, the less likely that is to happen. “Timber/Timbre”, by Joe Ink company’s Joe Laughlin, looked set to be a quiet trio, and there was little fanfare preceding its premiere midway through the Vancouver International Dance Festival (The Dance Centre’s artist-in-residence program was also a presenting partner). Yet it remains for me the brightest memory of the month-long fest — a unique and precisely crafted piece of highly theatrical, highly physical dance.
From the start, a playful quality is evident. A pattern of rectangles is marked on the stage floor with tape as if for some kind of board game, and the dancers stand facing us scattered across it, fancifully costumed. Simone Kingman pulls on some strings to keep her pannier skirt upright around her, while Tara Dyberg preens, her bustle gathered and draped like tail feathers. Chengxin Wei, wearing dark tights and top like his colleagues, holds his costume beside him: a mesh frockcoat that curls up at the edges, which he soon puts on.
Wei has the first solo, filled with extravagant circling of his wrists — reminiscent of the flourishes a courtier might make as he bows, a motif used by all three dancers. In the background, Kingman has elongated the sides of her skirt, transforming it into a boat behind which she and Dyberg glide across the stage. Wei climbs on board (in reality, he simply stands next to them behind the outspread skirt, but the make-believe is clear) and together they sail across the turbulent sea, before he jumps on shore and waves farewell to the ladies.
No sooner is that lively scenario over than an equestrian ballet begins, in which all three transform into magnificent prancing steeds, pawing the ground and gently galloping. In the blink of an eye — and only for a moment — they become jaunty aristocratic riders.
The work continues like this throughout, metamorphosing with ease and style into one fantastic scenario after another. A great deal of the success of each section is due to designer Alice Mansell, whose “soft sculpture costumes” break down and reform for a variety of purposes. When the bustle, for example, is unwound, its long fabric ribbons are piled on top of Dyberg’s head, forming a regal turban that turns her into a person of some importance. Later, the ribbons become ropes with which Wei strangles the two women and then hangs himself. This is not played out as a gruesome tragedy; instead, the whole episode is delightfully arch.
For the most part, a sophisticated tone prevails (there are some zany moments, but even they’re complex), and comes from the fact that Laughlin has based “Timber/Timbre” on the Baroque era, as explained in the program note. Baroque dance and costume, Laughlin writes, “presented the individual in space in an elaborate yet controlled manner.” This is the source of “Timber/Timbre’s” fascinating and peculiarly brittle formality: the atmosphere is one of court intrigue, with every move made as if for the benefit of the watching crowd, or to avoid spying eyes. The choreography doesn’t seem to be based on actual Baroque dance steps, but on a general impression of court dances in which formal arrangements and impeccable manners were key.
Laughlin creates a sense of mysterious liaisons between performers through subtle choreographic and dramatic cues — a look, a touch. A particularly intimate pas de deux between Wei and Kingman was well balanced, with each equally expressive in physical terms. In it, Wei moves Kingman’s body around as if he’s presenting a foot, say, for the delight of the king, and Kingman holds Wei’s foot while he extends his leg as if it’s a gracious move in a minuet. Once Dyberg joins them, a chill descends as Wei and Kingman push her about between them like she’s an inconsequential pawn in their game — but she doesn’t seem to mind and accepts her fate, as was often wise at court.
A later duet between Wei and Kingman bristles with erotic attraction held in check by surface manners, even as they tumble and turn together on the floor. This kind of sophisticated interaction is rare in contemporary dance and was brilliantly choreographed and performed. The operatic voices and orchestral music of the soundtrack — including Baroque composers Bach, Handel and Pergolesi, and the twentieth-century Ligeti — supported the atmosphere of civilized, courtly order, and James Proudfoot’s use of purple in his splendid lighting design lent appropriate royal allusions.
This was the period when Louis XIV founded the Royal Academy of Dance, an organization dedicated to perfecting the art of dance and formalizing it into what Laughlin describes as “a microcosm of royalty, the court, and the state.” The ballet world isn’t explicit in the piece, but the three dancers are ballet-trained powerhouses and Laughlin uses their technical proficiency to the full — tweaking everything to his purpose, so even an arabesque is decadently curvy.
Empires, like bodies, eventually “crumble”, another useful note found in the program; hence, perhaps, the “Timber” of the title, playfully paired with “Timbre”, which I initially took as a bit of faux-French translation but which literally refers to the quality of a voice or musical instrument. In this work, the “voice” was a Baroque one, a style Laughlin has worked with before, in his 1996 Clifford E. Lee Award commission for The Banff Centre, “L’Etiquette” (which was picked up by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet). A dozen years later, with that experience behind him, Laughlin was able to hit the ground running with “Timber/Timbre”, which helps explain the detail of invention in movement and drama that makes this work so rich and refreshing.