BalletLab’s ‘Amplification’ confronts death and the viewer

The latest White Bird dance concert is strange and disconcerting

BalletLab's "Amplification"/Photo Jeff Busby

BalletLab’s “Amplification”/Photo Jeff Busby

In the lengthy Q&A with Phillip Adams included in the program for Phillip Adams BalletLab Thursday night, the choreographer describes his many methods of research while developing Amplification in the late 1990s. He mail-ordered VHS tapes of car crash tests, interviewed accident victims, and visited morgues (where he purchased the same body bags used in today’s performances). Seemingly without hesitation, he says in the Q&A: “I have a terrible fear of death, and so the afterlife is worth exploring. I create works to live out my fantasy of life after death, if it were only for 60 minutes I can escape to that world.”

Amplification is very much a choreographer’s piece. The work is a full collaboration between the dancers, the DJ, and the great lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne, all in service of Adams’ ideas and obsessions. The sound and lighting aren’t just there to highlight or complement a dance performance, they’re integrated into a dense, idea-driven production that draws on a wide range of influences. Adams lists science fiction and visual art as important influences, both immediately apparent in the way that space and narrative are manipulated.

Cisterne is an excellent choice for this piece. He’s never not a good choice, but the relative spareness of the lighting here and its integral role in developing Adams’ themes seems to have given Cisterne a chance to get serious and do more with his lights than just illuminate dancers in surprising and beautiful ways. He triggers a truly surprising moment that had gasps ricocheting through the audience, and with just a few standard tube lights he attacks our eyes’ ability to deal with contrast. But there are also delicate moments, most notably during the finale, when the lighting doesn’t feel like the effect of some mechanism but instead pours seamlessly from the action on the stage.

BalletLab's "Amplification"/Photo Jeff Busby

BalletLab’s “Amplification”/Photo Jeff Busby

According to Adams, “turntablist” Lynton Carr has a similar share of that 60-minute world created on stage. He and Adams were housemates when Adams was first developing the show, and led many of the creative decisions for the soundtrack (in addition to staying up late and arguing about art, life, and death with Adams). Carr mostly avoids my common complaint with soundtracks meant to confront or shock dance audiences—that leaving the needle pegged at 11 for too long becomes counterproductive by boring the ears with lack of variation. In the first, most aggressive act, he may push those listening limits with the noise-music intro, but the live, on-stage, on-vinyl mixing adds an important freshness to the sometimes-overwhelming sound collage. The show is earplugs-loud, but as the themes change and soften, Carr matches them with a suitable dynamic range and a massive catalog of source material that has him de-sleeving records at a pace to match the dancers.

This is a complex production that demands heavy work from its dancers. They have to die, dominate, revere, strip, and otherwise guide each other through a fast-shifting landscape. Though other BalletLab productions have far more nudity, passages in Amplification where the dancers undress themselves or each other are some of the rawest moments of challenged intimacy I’ve seen on stage since tEEth left town. The fluidity of the roles combined with the equal space given to the sound and lighting also sacrifices a generous amount of the focus they could demand as the main performers. Here, they’re part of a bigger picture, which, given Adams’ fixation on life and death, makes sense. However, I think this is also what keeps at least last night’s performance from being a great performance. It’s an impressive and very good show, just one hampered by a few scratches in an otherwise gleaming surface.

Amplification_001_photo by Jeff BusbyIn the rich world on the stage, some of the actual dancing seems to get lost, either losing a bit of polish between the more theatrical moments, or competing too much with the soundtrack in the first act. So much of the show relies on mirroring, and uncooperative props twice caused one dancer to follow the other at least a beat behind. The world Adams builds is so heavy and affecting that these moments that remind you that this is a performance are more jarring than in a less ambitious piece. From my armchair, I can imagine how nearly-perfect the show could be if it had just a little less going on, a little more space for the slow passages. As the name BalletLab implies, this is experimental work. So my criticism comes with the respect for the pains of pushing things to their limits to find new experiences.

After Maguy Marin, Amplification is the one of the most confrontational and experimental pieces in this season of dance in Portland. While the first performance had a few missteps, it offered far more piercing moments of strangeness, pathos, and sweetness in an overall ambitious and captivating production. Take a good conversationalist to the show. You’ll have lots to talk about afterwards.


Phillip Adams BalletLab continues at 8 pm through Saturday, January 24, at Lincoln Hall

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