RUBBERBANDance shares some elements of the new-circus genre: a set of very specialized and spectacular physical skills, and the idea that although circusy movement can bombard the audience with thrills, it can also imply human relationships.
RUBBERBANDance Group in “Empirical Quotient,” presented by CRASHarts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, April 10 and 11.
By Marcia B. Siegel
Victor Quijada’s 2013 Empirical Quotient, performed by RUBBERBANDance Group at the ICA last weekend, began with six dancers warming up onstage as the audience entered. This is not an original idea. It was used by Maurice Béjart and Eliot Feld among many others during the reformist generation of the 1960s and ’70s, as a device to bridge the gap between theater and real life.
Dimly heard in the background of the warmup, the voice of a stage manager-type calls lighting setups and five-minute warnings. When the voice is about to call Curtain, the dancers gather in an inspirational huddle that opens out like a flower. Then the group reunites into a constantly shifting clump. Changes are initiated by one dancer in the absence of any apparent cue from the music (by Jasper Gahunia), a mélange of electronic effects and manipulated voices. The dancers hold hands to form chains and create wave effects with their arms surging up and down.
Before this scene was over I had noted in my program: “feels old-fashioned.” Ever since Saturday evening I’ve been trying to figure out why this dance seemed so regressive when it was so surrounded by rhetoric about its originality. As the Rubberband dancers stretched and tumbled and gathered in small groups to go over corporate maneuvers, I remembered long-ago debates about whether doing something—anything, no matter how ordinary—in front of an audience would automatically constitute a performance. And what did it mean to behave naturally? People like Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, and Twyla Tharp made works exploring these questions in the early phases of their careers. Quijada seems to have processed the dilemma so thoroughly that the real becomes “real” in his work.
RUBBERBANDance Group is based in Montreal, the home of Cirque du Soleil and several spinoff groups. It would be misleading to assume the RUBBERBAND group is a Cirque clone, although at least one of RUBBERBAND’s dancers has performed with Montreal new-circus ensembles. RUBBERBAND does, however, share some elements of the highly successful new-circus genre: a set of very specialized and spectacular physical skills, and the idea that although circusy movement can bombard the audience with thrills, it can also imply human relationships.
Victor Quijada has performed hip hop, modern and contemporary dance, and he’s folded these accomplishments, with some balletic flourishes, into a style for which there’s no name as yet. One thing that was original about it was how the stunts of hip hop flowed seamlessly in and out of the modern movement, so that the stunts could become part of one expressive medium.
After the simulated warmup, the dance comprised an hour’s worth of nonstop encounters — duets, trios, and emergent solos. Without depending on scenic effects, character designations, mime or plotlines, the dancers conveyed menace, voyeurism, fear, expectation, yearning, attraction and rejection. You could get these and other meanings through the dancers’ action, as well as through the constantly evolving choreographic patterns.
Two people join arms and twist into what looks like an intimate embrace, only to roll toward the floor together, push apart, and scramble away. Another encounter would have the partners rolling over one another’s back. A running approach would upend into a cartwheel or a slide. One person would push on his or her partner’s chest or arm, achieve and arrest an angular pose, then they’d move on again. They’d link arms to pull each other, or push each other away.
The knots and kinked limbs are sometimes held, so the audience can focus on the distortion, the difficulty. There are implicit rivalries. When a man and a woman have a duet, a lot of it reaching toward each other over a distance, another man with clutching hands steps between them. The three men fight; a woman tries to calm them down.
None of this may have happened in exactly this way, but no viewer, I think, could have captured the unwinding sequence of actions without a film for reference. At least I couldn’t. In fact, when I tried to find out the names of the individual dancers by describing what I thought they’d done, none of the people I asked seemed to agree on who I was talking about. What I did retain from the dance was the sense of constant change, insubstantial connections, and physical clarity. The music and lighting were also in constant flux, creating an atmosphere as elusive and resistant to fixed interpretations as the movement.
Curiously, it all looked choreographed, unspontaneous. It didn’t look hesitant or aimless, as real people do most of the time. The expressive modern dancers located the tiny signals we all use as we communicate or hide our feelings, and exaggerated them so they could be read from a stage. Martha Graham’s suppressed screams became contractions, the root of her movement style. But how expressive is a one-handed cartwheel? This takes us back to the argument about real versus rehearsed behavior on stage, still unresolved after all these years.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at the Boston Phoenix. She is a Contributing Editor for the Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims–The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983-1996 Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University