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Danish Dance Theatre

'Working Man', 'Insomnia', 'Kridt'

by Kate Snedeker

May 5, 2006 -- Folkteatret, Copenhagen

Denmark needs to keep a firm grip on Tim Rushton…a very firm grip…because this British expatriate is a jewel in the crown of Danish dance. Rushton, who first came to Copenhagen to dance with the Royal Danish Ballet, has stayed on in his adopted country to direct and choreography for the Danish Dance Theatre. With a permanent home at the People's Theatre and ten uniquely talented dancers nourished by Rushton’s diverse, engaging choreography, the company has developed into one of the finest modern dance companies in the world. The opening night of the May season at the Folk Theatre, highlighted by the world premiere of Rushton’s “Insomnia”, affirmed the company’s place among the modern dance elite.

On this evening, “Insomnia” was bookended by two pieces from the company’s existing repertory, “Working Man” and “Kridt”. The performance of “Working Man”, which opened the evening, was heralded by the quaintly joyous tunes of the Klezmer band “Mazel”, playing from their corner perch for the arriving audience. Slowly one realized the bottom row of the two-tier bank of cell-like metal cubes, the top lit to reveal a row of shirts and pants, was filled with the shadowy forms of the ten dancers.

Rushton’s inspiration for the piece was the work culture of the steel and porcelain factories of Northern England. It begins with Philip Schmidt’s potter sitting under a lone spotlight working on a vase…and, as the program says, the round shapes of the vase start a daydreaming flirt. The flirt begins with Marylise Tanvet-Schmidt, who joins him in her own spotlight, and soon spreads out into the other eight dancers as they emerge from their “cells”.

At times the dancers seem like school kids, bouncing across the stage and gently teasing each other, girls vs. boys. But this is a flirt with depressing overtones – the grey tones of the tank top and pants costumes and the prison like mesh cells, all by Katrine Nilsen, shed a constant gloom over the giddy and goofy moments. It’s only in each other that these workers are able to find color and emotion, a brief respite from the banality of the daily grind of work.

Rushton creates earthy movements that carve the air, incisive shapes and jerky movements that somehow blend into an unceasing, fluttering ribbon of movement. It’s fascinating to see choreography that moves effortlessly between engaging the whole body and focusing on one distinct body part – elbows that move in circles or taut stomachs that undulate with nary a twitch in any other body part. Though there is no weak link in this company, Schmidt and Tanvet-Schmidt stand out as the pillars of the work. Both are tall, muscular, and raw, and while hold nothing back, there is nary a misstep. Schmidt danced with the Royal Danish Ballet for six years before departing for less classical climes and given his ability to manipulate his tall frame into all manner of stretched shapes, explosive yet under the knife edge of control, I regret not having the chance to see him on the classical stage. His is a rare talent.

The emotions of the piece are shaped by the Balkan music played exquisitely by “Mazel” with occasional vocals from Ronen Thalmay. The klezmer sound captures everything from giddy to poignant to folksy to mournful, and provides an ideal, if unexpected, musical canvas for Rushton’s choreography. In the end, the working men and women of “Working Man” retreat to their cells, the moment of flirt over. But certainly not over in our minds and thoughts.

A collaboration of video by Signe Krogh and Arthur Steijn and choreography by Tim Rushton, “Insomnia” received its world premiere on this evening. The piece started with a misstep as the curtain rose on a stage that was lit when it should have been dark. Set to Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” (rather unfortunately, to my ear, as I will always associate this music with Christopher Wheeldon’s stunning “Liturgy”, a pas de deux which was performed by the New York City Ballet in Copenhagen last November). Once appropriately dark, the inky blackness of the stage was lit by moving graphics on a translucent front scrim, two dancers suspended by harnesses tumbling through the air to the music. The graphics – reminiscent of the screen savers one can set to accompany music on a computer – jump, weave and twist in time to the score, seemingly shimmering in midair. The scrim and hanging dancers disappear to reveal a grid of white ropes, gently tilted toward the audience, strung across the stage, the ends disappearing into the darkness.

Led by the diminutive Luca Marazia and two other dancers, the dancers move through this grid, as it eventually is contorted and twisted.  They alternately weave through it and are trapped by it. The grid is a fascinating concept because it provides a visible representation of the space on stage – a space that is often so hard to conceptualize. All dance is about filling and moving through space, and here we can see the space as well as the dance. Yet it is a conceit that can only take a piece so far, and Rushton has wisely keept the piece short and sweet.

“Kridt” (Danish for chalk), which received the Reumert Award for best dance performance in 2005, closed the evening. Unfortunately, though the Folk Theatre is an otherwise splendid location for dance, this piece required an orchestra (superb RadioUnderholdnings Orkesteret under the baton of Henrik Van Christensen) for Peter Vasks’ “Musica-Adventus”, which highlighted the theatre’s Achilles Heel: the orchestra pit. The pit is extremely shallow, thus the orchestra is thrust up into the audience’s line of sight, blocking the view from the lower seats of the dancers’ feet and any sitting or prone dancers on the front of the stage. Though live music is a blessing, it should add to the dancing, not distract from it.

Musical issues aside, “Kridt” was, to me, the weakest of the evening’s trio. It was inspired by the famous Old Testament quote that begins with the well known words, “For everything under heaven, there is a time…a time to be born, a time to die…”. Anders Poll’s sets are spare and striking – a long chalkboard upon which is drawn a series of unspaced words in Danish (from the Biblical quote, I assume), the words repeated in chalk along the floor, and spoken by one of the dancers. The words which (I believe) are being written as the curtain rises are “a time to cry, and a time to laugh”, and these seem to frame the dance.

During the dance, throughout which the words on the board and on the stage are erased by the dancers’ bodies, there seems to emerge a relationship of love ruptured by a death. The concept of the death comes to life in a unique sequence in which Kenneth Carlson’s doomed man is pushed against the blackboard.  As Luca Marazia begins to trace his outline (à la the old police outlines of dead people), Langeborg moves slowly along the blackboard, the outline following, creating a linear portrait of a dying man.

In this piece we also see frequent vocalizations of movement – a wave of motion that begins as twitch, working itself through each dancer’s body with the energy seemingly bursting through as a loud exhalation. Standing out here, as a marvel of power and total involvement is Finn Laura Lohi. Ending with the death of Kenneth Carlson's man, the piece doesn’t seem as cohesive as “Working Man” but is nonetheless powerful and worth repeated viewing.

The Danish Dance Theatre has found a voice in the choreography of Tim Rushton and talent in its well selected group of European dancers, and combined the two to create dance which deserves to be seen by audiences around the world. After this outstanding opening night, one hopes for many more seasons of dance here in the company’s new home and in theatres the world round.

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