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Ballet de Lorraine Presents Masterwork Sounddance:Another Home Run for Portland’s White Bird Dance

On Feb. 22, White Bird Dance, the Northwest’s stellar presenter of contemporary dance, offered the West Coast premier of France’s Centre Choréographique National — Ballet de Lorraine, one of Europe’s most acclaimed companies.

CCN’s 26 dancers (um, that’s a ton of dancers, state-supported arts funding is neat), under Artistic Director Petter Jacobsson, offered a wide-ranging program, including two recent pieces and an American masterwork.

A bit of background: As a company, Ballet de Lorraine explores new work while keeping treasures by modern dance heroes alive, with work by Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Trisha Brown, William Forsythe and more in their repertoire. (What does that mean? It means that at any given time, the company knows and can perform an astounding range of dances. Keeping dance in repertory is expensive and logistically challenging, but without these efforts, pieces are lost to the sands of time, like a painting on the wall of a museum slowly vaporizing over decades, until perhaps only copies of it — incomplete video or photos — remain.) 

The Portland performance opened with 2015’s Devoted, by Cecelia Bengolea and François Chaignaud.

Ducking in and out of cold, gray light, dancers cut and push through space, with angular turns, slicing leaps and gyroscoping patterns and repetitions. A hyperkinetic meditation, the effect is like watching the cellular process of photosynthesis, at once alive, yet autonomic.

Dancers course through space, whirring like spores released from a fern frond, like the piecing, dissecting fractal of a leaf, or the unfurling branches of a tree, opening and accenting patterns with a kind of stilted urgency.

The driving Phillip Glass score enlivens, and at times, overly ensconces the piece. (One wonders what the same dance would look like in partial silence.)

Some of the strongest moments find near stillness. In one, a trio of women stand en pointe for a torturous time, nearly motionless, their arms rapt to the ceiling, another dancer circling around them menacingly. It’s in this dynamic that emotions heighten, that the machinations and order seem to breakdown, revealing an animus, a stark revelation of lurid sexuality — waggling bottoms, pelvic thrusts — amidst the spectacle and distant beauty.

After the first intermission, Alban Richard’s 2015 Hok Solo Pour Ensemble made exquisite design of the space.

Set to music by Louis Andriessen, the work explores pattern and rhythm, progressing fluidly from the simple to the complex. From the individual pieces of the dance to the circular permutations that develop, the effort takes on a cumulative vision, machine-like, but human, with everyday gestures that are refreshingly pedestrian, doable. As the intricate work evolves, the movement vocabulary becomes more dancerly, relaxed and fluid, while maintaining razor-sharp patterning and relational groupings. The resultant dynamic takes on an orbital force, like witnessing heavenly bodies — Terpsichore in sneakers? — careening through a distant galaxy.

Finally, after intermission two, the evening culminated with Merce Cunningham’s 1975 masterwork Sounddance for 10 dancers.

Cunningham’s beloved Sounddance opposes the uniformity and unison that is often found in ballet and has been described as “organized chaos,” taking the form of fast paced, vigorous choreography. The stunning set design consists of a gracefully draped plush gold curtain, with the dancers entering and exiting as though thrust into the space from the curtain itself.

With Cunnigham’s signature movement motifs — the sprung jackknifed leap, the soft connection of a hand, between and among dancers, the sporadic, seemingly random dispersal of movement across the stage — as well as his undeniably sharp, clear intention, his directional genius and relational capacity, the work is nothing less than nature itself.

Having only ever seen terrible, grainy and incomplete videos of Sounddance, the chance to see it live was unforgettable, like a reset for the heart and soul.

One by one, the dancers exit, swallowed by that giant gold curtain.

Is it death? Life? Are they spirits, now heading to the next space? Does it matter?  

David Tudor’s trance-like score provides the perfect energetic accompaniment to Cunningham’s astoundingly fast-paced, yet richly rewarding, choreography.