Tubular Bells, Ceramic Bowls, Bare Hands and Pure Dance

United StatesUnited States  Charles Griffin, David Lang, Thierry de Mey, Nebojsa Zivkovic, Paul Lansky: Patrick Schleker, Erica Drake, Jeff Luft and Matt Hawkins (percussionists), concert:nova, Ixi Chen (Artistic Director), MamLuft&Co. Dance,  Jeanne Mam-Luft (Artistic Director), Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH. 2.12.2012 (RDA)

Charles Griffin: The Persistence of Past Chemistries
David Lang
: The So-Called Laws of Nature
Thierry de Mey
Musique de Tables
Nebojsa Zivkovic
: Trio per Uno
Paul Lansky
: Threads (excerpts)


Photograph: MamLuft&Co.

A group of the best and brightest of Cincinnati musicians—its name in lower case letters—plays in a variety of venues in the Queen City, including bars and eateries. Its following is a mix of well-heeled swells and hipsters in jeans brought together by cutting-edge programming. Helmed by the redoubtable Ixi Chen and named concert:nova they are the main providers of music outside the box in Cincinnati.

The musicians and the compelling MamLuft&Co., along with their combined and faithful followings, came together yesterday at the Cincinnati Art Museum to jointly explore in movement and rhythm the changing relationships between light and dark, motion and stasis. The journey was aurally taken up by percussion instruments and visually supported by a mix of projected images, as well as the kinetic energy of a brave company of dancers.

Before man thought of stringing a piece of animal gut to a tortoise shell and plucking it, and before some caveman drilled a hole through a stalk of bamboo and blew air into it there was drumming: beating on a tree trunk, scratching a gourd, striking together two pieces of wood, filling an empty shell with seeds and shaking it. Man then danced to the rhythms that his found objects made. It was a primal, non-verbal proto-language as common to Pacific Islanders as it is to the Inuit of Greenland.

The four percussionists—Patrick Schleker, Erica Drake, Jeff Luft and Matt Hawkins—had at their disposal (in addition to the tubular bells, woodblocks, drums, xylophones, vibraphones and marimbas that are part and parcel of their musical trade) an oddly-fascinating assemblage of ceramic cups and bowls, a set of wooden logs and, at one point, their bare hands. They put all of this paraphernalia, plus their mind-boggling technique and musicality, at the service of a fascinating afternoon.

The concert opened with an unaccompanied dance piece not listed in the program. Wearing miner’s lamps attached to their foreheads and dark leotards, the dancers moved freely up and down the two aisles of the pitch-dark auditorium. At times we could only see some of their silhouetted bodies; at others we could only sense their presence or glimpse their shadows on the walls—a metaphor for the fleeting and elusive nature of light. From light we came and into darkness we went. This was the first time I ever encountered the impassioned work of choreographer Jeanne Mam-Luft, and I can’t wait to see more of it.

Mam-Luft’s dances are totally unpredictable, anchored in a rigorous European aesthetic that brooks no nonsense, no embellishments and no sentimentality. Her choreography is athletic, infused with dramatic meaning, yet at its core, pure and devoid of any programmatic overlay. The mostly female company does some impossibly-acrobatic lifting, with obviously petite females effortlessly lifting others—often dancers larger than themselves. To echo the image of tree branches on a rear projection, the dancers replicate them with an improbable pas de deux that dares the eye to decide which way is up. Not everything is showily spectacular or gravity-defying. Often a whole emotion is expressed by a side-to-side movement of the head or a surreptitious look at a solo dancer. Even the mute offering of an open hand speaks volumes in the language of this protean choreographer and her estimable troupe.

There is a subliminal narrative in Mam-Luft’s ceaselessly-changing choreographic patterns in which pairs bond and split up, only to bond again—sometimes with a same-sex partner, sometimes with the pack menacingly ganging up on the weakest. This is potent stuff, loaded with ideas fleshed out in movement. The company of ten or so dancers performed with extraordinary energy and hardly a moment of respite throughout the two-hour program.

In The Persistence of Past Chemistries, Charles Griffin uses an ostinato pattern that is taken up by three melodic percussion instruments, while a fourth player—doubling at a cajón and a guiro—underpins the changing rhythms of his partners with untiring energy and a steady beat. The multi-metered cross-rhythms are rooted in the sultry hemiolas of Afro-Caribbean syncopation. Some irresistible Batá and Guaguancó riffs creep in and fool one into thinking one is on a stroll in Old Havana.

David Lang’s two-part The So-Called Laws of Nature is a rightful heir to the work of Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage and other 1950s American avant-gardists. Four silhouetted free-wheeling percussionists, who evoked for this listener the delicate sounds of Indonesian Gamelan, provided a perfect accompaniment to Mam-Luft’s unpredictable and complex choreography.

After intermission Thierry de Mey’s Musique de Tables showed an interesting conceit: three players humorously slapping and clapping rhythms on three tabletops with their bare hands with as much subtlety and variety as one could possibly want. The first movement has a driving force that drew enthusiastic applause. De Mey’s piece was followed by Paul Lansky’s multi-movement Threads, which he describes as “a cantata for percussion quartet.” Lansky’s hugely complex work provided a showcase for the formidable percussion quartet, which played six of the work’s multiple movements in random order.

And then those dancers: athletic, focused, dramatically engaged in telling tales purely through movement and gesture, all the while responding to the tireless travails of the musicians.


Rafael de Acha