Walking into a dance performance and being handed a page and a half of a small-type, densely written “summary” of what will take place in a few minutes, usually prompts a recoil and a “show-me, don’t’ tell me” reaction. In fact, Mark Foehringer in his 80 minute “Diadorim” (little devil), based on the picaresque novel, “Grande Sertao; Veredeas” by Brazilian writer Joao Guimaraes Rosa, did show us. While the program notes were helpful, they were ultimately unnecessary.
The movement language, a haunting lighting design (by Matthew Antaky), ranchero style costumes (by Susanna Douthit) and a smart score all came together for this impressively styled dance theater piece. Of particular note was how skillfully Foehringe had mixed classical and popular Brazilian scores, with much emphasis on music for the guitar. The guitar also provided inspiration for part of Antaky’s set: hanging panels of enlarged guitar sound boards.
In the ten years that he has directed his own company, Foehringer has learned a lot; he has become especially proficient at putting narrative on stage.
Some of these skills he may have acquired in Brazil where he grew up and where, as in other parts of Latin America, abstraction never quite acquired the strangle hold it did here. But Foehringer also is the Artistic Director of the Mountain View Ballet Company with which he presents full-evening ballets, including “Romeo and Juliet,” and most recently “The Sleeping Beauty.” In works for his own company—“Rhapsodia”, a murder mystery around a dinner table; “Jammies,” a pajama party based on pop tunes and “The Four Seasons” which romped with panache through the venerable Vivaldi score—he has shown a distinct flair for comedy.
There is nothing humorous about the tenth anniversary “Diadorim.” This is a tough frontier men’s story about honor and corruption, love and sex, ambition and power. Were not all doused in a generic mix of Santeria and Catholicism, its bandits and landowners, whores and saints, foot soldiers and hangers on could have stepped out of Gary Cooper movie. At heart, however, this is a classic story of a young man’s growing up through a process of suffering, loss and survival. Broken as he seems to be at the end, he picks himself and goes on. One foot after another.
“Diadorim” has something operatic about it. Its extended—actually predominating—mime passages function like recitatives telling the story, and the pure dance elements—not that many—highlight emotionally charged situations. This is dance theater with relatively little dance, and yet the balance for the most part works. While the plot is not exactly novel, it keeps you riveted to your seat because you want to see how the story unfolds.
One reason that Foehringer has such good dancers—both freelancers and members of other companies—is that he gives them material that they can get their teeth into. Jekyns Pelaez is the hero Ribaldo, torn not only in his loyalties but his love interests. His journey starts in grief for his mother’s death and ends in the world-weary sorrow brought about by the collapse of everything he has believed in. Tatiana A’Virmond’s complex Diadorim—she disguises herself as a boy for safety reasons—has her own sorrows since she is conflicted about revealing her love for Ribaldo. The dancer imbued this state of ambivalence with fierce tenacity and a lover’s yearning tenderness. Veteran Bay Area dancer Frank Shawl played Joca Ramiro—Ribaldo’s idol, the honorable landowner who looses his power to corrupt underlings—with a wonderful mix of authority and resignation. Circling him like vultures were the other landowner, Ricardao (a sinewy Brian Fisher) who iscompletely under the thumb of the snaky super villain (Brandon Freeman).
Choreographically, Foehringer relied on a fairly traditional vocabulary, space-eating energy and a confrontational athleticism for the men, and softer, closer to the body work for the women. This was dance, supporting stories. Some sections worked better than others. The ensemble dances in the raucous drunken camp parties, including huge puppets, and the shadowy santoria initiation ceremony, for instance, were too pale. However, a couple of quintets of circling walking patterns in which the main characters felt each other out like animals delineating their territory worked well. So did the unisons in which the bent over dancers circled the stage with long strides and leaps. They looked as if blown about the hardscrabble landscape by the hellish quality of incessant wind.
“Diadorim’s” small ensemble choreographies were the most intriguing. A luscious, intertwining pas de deux of yielding and avoiding for Pelaez and A’Virmond embodied the confusion and conflict which both of them experienced for different reasons; his because he is in love with a “man”, hers because she can’t reveal her identity. Using the circling/encircling motive, at the core of “Diadorim’s” movement vocabulary, A’Virmon interfered into a courting duet between Pelaez and his “proper” love interest Otacilia (Katherine Wells)with the fury of both a jealous lover and a warrior’s commitment to the cause. The confrontation between good and evil has something of a Wild West qualitity except that the shoot out takes place in the air as Pelaez and Freeman attacked each other like eagles fighting to the death.
With all that “Diadorim” has going for it, too many extraneous details detract from the flow. The trajectory should be much tighter. Without having to give up too much of original’s sweep and the detailed texture that Foehringer is striving for, some sections could safely be eliminated. The mother’s death, the near drowning, the chapel scenes—at least give that saint a new costume—come to mind.
Brave in the way it embraces story telling, “Diadorim” is a good piece. It could be even better.