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Nacho Duato's "Gnawa"

Compania Nacional de Danza
Saturday, May 8, 2010
Orange County Performing Arts Center

A few years ago, I brought my parents to see a performance of CND2 –
Compania Nacional de Danza’s second company, comprised of young dancers between the ages of 18-24 who were being primed to move up into the first company by feasting on a steady diet of Nacho Duato. Duato, the artistic director and choreographer of Spain’s national dance company,  fills up a large percentage of the company’s repertoire with his silky smooth, lush fusion of ballet and contemporary dance.

It’s work that is undeniably beautiful – the flowing lines, the elegant
partnering, the dynamic ensemble sections – all the grace of the ballet
without the stiffness and predictability.  It’s a polished and pleasing form
of contemporary dance that doesn’t push too hard at the conceptual
boundaries and doesn’t alienate viewers with difficult music or post-modern
conventions of stillness and minimalism.  Hence my parents loved it.  And
though I’ve never found Duato’s works particularly insightful or challenging
in an interesting way, I’ve always been pleased to see his work on the
program of a company or jumped at the chance to see one of CND’s companies
when possible.  Not the most complex drink on the menu, but he goes down
easy.

So when the CND – the main company – performed at the Orange County
Performing Art Center over the weekend, I was anticipating another afternoon
of the signature style that is so soothing and so comforting.  Duato’s work
washes over you with ease and I was looking forward to the refreshing dip.

Familiarity and expectations can be a blessing and curse.  On the one hand,
seeing a piece or a company multiple times allows for new discoveries and
the opportunity to dive deeper.  On the other hand, when not to par, nasty
little comparisons bubble to the surface.

Gnawa is perhaps the contemporary dance work that I’ve seen most frequently
over the course of my dance-viewing history  no less than six times in the
past four or five years on three different companies (Hubbard Street Dance
Chicago, which premiered it in 2005, CND2, and now CND).  It’s a piece that
captivated me the first time around and still satisfies upon each subsequent
viewing.   Yet this time it felt a little limp, a little haphazard, a little
deflated.

Attribute it to the fact that we saw a matinee, or that it was a gorgeous
Southern California day, the kind that physically requires the body to be
nowhere other than the beach, let alone in a dark theater.  But even if
weather can in someway account for the lackluster rendition of the work, it
doesn’t explain the rest of the program.

Castrati, a work from 2002 that, as its name suggests, explores the
phenomenon of castration in the 17th and 18th century for the purposes of
maintaing the angelic falsetto of young boys in choirs, is a surprisingly
tame work considering its subject matter.

CND in Nacho Duato's "Arenal"

And last on the program, Arenal (1988), set to the gorgeous music of Maria
del Mar Bonet, is another work with high concept (the communal joy of the
Mediterranean culture juxtaposed with solitary struggle) that receives a
rather surface and cliched treatment, set to a perplexing backdrop of
pillars more suggestive of Latin-American Mayan ruins than Western European
seaside villages.

I’ve always been impressed that Spain, as a country, has supported a
national dance company that so clearly transcends the borders of the
classical ballets.  Rejecting European tradition of maintaining a strict
classical company to represent the nation (think Royal Ballet in England,
Royal Danish Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, etc.), CND has been an ambassador
for the country, presenting itself with energy, color, and originality
rather than yet another version of Swan Lake.

All this is changing.  After nearly a quarter century at the helm of the
national company, Duato’s contract was not renewed this year and he will be
looking for other opportunities to create his work without the resources and
support of the Spanish government (presumably).

When I first heard the news, I was perplexed as to why Spain would let go of
the guy who gave it such a unique and celebrated aesthetic, that set it
apart so spectacularly from the typical model.

Yet, after watching the performance of CND over the weekend, I began, for
the first time, to wonder whether it isn’t time for a regime change.
Because this company seemed to be gasping for fresh air.

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