Fearful Symmetry: choreography of PTSD

Dance House brings Jessica Lang's cutting-edge U.S. troupe to Van Playhouse

Geometry of shell-shock. JLD photo

In its brief five-year history, New York’s Jessica Lang Dance troupe has earned a reputation for cerebral – almost geometric – choreography.

Not that Lang’s compositions are cold. Her emotional palette ranges all the way from playful to poignant, but with an underlying abstract formalism that touches the mind as well as the heart.

Her latest offering, though, “Thousand Yard Stare” (2015), presents a whole new and unsettling kind of geometry. Call it projective geometry, the claustrophobically distorted space where parallel lines converge.

This is how wartime shellshock warps the world-view, as Lang learned in a year of preparatory interviews with veterans. The mind’s eye fixates on infinity in a thousand-yard stare at that singular, indelible vanishing point of trauma.

The dance starts out calmly enough with the nine dancers marching and counter-marching in a grid of soldierly ranks. No music, just the slap of bare feet on the unadorned stage. Olive drab jump-suits costumes, side-lit by naked spotlights in the wings.

Then the music wells up: the haunting Adagio from Beethoven’s String Quartet #15.  The dying maestro subtitled the movement “the thanksgiving hymn of a convalescent.” He wrote it in a brief respite from the “inflammatory fever” that killed him barely a year later.

As the music intensifies, so does the geometric sophistication of the staging. The tidy Cartesian march formations give way to more complex matrices – pyramids, tunnels and spirals, betokening the intuitive collaboration of a tight-knit platoon on combat manoeuvres. The dancers pair off in duets, like frontline combat buddies.

And then the shock as one member of a pas de deux suddenly goes limp, only to be lugged around, inert, by the “surviving” partner. The pathos increases as strobe flashes – IED’s? – scatter the dancers like pick-up sticks.

Some regain only a lop-sided amputee footing. Others remain rigid, to be shouldered by an honour guard of pall-bearing comrades. A few recoil from any approach, even as the rest lean in to support and condole. In the end, the platoon single-files offstage in a reprise of the opening parade.

But now the vignettes of trauma and the eloquence of Beethoven have transformed the troopers. We sense them not as rhythmically regular recruits but as halting, hobbling veterans forging ahead with hard-earned heroism.

In contrast to the gut-punch of the “Thousand Yard Stare,” the other items on the program seemed lightsome love-taps. In “The Calling,” lead dancer Kana Kimura remained rooted in place at center stage, the four-meter span of her floor-length white skirt mirroring the cone of the single overhead spotlight. Her solo dance was all in her waist, hands and arms as she gathered and scattered, torqued and smoothed the pleats of her costume.

Opening item on the evening’s bill was “Lines Cubed,” Lang’s 2012 essay in primary colours and bounded spaces, unabashedly inspired by the “neoplastic” abstracts of mid-20th century Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Set to a score of synthesizer tone poems by Welsh-Canadian composer John Metcalfe, the work attempts to capture the brio of unalloyed yellow, the flair of pure red and the crepuscular shyness of blue.

Lang’s original set design ingeniously segments the stage into shifting matrices of bounded areas à la Mondrian using expanding/collapsing pleated “softwalls” of black Kraft paper by Vancouver’s own Molo design studio.

The program concluded with a contrasting pair of the troupe’s witty “early” (i.e. 2011) works: a filmed dance, called “White” and a shadow play, called “i.n.k.” The movie rolled in a retro, flickering Muybridge style, with white figures suspended as though levitating against a blank black background, all to the tremulous tune of a Grieg piano sonata.

Uncannily enough, each of the figures can manage to shrink or grow, speed up or slow down independently of the others – a true “magic lantern” show unlike anything that could be mounted live on a real-time stage.

And then, without missing a beat, the Lang troupe transitioned from a white-on-black film to a black-on-white shadow montage, and from mellifluous Grieg to a percolating, synthesized score by avant-garde composer Jakub Ciupinski.

The stage backdrop became a stark white screen, three stories tall, scrolling panoramic projections of photographer Shinichi Maruyama’s ink-tinted “water sculptures.” The dancers, glaringly lit by full-frontal spotlights, interacted with each other, their own shadows and the streaming inkblots on the screen.

The tone was mostly brisk and playful. But for me the highlight of “i.n.k” was an achingly beautiful pas de deux by dancer Milan Misko with Kimura against a projected backdrop of the stalactite-slow descent of a single droplet.

The whole piece felt like some sort of hyperkinetic Rorschach test or a dramatization of Plato’s cave; you only get to see just what’s there in your own mind; make the most of it. Vintage Lang, cerebral to the last.


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