On dance stages, the vision for ancient myths has been owned for decades by the ferocious Martha Graham. Her vocabulary of gut-sucking contractions and knotted spirals, along with her stark design tableaux, have defined that specific genre of epic grief and hard learnings.
Yet Friday night, Amy “Catfox” Campion, an established hip-hop artist with solid choreography, music mixing and filmmaking skills, seized a piece of that sacred territory with the debut of “Illuminated Manuscript,” presented by her 12-member company Antics at the befitting, ziggurat-style Ford Amphitheatre.
The performance kicked off the summer season of the John Anson Ford Theatres.
To indicate the expressive depth of both street dance and graffiti art, Campion’s paean to hip-hop culture actually took inspiration from two disparate histories.
The work’s title, “Illuminated Manuscript,” referenced the detailed designs of 13th century book illustrators, who drew text borders and initial chapter letters using bold outlines inked with elaborate color and gilding.
This theme was depicted onstage via film only. Interspersed throughout the performance, lively time-lapse montages depicted two graffiti artists making progress on an elaborate piece in a local train yard. Their confident lines, lengthy dedication and strategic reveal of color echoed gracefully the hand-wrought letters and drawings of the past.
The larger shaping force of the evening harkened back further to “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the ancient Babylonian tale of the god-like, imperious king Gilgamesh whose journeys with the wild man Enkidu address issues of friendship, loss, retribution and mortality.
Split into 11 scenes over two acts, Campion’s deft retelling of Gilgamesh’s symbolic confrontations with monsters and goddesses, and his culminating visit to the wise man Uta-Napishti, were easily understood.
A concise scene list in the program was so well done that the occasional projected narrative synopses could be enjoyed for their poetry and style. (Animations featured the letters of the projected text emerging from a scribe’s hand in heraldic graffiti print.) There was one technical glitch, when a projection froze, but otherwise the slides deepened the evening’s timeless metaphors of urban challenge. “Go home to your city,” read one. “Reach the end of your road in dignity. And find the life you search for.”
If you’re wondering how Campion wrestled the b-boy moves into this formal context, the answer was: rigorous rehearsal and careful framework. Past and present were ever aswirl, with a wistful violin woven amid the beats and story details indicated in the contemporary costumes (Enkidu wears a patch of fur on his jean jacket; Gilgamesh loses his trucker hat when he gains humility).
The performers displayed such control over and engagement with their bodies, they were able to use spins and locking to convey everything from grief to animalism to wisdom. All the leads were right, and the crucial duets were tender and fierce.
When dancer and graffiti artist Gilyon “Gillatine” Brace-Wessel, who played Gilgamesh, danced in perfect time with Enkidu (the super-smooth John “Random1” Molina) that detailed phrase became a haunting refrain after his friend’s death.
A series of round capoiera kicks distinguished the moment when Brace-Wessel sought greater understanding of mortality from Uta-Napishti the wise man (mercurial Garvin “Gyroe” Tran).
Two simple quibbles: At times, the eight-member corps felt intrusive (emerging too quickly and loudly after Enkidu’s demise, blurring our sight of Gilgamesh). And for much of the evening, the bass coming through the speaker system buzzed epically.
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