Sports, Theater Converge: Avant-Garde Show Combines Both Disciplines
In a piece performed by Ultima Vez, performers run off and on stage, exchanging colored towels at the Hopkins Center in Hanover on Tuesday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Performers simultaneously stack and throw blocks in a chaotic, perfectly-timed performance of “What the Body Does Not Remember,” performed by Ultima Vez. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
In the opening sequence of "What the Body Does Not Remember," Ultima Vez performs to percussion sounds. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Aside from physical exertion and the element of performance, the lines separating theatrical dance and live sport may appear to be well established. While sports generally aim toward determining a winner and loser, choreographed dance routines are meant primarily to reward the audience.
Yet when it comes to high-octane dance shows such as Wim Vandekeybus’ What the Body Does Not Remember — performed by the Ultima Vez dance troupe at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center this week — the similarities and parallels between show and sport are plentiful.
An eight-person troupe featuring dancers from around the world, Ultima Vez performers blurred the line from the very first segment of Body in Moore Theater on Tuesday night.
The show opened with two actors lying on their stomachs and a third standing behind a desk. The pair snapped into pushup positions as the third rapped on the desk. The following sequence was as much exhausting as it was artistic, the two actors contorting and writhing in response to the various beats emitted by the third.
Seven minutes later, the actors were sweating, huffing and puffing and the audience was cheering, just as one might applaud extensive physical effort on a playing field.
The second segment had even more in common with sport, the performers starting off by balancing on large white bricks of chalk before elaborately hurling them at one another in a zany game of catch, all the while running in circles and chasing each other around the stage.
Costa Rican dancer Zebastian Mendez Marin feels very much like an athlete when performing that portion of What the Body Does Not Remember.
“It’s definitely like a sport,” Marin said in the Hopkins Center green room after the show. “We have rules about where to be, we have goals. We’re trying to catch the bricks. There’s no guarantee that we’re going to be able to catch them, just like catching a football. We’re feeding off the adrenaline to go faster and harder, we’re trying to throw the bricks as high as we can. If we drop the brick or make a mistake, we have to forget about it and keep going. We’re in the zone, we’re getting exhausted and tired.”
Of course, there are aspects of What the Body Does Not Remember best described as pure theater, hardly suggesting comparisons to athletics. At the end of the second segment, the dancers slowly walk back and forth across one another’s paths, playfully nabbing each other’s jackets, shirts and towels before slowly cleaning the excess chalk off the floor. While giving the audience some comic relief following the tension-filled brick sequence, the momentary absence of chaos also allows the troupe members time to physically recharge.
“Those are the moments that are like when the coach calls you to the bench (in sports) to give you a rest,” Marin said. “We’re catching our breaths and preparing for the next program.”
It’s a good thing the dancers have those moments of respite, because in What the Body Does Not Remember, it isn’t long before the show becomes physically demanding again. With recorded tribal music thumping away on the speakers, the show’s third segment intertwines dancers in a series of elaborate maneuvers. Lunging into each other’s arms and groping each other’s bodies, the gestures alternate between brashly frenetic and sensuously subtle.
The fourth program — the show’s lengthiest, at nearly 25 minutes — involves more intense variability as dancers use wooden chairs as props to convey moments of stillness and vigor. In the quiet tension of some sequences, the dancers may as well be basketball players at the free throw line in the late stages of a tight game, or a golfer about to attempt a 30-foot putt for birdie. Then the music picks up and the dancers are thrust into an entirely new and urgent game, as if running neck-and-neck with an opponent in the final lap of an 800-meter run.
“There’s a lot of power radiating out of them, but they have to harness and control it,” said rehearsal director Eduardo Torroja. “For a lot of the (segments), they have to go from zero to 100 and then from 100 back to zero in the same minute.”
For Belgian dancer Damien Chapelle, there’s never really a moment of rest during a performance.
“You’re really getting just as tired, even if you’re not running around,” he said. “You’re always working, on the inside, to stay in character, to become your character. It takes a tremendous amount of energy.”
The fifth and final segment of What the Body Does Not Remember is perhaps the most demanding. Unavoidably fatigued by this stage of the hour-long production, the dancers embark in a highly choreographed segment full of running, jumping, stomping and writhing. After a chaotic five minutes, the sequence breaks down slowly, with 29-year-old Brazilian Ricardo Ambrozio the last to stomp rhythmically off the stage.
A former mixed martial arts fighter, Ambrozio said he’s never been tested more stringently — or been subjected to as much physical punishment — as he has as a theatrical dancer.
“I’ve been pushed to my limits with sports, especially with (MMA competitions), but this is the only thing I’ve done that constantly asks me to go beyond my limits,” Ambrozio said. “And I never got as injured playing sports. I’ve gotten more bruises and torn ligaments dancing than I ever imagined.”
Argentinian Aymara Parola never played organized sports, but grew up watching soccer. She likened the grace and skill of choreographed dance to the stances and strategies of athletes on the soccer pitch.
“When I watch (soccer), it’s like a dance to me to see the way they move through space,” she said. “There is a lot of structure to soccer, just like choreography. But there are moments in both dancing and sports where the choreography breaks and you have to adjust. In those moments, it’s no longer dancing or sports. It’s just life.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3306.