Spring may not be in the air, but flying objects ride the breeze in a dance called “Spring,” which Gandini Juggling opened at the the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University on Dec. 12 (performances continue through Dec. 15). In this playful offering in the Peak Performances series, balls, rings and clubs spin madly around the performers’ heads and limbs. Plucking these items from their orbits and recycling them, the jugglers send them aloft again, creating their own hailstorms. They are the ultimate multi-taskers.
One suspects these delightful artists could juggle anything, including not only a partridge in a pear tree, but also startled turtle doves and shrieking maids a-milking. Director Sean Gandini has been strict about the things his jugglers are allowed to grab and throw, however. Perhaps he wishes to spare his collaborator, choreographer Alexander Whitley, from a nervous breakdown. Timing and coordinating the movements of several dancers is tricky enough, without having to worry about air traffic. Among other things, “Spring” is a computational wonder.
But director Gandini has been strict about many aspects of this show, tamping down what threatens every moment to become an atmosphere of hysteria as the props whizz by. For a piece that calls itself “Spring,” the look is severe. Costume designer Claire Ashley has outfitted the performers with basic gym wear in shades of gray — for, after all, they don’t need sequins to dazzle. A black background gradually whitens, making room for shadows to augment the cast. With its electronic score by Gabriel Prokofiev, “Spring” sports a techno-chic. It’s perfect for an Internet generation that spends most of its waking hours inside a screen.
Evidently there can be nothing worse than a distracted juggler; but Gandini doesn’t want his audience to become distracted, either. He wants us to see — really see — the things his performers are doing. Thus simplicity acts as a foil for complexity. The matter-of-fact way these performers saunter onstage and speak to us makes their timing and dexterity at other moments all the more astonishing.
In Guy Hoare’s lighting design, colors intrude but cautiously. At first these hues appear as phantoms, in a peculiar skit where Tristan Curty consults a notebook and Liza Van Brakel claims that black rings are actually various bright shades. If there are to be any illusions on this stage, clearly the viewer must supply them.
Eventually, Hoare contrives for the monotone performers to cast parti-colored shadows — that’s a neat trick. Rings may be white on one side and yellow, blue or red on the other side; in a display of Olympic virtuosity the performers switch the sides back and forth to create colorful patterns as they juggle.
Yet even when the whole stage goes red, Gandini won’t allow a color to tint these proceedings emotionally. While we may see orange or green, the cast informs us that we will never see “Presidential orange” or “vengeance green” in this show.
An especially brilliant individual, Wes Peden, stands out because he can juggle more clubs than anyone. He can also toss a handful of rings into the air and miraculously end up wearing them. During the post-performance discussion, Peden explained that he designs his own “tricks,” finding ingenious uses for his elbows, exploiting empty spaces, and filling (temporarily) idle hands.
Yet Gandini and Whitley have created a work in which the environment dominates the performers. “Spring’s” minimalism and its pacing, which subordinates accents in the dancing to the rhythms of the juggling, imposes a dour uniformity that makes the work impersonal. The choreographer contributes to this impersonality by echoing the juggling’s symmetry. Jugglers frame dancers, and dancers frame jugglers. Whitley has his dancers change directions the way the rings toggle from side to side; and in a way that recalls the late Alwin Nikolais, Whitley isolates body parts to create abstract landscapes. Lying on their backs, the dancers lift arms or crooked legs to create spiky forests. When the dancers are on their feet, their moves are muscular and rangy, but the energy that courses through an individual’s body can’t compete with the weight of “Spring’s” formal design.
Although “Spring” represents a collaboration, the juggling is the star.
Remaining performances of “Spring” at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University will take place Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 14 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 15 at 3 p.m. Visit peakperfs.org.
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