Gravity of Center is relentlessly ambitious

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      A RUBBERBANDance presentation. At the Cultch on Wednesday, February 20. Continues until February 23

      RUBBERBANDance’s one-of-a-kind hybrid of ballet, contemporary dance, and hip-hop has become so liquefied, it’s almost impossible to separate out the downrocks from the rest. Not that you’d ever want to.

      Victor Quijada, artistic director of the Montreal company along with fellow Grands Ballets Canadiens alumnus Anne Plamondon, grew up in the break circles of L.A. and danced for the likes of Twyla Tharp, and he’s clearly melded all the influences in his own mind and body. Seeing his troupe (whose pedigreed backgrounds range from hip-hop to circus arts to ballet) here for the first time in five years was a chance to experience dance that’s completely fresh and now-feeling, with a rigorous undercurrent of virtuosity.

      The last time it was here, in 2008, RUBBERBANDance came with a program of short pieces; with Gravity of Center, Quijada and the gang stretch for something greater, with an ambitious full-evening work that integrates a narrative and dark themes.

      On the shadowy stage is a lost tribe of five people, isolated and forced into desperation by some abstract, semi-apocalyptic force (eerily signified by a kind of shooting star). It’s choked with the same sense of doom you might feel watching The Road, The Walking Dead, or Lost. (Quijada has said he was inspired by the financial meltdown and ideas of the scarcity of food and water.) To Jasper Gahunia’s cinematic electronic soundscape of crackly piano music, synthesizer, and strings, the group members alternately clash Lord of the Flies–like, break away from the pack, and eventually work together.

      The story is intriguing, but it’s the choreography that takes the attention here, especially as it applies to the group dynamics. Dancers tumble and crawl over each other, tangling and slicing limbs through one another, knotting and unknotting in a nonstop flow. There’s a constant posture of aggression, with the lunges and jabs of krumping that Quijada has said so influence the work. Watch as people explode backward from sitting on the floor to standing, as if someone’s suddenly hit the Rewind button. Quijada has a wild way of adapting hip-hop style to duets: dancers spar, revolving 360 degrees as they kung-fu kick over each other’s heads; sometimes they throw someone into a headstand or hoist them right over into a back flip. But there’s a wicked grace to it all, too, especially in the expressive Plamondon (whom, like Quijada, you’ll recognize from Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot). Over 75 minutes, it is absolutely pummelling for the dancers.

      Through it all, you pick up on snippets of story line: Emmanuelle Lê Phan repeatedly fights off the attacking men who exploit her in these hard times; Plamondon seems to be the innocent who tries to protect the abused; and Daniel Mayo separates perilously from the group. But it’s too abstract and too long to sustain the narrative; you lose your way by the last quarter—and that’s not helped by the fact the work has such a relentless, unwavering dark tone to it.

      Also unremitting is the power of the dancing, as evidenced by the sweating, battered, panting tribe that came out for a bow to hearty applause.