|Pictured: Nol Simonse and Christy Funsch|
Photo: Robbie Sweeney
Funsch Dance Experience presents
Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice
ODC Theater, San Francisco
Nov 5th, 2016
Funsch Dance Experience’s newest world premiere is truly striking – its composition strikes, its content strikes and its concept strikes. Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice hits on all cylinders. Choreographed by Artistic Director Christy Funsch, the five-part dance suite invites its audience to consider form, structure, physical architecture and connective choreographic tissue. While not suggesting a linear narrative, Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice also takes a deep dive into conversations around grandeur, display, distillation and simplicity. In addition, with its unique ‘work-within-the-work’ format, the sixty-minute ensemble piece brings together past and present contemporary dance with a special inlay as its third chapter – a rare performance of Daniel Nagrin’s 1965 solo Path. And Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice manages to accomplish all of this with a cohesive spirit, clever innovation and captivating performances.
Upon entering the theater, one noticed purple and green fabric draped around the deconstructed stage. Two cast members (Yvette Niccolls and Desiree Rogers) sat behind a golden table like judges adjudicating a competition. The setting conjured an arena, an exhibition – a perfect frame for the questions that Funsch was positing. In the center of the space, Funsch and Nol Simonse danced an ever changing duet; at one moment full of sculptural poses, then instantly morphing to highly technical dance phrases and next to recognizable motions and gestures. As the examiner characters and the audience watched, the condition of being ‘on display’ seeped through the room. Contact partnering abounded, with Simonse being the one who was lifted, balanced, supported, carried and as the prelude closed, dragged. And throughout the pas de deux, watching Funsch and Simonse dance together, the viewer couldn’t help be aware that they were in the presence of something extraordinary – these longtime dance collaborators are kindred spirits to say the least.
Part I, ARTIFICE brought the quartet of Arletta Anderson, Chinchin Hsu, Courtney Moreno and Karla Quintero into the space to begin the longest of the dance’s five segments. As Niccolls and Rogers continued their scrutinizing gaze, choreographically, a time of extremes unfolded. There were athletic, energetic calisthenics – large, wild runs; scissors jumps, buoyant pony steps. There were mindful, concentrated motions – kinesthetic torso undulations; placed hands, circling, splaying fingers. There were anatomical articulation studies – limbs cycling from straight to attitude, from pointe to flex. And there were oscillating statements of balance, counterbalance and off-balance-ness. But the genius of this section was in the physical vocabulary/dynamics connection. It wasn’t a big=loud and small=quiet relationship – instead, there was a refined, egalitarian swath of physicality. One where every movement equally captured attention and provoked curiosity.
After the musicians and the cast had exited the space, Funsch began Nagrin’s Path. Holding a long wooden beam (I’m assuming it was similar in length to what Nagrin originally used, which was twelve feet) parallel to the ground, Funsch, in silence, began to travel along the diagonal from upstage right to downstage left. With defined and determined specificity, she repeated Path’s single footwork phrase (step, step, chaissé into demi-plié in second position, pas de boureé, side step) along this trajectory. All the while the beam remained completely still. Path had no pretense, no extras. It was this choreographic material, in this space, being performed in this moment. And though the solo is very clearly task-driven and goal-oriented, I couldn’t help also feeling a contributing narrative undertone, a sense of pensive soberness filling the stage.
The final two segments of Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice found the quartet returning to the stage, first with Funsch, and then on their own. And the judge characters also reappeared, except this time, the two women faced each other rather than casting their view on the dance happening in front of them. This difference in posture was key, greatly informing the conclusion of the dance. In this final section, titled Part II, EFFORT, Anderson, Hsu, Moreno and Quintero rediscovered their physicality in the space. But it felt very different from their first quartet – raw, sumptuous, visceral and increasingly tactile. Like there had been a shift from the external view to the internal impulse, and perhaps a freeing from some expectations, constraints or rules.
And I cannot close this discussion without mentioning the brainy and astute device that Funsch injected into Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice. At various moments throughout the work, the cast broke the fourth wall. Sometimes the lights came up, sometimes they engaged directly with audience members, sometimes both. What better way to pose questions of display than by examining and dismantling the conventional audience/performer relationship, even if just for a brief instant.