The artistic directors behind this year’s installment of A Choreographers’ Showcase, the annual collaboration between Cirque du Soleil and Nevada Ballet Theatre, gave it the theme “Unity Through Art.” In doing so, the ballet’s James Canfield and Cirque’s Tiffany Baker, of MJ One, might have been inspired by 2016's divisive presidential campaign, but even if they were, I doubt they could’ve predicted the colossal impact of their choice on the audience watching the performance five days after the election of Donald J. Trump.
Unity, in any form, was a welcome concept. And I couldn’t have been the only one there who'd lately been turning to art for shelter in a hostile social-mediascape. Nothing soothes the abrasions of Facebook’s screeching blame/gloat rant-fest like a good novel, sci-fi movie or dance performance. And of all those balms, A Choreographer’s Showcase worked best for me. The show goes beyond providing a couple hours’ diversion to sending a clear message about acceptance and diversity, yet still manages to avoid the heavy-handed literalism that can ruin a good evening’s entertainment.
“Lotus Opening,” the first piece following the prelude, offers a fine example. For her choreography debut, Zumanity stage manager Emily Carr fuses a series of yoga poses with modern dance, positioning the eight performers in a ring that expands and contracts in various geometric forms, like flower petals opening and closing. Yoga lovers like me will spot the recurrence of backbend-based postures, known in yoga circles as “heart openers,” and get the implication: an open heart equals compassion for humankind. But even those who’ve never crossed a yoga studio’s threshold will appreciate the pajama-clad troupe's breezy coming together and breaking apart, like air particles being inhaled and exhaled by the music. (Carr had me at “Om.”)
That music is Donna De Lory’s “Ganapati Om,” a song with Sanskrit lyrics, signaling the show’s most common thematic device: language. This Choreographer’s Showcase wears its unity on its tongue; music is sung in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Cirque’s calling-card incomprehensible operatic dialect (over “Oasis” by violinist Martin St-Pierre). Jason Plowman and Daria Sobelman’s “BLINDers” inserts books as stand-ins for the media that divide us, with a final explosion of pages demonstrating the dominant force of body language.
And there are even more interesting cross-cultural communication forms, too. For the number “In the During of a Moment,” Caroline MacDonald assigns the role of interpreter-muse to a traditional Thai dancer, whose sign language reaches across ages and continents to inspire a pair of young Western lovers. Wellington Lima’s rendition of the Afro Brazilian piece “Voce Bebeu Jurema,” which he performs live on the single-stringed berimbau instrument, is enacted by a colorful dancing tribe that smacks one another's percussion sticks together jubilantly. But director Caine Keenan takes the linguistic cake with “Fathomless,” an avant-garde piece in which all is darkened — floor, backdrop, costumes — except the dancers’ arms and faces, creating the effect of white dots (the faces) and dashes (arms) darting around the stage like some living organism screaming in frantic, three-dimensional code.
What is it trying to say? That the heart is an impenetrable, unstoppable force. It’s one version of the show’s overall takeaway: Music and movement connect people through their universal emotions — fear and oppression in Makeda Crayton’s “Crimes Against Humanity,” corporeal bliss in Gene Kimlin and Max Torandell’s “Merry-Go-Round,” and communal hope in Arnaud Boursain and Alexis Ochin’s “Murmuration.”
It’s all there for the pols and pundits to see, if they’d just shut up and take in a little art.
NOTE: A Choregrapher’s Showcase plays this Saturday and Sunday, November 19 and 20, at Mystère Theatre inside Treasure Island casino. For tickets, go to nevadaballet.org.