By SUSAN BROILI
On Friday night (Oct. 5, 2018), Gaspard & Dancers delivered an impressive, packed program at Duke University’s Reynolds Industries Theater that showcased Gaspard Louis’ work and an amazing group of dancers: eight company members as well as 15 Durham students, from high school to elementary.
Bravo to those young people who began the evening on a high note with their performance of “Entropy” by Gaspard Louis. To Michael Wall’s mercurial music, this cast demonstrated a professionalism way beyond their years as well as split-second timing in order to execute fluid movements that shifted constantly into patterns that “painted” the entire stage “canvas”. Louis’ innovative choreography created some surprises such as when two sculptural trios featured a younger dancer in the middle. One trio featured a young dancer sandwiched between the other two. In the other trio, a young dancer, held in a horizontal position, resembled a plane ready for take-off.
In the N.C. premiere of Gaspard Louis’ “No Entry,” eight dancers embodied struggle such as when two women crawled on their stomachs. Mostly, they showed support for each other. Five dancers held hands and turned in a line. Two women hugged. They carried each other.
In a recording, a man’s voice provided a running commentary that seemed especially relevant today when our democracy is threatened.
“… You people have the power to make this life free and beautiful. Fight for a beautiful world. Dictators free themselves but enslave the people. Soldier in the name of democracy. Let us all unite.”
The world premiere of Gaspard Louis’ “Around Within” featured three women: Selina Shida Hack, Gabrielle Loren and Baily Reese who performed mostly in, around and on three chairs. They sat on the chairs. One slid, with the fluidity of Salvador Dali’s clock, to the stage floor. Another time, a chair became a dancer’s platform to demonstrate gymnastic skill in the form of a handstand.
They took turns performing off their chairs.
And, they eamed up for an unusual partnering as a dancer in the center looped one arm around the waists of dancers on either side of her and firmly, with her hands, gripped the dancers’ waists. Then, as though they were light as feathers, she lifted both at the same time. (This reminded me of a past interview with some Pilobolus dancers. When I asked them if they worked out at a gym, one replied: “Pilobolus IS our gym.”)
The first half of the program ended with a welcomed opportunity to see once more Louis’ powerful, moving 2012 “Souke – Shake”, the first of a trilogy he created as tribute to those who died in the Jan. 12, 2010 massive earthquake that killed over 316,000 in Haiti, his homeland, as well as a tribute to the survivors.
On a dimly lit stage shrouded with dense “fog”, this work opened with eight hunched-over performers upstage. As they slid to the floor, they piled on top of each other. One dancer rose, lifted a woman up and others did the same for those still down. Once again, they to yielded to Earth’s tremors. And, once again, some dancers helped others rise and supported them as they walked at a halting gain. Two male dancers lifted, above their heads, a board -stiff woman. A male dancer pulled a woman, on the floor, into the wings.
Then, we heard the thundering sound of the Earth quaking open. Still trying to survive, the injured ones on their knees, could only make awkward, hopping motions.
At the end, the few survivors picked up the lifeless ones and gently placed them together in a pile on the floor.
After intermission, audiences were treated to Louis’ trilogy on the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat starting with the NC premiere of “27” titled after the fact that Basquiat’s life was tragically cut short when he died at age 27 of a drug overdose on Aug. 12, 1988 in New York City.
The sound of a cow bell signaled this work’s beginning as Frankie Lee III, in the role of Basquiat, delivered a powerful performance. Sitting cross-legged on the stage, his movements signaled drug addiction. His body trembled. Violent shaking of his hands blurred his splayed fingers. On the floor, he curled into a fetal position.
He did not paint. Still, on the backdrop, a large artwork suggested what he had become acclaimed fo: his unique version of Neo-Expressionism that, in addition to thickly applied paint, rapidly rendered subjects and linear characters also included African-inspired elements such as skulls and bones. At first this backdrop image appeared faint but by the end, it became clear with one figure’s head rising above the rest and on his head a crown.
Louis’s 2016 “Portrait” captured a happier time in Basquiat’s life when an invitation to exhibit work at the 1980 NY New Wave Show sparked his meteoric rise; by age 21, he had been on his way to becoming a millionaire.
Between 1981 and 1982, Basquiat created 250 paintings and 500 drawings according to “Rage to Riches,” a biographical documentary that aired on WUNC-TV on Sept. DATE as part of the PBS “American Masters” series.
This documentary included initial responses to this artist’s work in a gallery setting. “Literally, my hair stood up on my neck,” an art dealer said upon seeing Basquiat’s work for the first time.
“Portrait” captured both the energy of Basquiat’s work as well as NYC where he had first attracted attention for his graffiti. He was born in Brooklyn to a Haitian immigrant father and second-generation Puerto Rican mother. She had encouraged Basquiat’s interest in art both in making it and seeing work by masters during many museum trips.
Andrew Hasenpflug’s evocative score added atmosphere; it included the sound of rain drops as well as the rumble of a subway train.
Steven Silverleaf’s colorful, abstract paintings on the backdrop contributed to the scene. And, costumes, splotched with multi-colored dabs, by Jessica Alexander and Kristine Liwag, enhanced the painterly expressions of dancers’ movements. At times, these movements evoked the linear, stick-like figures of Basquiat’s work such as when a male dancer, low to the floor, moved through an archway created by two standing dancers.
The mood turned dark in Louis’ 2017 “Pothos” (Greek word for longing for or in
Basquiat had longed for acceptance as an artist by both New York society and his father, an accountant, who did not consider art as a profession. He may have changed his mind, however, after his son’s death. In the preface of a 1999 catalogue for a show of Basquiat’s work at a museum in Trieste, Italy, publishers had expressed gratitude to Basquiat’s father for his permission to reproduce his son’s art in the catalogue. One of those images dated 1981 consisted of a real, vintage yellow refrigerator on which the artist had drawn and collaged. And, on the facing catalogue page, the artist’s quote: “Papa, I will be very very famous one day.”
“Pothos” began to achingly beautiful, cello music in a recorded score composed and performed by Andrew Hasenpflug on cello and percussionist Robert Cantrell as , alone upstage in black shirt and pants, Frankie Lee III, as Basquiat, made broad gestures with his hands as though he were painting.
Later, performances by that same dancer and a female dancer, on and around a cube, evoked the anguish of drug abuse manifested by uncontrollable shaking as well as slowed-down motions. Sometimes, these two provided comfort for each other such as when they held each other.
Other dancers also embodied struggle as Starmer’s cello produced frenzied, tortured sounds to Cantrell’s ominous percussion.
This work ended as it began as “Basquiat” (Frankie Lee 111) extended an arm as though he were about to start another painting – a poignant reminder of how much more the artist might have accomplished had he not died so young.