I didn’t expect to say this, but the primary reason to see jan street dance theatre’s “Bibliography of Love” isn’t the dancing but the spoken word. Three men and two women present innumerable vignettes on the topics of love, gender and relationships, blending a few present-day scenarios into their historical love letter and poetry recitations. Some narration notes offer a factual timeline of events.
On balance, the performers — a mix of actors and dancers from Louisville, Ky. — remain steadfastly committed to the work and deliver the spoken text with actorly diction and emotional energy. They appear comfortable in their speaking roles (apart from a bit of slipping in and out of British accent), but less so in their dancing.
The text was penned by several authors: jan street Artistic Director Christopher Gilbert and the cast, William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, Harold Nicholson, Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis. The bisexual love triangle of these last three shapes, or at least inspires, the bulk of the 45-minute piece.
Perhaps too many hands and too many ideas led to the production’s fragmented feeling. The dance company certainly deserves credit for tackling some challenging literary and historical relationship-based subject matter. It’s clear from Gilbert’s program notes these stories lie close to his heart. But given the urgency and intensity of the lovers’ feelings, I longed to see more passion come alive onstage. I wanted to be moved.
Dance provides a medium ripe for love’s corporeal and emotional pleasures and pitfalls. The choreography felt too safe. It didn’t speak to the risks their Victorian characters were taking or, rather, living out daily. Lines describing “passion and animal feeling” and “I never thought I could or would love like this” demand more. I wondered whether this restraint could possibly be intentional, a nod to the repression of the primary characters’ Victorian England; I’m not sure.
The set and the costumes also reflect limitations — the former consists of a white scrim and five folding chairs, the latter, of too-casual rehearsal clothes supplemented with occasional men’s vests and cardigans for the women. (Not that I expected them to appear in Victorian-era finery, and I understand budget constraints, but this reads like a lack of effort.)
The show’s tagline also became a line uttered in unison: What would you give up for love? If this was intended to be an underlying theme, it missed the mark. This conflict wasn’t addressed. Certainly in Victorian culture, there was a far higher price to pay for engaging in unconventional romantic relationships, especially, in the era’s parlance, “the love that dares not speak its name.”
On the plus side, the group takes full advantage of all stage space at Gabriel’s Corner, creating some interesting group dynamics suggesting complex social interactions. Regrettably, the choreography feels by turns too literal with the text or too abstracted, as in the closing ensemble dance piece incorporating the chairs. Their unison issues and lackluster energy didn’t match their poised vocal expressiveness.
Still, several moments of movement stand out with clear direction and conviction, appearing purposeful and unfussy. The more straightforward, “pedestrian” gestures registered strongly, too; their tenderness and simple clarity convey believable emotion. But far more is needed here.
Performed at Gabriel's Corner through June 6. See performance dates and preview here.