Barry's Dance Review

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Luckman Theatre at Cal State Univ. Los Angeles 3/8/96 $35, $28

Joe is anything but ordinary. It is a great modern dance piece conceived thirteen years ago by Montreal choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault. This first American tour of Joe is performed by Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers in collaboration with the Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault.

Perreault also designed the set and costumes. The spacious Luckman stage was bare, but for a steeply raked ramp along the rear, leading up to a looming illuminated grid backdrop, creating a grim urbanscape dominated by a monolith. The 32 dancers (divided about equally by gender) wore identical uniforms personifying Western Civilization's Industrialized Urban Male: Dark suit, vest, unbuttoned top coat, and fedora. Black brogues completed the regimental outfit and provided the percussive tools used, along with a harmonica and brief vocal chanting, to create a surprisingly diverse and effective soundtrack.

No pretentious murky theme here, but the ever timely conflict of personal expression vs. conformity in an asphalt jungle where there's no time or place to pause and sniff the petunias. Perreault expands and embroiders this complex issue in a variety of dramatic, and occasionally humorous, ways that I found engrossing throughout the entire sixty-five minute piece.

By chance, my first row center balcony seat was perfect for viewing the imaginative use of changing patterns. The ebb and flow of group and individual dancers produced an almost hypnotic kaleidoscope of movement.

Memorable images abound: All thirty-two dancers tightly grouped in amoebae-like or insect-swarm unison; a downtrodden group herded into a ghetto; a tightly knit military block formation that marches blindly around the perimeter of the stage while a lone free spirit with movement recalling Gene Kelly at his most exuberant, repeatedly approaches & retreats in a doomed effort to liberate; the despair of huddled refugees or inmates dramatized by an expressive dance solo accompanied by a plaintive harmonica; dancers running up the ramp, crashing in a heap at the top, only to slowly slide back down ( brings new meaning to the phrase "social climbing"); "getting ahead" by literally pushing the other person to the floor; the powerful sight and thunderous sound (the ramp is miked and tuned from beneath to provide different tones) when the cast fills the stage by running full tilt up, across, and down the ramp in an oval pattern, long coats billowing behind, brought to mind a wildebeest stampede on the Serengetti or Grand Central Station at rush hour.

The company's performance was incredibly clean, all the more remarkable because it was their first as a group. My only quibble would be the choice of ending. After so many strong statements, Perreault leaves us with an ambiguous final moment. Joe ends with subdued optimism, a glimmer of hope that at least a few may escape the rat race .

On to the post-concert reception for the artists: My compliments on the individual chocolate cheesecakes, though only decaf joe was served. Eavesdroppings: "It was a little long and I would've liked to have seen another piece" --"They should have used all men" --"The solo was Chaplinesque, not Kellyesque."

Separatist politics sullied the evening's pristine atmosphere of artistic accomplishment during the speeches by the cosponsors of the reception: the Canadian Consulate General and the Quebec Government Office in Los Angeles. The official from Quebec made his point by speaking en Français, saying how wonderful that dancers from Quebec and Winnipeg could work so beautifully together and that they could serve as an example to Canada. Nice sentiments, but I`m curious how many of the dancers really care; try to imagine: "he's from Winnipeg, I'll draw focus away from him during his solo," or, "she's a Separatist, I won't catch her on the next leap."

Politics taken care of, Perreault spoke with great charm and humor, being warmly appreciative towards his dancers, and informative to his audience. Hopefully, they will tour again soon so we can experience other works from his repertoire!

© 1996 by B. L. Weiss


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