Khaos, Ginette Laurin’s new full-length work for O Vertigo is anything but muddled. Rather, although it’s a depiction of upheaval and turmoil, it is pristinely crafted, highly organized. The production values and tight structure ultimately work against the piece, though there is much to admire about the scenography and performances.
Inspired by the convulsions and eruptions of the Arab Spring (according to an interview with Laurin in the program notes), the piece opens on a forest of wooden planks, planted upright, a storm-cloud mass of more wood hovering overhead. Within this dry construction two dancers emerge from the darkness, one manipulating the limbs of the other as if operating a puppet. The motif returns later in the piece and is an obvious metaphor for a powerless public and, perhaps, puppet heads of state as well.
In what follows Laurin’s references to the particulars of revolution are rarely as explicit, but they shine through the dense catalogue of movement that follows nonetheless. A silent scream here, collapsing bodies there, the planks serving as a hiding place or a gathering point. But the struggle feels largely atmospheric –tension, collaboration and despair are driven as much by the rise and fall of Martin Messier’s moody electronic score and sound design as by the choreographic content.
The performers also contribute to the sensory mix — the plank forest is elaborately miked and armed with sensors and the dancers create sound there with their voices and stomping feet, their agitated bodies triggering an interface with the sound and light show. Strobing occurs several times adding to the overall frenetic quality of certain sections.
There are some compelling but odd narrative-driven scenes, such as the one involving a couple who generate such electricity that every time they touch the music swells and pops with friction. A third dancer (Wen-Shuan Yang) tries desperately to separate the pair and insinuate herself, all the while muttering and exhorting in Mandarin (I guess — I could not make out what she was saying nor in what language). In another scene the cast briefly don conical party hats — a nod to recent anniversaries perhaps — and then sombrely return them to a designated collector.
There are also some breathtaking moments of unadulterated dance, often as a result of the intricate partnering. The images created by certain lifts stick in the mind –- a dancer suspended mid-air, trembling, braced by two others who grasp him around the waist and hold him up there; a running lift/jump in which one dancer plants a foot on the other’s bent thigh, foot to shoulder.
The group choreographies are vintage Laurin — the dancers dance furiously, straight arms swinging, they face the audience or run at each other, sliding into the ground, flailing in pools of light. The kinetic barrage gives way to casually brutal duets in which the dancers push and pull each other around. If you’re there just to watch skilled execution of textbook choreographic composition, Khaos satisfies.
But for all its technical excellence, I never felt more than a distant observer to Khaos — and that troubled me for the duration of the piece. I worked hard and wanted to engage but just couldn’t. Next day analysis has me wondering if the aloofness of Khaos was intentional or an accidental by-product of overworking the admittedly abundant material. There’s a subtle theme of audience responsibility and artist communication running through this year’s FTA, so it’s at the risk of being satirized that I also wonder if it might just have been me.