Argentinean choreographer Lisi Estarás had all the right ingredients when she created Patchagonia, her first full-evening work for vanguard Belgian company Les Ballets C. de la B. Great dancers who can act. Live musicians on stage. A dramaturge. A clever title underscoring the listless (“patcha”) agony (“agonia”) of the most fabled desert in the Americas. The formula bears the recognizable stamp of Alain Platel, Les Ballets’ pioneering founder. But as this dance play opens onto the vivid, unverifiable expanses of fiction, Patchagonia announces itself: Here is dance theatre that is, finally, resoundingly, much more than the sum of its Flemish New Wave parts.
In the beginning, there is a barren tree, a toppled wooden horse and a raggedy sage bent over in fatigue, or contemplation. A band of migrants wanders in – three musicians, two boys and a girl, cautiously navigating the cracked earth of this desert outpost before settling in like regulars. Vignettes ensue: The old man spouts cryptic wisdom, though no one seems to listen. There is a fiesta, but just to pass the time. A tender play turns quickly to abuse, and a confession ends in someone else’s disembowelment. One is left to wonder, with a pretty foreboding sense: What is this place, and what did these people do to end up here?
Estarás’ movement idiom is physically intense, often animalistic, containing and revealing the idiosyncracies of her characters. Nicolas Vladyslav is exceptional as an amphibious, wasted son, slinking languorously on the floor, heat-dazed to a final depletion. He has an impish foil in Ross McCormack, terrifically funny as a brawny little menace obsessed with his masculine prowess, kicking up proud gazelle legs, puffing his chest and throwing in a few pull-ups. Veteran performer Sam Louwyck towers and teeters (but can he guide?) as the holy fool, while young lass Sandra Ortega Bejarano is alternately flighty and headstrong, literally inflating and deflating in the end.
For the music, Estarás teamed up with Tcha Limberger, a multi-instrumentalist of Flemish and Manouch gypsy descent and one of the on-stage musicians, with whom she had worked as a Les Ballets C. de la B. dancer in 2006. Limberger’s original compositions for Patchagonia draw from folk dances and chacarera and malambo rhythms of Northern Argentina, combined with his own gypsy style.
For a first major work, Patchagonia is a remarkable achievement. Estarás defies the standard pitfalls of a young choreographer, binding the elements and an ambitious amount to convey with strong, poetic vision that stays focused and even throughout. Dance and theatre are thoroughly fused. She fully invests and dares expressively in all four characters, raising their family drama to the level of allegory, and although a lot happens on stage, Patchagonia remains arrestingly desolate, an unmistakable, remote place sapped of change.
Patchagonia had it North American premiere April 15 at the Cinquième Salle, Place des Arts.