At the Thursday night performance of Bruno Beltrão’s H3 at the Walker Art Center, I was seated a few chairs down from a boy of about seven who squirmed for the entire show. He moved to and from his mother’s lap, sitting first this way, then that, never moving in any deliberate direction but never quite being still either. At another performance, it might have been distracting. At this show, though, he almost perfectly matched the disposition of the performers on stage.
Dancemaker Beltrão’s work is the most formally ambitious hip-hop choreography I’ve ever seen. (Grupo de Rua’s Walker stop is part of the Brazilian troupe’s first U.S. tour.) Beltrão takes the same basic vocabulary of movements you’ve seen if you’ve ever watched a breakdancer or the backup b-boys at any arena pop concert in the past couple of decades and puts it at the service of a large-scale multi-movement piece that’s as much about restraint as it is about virtuosity.
H3 is not a particularly easy piece to watch; as Beltrão’s nine male dancers move about the stage, they stop and start and stop and reverse themselves again and again, conveying a restless sense of suspended animation. The degree of discipline and technique required of all nine dancers is just as great as—if not greater than—in a traditional pull-out-the-stops showpiece, but the piece’s momentum, both from moment to moment and from movement to movement, is halting and eccentric, and there are few points where it’s obvious what your reaction is meant to be. Backwards movement is a recurring theme; not only do the performers run in reverse, but at multiple points they lean back as though yanked by an unseen force.
|h3, presented through february 13 at the walker art center. for tickets ($18) and information, see walkerart.org.|
The soundtrack is just as thorny and fragmentary as the movement accompanying it; the electronic music by Lucas Marcier and Rodrigo Marçal incorporates samples of sound recorded live from the dancers’ squeaking shoes, and that sound along with the dancers’ heaving breath is for long minutes of the piece the only thing to be heard in the McGuire Theater. The dancers’ physical abilities and limitations are as much Beltrão’s subject as are the choreographed patterns of their movement; the men wear stern expressions from the first moment to the last (curtain call included), emphasizing the physical difficulty of the jumping, running, and flipping Beltrão demands of them.
So H3 is fundamentally about dance itself, but it’s also about what dance is about, if you will. (If you won’t, that’s okay.) As the men throw their bodies about, you’re left with the distinct impression that there’s something they might like to say or do, but are unable to. The dancers frequently come into contact with one another, partnering for balletic lifts but also feigning punches, grabbing hands, and even, at one point, biting arms.
There’s certainly a homoerotic dimension (in predecessor H2, two male dancers met for a passionate kiss), but the frustration pervading H3 is more than just sexual. I read H3 as being broadly about masculinity, about what it means to reconcile violence and tenderness, about maintaining pride while finding connection. As Isabelle Poulin’s perceptive but purple program notes have it, “The hip-hop dancer is a solitary warrior.” Must he be?