SPEAKING in LIGETI, April 22, 2013

Speaking in Ligeti is one of the freshest productions to hit Vancouver this year
by Alex Varty of the Georgia Straight

Choreographed by Martha Carter.
Presented by Marta Marta Productions, with the Dance Centre and Vancouver New Music.
At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Friday, April 19, 2013.

Joy is not an emotion commonly linked to György Ligeti, and it seems especially incongruous when speaking of the Hungarian composer’s String Quartet No. 1, an early work that’s rich in semi-autobiographical references to the horror of war and the terror of the Holocaust. Ligeti himself, it should be noted, was Jewish, and Nazi death camps claimed many of his relatives; later on, as a young and radical composer, he was effectively blacklisted by anti-Semites masquerading as Communists.

Those memories are clearly present in his first composition for quartet, and anyone listening to the music alone, whether at home or in the concert hall, would be immediately struck by its painful dissonances, by the shrieking of the violins and the limping, off-kilter cadences of the viola and cello. It’s an abstract work, yet it’s also deeply and uncomfortably affecting.

All this was overthrown, though, in choreographer Martha Carter’s stunning multimedia treatment of the piece: without losing any of the music’s anguished core, she joined her five dancers and the four musicians of the Microcosmos Quartet in recasting Ligeti’s pain as a triumphant celebration of the human spirit—and the human intellect, too.

In this profoundly smart production, Carter reflected Ligeti’s broken rhythms in the fractured footwork of dancers Hayden Fong, Delphine Leroux, Nicholas Lydiate, Thoenn Glover, and Heather Laura Gray. Early on, as individual members of Microcosmos demonstrated the parts they’d go on to play in unison, the dancers moved in sync, realizing the music’s complex tempos in visible form. Later, during the uninterrupted performance of the piece that closed the hourlong show, they illustrated the music’s increasingly atomized textures by enacting a kind of physical semaphore behind the players, crossing the stage in precise but ever-changing patterns.

There was a lot to think about here—but also, remarkably, a lot to laugh at, and with. Carter set the tone early, sending Fong out to duet with cellist Peggy Lee; his breakdance-influenced spins seemed crazily out of kilter with her deep sonorities, but in a surreally engaging manner. We were then treated to the mildly shocking spectacle of violinist Marc Destrubé chasing dancers through a kind of obstacle course, his precious fiddle held loosely and alarmingly in one hand. He’s no dancer, but does apparently have a gift for physical comedy. Microcosmos’s other violinist, Andrea Siradze, could have opted for a career in tights, at least if her adept high kicks were any indication of her flexibility. Violist Tawnya Popoff was less visible, but we’ll forgive that: her sonic contributions were immaculate.

Other funny business took advantage of the nine straight-backed wooden chairs that ornamented the otherwise bare stage. At one point the dancers enacted a wacky game of musical chairs, followed by a laugh-out-loud sequence in which Glover snaked her way through a tunnel of chair legs; when Fong attempted to follow, his bum wreaked havoc, hilariously.

Meanwhile the music played on, in all its serious intensity. The combination could easily have been a train wreck. That it wasn’t is due to Carter’s creative vision, to the pinpoint precision of her dancers, to the warm commitment of the musicians, and to the enduring strength of the 1954 composition that inspired them all. And, yes, to the even more enduring resilience of the human spirit. That might be a cliché, but Speaking in Ligeti was one of the freshest conceptions to grace the Vancouver stage this year.