Review: RUBBERBANDance Group - Gravity of Center - Purcell Room, Southbank Centre

Performance: 2 & 3 May 2013
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Tuesday 7 May 2013

RUBBERBANDance Group 'Gravity of Center'. Photo: Jocelyn Michel

Performance reviewed: 2 May

Victor Quijada’s fusion of urban and classical dance for his Montreal-based RUBBERBANDance Group has captured plenty of plaudits in Canada and abroad. Unfortunately we’ve not seen much of the company in the UK since it was formed in 2002, although I remember well the impact of a visit to Sadler’s Wells as part of the 2005 edition of hip hop dance theatre festival Breakin’ Convention. While most other ensembles were setting big, front-facing and, frankly, crowd-pleasing unison choreography to an often manic string of hip hop tracks, a mere handful of Quijada’s dancers busted highly individual moves to swathes of classical music. The contrast was, to say the least, refreshing.

Is it sheer coincidence or savvy strategic programming on the part of Southbank Centre that Quijada’s company, now with fellow dancer Anne Plamondon as Associate Director, should have briefly materialised in London just prior to the 10th anniversary of Breakin’ Convention? Or could it be some oblique tie-in to the Southbank’s Festival of Neighbourhood? If it’s the latter, I for one wouldn’t want to dwell in the same darkly nebulous and decidedly unstable ‘hood as the quintet of people in Quijada’s Gravity of Center.

Clad (by Julie Charland) in layered casuals that could be deemed retro, futuristic or both, they slither onstage like lithe primates on the prowl – but for what? Are they searching for something more than, as I came to suspect, collective inner peace? Whatever their underlying motives, this small tribal ‘family’ – Quijada as the troubled, low-key patriarchal figure, the petite Plamondon as possible matriarch, with Elon Höglund (long hair, tattoos and cheekbones), Daniel Mayo (pale, clean-cut, often near-cowering) and Emmanuelle Lê Phan (long-limbed and, like Hoglund, tightly-wound) as equals or offspring – is operating in a patently dysfunctional mode, struggling to get by in a dance-drama of internecine division and discord with an unspecified source.

What seems to be happening is that Mayo is either ousted by, or slips away from, the others (and this despite Plamondon’s protective behaviour on his behalf) before an eventual reunion that seems to effect little discernible change in the group’s circumstances or disrupted dynamic. There is, however, an indication in the closing moments that Plamondon will replace Mayo as temporary loner-outcast. But his is just one reading of what at times could almost be construed as a half-baked, underpopulated and moodily crepuscular off-shoot of the Twilight books-and-films franchise.

Lasting something like 70 minutes, Gravity of Center is too long, repetitive and maybe more than a mite undeveloped to sustain a deep interest in either the loose narrative webbing the onstage relationships, or the putative themes propelling it forward. (As a colleague later quipped, ‘Is it called RUBBERBANDance because of how much they stretch things out?’ Actually, the company moniker is said to be derived from Quijada’s nickname as a ‘street’ dancer who subsequently trained to a professional standard; eventually he danced for the likes of Twyla Tharp and Les Grands Ballet Canadiens.) And yet despite the work’s protracted dramaturgical shortcomings it contains arresting images and passages, while pulsating beneath it is a kinetic intelligence worth some attention.

It helps that Quijada has a quartet of technically killer dancers alongside him. Even better, he and they tuck into a juicily hybrid movement vocabulary that combines the gravitational pull and broken-doll aesthetic of hip hop with the light-footed steps-consciousness of ballet. The cast applies all sort of curves, angles, directional switchbacks and twisty kinks to classical line, adding in a bit of mutant bodypopping here, or dipping in and out of b-boy positions there. Generally they ride this frequently truculent, off-balancing mash-up of styles with great aplomb. It’s more than just some facile choreographic stunt; Quijada is, I believe, onto something original.

Evidence of his creative ambition spills over onto the show’s lead collaborators. The Purcell Room isn’t one of my favourite London dance stages, but I may have never seen it better or more atmospherically lit than it was here by designer and technical director Yan Lee Chan. (Examples: the small floating and glowing light that tops and tails the performance; the inky blackness that at one point seems to swallow the two; the hazy, fishtank green hue that covers the cast as they creep towards an unresolved finish.) Call it over-elaborate, but to my mind Chan practically turns the space’s limitations into assets. There’s also a highly varied, at times cinema-ready soundtrack from Jasper Gahunia (aka DJ Lil’ Jaz, eljay II). Quivering string and keyboard tones at the start suggest the composer enjoys a direct sonic pipeline to the cosmos. A later, bestial battle is effectively accompanied by beats, horns and fragments of a children’s chorale. The tingles, throbs and warps of Gahunia’s score occasionally degenerate into avant-kitsch, as when cyclical rhythms a la Philip Glass meet synthy electronica – supplemented by dry ice!

Such lapses of taste aside, here’s some of what I might remember from Gravity of Center: dancers down on all-fours, each kicking a back leg like a scorpion’s tail; a heart-catching bit when Mayo ‘s caught teetering on the lip of the stage, just before he tumbles down into the laps of the front row; Quijada pulling backwards the upside-down Plamondon, whose legs are neatly pretzelled in yoga-meditation fashion; attempts to contain the slippery LePhan, whose subsequent short solo is akin to an articulated explosion; and a brief, danse macabre-like chain that suggests a good deal about the peripheral, microcosmic society being depicted here. I admit I failed to feel a full emotional investment in that society, nor in whatever it might be that its members are fighting for (survival?). But I certainly wasn’t disinterested in observing their efforts, and would unhesitatingly do so again if RUBBERBANDance were to return to the UK with another show.

More about RUBBERBANDdance

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites

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