By SUSAN BROILI
Even though ShaLeigh Dance Works’ world premiere of “Bamboo Wind” lasted 55 minutes without intermission, what happened onstage made time stand still on Thursday, Jan. 17 at The Fruit in downtown Durham. The run continued through Sunday, Jan. 20.
It was clear that this cast was completely immersed in this world of bamboo as they cast a spell that drew the audience in.
For this performance, artistic director/choreographer ShaLeigh Comerford assembled artists from the fields of photography, poetry, acting, lighting design and music as well as dance and all contributed to this atmospheric work that conjured a place where lovers met in bamboo groves and samurai warriors may have collected long, bamboo poles they dried and used as weapons.
At one point in this work, guest performer Majid Bastani picked up such a pole and, with lightning speed, twirled, jabbed and executed other tricky moves but kept enough distance so that the nearby, unarmed dancer Steven James Rodriguez Velez remained unharmed.
(Before he became interested in dance, Bastani was an award-winning Wushu martial artist who wielded sword, spear and shaft.)
Coke Ariail’s poem, “Bamboo Wind,” also provided a springboard for this world premiere. In a program note, he said that rather than replicate his poem, he wanted performers to explore the themes. “Think of the passions within that we come face-to-face with when we allow ourselves to enter the wildness of the heart,” he wrote.
Ariail also created the 14 bamboo sculptures displayed in the bamboo labyrinth off-stage area where photographs by Catharine Carter, Lynne Feiss Necrason and Wojtek Wojonski. Inspired by Ariail’s poem, were projected on screens.
Meanwhile, on stage, actors Dorothy Brown and Michael Foley, appearing together sporadically, spoke poetically of “the bamboo wind’s susurrus rustle” and of “a woman, in a bamboo grove, who waited at night for her lover’s arrival.” The couple Brown and Foley portrayed were drawn to each other but she could never fully commit to a rendezvous in a bamboo grove where Foley said “the sound of maidens whispering desires” could be heard.
Sexual imagery was also used to describe bamboo: “stalks swell with desire” and a bamboo grove referred to as a “grove of savage lust.”
Company apprentice Joyce Emile Raleigh’s costume design that featured long, generously flared turquoise pants for male and female dancers, seemed to catch the wind and send dancers whirling through space.
Dancers’ loud exhalations added to the Bamboo Wind atmosphere.
Spoken word also referred to the warrior’s bamboo inspiration: “Bamboo patterns mark the warrior’s face. She paints his lips black.”
The rare treat of live music composed and performed by accomplished musician Robbie Link, added considerably to this powerful work. His beautiful, expressive cello playing as well as his taped recordings of him playing the accordion, bazuki (the long-necked, plucked lute of Greece) and Steinway Grand Piano, enriched this offering as did his recordings of twittering birds and a rushing New Hope Creek on his property.
Other highlights included the way the woman in red (portrayed by Megan Rindoks) had her flings but ultimately abandoned her last partner, when both were on the floor, by crawling over him and leaving the stage.
Another section earned highlight status because, in decades of covering dance, I’ve seen very few dancers perform in almost complete darkness. In “Bamboo Wind,” the brief, darkened section in which dancers ran this way and that, heightened the drama of a bamboo grove at night.
The most intriguing, unusual movement segment came courtesy of what ShaLeigh Comerford calls “Shaga” – inspired both by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s movement language called Gaga and Comerford’s training method that she said “demands a versatile and open body and mind.”
So, when I saw many performers on their backs lined up close to each other start to vibrate like revved-up, race car engines, I knew Gaga had something to do with it. Part of Gaga training is having dancers make visible in movement a suggested image such as spaghetti in boiling water.
Still, it was amazing to see these dancers intensely vibrating and at the same time, managing to stay together as they moved towards offstage, taking the male dancer on top of them, closer and closer to the end of their line.
This evening ended with two performers doing something that never happened before in this work, which is commit to an intimate relationship. As characters portrayed by Steven James Rodriguez Velez and Anthony Nelson Jr. drew close together on the floor, the rest of the cast, holding what resembled sprays of dried grasses (this could have been bamboo) covered them from view in their own bamboo grove.