Great partnerships are often based on interlocking invisible strengths rather than obvious similarities. Although I wouldn’t go as far as calling them “the odd couple” or “the John Lennon and Yoko Ono of dance” as some do, Yvonne Ng and Robert Glumbek have had just such a collaboration for more than a decade.
They paired up again recently under the auspices of Yvonne’s company tiger princess dance projects to present a mix of old and new work for Danceworks 188. Opening the program was Glumbek’s 2004 work “A Tale Begun”, which neatly illustrates the basis for both the visible and invisible relationship between these two veteran performer/choreographers.
It is a duet based on a charming device. This is that Ng is small and light enough for Glumbek to carry her strapped to his back for most of the performance. For this work, Glumbek was inspired by being the parent to a young daughter. Both performers seem at home with the arrangement and it is this blasé attitude that makes the piece work. Strapped into a harness, facing off in her own direction, Ng articulates fingers and toes in mid-air, while Glumbek covers ground with what appears to be complete ease. It is charming and funny at times but never crass or played for laughs. Rather it is a tender evocation of mutual trust and affection. This continues as Ng climbs down and enjoys her freedom. The bond remains intact to the final image, this unlikely pair with their arms around each other, Ng’s head barely reaching his armpit, Glumbek crooning a lullaby and stroking her hair.
“Relatively Related” is a world premiere and a clever way to integrate snippets of material from a handful of choreographers. It is performed by Glumbek, who gets his marching orders from Ng wearing a headset on the sidelines. She is also calling out periodic tech and lighting commands. Choreographers who provided material include Glumbek, Ng, Roberto Campanella, Robert Desrosiers, Kevin O’Day and Learie McNicolls. Every one of these choreographers has honed a voice over the years, yet it was hard to distinguish one from the other. All have a connection to Glumbek and have worked with him before, but if the dances were collected as a kind of tribute to Glumbek’s performing power (which is considerable), they failed to cohere as such. Glumbek seems confused for much of the piece, so unsure of where to go next that he relies on Ng to tell him. Perhaps this is another dimension to their partnership? Or perhaps it is just the theatrical device it appears to be. Is it a depiction and amplification of the cruelties of life as a dancer? Oh man, I hope not. It is a harsh vision indeed.
After a brief intermission, Ng unveils the premiere of “Sticks”, a solo choreographed for her by Tedd Robinson. This is the kind of slow-moving ritualistic dance that Ng has done really well in the past (“Headdress”, for example, has some similarities). Wrapped in a white cloth, Ng enters and slowly dances with several small tree branches, posing with them as if they were swords or balancing them precariously on her head. The movement is slow and measured and evokes a religious ritual or perhaps a martial arts routine performed in slow motion. The images are striking and are made even more so by Marc Parent’s exquisitely elegant lighting. It looks easy but it is certainly not and I catch myself thinking that Ng could teach dancers twice her height a thing or two about stateliness. In the closing moments of the work, Ng bundles the sticks and branches on her unwound cloth and drags them off stage as if they are now merely a load of wood for the fire.
The final work on the program is also a world premiere. “Level On My Level” was choreographed for Ng and Glumbek by Kevin O’Day (formerly a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt and the White Oak Dance Project and now Artistic Director of the Ballett Mannheim).
O’Day’s work is another variation on the theme of the obvious discrepancies between Ng and Glumbek’s height and weight. And really, given the circumstances, what else would a choreographer do? Is the size/gender differential really that interesting in the long run? Personally, I don’t think so. Dressed in an over-the-top purple gown with an enormous train, Ng becomes alternately a breathtaking sculptural device and a bundle to be thrown about by Glumbek. The action gets frantic, kind of silly at times, cheesy in a way that “A Tale Begun” never is, and then slows. Ng walks tenderly over Glumbek’s body at one point, even placing her full upright weight on the delicate curve of his rib cage. It is another object lesson in the trust that exists between performers who fully understand each other’s weak spots and strengths. And for this reason, in the end, the work is moving rather than madcap.
This evening of mixed repertoire was a mixed bag: mostly strong work from always strong performers. Ng and Glumbek have an interesting partnership, though I would say that they are perhaps mismatched in more than height. Ng is gifted both as a choreographer and a performer; consistently delivering work of the highest standard. Glumbek is hugely compelling as a performer but a bit more of a wild card in terms of choreographic craft. Emotionally he is less contained as an artist and while this makes his interpretations wildly exciting, his choreographic work is less solid somehow. Ironically, that can also make it intriguing at times – witness “A Tale Begun” – but I wonder what more control might bring to the equation. Maybe that’s where Ng really comes in. Metaphorically and literally, this pair has each other’s back when they collaborate.