Directed by Devyn Duex, Clair-Obscur is Nebula Dance Lab’s premiere offering as a new company. Featuring work by Erin Martinez and Emily Wheeler, who also perform with the company, this evening of innovative dance also showcases the talents of the ensemble: Weslie Ching, Kaita Lepore, Lindsay Slavik, Michelle Lynch and Sarah Shouse.
Opening with shadows of two figures struggling behind a sepia-lit screen, the ominous and old-time mood set from the start, Martinez’s “The Singing Bones” is an adaptation of “The Twa Sisters”, an English ballad first known to have appeared in 1656, wherein one sister drowns the other.
Many variations exist, but here the drowned sister’s body is pulled from the water and fashioned into a fiddle by a mystical figure. In some versions, the instrument made from the girl’s corpse then plays on its own, recounting in song the details of her murder.
This dark and surreal subject matter is handled with great imagination and originality by Martinez, who has also performed and choreographed locally for DoZ Dance Company, State Street Ballet, UCSB Dance Company and many others. Classic fairy tale themes of passion, struggle, murder, magic and redemption are represented here in a fresh and engrossing fashion.
Martinez’s beautiful hand-drawn artwork, rendered into video, is projected behind the dancers. As the scenes slide by, we start out in woods, then at an old farmhouse, moving beyond the railroad tracks and water tower and into a rundown street scene. The atmosphere is convincingly created, evoking a small Southern town in a state of decay, and the stark woods beyond where dark things occur.
Structured like a song, the piece returns periodically to the street scene with a hard-edged musical and movement refrain, then back to other locations as the action progresses. The contrast between urban bluegrass rock and more traditional fiddle music, all by Andrew Bird, further deepens the texture here.
The second half of the evening, Wheeler’s “Take the Bull by the Horns,” gave the entire company a chance to work with more abstract and buoyant material. Divided into four segments, this piece had the dancers in short belted tunics, swingy and free, evoking a Grecian tableau. Full of heart and soul, it was a welcome burst of light in the darkness.
Nebula, in its first time out, demonstrates the ability to embrace both the luminous and the obscure, and to present both beautifully.
Performances of Clair-Obscur are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo. Tickets are $18 or $13 for students with identification and can be purchased by calling the Center Stage Theater box office at 805.963.0408. Click here to purchase tickets online.
— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.