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California Center for the Arts, Escondido
Friday, March 30, 2007

San Diego, like most cities, has its artistic hubs where theaters, galleries, and museums congregate. They are typically found in downtown areas and its near vicinity with the exception of a few other mini-hubs (like La Jolla). It would be easy to stay within a ten-mile radius of downtown San Diego, or go no further north than La Jolla, and find plenty to see and do. But then you’d miss out on what’s happening in Escondido, and you would’ve missed the California premiere of Rebound.

On Friday, March 30, 2007, the Netherlands-based company Conny Janssen Danst performed the work at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido to a little over a half-full theater. And it wasn’t shown in the large, multi-tiered theater that has hosted, among other major companies, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, and Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet. Rather the venue was the Center Theater, a small, relatively intimate space that allowed even the furthest seats to feel up close and personal (and thus a perfect venue for dance).

It’s a shame that San Diego audiences and dance lovers didn’t make the drive to support the presentation of European work (at least on Friday night). For one, it sends a bad message to the presenter who may think twice before taking a similar risk in the future. Beside that, they missed a truly entertaining show that was one of the most impressive and satisfying dance productions in San Diego so far this year.

The performers (five men) were already milling around the stage as the audience entered, walking on and off, eating an apple, chatting to one another in low voices. The set was immediately striking – three padded white walls lining the perimeter of the stage. The two facing each other on the wings had small shelves at various heights, the one facing the audience had two cut outs, also at varying heights. Immediately, one draws connections to an asylum. Yet the performers wore variations of business casual – slacks, button-down shirt, tie, sweater vest – and strolled about with boredom and disinterest and not the least bit hint of insanity. Nevertheless, the brightness of the white and the size of the walls gave the stage – and the entire theater – a claustrophobic feel that was enhanced by the sound of periodic heavy mechanical breathing. For all the calm that the performers displayed, the mood was set for something more drastic to come.

As the theater lights dimmed, one man began moving slowly in a way that suggested his body was moving him as opposed to the other way around. Another man executing the same movements soon joined him, and another shortly joined those two. The movement itself alternated between controlled and spastic. Men joined the group then left it – one moment the audience is watching a quartet and suddenly it becomes a trio, then the next moment a quintet. The effect was to keep the eyes shifting, keep the mind active and engaged. The convention is commonly used in modern dance, but it does serve a purpose and, when done well as it was here, can be pretty effective visually.

The men paid little attention to one another during the sequences. They joined in seemingly because they were supposed to or because it was expected, but they didn’t relate to each other, they barely even acknowledged one another. That is until one man was aggressively confronted by another and responded in kind. The small subtle shoves soon dissolved into large full-bodied movement and the previously separate men became one twisted and constantly shifting mass.

This pattern of isolated group movements that transition into aggressive duets and trios was essentially repeated several times throughout the hour-long work (with no intermission). The fact that this never felt repetitive is due to the strength and variety of the movement itself. Janssen appears to have tapped into limitless possibilities in terms of the way men (or people for that matter) can manipulate, support, and also dominate one another physically

Yet what could have been an overwhelming and meaningless display of athleticism was saved with Janssen’s strong sense of balance and pacing. She knew exactly when to give the audience (and the dancers) a break, and exactly when to catch everyone off guard. Rebound was not a consistent stream of physicality nor a predictable arc of speed but rather a sort of roller-coaster guessing game that started an stopped at whim. Rather than a frustrating element, it was an engaging tool that kept the audience on edge while allowing for a type of (minimal) character development.

Character development though is perhaps an unfair term to use. Rebound, after all, didn’t follow any sort of narrative and the performers weren’t portraying any characters other than maybe a vague representation of themselves. Instead, as an ensemble, they portrayed Man or perhaps more accurately, Men. Ultimately, Rebound was a commentary on masculinity in its multitude of forms. Sure, the theme isn’t entirely new and Janssen didn’t really add any original perspective or idea to the mix. Nevertheless, she successfully addressed the subtle power plays between men interspersed with moments of humor and silliness. Her movement showcased the fine line between playfulness and aggression, the ambiguous distinction between platonic relations and sexual tension, and the ease and unpredictable way that power can shift from one person to another.

Enhancing the movement vocabulary were the elements of the set, the lighting, and the sound that provided a vibrant backdrop for the performers (unfortunately, the playbill provided practically no information about the work other than a brief description of the company – no company bios, no design credits, all of which is quite a shame).

What made the set so effective was it’s dual functionality and design. It served both as a safety net for the performers to be thrown against as well as a blank palate on which to project color and shapes. At the same time, the three shelves and two windows were cleverly used for unexpected entrances, escape routes, framing, and as support for a variety of physical actions. The set provided depth and dimension without overpowering the stage or detracting from the movement. It could either fade into the background or become more prominent depending on how the performers related to it or how it was lit.

At one point, part of the back wall was thrust forward to reveal a hidden trampoline, which allowed for more physical students as well a few audio jokes. The trampoline was cleverly amplified to catch every bounce of the performers, letting the rhythm of their bodies provide the score. It was yet another example of how sound was “felt” during the work. At another point, the bass was turned so high on a pounding score that the theater reverberated with every beat, which in turn served to physically bring the audience into the chaos taking place on stage.

But the work thankfully strayed from a constant overload of visual, audio, and physical tricks. Janssen inserted moments of relief that helped create a strong contrast to the hyper-kinetic phrases that preceded and followed it. In a particularly refreshing and well-placed section, four men faced the audience, leaned against the back wall, and slowly slid to the floor where they took a much-deserved rest. In doing so, they gave the audience a rare look at them – exhausted and bewildered. It was a nice human snapshot among some very impressive super-human partnering.

Rebound offered smart movement, subtle commentary and humor about male relationships, and clever design elements. It was confidently executed and impeccably rehearsed. Conny Janssen Danst was a welcome guest and San Diegans should demand more work from similarly strong European companies. And if we are so lucky to be paid such a visit, we ought to go out of our way to support it – even if that means crossing the 52 freeway and spending the evening in Escondido.