Compagnie La Baraka

The lush choreography in Abou Lagraa’s A World in Itself proposes to explore the relationship between humans and the primordial world, but it feels more like a dance unfolding in the purest of heavens.

Lagraa founded his seven-member ensemble Compagnie La Baraka in France in 1997, and since then he’s made approximately one original dance each year. His latest had its U.S. premiere in Houston, where it was bravely presented by Society for the Performing Arts along with live music from Lyon’s Debussy String Quartet. The sophisticated dancers hail from Peru, Cameroon, France, Morocco, and Senegal.

It’s an unusual, intermission-free work for a city accustomed to sharp divisions between ballet, hip hop, and modern dance. Lagraa’s vocabulary draws readily from a wide variety of traditions, even folk dancing; if there is one constant in A World in Itself, it is a perpetual kind of elegant squirming. Think of how a caterpillar moves, and then imagine a human doing it standing, the chest leading the impulse to travel. Jorma Elo has used this body wave extensively with a variety of dancers. Lagraa uses it here as part of a greater system of extreme release-technique. In his World, energy is constantly flung from a wriggling, brawny body.

The string-quartet music is either austere (early John Cage, late Webern) or sumptuous (briefly Bach and then an earlier, Viennese-sounding Webern). Lagraa’s dances appear abstract, but the program informs us that they are rooted in a somewhat complicated dramaturgy by Gérald Garutti that starts with the Big Bang and then moves on to male-female metaphors, mainly expressed through partnering. The string players, integrated onstage with the dancers, move into various configurations throughout the evening. (It is not unlike the arrangement Bill T. Jones used for his 2002 dances set to string music by Gyorgy Kurtag, namely WORLDWITHOUT/IN and WORLD II.) There is no set, and the costumes are close-fitting black outfits with just a touch of glitter on a sleeve or pant-leg. Gérard Garchey’s lighting design, however, is quite rich and often used to define diagonal trajectories, circles, and other pathways inhabited by both the dancers and musicians.

With the completely versatile dancers of Compagnie La Baraka, infinite variation is possible. Perhaps Lagraa’s greatest talent is the way in which he restricts himself to few parameters and then vigorously develops his ideas.

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