Bliss, Courage & Kong: Gibney Company’s Mixed Rep Program Delivers Mixed Results [REVIEW]

Gibney Company
The University of Akron’s E. J. Thomas Performing Arts
Hall
Akron, Ohio
October 8, 2022

By Steve Sucato

Call it a homecoming of sorts for Gina Gibney. The Founder, Artistic Director, and CEO of New York City’s Gibney Company returned to Northeast, Ohio with her company for the first time in 20 years this past Saturday at Akron’s E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall for an eclectic evening of dance presented by DANCECleveland and The University of Akron Dance Program.

Gibney, who grew up in Mansfield, Ohio and then attended Case Western Reserve University, started her dance company in 1991 as a vehicle for her own choreography. Now a repertory company presenting works by some of today’s hottest choreographers, Gibney’s skilled troupe of 13 performers, on the second leg of their first national tour to 9 cities across the U.S., offered up a triple-bill of contemporary dance works that instead of saving the best for last, opened the program with it.

Swedish choreographer, and former Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) dancer, Johan Inger’s 27-minute “Bliss” was the picture of European dance craft and minimalism. A stage devoid of curtains and drops with a rectangle of Marley dance floor at its center welcomed dancers costumed in street clothes to move to jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s 1975 masterwork, The Köln Concert, Part 1.

Winner of Italian dance magazine Danza & Danza’s award for “Best Italian Production” in 2016, “Bliss” began in silence with 2 male dancers engaging in simple unison choreography with the house lights up inviting the audience to examine the dancing as well as Inger and Peter Lundin’s stage/lighting design of a snowflake-shaped overhead light sculpture and an array of Edison bulbs hung on wires from the rafters or mounted on poles.

Gibney’s dancers then walked into, through, and out of the stage space as casually as if out for a stroll while others took up performing off-balance movement phrases and repetitive motions on the Marley floor that were playful and quirky. One could almost envision them as being music notes on the pages of Jarrett’s score come to life and popping about.

Gibney Company’s Kevin Pajarillaga. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Like Jarrett’s music, which was born out of improvisation, Inger’s clever choreography had a similar feel. Both also possessed a refinement and sophistication that appeared well thought out. A reflection of the mood and dynamism of Jarrett’s often toe-tapping music, Inger’s movement for the dancers certainly conveyed bliss. The audience, like wallflowers at a party where everyone was having a great time, couldn’t help but be caught up in that bliss of virtuosic music and dancing that concluded with dancer Kevin Pajarillaga joyously repeating a jaunty step as chuckles from the audience brought his attention to the fact he had been left behind on stage alone by the other dancers.

Next came former Gibney Artistic Associate and Choreographic Associate Rena Butler’s “Lusus Naturae” (2021), a trio with rather big foundational thoughts on King Kong, colonization, and the process of decolonizing the self that turned out rather small all-round. Set to a sound design by Darryl J. Hoffman, one supposes if you squinted hard enough you could have read just about anything you wanted into the athletic and acrobatic choreography infused with ape-like gestures. But the barker voiceover that opened the piece touting seeing something 8th wonder of the world-like in scale and excitement proved a bit of a red herring to the work’s real draw, a section late in the short work where a newsy voiceover recounting the story of a child who had fallen into a zoo habitat and was lovingly cared for by a gorilla became a backdrop to Gibney’s trio of Jie-Hung Connie Shiau and two male dancers performing Butler’s tender choreography that evoked that cross-species caring.  

The program then closed with Tony Award-winning choreographer of TV’s So You Think You Can Dance fame, Sonya Tayeh’s “OH COURAGE!” (2021).

Danced to original music by New York City husband and wife Indie rock duo The Bengsons, the 27-minute work said to be about self-reflection, truth, and resilience, was much of that but in a roundabout way.

On a darkish stage with a fog blowing across it, sat Rachel Hauck’s 4-pillar steel temple-like set piece made up of lights and an array of home speakers, some turned on their sides. Hauck, who did the stage design for the musical Hadestown, originally created the set piece as the stage home of The Bengsons when they performed live at the work’s premiere. The set piece now felt more like a remnant of a rock concert stage with Gibney’s dancers using it like a jungle gym to run in and out of and stand atop the speakers. And where its lights occasionally switched on so brightly as to temporarily blind the audience to what was going on onstage.

Sprinkled with encouraging voiceovers of “You think you’re dying, you’re being born,” “Jump the life back into you,” and “Shake these bones,” the work revealed itself to be like a long-form version of Tayeh’s TV dance works with some lovely group dancing in choreography that marched about and had the dancers’ spirits vacillating between withering and reviving.

Gibney Company dancer in “OH COURAGE!”. Photo by Sonya Tayeh.

Perhaps the most engaging dancing in the work came in a frenetic solo by a male dancer who twisted, turned, and looked a bit like actor John Belushi’s seizure-like performance as singer Joe Cocker performing the song “With a Little Help from My Friends” in a 1970s Saturday Night Live skit. In it, Belushi rigidly flopped to the stage floor on his stomach with an arched back rocking back and forth like a rocking chair.

As the “OH COURAGE!” progressed the stage lighting got brighter as did the demeanor of the dancing that leaned into Tayeh’s theme of resilience. The work ended with an uplifting group dance.

Next up on DANCECleveland’s 65th Anniversary season is Stephen Petronio Company on Saturday, November 12, 2022, at Playhouse Square’s Mimi Ohio Theatre. Visit dancecleveland.org for info and tickets.

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