American Dance Festival
Argentine Festival I:
Grupo Krapp, Olympica
Compañia Contenido Bruto, Kevental
In dim light, Luciana Acuña stealthily makes her way across stage at the opening of the U.S. premiere of Olympica by Grupo Krapp.
After she passes by an upright piano—already something of a non-sequitur as it stands, alone, on an athletic track field—the piano slowly starts to creep along behind her. Upon hearing a noise, she turns to look behind her. The piano stops. Seeing nothing amiss, she turns and walks again—when it begins its pursuit anew.
After a near-perfect side somersault propels her arms into the upside-down sleeves of her workout jacket (to the audience's appreciative applause), Acuña joins a crew of limp bodies that another company member is tasked to arrange in a group of chairs at center stage. The moment he turns his back on each they rearrange themselves, over and over, to the laborer's growing consternation.
They're vintage gags—comic bits a variety act might once have done while sandwiched between Ed Ames and Topo Gigio back on The Ed Sullivan Show. Unfortunately, by now they're just as easily dated as the storyline—and too much of the theory, technique, sophistication and taste, for that matter—we witnessed from Krapp and Compañia Contenido Bruto ("gross content") last weekend at the American Dance Festival.
It's something of an ironic turn of events, given the difficulties the companies experienced just getting here. When Marca Argentina, an Argentine government agency, denied them funding for airfare to the United States at the last minute, the ADF was forced to turn to corporate contributors and dance lovers to make up an estimated $14,000 deficit. (For more details, check the coverage on our ADF blog at indyweekblogs.com/adf).
The companies' performances—Krapp's Olympica and Contenido Bruto's Kevental—constituted half of the festival's week-long Argentine mini-festival. The remaining half, featuring works by the duos of Gabriela Prado and Eugenia Estévez, and Edgardo Mercado and Susana Tambutti, opened Sunday night, too late for this week's column.
Usually, when foreign companies appear at ADF, they shed considerable light on the present. Their work discloses how contemporary and experimental dance have developed under different conditions in different cultures, and how they address those cultures' present concerns.
Though it was unintentional, to be sure, Thursday night's performances—and particularly the post-show artist/audience talkbacks—repeatedly underscored the past instead.
After a performance whose occasional amusements ultimately shed no new light on their subject, Krapp's company members carefully detailed the intricacies of a plot its audience had already recognized as one worn threadbare in American culture: Former athletes struggling (and failing) to regain, for a moment, their former greatness.
Then the conversation turned to the subject of dwarves: not the mythical variety, but the human kind. An audience member asked why they'd had two company members walk around on knees that had little shoe-like appendages attached to them at one point, spastically waving their hands while their arms were bound up in coat sleeves.
The artistic directors visibly relaxed when they heard the question. With chuckles and easy grins, as choreographer Miguel Gutierrez translated, they replied that they'd been trying to get a dwarf character on stage for years. They find them funny. "Short people interest them visually," Gutierrez translated. "They regard them with care and affection. They have a magical image, which still freaks you out a little bit."
Clearly, our own culture once felt the same way, about these and other embodiments of difference. Still, it was more than a bit of a shock to be confronted with artists on the planet who continue to find such things remotely amusing.
Not quite as awkward was Compañia Contenido Bruto's artistic director Fabian Gandini earnestly explaining postmodern clichés from the 1980s and '90s that had just misfired during his company's own overlong performance. But where Krapp's Olympica never cohered or built toward something more than physical humor one-liners and comedic cul-de-sacs, Kevental seemed to keep alluding to darker, weightier matters.
True, the covert atmosphere of surveillance and claustrophobia we caught in the preview DVD largely evaporated in the far-too-free and spacious confines of Reynolds Theater. And the postmodern gaze-ricochet Gandini attempted may have conceivably come off a bit clearer if the audience members allowed to sit on the stage hadn't been mistaken for other company members instead.
Still, our attention was arrested during one powerful sequence at mid-work. For a moment, a group of small, square, metal examination tables were lit by tight spotlights from above. After a considerable pause, people we couldn't identify in the darkness carefully manipulated the arms and hands of others in the air above the tables; articulating and bending the joints, fingers and wrists. Later, unseen examiners similarly probed the bodies of partially nude company members as they sat on the same tables.
The suspense of these moments largely came from their lack of context. Were these medical patients taking part in an unnamed resistance? Captives about to be tortured, in any of a number of present-day conflicts on the world stage?
Yes, most of Kevental fumbled along, preoccupied with divided postmodern theoretical agendas that most American audiences and creators have already internalized and moved on from. When the house lights went up, many in the audience bolted from a work they had long since lost interest in.
But for a moment in a dark room, we looked at the vulnerability of the human body laid bare. At that point, the audience was absolutely silent. Implicit in the darkness and the light were all the things that could happen to harm—and the ease with which such harm is presently vended, wholesale, on this earth. In the shared silence, we hoped, I think, for mercy.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.