Jennifer De Leon - Bugs and Worms and Desire
27 April 2017, Basement Theatre, Auckland
Reviewed by Susi Hadassah
Standing; waiting for the doors to open. This is one of the moments I love most about ‘live’ performance. It is 15 minutes to curtains and the air is electric with the sense of anticipation. My first impression though, is one of disappointment: this space has not been designed for dance. Finding a seat, that would afford a clear view of the performance space,is not going to be possible. I settle for the back row centre but find myself standing near the lighting/sound desk for the duration.
An air of quiet reflectiveness emanates from those around me as our gazes took in the tiny square of floor back-dropped in white. The lights dim, Jenny appears on the backdrop-cum-screen; walking towards us down a well-trodden pathway to her secret place by the sea. Delicately ethereal, in slow measured steps, she reminds me of Titania, Queen of the Fairies processing through her leafy kingdom… her dark hair falling down around her shoulders, her simple gauze-like gown flowing around her waiflike frame.The sound of the waves as they ebb and flow in an uninterrupted cadence is a perfect accompaniment. As an entrance, this is pure magic.
This is Jenny’s domain – a place she knows intimately – a place she comes to be alone – a place of sacred communion. As she slips her bathing cap over her head, a look of sheer joy crosses her face; revealing an impatience to be ready for her ritualistic prayer-like reunion with the water. Gracefully, belying her eagerness, she steps into the waves; never wavering until, as there is an almost audible sigh from the audience, the water closes over her and she embraces her lover, the sea. I am struck with an overwhelming gratitude; Jenny is sharing with us something so private, so personal, so holy…
As our ‘on-screen’ Jenny glides through her watery paradise, our ‘live’ Jenny makes her entrance quietly, unassumingly. The transition from screen to stage melds effortlessly. Her partner, Justin Treganza, becomes the ‘sea’ and in a surreal harmony the two begin to move as one. Enhanced by the skilled sensitivity of lighting master, Twink El Toes, we find ourselves under the sea. The backwash replicates their movements in a blurry, liquid-like way that is very effective. In mesmerising fluidity, their dance takes shape and Jenny’s choreography moves them seamlessly through one exquisitely sculpted moment of stillness to another. Justin, though young, shows immense potential, as he carefully attends to Jenny’s every nuance, every breath…He moves her, holds her, carries her, shadows her; as if born to this partnership, he becomes her weightlessness as she floats upon his strength.
The pivotal moment comes when Justin, on his back, holds Jenny high above him. Arched back in trance-like repose, Jenny seems suspended as if subliminally on the surface of her lover, the sea. I reflect on how therapeutic it is to lie just like this, floating in calm serenity while gazing up at the dome of the sky. In imagery, this moment is masterful.
This work owes its success to a transdisciplinary collaboration that together, forms an exquisite whole. From its beginning, as a seed of inspiration in Jenny’s imagination; the camera work of Vernon Rive; the music of James Blake and Oliver Tank; the costuming by Olga Khimitch; the sound editing of Gary Potts; Twink’s clever lighting design; Jenny’s choreography; the dancing of both Justin and herself: all these elements combine to make Swimmer a feast for all our senses. As a prelude to Bugs & Worms & Desire the piece is inspired; both complimenting and contrasting wonderfully.
Jenny’s courageous new work, Bugs and Worms and Desire, begins in the stillness that Jenny is notable for. Waiting… the music of Walter Carlos accompanies and compliments this ‘state of being’ and helps to create an anticipatory aura; holding the eyes of the viewer upon this transparent new life about to emerge.
Movement, tiny, deliberately slow and cautious gradually increase is size and intensity as this hatchling begins its first of many battles to survive. This is where Jenny’s choice of music is at its most brilliant – that and the delicate hand of Twink’s lighting technique. The backdrop picks up and magnifies the struggle of a tiny untried wing, a pointed beak, a claw-like talon. But the metamorphosis does not merely end here, as this fragile but tenacious life breaks free of its ‘safe’ womb – it has hardly begun.
In the back of my mind, I can almost hear the skilfully sensitive narration of a David Attenborough-like documentary – Jenny’s dramatic ability so captures and replicates in exquisite detail the journey this new life is on. In beautiful but cruel symmetry the fledging’s entrance to the big unknown takes place when nature is at its fiercest. The music resonates in thunder and pelting rain while the lighting master creates the illusion of intermittent lightning. As the little life struggles to break into and embrace this big scary world, the storm that threatens its very existence causes it to curl into itself – to become small enough to re-enter its shattered shell.
The strength of its instincts to overcome is revealed as Jenny begins to unfold and stretch and extend her bird-like limbs and torso in ways that magically symbolise the developing bird’s growth and transformation from hatchling to fledging. As it begins to resemble more and more the bird of its destiny, she takes us through this illusory process while inching closer and closer to the costume lying like another dancer on the opposite side of the stage.
In intricate detail, I watch this fledging’s feathers emerge, as very slowly, Jenny dons the filmy fabric. She takes her body through a motif that glides along the floor extending, contracting, and suspending her limbs into the living sculptures that form such an important part of her signature. As each tiny sinew, ligament and muscle stretches and flexes, her arms take on the shape, the form, the flexibility of wings and the next phase of this young bird’s journey arises.
Defined in choreographic symphony Jenny captivates us with every nuance of movement, rendering the bird’s instincts plainly, articulately as it learns to use these wings. We watch in awe as it tries to overcome its fear, its awkwardness with the unfamiliar sensations, its clumsy attempts to lift itself from the earth. Now the choreography takes her up and across the floor and the space is neither broad enough nor deep enough to contain the breadth and energy of this metaphorical bird’s new liberty. In a way that I could not have imagined, the space becomes yet another of Jenny’s treasured paradoxes, as its close, almost claustrophobic-like confinement becomes the prison that an earth-bound bird battles to overcome in its struggle towards flight.
Movement; graceful, controlled, measured and fluid, takes Jenny across the floor as she begins her ascent into the skies – sadly the music in this segment does not quite capture the essence of the majesty, the awe, the climatic victory. However the clarity of Twink’s lighting becomes a beautiful backdrop as she flies and flies and flies to her ‘calling’ and the epiphany of this work. In pure simplicity her final moment speaks most profoundly – the beauty of the grace that follows the unflinchingly ‘grit-like’ determination of the life this piece so magnificently portrays.