HELEN SIMONEAU DANSE: Land Bridge
A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts W. E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Avenue, RVA 23284
Performances: March 3, 2018
Ticket Prices: $20 Adults; $15 Students
Info: (804) 828-2020 or http://arts.vcu.edu/dance/
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance & Choreography is hosting the 2018 Mid-Atlantic South Regional Conference of the. American College Dance Association March 4-7, 2018. More than 400 students and faculty from college and university dance programs around the region and the nation are expected to attend the four days of adjudicated performances, master classes, scholarly research presentations, and myriad opportunities for student and faculty exchanges both in and outside of the studio. Build around the theme of Bridging Community, the conference will celebrate “dance as a means of forging empathy and connection through inquiry and effort.”
On Saturday the North Carolina-based contemporary dance company of Helen Simoneau offered a pre-conference concert for one night only. Simoneau’s first evening length work is aptly titled “Land Bridge,” and is based on an investigation of heritage, assimilation, and identity as seen through the lens of a herd of caribou. (This makes sense once you realize that Simoneau is a native of Québec, Canada where caribou, also know as reindeer in this part of the world are a threatened species – that’s a step down from endangered.)
Simoneau’s diverse troupe of eight dancers is sublimely athletic and it is mesmerizing to watch them move through this piece. The work begins with the dancers moving in slow procession to the beat of a drum. They sink majestically into a one-legged plié, as if trudging or migrating unhurriedly through deep snow. The silhouette of the dancers’ bodies, with heads bowed and shoulders and upper torsos rounded also suggests those pictures of the evolution of man.
“Land Bridge” is about cycles and repetition. The opening processional repeats several times before the herd changes direction and the movement reappears in abbreviated form later in the hour-long work. At one point all eight dancers connect and spin apart like a centrifuge, then balance on one leg with both hands held at the sides of their heads, fingers pointing up, suggesting antlers. A tandem crawl, with one dancer face up atop the back of the other, suggest the communal nature of this work and at the same time is a typical tableau. Another is a bottoms-up posture with the head on the ground – a reference, no doubt, to the caribou’s manner of digging into the snow in search of food, and to the etymology of the French-based word “caribou” which can be translated to mean “snow shoveler.”
In a post-show talk, Simoneau elaborated on how her work often focuses on the individual within the group and the many ways in which the dancers’ connections reflect variations of locking antlers, sharing weight and power. This is especially clear in a section where two men meet center stage and fall into one another, forcefully dragging and tossing one another in a great display of power. “Land Bridge,” in which the patterns and cycles of animals and humans merge and become one is set to an original score by Nathalie Joachim that blends human and electronic sounds. Chanted sighs and percussive gurgles cycle and repeat while the lighting by Carrie Wood at times makes the dancers look as if they were lit from within.
Dancer Burr Johnson, now in his eighth season with Helen Simoneau Danse, is a VCU Dance alum. It’s always a pleasure to see successful students return to show off their results of their hard work. Personally, I can hardly wait for this company to return to Richmond for another public performance – hopefully for more than one night.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Company photos by Peter Mueller; Helen Simoneau’s portrait by Todd Turner Photography