Please don't tell my editor at DVD Talk, but I am not a big fan of most ballet. I agree to review dance discs because they routinely feature great scores, something with which I'm more familiar and about which I can hopefully add some cogent commentary. Ballet as a whole leaves me cold. Colder than cold. I still remember as a child being dragged to the annual holiday fest that is The Nutcracker and literally burying my face into the plush velvet back of the theater seat so that I wouldn't have to watch anything and could just listen to the music. Well, guess what? Either I'm becoming more culturally attuned, or there are some fantastic dance DVDs (and in this case, BDs) out there. I recently reviewed a spectacularly imaginative reworking of Stravinsky's Le Sacre, and, if anything, this new BD from Canadian troupe La La La Human Steps is even more breathtaking and innovative.
Édouard Lock, the founder of La La La Human Steps, and the choreographer, designer, director and editor of this filmed version of Amelia is, to say the very least, a prodigiously talented man. Any of the single elements he brings to this project is tantamount to a very active genius, but when taken together, they are overwhelming at times. Let's start with the set. Shown from above at the start of the film (a perspective that is highlighted throughout the piece), it appears the dancers are on a strangely patterned parquet floor. Once the camera gets to their level, it's actually revealed that they're in a sort of curved floor box made of stripes of wood. It's almost impossible to describe (as you're probably experiencing right now), but it is one of the more minimalist yet strangely evocative and provocative set designs I've experienced recently. The walls, such as they are, are ambiguous, they almost float up as part of the floor, and openings through which the dancers enter and exit are largely hidden due to the unformity of the wood pattern, becoming evident only through judiciously placed lighting. You've never seen a dance set quite like this, that I can pretty much guarantee you.
Moving on to the dance steps, they are also next to impossible to describe. Moving through a series of solos, pas de deux, and occasional trios, Amelia has some of the most ambitiously athletic moves I've witnessed in modern dance. These fabulous artists do some spectacularly interesting movement, some of it only with the joints of their wrists or ankles. At times dancers will literally run across the open area of the wooden box, fly into space, almost landing on the wall a la Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding. At other times their bodies are for the most part still while their arms flail about in rapid jerking motions. Yes, it sounds bizarre, but visually it's unforgettable. At still other times, the dancers seem to be like robots on fast forward, with limbs akimbo and repetitive motions of the knee and thigh that are equally unforgettable.
Lock's work as director and editor is similarly impressive. This is a man who should be helming a major Hollywood musical, if you'd like my considered opinion. The camera is, forgive the pun, locked in on these dancers almost as if it itself is participating in the choreography. Lock offers some simply stunning crane and other high altitude shots which, in the informative commentary, he mentions he wants to accentuate the isolation of the dancers, which it certainly does. More importantly to me, however, it provides a weird sort of perspective on the ambiguity of the space in which the dancers find themselves. Up high it's virtually impossible to tell if the dancers are on the floor or leaning against one of the "walls," which makes their oft-times weird positions even more unique. Lock handles the editing chores with equal aplomb, eschewing the faddy quick cutting techniques of a lot of modern dance directors to give a sweeping, fluid approach (sometimes with dissolves, no less) that gives a surprisingly languid feel to the movement, considering how herky-jerky it is at times.
Musically this is a fascinating piece as well. Lock has a long history of pushing the boundaries of what constitutes an "acceptable" score for a modern dance piece, working with such luminaries as Frank Zappa. In this particular piece, his longtime collaborator David Lang reworks the songs and lyrics of Lou Reed as well as offering some minimalist melodies of his own. Though Lang's work is highly motivic here, in the time honored Adams-Glass technique, it's less repetitive and, frankly, dull than those composers can be in their less than inspired moments. A haunting female voice floats over simple accompaniments in a lot of these pieces and the effect is singular. Fans of the Velvet Underground are going to want to check out this BD if for no other fact that Reed's songs are so imaginatively redone.
If, like I do, you tend to shy away from modern dance performances, you may want to rethink that attitude insofar as it applies to Amelia. This is some startlingly innovative work, beautifully filmed and scored, and it's really opened my eyes to the incredible variety of modern dance that La La La Human Steps is offering.
Also available is an interesting 25 year retrospective of La La La Human Steps' many productions, with snippets from some of them.