Sunday, October 18, 2015

Dance Kaleidoscope, supplemented by young dancers, realizes an alumnus' Holocaust vision

In "Remembrances," Brian Honigbaum wanted to bring together his lifelong involvement in dance and his Jewish heritage, focusing on its greatest existential threat, the Holocaust.

Caitlin Negron and Timothy June play daughter and father in "Remembrances"
The result makes "Remembrances" both personal and universal. The work is the centerpiece of this weekend's Dance Kaleidoscope program, which is being performed at Clowes Hall to accommodate interest that goes beyond DK's regular audience. Honigbaum, long a resident of Texas, began his dance training at Butler, and his professional experience included a brief stint with DK.

The focus on a single family as representative of the millions of Jewish victims of Nazi racial ideology links together the variety of harrowing episodes Honigbaum singles out. The envelope of sound design gives further context, consisting of excerpts from Holocaust survivor interviews, plus music by Leonard Bernstein and John Williams, with recorded and live Jewish vocal music (with Cantor Janice Roger in box seating overlooking the stage) deepening the context.

Still, Honigbaum places the emphasis on collective suffering, even risking a literalism in his choreography to keep the mega-atrocity of Nazi terror fully before the audience. Yet even historical horrors, when treated in an artistic manner, need to be satisfying aesthetically in their presentation.  The choreography behind execution by machine gun ("Babi Yar") demonstrated that dancers can fall without injury better than anyone, but it didn't go beyond that — other than to underline the appalling inhumanity of the executioners. It may sound insensitive to want something aesthetically pleasing even when the theme is a grim one, but that is what we go to art for. Otherwise, reading the wealth of Holocaust testimony and literature would be sufficient.

I found "Remembrances" most insightful in two places: One was the scene with the dancers in tight shuffling formation depicting the transport of Jews to the death camps in cattle cars. Outstretched arms and hands, convulsive gestures indicating desperation, were mixed in with the carrying of overcome victims to the periphery in order to get minuscule breaths of fresh air. This episode stays in the mind as dance, not just a snapshot of victimization.

Similarly, the joyful play of girls whose burgeoning womanhood is about to be cut off — with Caitlin Negron as the Daughter in the family Honigbaum isolates — was memorable. Simple in gesture, moving in gentle circles with arms gracefully extended like something out of Botticelli, the childhood idyll is interrupted by demonic figures (fortunately not inclined to literalism — i.e., no swastika armbands or Gestapo uniforms) — a fateful intrusion that yields to the girls' wrenching despair.

The musical setting, a section of Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" using Psalm 23 interrupted by Psalm 2 ("Why do the nations rage?"), allowed Honigbaum to blend the obliteration of Jewish life in the secular sphere with links to the Judaic spiritual heritage. This episode gave "Remembrances" an expressive breadth it often cried out for. Remembrance may be incumbent on all of us when it comes to addressing and resisting human moral depravity, but this ballet needed a more consistent reach toward the transfiguration of suffering into something richer and even artistically ennobled.

The company astonishes in "iconoGlass."
The lively, abstract revival of "iconoGlass," David Hochoy's rapt evocation of his Martha Graham training applied to the pulsating repetitions of Philip Glass' music, made for a welcome contrast to the historically rooted lamentations of "Remembrances."

The DK troupe reveled in the great horizontal expanse of the Clowes stage, set off by Laura E. Glover's marvelous lighting and dancers costumed by Cheryl Sparks so as to emphasize angles and movement efficiency.

"Satyagraha," Glass' opera upholding the spiritual basis of Mahatma Gandhi's movement for Indian independence, provided a backdrop for the softer, more soaring aspect of the choreography. Some tender duets offered a respite from the rapid dartings across the stage and the crisp turns and angular poses distributed among the dancers. As the finale took shape,  the "pop" side of Glass was exhibited with its foundation of pounding bass. The seemingly tireless virtuosity of DK (even with a couple of troupe veterans sidelined by injury) was amply on display.

Here's what I wrote about "iconoGlass" when it was presented in DK's downtown home two years ago:

[Photos by Chris Crawl]

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