Here Be Dragons/Non plus ultra has a great deal of ambition

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At the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, on Thursday, January 10. Continues January 11

Like the musical, Catalan-inflected Spanish that gets whispered over the soundtrack and uttered from the stage, a lot of Here Be Dragons/Non plus ultra gets lost in translation.

The project is an ambitious cross-cultural collaboration between artistic director–choreographer Henry Daniel, musical director–composer Owen Underhill, and a team of dancers, musicians, and media artists from Vancouver and Barcelona.

The scope is as wide and amorphous as the sea that divides the two countries. Motifs include exploration in general, the landing of Columbus in 1492, colonialism, the expulsion of Islam from Iberia, and even the personal, mixed-heritage stories of some of its performers. Dragons opens with the dancers, dressed in black suits, performing a contemporary riff on formal Renaissance circle dances—complete with little bows and kicks—then ripping off their clothes to their bras and underwear. At the beginning of the evening’s second half, a Middle Eastern–sounding oud and tambourine accompany actor Rakel Espeleta and singer Dorothea Hayley retelling a Mi’kmaq vision of first European contact. Dragons is all over the map, and history, but that is the point.

Underhill’s music succeeds entirely at melding the influences of ancient and contemporary, East and West. On-stage are live musicians playing viola da gamba (Anna Casademunt), the Renaissance lute (Stanislas Germain-Thérien), and a range of percussion (Martin Fisk)—with the haunting Arabic strains that so influenced Spanish music emanating from Gordon Grdina’s mesmerizing oud. Underhill has gone to great lengths to uncover and then sample and fragment the music of Columbus’s time, from the Sephardic to the Renaissance classical. The recorded soundtrack, with its spoken words, church bells, and what sounds like the ghostly groans of lost history, adds a contemporary feel. It’s multilayered but relatively easy to read.

The dance is much more far-flung. It’s at its best when it starts to flow later in the second act, when there is some intense partnering: witness a fiery duet between Spain’s Sara Martin and Angel Zotes Ramos, with its unusual, beautifully awkward, bent-leg lifts; or between locals Arash Khakpour and Julia Carr, the latter trying to walk away, but running to leap into his arms from ever farther spots on the stage.

Some of the journeys here are inward and impassioned: at one point a woman sits on a chair at centre stage, clawing at her thighs and tossing her head. In another abrupt change of style, a few of the dancers take turns standing at centre stage to talk about their backgrounds, from a Chilean-Venezuelan dancer who finds herself in Barcelona (much of it in untranslated Spanish) to a guy who never fit into either the white or Native sides of his small Alberta town.

Let’s not even go into the central symbol of the moulded plastic back brace, an item that sits in its own spotlight when it’s not being slid into by dancers or held over a singer’s head like some misshapen halo. A symbol of the strictures of colonialism, or of identity? Another cryptic piece in a wide-ranging show.

“Here be dragons” comes from the term used in olden times to denote unexplored and potentially dangerous territories on maps. And for venturing into the unknown—and digging deep into the plus ultra (“further beyond”) of themselves—you have to give Daniel’s cross-cultural team some credit. For the audience, however, it’s like taking a long journey without really knowing where you’ve just been.

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