Monday, April 29, 2019

Post:Ballet - "Lavender Country"

Post:Ballet in Lavender Country
Photo Natalia Perez

Lavender Country
Z Space, San Francisco
April 27th, 2019

One of the (many) things to love about Z Space, an industrial, warehouse performance venue in San Francisco, is its chameleon nature. With a huge stage, mobile seating, high ceilings and cavernous grandeur, it can transform into any number of theatrical containers. In fact, every time I’m there to see a dance show, I have no idea what may await as I enter the house and turn the corner.

This past Saturday, what I saw when I walked in was a captivating cabaret setting. Bar tables and chairs were scattered about and a piano was situated up right. Sparkling bulbs adorned the surfaces, disco balls hung from the light grid and a black curtain hid an internal stage. Six cast members unassumingly sauntered into the space, greeting one another with knowing nods and fond embraces. The back curtain began to part revealing a six-piece band in full country western finery, led by Patrick Haggerty. Bright footlights spelled out “Lavender Country,” the title of Haggerty’s 1973 release, known as the first gay country music recording. The scene was clear – a show, a concert was imminent.

And what a show it was - the remounting of Post:Ballet and Haggerty’s 2017 collaboration, Lavender Country, a full-length ballet named for its musical inspiration. With direction by Robert Dekkers, choreography by Vanessa Thiessen, music by Haggerty, costume design by Christian Squires and lighting/set by David Robertson, Lavender Country checked all the boxes. Over eighty minutes, Haggerty and the ensemble journeyed through the album’s original tracks, music and movement meeting in a rich dialogue. The piece’s return to the stage was such a marvelous addition to Post:Ballet’s current milestone season, which toasts a decade of artistic innovation and choreographic mastery.  

Haggerty’s powerful messages of LGBTQ history and experience were captured through catchy country melodies, toe-tapping rhythms and evocative storytelling. Themes of intimacy, familial relationships, LGBTQ lineage and community sang and sailed through the air, ranging in tenor from horrific to humorous, tender to triumphant, political to poignant. Thiessen, Post:Ballet’s resident choreographer, skillfully expressed these narrative threads through a series of movement episodes set in front of the recessed stage. Full throttle fervor was ample. Falls and dives blasted at high speed; contractions were attacked with frenetic force; partnering was desperate and urgent, sometimes conveying obvious frustration, sometimes deep, enduring connection. But neither the score nor the dance remained solely in that charged quality, which would have given a sense of sameness to the work. Instead, tones of hope and promise were equally present: the torso had a freedom and lightness, long lines of reaching arms and extended legs spoke of possibility. And in keeping with the musical style and genre, social/contradance motifs were plentiful, as were square dance inspirations and a hearty helping of stomping footwork.

Lavender Country was a terrific event, filled with contagious energy, caring humanity and great country music. One could speak to many standout elements, though for this viewer, there were two of particular note – one structural, one choreographic. Movement-wise, the embodiment of the musical selections impressed. The six dance artists were not simply executing steps to the various tunes or “acting out” the lyrics, but instead conversing with Haggerty’s compositions and responding to their spirit. And from a formal perspective, Lavender Country blurred the line between performer and viewer with an unexpected layer. Every audience member was a guest at the cabaret, taking in the heady mix of visuals and sound. In addition, every cast member was a patron too. All six had several instances throughout the ballet where they watched their colleagues dance, listened to Haggerty’s penetrating words and could spend time contemplating their own experience. It was a show within a show, where the cast was afforded time and space to behold as well as respond. In a final nod to egalitarian participation, the show closed with the album’s title track, and the audience was invited to join the company onstage. In those few minutes, the space between viewer and performer was completed demolished and Z Space morphed from cabaret into a full-blown dance party – the ebullient scene vibrated with pure joy.     

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