The torture and murders committed by the late-'70s military junta in Argentina might have been lost to memory if not for the mothers and grandmothers who silently haunted the Plaza de Mayo in front of Buenos Aires' presidential palace. Some are still there. Their mute resistance helped break through a society's unwillingness to face the depths to which its government had sunk, and it eventually contributed to the regime's downfall.
And so Gerry Girouard and Off-Leash Area wade into deep waters with Crimes and Whispers, which depicts the events of that time in an ensemble dance performance that is alternately surreal, wrenching, and seductive.
The performance opens (too) slowly, with Death (Paul Herwig) snapping Polaroids on a painted set (designed by Herwig) that evokes Argentina's national colors (light blue and white) and the Plaza de Mayo. Things then speed up considerably, with an abstract depiction of the military junta's rise to power. The youthful dance ensemble (with principal choreography by Girouard) launches into a high-energy number, with four dancers in civilian clothes and three in black military uniforms. What first seems a celebration soon begins to suggest sexual aggression, glamour, and the dark, alluring power of militaristic nationalism. And so goes the recorded score by Chris Cunningham (working under the name Neverwas), a dense brew of accordion, cello, drums, guitars, and keyboards. Though tango makes up the trunk of the soundscape, rhythmic tendrils shoot out of it; at one point the descriptor "hypno-Latin" sprang to mind.
Between the larger ensemble pieces, a dynamic emerges between a mother with a child stolen by the government (Florencia Taccetti) and a citizen living in willful blindness to the invisible dead all around (Jennifer Ilse). Ilse first moves, violently, to deny Taccetti's faded Polaroid, then later literally thrashes to avoid the semi-sexual dominating moves of the junta, here personified by the uniformed Girouard. His choreography features a signature move in which the dancers run up the set's walls with their legs while grounding themselves with their arms. The gesture lends a surreal edge that evokes the seduction, dominance, and acquiescence beneath both our romantic lives and our relations to those who govern us.
The second act takes a detour into Argentina's 1978 World Cup victory, with a big pumping techno score playing against the irony of death taking place blocks away from the celebrations. (The scene is forced and facile, which seems to be the point.) By now Herwig has returned, dressed in a black hat and shades, to take a knife to his set and reveal painted ghostly faces and bloody hues beneath the pastel sky.
It's natural at this point to wonder where the show is going. One hopes it isn't turning into a paean to the human spirit; really, if we're to learn anything from the previous century, it's that we need to triumph over human nature. Instead something complicated and unexpected happens. The music goes silent. Girouard and Ilse launch into a hard, entirely unsentimental dance about brute force and a population that refuses to accept the fact that it lives under an unscrupulous regime. Thudding into walls and the floor, the blindfolded Ilse squirms and tumbles to dodge the increasingly disdainful Girouard. Authoritarian government, the movement suggests, will grow bolder the more its people deny its abuses.
Finally Girouard and Taccetti stage another silent showdown, this one violent and full of anguish. When the scene fades to black, the fight is still going on; there is no triumph to be had for either side.