The Colombian choreographer and dancer Alvaro Restrepo trained in New York at the Martha Graham school, but his piece Night of the Ant, a tetralogy for Athanor Danza, is unlike anything I have ever seen. If it is a typical example of his native art scene, then Colombian contemporary dance is visually lavish, short on movement and thematically ambitious.
Structured as four solos for four performers, Night of the Ant covers thousands of years. In London, it did this in the space of four hours, during which we felt as though we were enduring all those thousands of years and only the most stalwart spectators were still sitting for the company's final bow at midnight. It was a marathon end to the first Fronteras Latin American Festival.
The piece evokes the origin and evolution of Colombia, from the creation myths of the Amazonian people to the arrival of African and Spanish cultures, and on to the fusion and confusion of today. The complex staging, much of it by Restrepo, mixes video, music, text and elaborate design in four startlingly beautiful tableaux that stretched the theatre's technical resources to the limit.
Most beautiful is the first tableau (performed by Marie-France Delieuvin), about the world's birth, in which the décor's miniature scale suggests a landscape as viewed from an aeroplane window. The third, dealing with fire, blood and Spanish Catholicism, is all crimson drapes and film footage of roaring flames. Rosario Jaramillo, a grotesque Virgin Mother looking more like Francis Bacon's Screaming Pope, manipulates sinister, recherché objects, such as flesh-piercing spikes, her turban becoming a pin cushion, à la St Sebastian.
Restrepo piles on the symbolic associations with props that are numerous and intricate and must have taken months to devise. Manipulated and transformed from one thing into another, they are also hyperactive. Restrepo offers a choreography of objects more than the human body. Physical movement is not only sparse, it is often naïvely pointless. It only makes sense in the second, most dancerly, tableau, where, standing on deep layer of soil, Nemesio Berrio evokes Africa, conflict and slavery, with his gestures as well as his tusk head-dress, sword and the branding iron he applies to his black skin.
The fourth tableau, Restrepo's solo, begins as though it might contain interesting dance, but then he spoils it by busying himself overly with a giant straw disc, whose muddled symbolism is not worth the trouble expended. Arturo Venegas, in an armchair perched half way up the back wall, reads extracts from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which the author talks of insomnia. That condition evidently did not affect some of the spectators, who by then were inclining their heads in a gentle snooze.
At home in Colombia, Restrepo is active in dance education; you have to hope that he is not instilling the same long-windedness in his students.
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