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Review: The Göteborg Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow

Maurice Ravel’s Boléro is surely the Rodney Dangerfield of the classical music world; it gets no respect. So it’s understandable that a quick glance at the program offered by The Göteborg Ballet, 3xBoléro, might elicit a few groans. But when a deeper reading reveals that the troupe’s artistic director, Johannes Öhman previously led Stockholm 59° North, known for presenting adventurous and inventive contemporary dance, any concerns should be alleviated, especially since the three Scandinavian choreographers whose works comprise the program are among the best working in dance today.

All three dancemakers take an episodic approach to a piece of music that can seem like one long drone leading up to the climax. Curiously, all three dances involve structural sets that shrink the performance space, an odd coincidence for a 27-person dance troupe – the largest contemporary dance company among the Nordic countries. And all three works have not a moment of slack time; the ingenious movement and the captivating dancers, hailing from 17 different countries, are riveting from start to finish.

That Boléro is something of a joke among highbrows perhaps tipped two of the choreographers, Johan Inger and Alexander Ekman, to infuse their work with blatant humor. Inger’s Walking Mad, the first dance of the evening, elicted laughs form the start as a male dance, in a bowler and long gray coat, entered from the theater’s side door instead of the stage, and handed his coat to a forlorn–looking woman. It proceeded in a slapstick vein as what looked like a section of the stage’s back wall moved forward, seemingly of its own accord, pushing the action to the front of the stage. This wooden wall became a playground of surprises as dancers appeared and disappeared through hidden doors, chased each other in circles around it, hurdled over it or jumped off of it, and threw themselves against it, either clinging like Spiderman or toppling it gently over—as a whole or in sections—forming a stage within the stage for a duet between a Andrzej Glosniak and Angelina Allen, similarly attired in what looked like dingy nightgowns.

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Photos: Kristi Putsch

There was little of the land of Bergman in this piece, which evolved into a wild romp with a grouping of male dancers in party hats chasing a woman and then each other around the wall and swiveling their hips like a precision squad of ethnically diverse Elvises. But then the music, until then a straightforward rendition of Bolero, faded to barely audible and the piece darkened. The wall folded in one dancer who had skipped the manic proceedings, trapping her in a corner until a male dancer appeared, casting a forebodingly large shadow over her. In a tumultuous pas de deux, she appeared to vanquish him, only to have another tormenter appear through the wall. She furiously repelled a succession of these men before ending up with three of them violently tossing her around. 

At the end of this dark sequence, the music welled up again as dancers popped in and out of the wall’s doors like a Feydeau farce, eventually reaching the composition’s inevitable climax in a frenzy of movement as all nine dancers whipped off their identical jackets and suddenly disappeared behind the wall. The piece ended as it began, with the forlorn woman and man in a bowler picking up and dropping items of clothing across the stage, accompanied by poignant music by Arvo Pärt. Do these bookend scenes with their emphasis on the bowler—made an icon of surrealism by Magritte—infer that the raucous dancing to Boléro was all a surreal dream?

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The second piece, OleroB by Kenneth Kvarnström, took place in some unearthly realm populated by splendid titans. A beam of light on the set’s slanting metal wall at one side of the stage, the width of which delineated the performance space, seemed like something out of 2001 Space Odyssey. The dancers faced and approached this monolith, but never made contact, creating dramatic tension, as did the dynamics of the various partnerings. Erik Johansson entered in a costume that evoked the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max until a shift in lighting revealed that it was actually dark, sculptural tulle. This was largely a low, grounded dance with lunges and squats that highlighted the dancers’ powerful thighs, plus breathtaking lifts and interactions, including an electrifying pas de deux with Johansson and Janine Koertge, in which she seemed to play the role of dominatrix. Throughout, the dancers scowled and glowered, appearing to contend with a greater force of gravity than is found on earth. Boléro made only subtle appearances in the electronic score by Jukka Rintamaki: here a soft, insistent drumbeat; there a muffled melody.

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The evening ended with Alexander Ekman’s Episode 17, which is sort of like a slapstick version of a Pina Bausch dance theater piece minus the angst and plus silly black wigs. Among the 17 episodes, some as short as a sentence, are many enchanting vignettes: a section in which the dancers’ breath becomes a percussion performance; another in which a dance phrase is built through repetition and accumulation, with interruptions for stretching, calisthenics, and general goofing off in a burst of babel-like chatter; a few segments in which dancers show off unique (and questionable) skills as if they were contestants on television talent shows; and an extended, hilarious movement in which one dancer at a podium reveals innermost secrets about the dancers, who slink across the stage casting comically exaggerated seductive sideways glances at the audience, raising their arms to identify themselves as each secret is spilled. And yes, Boléro is part of the score, in renditions as humorous as the choreography, including Vic Damone singing a lounge lizard version, My Boléro. The last of the 17 episodes introduces a slightly somber note but brings a perfect bit of color to the black and white staging. In all, The Göteborg Ballet’s U.S. debut was a brilliant evening of engaging dance performed by exceptionally skilled, lovely-to-watch dancers that left the audience hoping the company will return, and soon.

Through Sunday at the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow
Becket, MA

The Göteborg Ballet’s Johannes Öhman discusses his company’s diverse explorations of Ravel’s Boléro on Saturday, August 21 at 4 p.m. in Blake’s Barn.

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Posted by Bess Hochstein on 08/20/10 at 06:26 PM • Permalink