Even if Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre did not deserve our gratitude as one of North Carolina’s longest-running independent dance companies devoted to presenting original work, they would earn it for bringing excellent artists here from around the world — some of whom have even chosen to make Asheville their home.
One such guest company is ALSUR Danza, the state contemporary dance company of Yucatan, Mexico, which currently shares the bill with ACDT in their annual show at Diana Wortham Theatre. The pairing of ALSUR Danza’s Jaque Mate (choreographed by Javier Torres) and ACDT’s Frank’s Got the Blues (choreographed by ACDT’s Artistic Director, Susan Collard) adds up to a full evening of dance unlike anything you are likely to see elsewhere. The two pieces are as different in style and concept as can be imagined — one abstract and allusive, the other realistic and concrete.
And yet both are solidly in the genre of contemporary dance theatre, which emphasizes storytelling through dance, and tends to rely on more or less clearly defined characters, emotions and dramatic situations. Furthermore, both pieces deal with a single perennial theme: the battle of the sexes — though “protracted war on multiple fronts” might be a more accurate sobriquet.
Jaque Mate uses the conceit of chess (itself a war game, of course) to explore the joys, agonies, and ironies of these engagements. The piece begins with the floor completely covered in a red cloth and the stage itself nearly dark but for bright blades of light that slash down violently and intermittently through the space, spilling just enough illumination to show a group of shadowy figures swaying together far upstage. Suddenly, one of the figures screams, sprints downstage and collapses, as the others explode into strange contortions before disappearing once again in the darkness. It’s an arresting series of images, and soon it is followed by more, including a gorgeous and tormented solo by Lourdes Magallanes (who portrays “The Black Queen”) while somehow wearing a fan on her face like a robot mask.
At this point, I’m preparing myself for a full dose of High Modernist Angst — which I actually dig, by the way. Instead, the piece evolves into something closer to Post-Modernist Camp. “The Black King,” (danced with inviolate gravitas by Milton Acereto) turns out to be a kind of botoxed Bono, complete with the most preposterous collar you’re likely to see outside Las Vegas. Nicolas Flores’s “Black Knight,” for his part, bears a striking resemblance in gait and headgear to one of J. F. Sebastian’s mechanical puppets in Blade Runner. Add to this a couple of throaty Tina Turner covers on the soundtrack, and you’ve pretty much hit 1980’s pop culture square on the head. (I kept looking for a Michael Jackson reference; perhaps I missed it while taking notes.)
All of this shows a great deal of sophistication and a remarkable capacity to dance that uncomfortable line between parody and pastiche. But no sooner does the choreographer give us an ironic wink, than he plunges us into the blood, sweat, tears and — well, other stuff: a duet between “The White Queen” (Erika Garcia) and “The White King” (Adán Argáez) is the most explicitly sexual dance I think I’ve ever witnessed on stage. I couldn’t help but wonder what all the young dance students in the audience thought of these goings-on — probably more than I would be comfortable knowing. But at the same time, the duet is absolutely beautiful. Argáez in particular is riveting to watch: his compact body has tremendous explosive power and expressiveness, and when he extends his lines, they seem longer and more graceful than his muscular frame would lead one to expect.
But the entire ALSUR company is top-notch. While it’s true that a couple of the numbers in Jaque Mate are unfocused and sprawling, we never have the sense that nothing significant is happening; and even when the movement wanders into the pedestrian zone, it is always well-executed and purposeful.
It pains me to have to confess that Susan Collard’s Frank’s Got the Blues suffers a bit by comparison. In retrospect, I wonder why the order of the program wasn’t reversed. The ACDT dancers are a strong ensemble, each of them with a unique stage presence, but none of them have technical training comparable to that of their counterparts in ALSUR, and it does them a disservice to make them follow that act.
But it’s not really about the relative skill of the dancers. Too much of the choreography in Frank’s Got the Blues is played in slow-motion, and the effect in some places is lugubrious, in others maudlin. The piece gets off to a strong and witty start with “The Bride’s Dance,” and this playful thread (pun intended) returns in “Laundry.” One of the younger company members, Norianna Diesel, who for all practical purposes dances the lead in this show, manages to infuse her role with a compelling sharpness of emotion, and to make the more murky passages clear. But for the most part, Frank’s Got the Blues never quite comes into focus.
Devotees of ACDT, among whom I number myself, tend to be fiercely loyal to the company, and I hope they will remain so, regardless of what anyone says in a review. (I certainly will.) So I’m going to go out on a limb here: one reason Frank’s Got the Blues falls short is that, within the ACDT canon, it covers familiar ground in a familiar way, and even recycles some familiar choreography. The piece is about marriage and its difficulties, but it presents so black-and-white a view (man = victimizer, woman = victim), that all real drama — which depends, as far as I’ve been able to observe, on complexity, ambiguity, and change — never has a chance. Once again, Giles Collard plays the brutish villain, and he’s a good sport about it. But surely there’s more to being a husband than that? Even an abusive husband. In fact, that’s what’s so scary about real victimizers: They’re so complex, so charming, so utterly persuasive.
One of the sad truths about dance concerts in Asheville is that they rarely have more than two performances. Which means you reading this now have at best one more chance to see Jaque Mate and Frank’s Got the Blues. I urge you to do so. And here’s a little insider tip: buy your ticket directly from an ACDT company member and get it at half price.
Jaque Mate and Frank’s Got the Blues, presented by Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre and White Dog ProjectX International. Choreography by Javier Torres and Susan Collard. Featuring: Milton Acereto, Adán Argáez, Jenni Cockrell, Giles Collard, Norianna Diesel, Nicolas Flores, Erika Garcia, Karen George, Kala Hildebrand, Jessy Kronenberg, Rosalia Loeza, Lourdes Magallanes, Jaime Scott, Robin Scott, Abril Trujillo. Live Music by Duke Ramuten and Marcus Chatfield. Lighting Design by Jason Williams. Sound Design by Nelson Reyes. Catch one more performance Saturday, June 12 at 8 p.m., Diana Wortham Theatre, Pack Place, Downtown Asheville. Tickets: $25/$20 students and seniors. 828-254-2621 or dwtheatre.com.