Imagine a dystopian world ruled by violent, power-hungry birds with 12-foot wingspans. These predators stalk, manipulate, seduce and deceive humans, introducing them to weapons, teaching them to fly, tempting them with power.
In Birds of War (Aves de Guerra), the latest production by Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre and White Dog Dance Project (the company’s international offshoot) dancers create a surreal reality. Inspired by the haunting etchings of Spanish artist Francisco Goya, the concert explores the consequences of greed, violence, and war. To bring Goya’s dystopia to life, dancers play the part of predator and prey (think harnesses, huge canvas wings, pulleys, giant grenades and lots of rope) in a dynamic concert of modern ballet where the shadow of human nature takes flight.
Choreographed by Giles and Susan Collard, artistic directors of ACDT and White Dog, and Cuban choreographer Nelson Reyes, Birds of War premièred in Mexico, where the company worked in collaboration with Alsur Danza of the Yucatan. This week, Birds of Wars takes the stage for a two-evening run at Diana Wortham Theatre.
Susan and Giles encountered Goya’s work years ago at the Salvador Dali Museum in Spain and more recently at a gallery in Mexico. Captivated by Goya’s war-riddled scenes, Susan declared, “That’s it, that’s what we’re going to do next, we’re going to do a piece that’s inspired by Goya!”
Goya, who worked as a painter for the king and queen of Spain in 1786, created a subversive body of work call Disasters of War (Los Desastres de la Guerra). The series, a reaction to the French and Spanish War, depicts the “grotesqueness of war,” says Susan, “and how the church and the state helped the disasters of war continue over many decades.”
Los Caprichos, another series by Goya, ridicules the aristocracy. “In both the Caprichos and Disasters of War, one of the symbols [that Goya] uses constantly is a bird,” says Susan. “Whether it’s a bird with a huge beak, a fantasy bird, or an owl, these horrible birds are zooming down, picking the bodies of humans apart, or taking small children away. That’s where I got my idea. And, I love to fly dancers.”
To bring Goya’s art to motion, dancers play one of three roles as bird, human or technician. Played by ACDT dancer Karen George and Mexican dancers Fanny Ortiz and Adan Argaez (of Alsur Danza in Merida) the birds wear huge canvas wings (made by Giles to look industrial and machine-like). As George says of her wings, “They’re twice my wingspan, so massive that I can’t rehearse with them in the studio. The weight and the power that come with physically wearing them and being a bird, completely changes me. It’s a total transformation.” That transformation, she notes, is poignant, symbolizing the weight and responsibility that comes with power. Birds will don black lipstick, huge beaks, black corsets-like tops and will fly up to 15 feet high.
In complete contrast to the birds, the humans, played by six ACDT dancers, are “soft, very exposed and vulnerable,” says Susan. They will wear gauzy, sheer and off-white outfits. Designers Brenda Jones, Jan Borskey and Adán Argáez created the costumes for the production.
Six technicians also take the stage. “The technicians represent the bureaucracy,” says Giles, who is the lead technician in the concert. “They enable the birds to manipulate the humans, and they’re in charge of putting on harnesses, putting on wings, flying people, turning projectors on and off and filming.” In addition to assisting dancers, technicians run the multimedia element of the performance, filming close-up shots of dancers as they perform and projecting photography.
“The first thing the audience sees is chaos,” says Susan, describing the opening moments of the show. “Dancers walk around, technicians prepare harnesses, and all the while you hear these huge bird wings flapping in the background.” Susan continues, “We start with the house lights on because the public is part of this set, part of this world. We want the audience to feel the chaos, to hear a mechanical hum, almost to the point where it’s uncomfortable.”
The first dance of the concert is also the most lovely and focuses on the beauty of human beings. “It’s about people at their best,” says Giles. “Then,” says Susan, “in the background, you suddenly see the huge shadows of the three birds.” “The shadow” adds Giles, “is a premonition of what’s going to happen.”
As with Goya’s art, Bird of War hopes to provoke and stimulate its audience. According to a press release, Birds of War asks the question, “What are humans willing to sacrifice for their desires?” This show, like Goya’s exhibitions, asks us to contemplate questions that have no simple answer.
“I think it’s the best piece we’ve ever done,” concludes Giles. “We can’t keep our eyes off it.”
— Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre and White Dog Dance Project
what: A thought-provoking modern ballet inspired by the work of Spanish artist Francisco Goya
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Thursday, April 26 and Friday, April 27, at 8 p.m. ($25 adults/$15 seniors and students. Info: acdt.org or 257-4530)