Dancers onstage seem superhuman.
They sing with their bodies. They cry, scream, laugh, seduce, condemn, all without saying a word. Their limbs can inscribe lines in space that non-dancers never thought possible. But – can you believe it? – they are people too. So says choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie with his new work, “Inversion,” which premiered this past week in Richmond Ballet’s Studio 1, paired with the return of Val Caniparoli’s 2011 contemporary ballet, “Swipe.”
“Inversion” combines video and audio footage of interviews with Richmond Ballet dancers with their live performance on stage. The interviews dig into the dancers’ relationship with their art form, unraveling the mystique that can surround them in performance, humanizing them. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but it’s a powerful one.
When dancer Thomas Ragland enters the stage space, we hear his breath exhale on a jump, and that exhale marks the first moment of the curtain being pulled aside. At first we hear dancers’ recorded voices, but then an actual white curtain slowly splits the stage on a diagonal, serving as both video screen and set through which dancers emerge to embellish the commentary projected above them.
When dancer Valerie Tellman appears on the screen and, among many other lighthearted revelations, describes the pointe shoes in which she dances six hours a day as “little, tiny coffins,” the audience laughs but the mood shifts. We know that suffering underpins this art -- this is part of its romance, in fact. But to hear about it during performance from the dancers, who usually remain mute, re-frames our viewing and reveals our collusion in the whole endeavor.
Digging deeper, the next section includes a set across the back wall, slashed by jagged sections of mirror angled down. Dancers’ voices describe their uneasy relationship with the mirror they stare into all day. “It’s a great tool and can also be a cruel one,” says one, and “It’s really hard to see yourself and see the truth all the time,” says another.
Hearing this while admiring the lithe, seemingly flawless bodies dancing before us reveals a fragility in the dancers that does invert the superhuman strength and grace we are accustomed to find at the ballet. It's a look that does all of us a favor – dancers and audience alike.