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'[purgatorio] POPOPERA'

Emio Greco | PC

by Heather Desaulniers

September 25, 2009 -- Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland

I am not a literary scholar.  Yet, I was about to see Emio Greco | PC’s “[purgatorio] POPOPERA,” a work that had drawn inspiration from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”  I felt competent to survey it from a movement perspective, but the literary component was uncharted and somewhat uncomfortable territory.  Not being familiar with the epic poem, I did some last minute cramming, which provided the narrative story, main characters and thematic purpose.  So, with what I hoped was the general gist under my belt, I ventured to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

I took more notes during “[purgatorio] POPOPERA” than I have in any other performance I have seen.  It was a rich, complex concerto of movement and music combined with weird, strange and frightening imagery.  Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten have conceived of and created not only an engaging and provocative work, but also a triumph in form and content.  Usually, a dance has masterful construction or genius story telling, but not both.  This choreographic team is able to harness structural and narrative elements together and effectively translate them onto the stage, a rare feat.  Each individual component had such strength that when combined, the piece, as a whole, exploded with intensity.

Some suggest that Dante’s primary contribution was the ability to merge themes and images from all different aspects of life.  Greco and Scholten are also masters of fusion.  An astonishing structural combination of movement styles is their manifestation.  I saw almost every type of dance I could imagine in “[purgatorio] POPOPERA.”  Ballet and modern were the most prominent, but they were not afraid to draw from other movement sources, even some comical additions.  In the first main group dance, to “I Got Life” from the musical “Hair,” there were popping and isolation sequences that come directly from jazz, hip hop and break-dancing.  About half way through the piece, there was a sedate solo for one of the women that was filled with Fosse-style, musical theater dance.  Near the end, the masked male character was combining old-fashioned tap dancing with new-fangled body percussion.  And, of course, there was minimalist pedestrian movement, and I even glimpsed a moonwalk.  In less capable hands, all this material packed into in a one-hour performance might appear choppy or frenetic.  But here it was not.  The compositional mastery that Greco and Scholten share, in concert with the extraordinary talents of the dancers, combined these styles together with brilliance and clarity.

“[purgatorio] POPOPERA” also shared an incredible sense of the narrative and successfully depicted a transition in control.  During the first half of the piece, the dancers’ movements were wild; the feeling was one of angst-ridden chaos.  Something bigger had come over them, and they had no choice but to participate in pandemonium.  Ownership of their bodies was not their own; a powerful force in the negative space was encouraging the madness and bedlam that was expressed through the choreography. Then, there was a clear moment of change.  All-black guitars had been present in the piece from the beginning, and at this point of transition, the dancers traded these for black and white guitars.  From that point forward, the performers were very much in control; they were making music, playing instruments and creating something, rather than having forces imposed upon them.  My sense was that the outside influence controlling their movements and sending them into a whirl of motion was their sin.  The latter half of the piece, as they switched guitars, indicated a shift in their sin.  They were no longer bound by their transgressions, they were in control of them.

Emio Greco | PC was one of the more avant-garde troupes that I have seen in a while.  Having said that, I also feel that “[purgatorio] POPOPERA” was one of the clearest pieces that I have seen recently.  For me, avant-garde and understanding don’t often belong in the same sentence, but Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten’s unique conception of both form and content makes such avant-garde work more accessible.


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