Photo credit: Valeria Zalaquett
Strings Attached: De La Guarda 10 Years On
21 Aug 2003: The Daryl Roth Theater New York
The language is not intellectual, it goes straight to the body, to the senses, to the soul.
So opens De La Guarda’s elaborate website. Whether the phrase refers to a philosophical choice made at the show’s conception or was later deemed necessary—a disclaimer of sorts, having witnessed a performance—is unclear. It certainly contains a truth, however. De La Guarda is an assault on the senses, directed towards the same youthful impulse that might once have inspired a wild spin through the air, out above a muddy embankment or over a stream, hanging from a knotty rope on the outstretched limb of an ancient oak. It doesn’t bear great intellectual scrutiny, but if you haven’t ever done it, it may offer a novel sense of fun.
De La Guarda was originally conceived and performed in a music club in Buenos Aries in 1993. Over the past decade it has toured Europe extensively, and featured concurrent runs in Japan and Korea, as well as here in the United States. After a five-year residency Off-Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theater, it is at last winding down, a show in need of a breather, hinting at the effects of aging and rheumatic stress.
The production itself remains heavily reliant on atmospherics, dependent on smoke and ropes for the kicks it provides. Set pieces are preceded by lengthy introductions; most often, tribal rhythms beat through the sound system, and dense smoke billows across a crowded darkness. The performance space resembles a blacked-out school gym, and sometimes a fine mist of water is released from sprinklers, simulating rain and bringing about a mostly joyful frenzy in the soaked patrons below. A show for the geriatric, it isn’t.
Perhaps for some attracted to the concept—say, those swan-diving helplessly into their thirties—there’s likely a feeling of having already lived it. On a recent night during the DJ Connection series, hosted weekly over the past two summers, one could still sense the happy-vibe influence of rave culture (one source from which the production originally drew its energy and inspiration). The series has proven an interesting and successful collaboration, even if in a sense it now contributes to the aged essence of the show. Most of those DJs invited to play emerged from the nascent beginnings of a dance music culture that prided itself on community and earth-love. Most recently, techno pioneer Derrick May played a set in NYC, offering an intriguing study in contrasts between the ancient drum patterns of the De La Guarda soundtrack and his own mixed metallic techno beats. The two may not have provided a seamless combination, but they offered a rewarding example of cross-pollination between two distantly related cultural cousins. May worked the turntables hard, mixing and scratching and manipulating each track relentlessly, and almost twenty years on, his enthusiasm and curiosity remain undiminished. But the group positivism of the rave culture era has long since evaporated, and it renders the atmosphere of De La Guarda somewhat manufactured. Despite good intentions, at best it feels nostalgic, and at worst archaic.
Those with an under-developed sense of cynicism, or a life experience amounting to less than sixteen years of age may, of course, feel inclined to disagree. Yet unquestionably, the show demands the unblinking, enthusiastic participation of its audience, and a wired, manic energy from its performers. It gets some of the former, and much of the latter.
The performers spring from a variety of backgrounds, many of them neither dance nor performance-based. Unsurprisingly, several have a background in climbing, and all display a significant capacity for enthusiasm. After the show proper, the performers venture onto the floor, dancing with those who remain, inciting good times to the pulsating rhythms of the DJ; one performer I saw took his adrenaline and enthusiasm into the arms of a surprised-looking college girl who received rather more than the kiss on the cheek she’d sought. Still, the cast’s presence after show’s end typifies the inclusive atmosphere the production seeks to create.
Such as they are, themes running throughout the show are of primitivism, of the necessity to escape from contemporary forces and constraints. The original music is distinctly tribal, and what we witness are urban warriors weighted down in their “costumes”, their city suits. Over the course of the show they re-discover the power of community, and of the lifeblood found in the basic elements of air, earth and water.
What the show most pointedly lacks at this point, however, is an ability to astonish or electrify. De La Guarda was imagined several years before cinema brought us The Matrix (and the endless stunt-laced films in its wake), and for a generation already complacently dismissive of Matrix: Reloaded , the thrill of witnessing people swinging from ropes thirty feet above the ground is considerably diminished. There is little in the way of artful choreography to astonish by its beauty, or delight with its invention. Once the smoke clears, it all appears fairly straightforward. The closest we come to form or grace is when two performers, suspended from different lengths of rope, zigzag in perfect symmetry across one another’s paths while racing to the top of a broad, vertical wall. It is one of the few moments where for a moment, you wonder, how?
Without a production on the scale of Cirque Du Soleil, the De La Guarda troupe has little hope of impacting us with the candor of its stunts. Art and mystery however, require imagination far beyond space and technological know-how, and it is here that this group must find its future.