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GöteborgsOperans Danskompani (Sweden)

'Beethoven's 32 Variations', 'OreloB', 'Your Passion Is Pure Joy to Me'

by Carmel Morgan

March 15, 2013 -- Eisenhower Theater, JFKCenter for the Performing Arts, Washington DC

Having seen a small handful of plays, exhibits, and dance performances as part of the Kennedy Center’s Nordic Cool 2013 event, I can confidently state that the Nordic countries are known for design for a reason. They’re good at it! Of note in the stage productions I’ve seen has been excellent lighting, set, and costume design. But, in a few instances, I’ve felt there was a little more flourish than necessary. Much of Nordic design is simple, and I appreciate that particular aesthestic. So, when things other than choreography get complicated on stage, I tend not to like the result.

The first work on the program of Sweden’s GöteborgsOperans Danskompani (formerly, until August 2012, The Göteborg Ballet) was “Beethoven’s 32 Variations,” a 2010 piece by Örjan Andersson. Pianist Joakim Kallhed, tucked in a downstage corner, played Beethoven beautifully, and yet he did not for a minute steal the focus from the dancers. The costumes, set, and lighting design were relatively simple and effective. Plain black curtains and a bath of golden light served as the backdrop. In knee-length pants and tops of varying textures, pale colors, and Baroque-inspired styles, eight dancers fluctuated between fast and slow movement, and between solos and dancing in groups. I especially liked the shoulders that rolled forward and the placement of flat hands over the pelvis. Some moments reminded me of classical ballet – a line of dancers lifting a leg into passé, for example. Other moments, however, featured more wild abandon – dancers lying on the floor jerking in tiny seizures. Moreover, there were moments of genuine surprise – a female dancer hunched over with hands on the floor, propelling forward like an ape, a male dancer using defined swimming strokes. Amazingly, nothing seemed unconnected, and there was a sweeping quality that flowed throughout. All of the dancing complimented the lush music well.

The second work performed by the company, “OreloB” (“Bolero” spelled backward, in case you didn’t catch that) ditched simple costumes, lighting, and set design (and music, for that matter) for a mess that did little to show off the dancing. This 2008 piece by Kenneth Kvarnström grated on my nerves. For my taste, the music was far too loud (I was literally vibrating), and the rather crazy costumes, set, and lighting design detracted from the dancing. On one side of the stage was a thick black panel that raised and lowered like the wide door to a spaceship or a medieval castle. The panel was covered in neon lights, and the costumes looked like black ruffled boas were attacking the dancers’ upper bodies. Program notes reflect that the music by Jukka Rintamäki was based on Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” and you could hear it, sort of, through the spacey bass-heavy noise. A futuristic deconstructed Bolero should have been more fun, and sexier overall. There was a spicy duet in the middle of the work. I saw a lustful bullfight taking place between the couple. Yet the pulsing cacophony, jarring lighting, and abundant ruffles took away from the appeal of the actual movement. I liked how “OreloB” built in intensity and momentum, but for me it just didn’t quite add up, and the helicopter roar of the music made me want to flee. The glitter rain that fell at the end felt not like a catharsis, but a gratuitous embellishment.

Thankfully, the volume came down in the final work, “Your Passion Is Pure Joy To Me,” which highlighted the music of an apparent Nordic favorite, Australian-born singer Nick Cave (an Icelandic theater production of “Metamorphosis” that I attended as part of the Nordic festival also featured music by Mr. Cave). “Your Passion Is Pure Joy To Me,” from 2009, was a U.S. premiere, and with it, choreographer Stijn Celis, who trained at the Royal Ballet Flanders, has a hit that is indeed pure joy. My only real criticism of the work would be the perplexing rapid descent and ascent from the ceiling of some large modern paintings with colorful brush strokes. They seemed totally unnecessary to the piece. The seven dancers, wearing tops and bottoms of different solid colors, some pale, some very bright, brought to mind painterly brush strokes without the added help.

This was a work I could gush about at length, and I could gush at length about the company’s strong international group of dancers, too. Both the dancers and “Your Passion Is Pure Joy To Me” deserve a “wow.” The program notes hint at a theme of living with painful memories, and Nick Cave’s lyrics certainly lend that feeling. Yet the work is without a doubt uplifting and charming. Like the costumes, there was something delightfully soft but bright about the mood. The talented dancers used their bodies articulately, expressing emotion from fingertips to toes, and doing so with exquisite timing. They satisfyingly settled into chords, and otherwise met the music where it was meant to be met. Sometimes the dancers were so jubilant, buoyant, that I thought they might literally take flight. A pair of dancers, the woman clinging to the man, with her legs wrapped around his upper body, spun around and around and around speedily, and just when you thought they couldn’t spin like that any longer, they did it all over again! The chorography was diverse, giving thrilling dynamism and gentle heart-stopping quiet and covering the entire bare stage. I loved that the dancers displayed not only excellent technique, but unique personalities. If I were a choreographer, I would jump at the chance to work with these dancers!

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