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Battery Dance Company

'Notebooks', 'Where There's Smoke', Solo Project solos, 'Shell Games'

by David Mead

October 31, 2006 -- Metropolitan Hall, Taipei, Taiwan

A taste of downtown New York hit Taiwan recently when Battery Dance Company spent a week in the country culminating in a performance at Taipei’s impressive Metropolitan Hall, one of the city’s premier dance venues.

Taiwan was the final stop in a six-nation Asian tour, following visits to Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and the Philippines. Besides its stage performances, the company is well known for placing education and outreach at the forefront of its activities both at home and on tour. In Taiwan, the company held no fewer than 11 master classes and workshops in three cities, reaching over 500 dance professionals, students and teachers. Artistic Director Jonathan Hollander takes international exchange seriously, and in these events “exchange” is the operative word. As he explained to me a couple of days before the performance, they do not simply walk in and try to teach their style or repertory, but instead adapt everything to local circumstance and need, thus creating a two-way learning environment where everyone benefits.

Back in the Metropolitan Hall, the Taipei programme was opened by “Notebooks”, a Hollander creation from 2003, danced to a commissioned score by Finnish composer Frank Carlberg. The piece was derived from the notebooks of French artist Georges Braque, which are also incorporated into the set design. The work opens with the five dancers each in their own light, with giant pages from Braque’s notebooks hanging above them. Both the music and dance vocabulary take from multiple sources, perhaps too many. At various times the movement seemed to be influenced by music hall, cartoons, Arabic and Asian dance, Braque’s cubist paintings and American folk dance.

The mood and style changed significantly with “Where There’s Smoke”, danced to the strains of Francis Poulenc’s gorgeous “Sonata for Two Pianos”. The work has undertones of ritual and spirituality, but is also veiled in mystery. In this sense it reminded me a great deal of the feeling one gets watching Balanchine’s “Serenade”. Indeed, the work draws greatly on classical ballet for its movement. Even more Balanchine-like was the way Hollander regularly used his four dancers in sculptural poses; I couldn’t help sitting there thinking “Apollo”.

The company’s Solo Project has spawned no fewer than 22 solos to date, four of which were on show here. The project gives dancers the opportunity to work on an equal footing with Hollander, to channel their creative visions into one outcome, and to showcase their own particular talents. In Taipei, four “Solos” were on display. Stevan Novakovich showed us a wild energy reminiscent of flamenco, Bafana Solomon Matea gave us a sensuous dance to African rhythms, while Lydia Tetzlaff’s solo was rather more quirky and hinted at loss. Best of all though was Sean Scantlebury. Dressed in red, he gave us an amazing display of quick footwork, great turns and amazing elevation, all to pulsating, what sounded like North African, music.

They say you should leave the best for last and “Shell Games”, Hollander’s latest creation, is a wonderful fusion of dance, design and music. It opens with small globe-shaped lights descending purposefully from the ceiling into giant white seashells made from wire that under the lights looks more like gauze designed by Solé Salvo. Like small sea-creatures, the dancers, also dressed in white so that they seem to disappear when right inside their shells, then reappear to play, dance, converse and even argue with each other, sometimes wearing their shells, sometimes discarding them temporarily before returning to their safety. What is especially clever is that the design of the shells allows the dancers, also dressed in white, to take them on and off with remarkable ease. Not only that, the mix of wire and material means they can stand unsupported when not occupied, thus acting as a part-time set.

The work opens to Brion Gysin’s machine poem “I am that I am”, in which that single phrase is repeated many times with the words rearranged in a different order with each reiteration. The piano and percussion score that follows (Carlberg again) provides the perfect accompaniment to this very theatrical piece.

If there was a theme running through the evening it was Hollander’s musicality. In conversation a couple of days earlier, he explained that he grew up in a musical family where he learned to play the piano. He was not drawn to dance until he arrived as a freshman at the University of California to study sculpture. Although he then decided to train as a dancer, he soon realised that his true talent was as a dance-maker, where he could bring his love of all the arts to bear. As a choreographer he told me that he is not in the business of scaring people with his work; giving them something they find difficult to understand or come to terms with. If the performance in Taipei is anything to go by, that is true. However, his work has variety, is interesting and certainly avoids what my European eyes see as the blandness of some American modern dance.

Before the performance I overheard a lady in the row behind me say that it had been a long time since she had seen any modern dance and wasn’t sure she would like it. Afterwards she said “what a great evening.” Exactly.

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