Where You Find It
Around here, summer is the time when, contrary to everything else, dance goes dormant. In Boston, the defunding of Summer Stages Dance by its principal sponsor, Concord Academy, after fifteen invigorating seasons, curtailed what’s given us a dependable access to new work. Not that local dancers aren’t experimenting, but mostly they stay off the cutting edge. Last summer’s supply of noteworthy imports didn’t come in neat, hour-long packages. Choreographers were exploring new forms and new media, sometimes ignoring the theater as a performing space altogether. Summer Stages co-directors Richard Colton and Amy Spencer managed to hold onto their relationship with the Institute of Contemporary Art and offered a one-week residency for a group of 21 auditioned Boston dancers with choreographer Reggie Wilson and three members of his Brooklyn-based Fist and Heel Performance Group. The participants worked daily at the ICA and gave an informal showing on the last day.
The workshop participants learned phrases from Wilson’s dense company piece Moses(es), which will be performed in Boston for the first time this winter. I attended one of the workshop sessions, and, three days later, the climactic Sunday afternoon showing. As basic material Wilson taught some of the phrases from Moses(es). The dancers were encouraged to inhabit the phrases in their own ways. Improvisation by building on a given action or gesture has been a staple of modern dance choreography for a hundred years. Wilson’s work implants African, American, and Caribbean movement seeds to make new fusions that keep their original resonance. For the final showing, a preset group of phrases had been tweaked and shaped to create a more composed if not theatrical sequence, with the title On Moses(es) a local investigation. As Wilson told the audience at the showing, we were seeing “something that might resemble a piece.”
To begin, the dancers lined up on the side of the ICA’s performing space, with the theater’s two glass walls screened to take the glare off the spectacular view of Boston Harbor. As in a dance class, the dancers began crossing on a diagonal, one at a time. The initial phrase divided the body into upper and lower halves. With small foot-to-foot stepping that sometimes became larger, deeper strides, they pumped their arms chest high in an intricate pattern of rotating wrists and pistonlike elbows. The symmetricality and the pulled-back shoulders reminded me of some West African traditional dances I’ve seen. Each dancer took the phrase slightly differently: some moved small and close to the body, some looked intense, some showed little perceptible accenting, some incorporated a rhythmic bounce. The remarkable thing about this was the music, a recording by Meredith Monk—-“Madwoman’s Vision” from her extraordinary 1988 film Book of Days. One of Monk’s syllabic chants with an almost accent-free organ and cello accompaniment, “Madwoman’s Vision” evokes a conversation among characters and animals, a narrative in song. But the dancers made no literal response to the crowded scene suggested by Monk’s many-colored vocalizing—or to any of the four highly diverse selections that followed. With only a few pauses, more or less coinciding with the musical changes, the dancers kept going, sometimes incorporating whatever rhythmic beat the music was offering at the moment, sometimes ignoring it.
Gradually, dancers began crossing the space two or more at a time. When they’d all completed the diagonal, they formed another lineup and began a series of solos, shadowed intermittently by the three Fist and Heel dancers, Yeman Brown, Clement Mensah, and Anna Schon. Each dancer had a different interpretation of a phrase. After the first half-dozen or so, the rest of the group swarmed out into the space and performed their variations simultaneously. When the last soloist had finished, the rest of the group walked out and assembled into pairs. Facing the audience, they began a dance that seemed like a unison couple-chorus, but the unanimity, and the couples, splintered into a counterpoint of approximate timing. Almost unnoticed, one couple began dancing in ballroom position. After the others finished and left, they continued dancing in a kind of rudimentary samba. Before they’d gone more than a few steps, someone would come and cut in on them. The cutters-in came and went, but eventually, five or six interlopers clustered together and continued dancing. Meanwhile, the rest of the group was forming up in another part of the space, ready to launch into a brief but high-energy section of windmill arms, ripples, throws and stops, logrolling, and small jumps. After this mass explosion of high energy, it all subsided back to the first diagonal pattern.
After Monk’s song had finished, the music had switched unannounced to a playlist that included a funky bluegrass singer, a Mexican salsa band, an African chant, and Deniece Williams’ upward-soaring gospel “God Is Amazing.” I don’t know whether the dancers anticipated this incongruous mix of musical styles, but Wilson had used some of the selections in the workshop session I’d seen earlier in the week. There was a strong improvisational element to the half-hour of dancing although it often looked quite organized, even choreographed, with the lineups, the small groups falling in and out of unison, and the occasional singling out of one or two performers as soloists. Not only did the dancers interpret the given material in their own ways, they became more and more spirited as the piece progressed. At the end of the last diagonal crossing, as each dancer held a final pose, someone came to escort him or her off the floor.
The whole piece was so varied I could only keep track of it in retrospect with the help of an archival video on YouTube. But looking at it again through that lens, I thought of it as an exposition not only of individual variations on a theme but a study of dancing alone and dancing with groups. As the groups and lineups formed and re-formed, the dancers had to adjust to each other’s movement throughout. By the end it seemed they were allowing their carefully nurtured neutrality to fall away and letting the audience see their enjoyment of a newly found but unrepeatable communal experience. I thought I’d seldom seen a group of Boston dancers so integrated and so energized.
New York City Ballet dancer-choreographer Justin Peck’s Passe-Partout, a new app for the iPad, supplies the resources, and the user does the choreography onscreen. The program, designed by Abbott Miller for 2wice Arts Foundation, suits the current craze for technology while at the same time satisfying a democratic notion of collective creativity: We all share the Internet. We can all be artists. It’s part of a series 2wice Arts calls “an alternate performance space.”
How it works is this: Color-coded dots along the side of the screen give the user five out of a possible eight working options at a time. Touch one dot and a dancer appears (either Peck or Daniel Ulbricht) to dance a one-minute fragment. While this dance is in progress, if you touch another dot you can activate a second dancer in a different color costume. Then a third and so on. The dances will overlap as long as you don’t touch his dot again; that will make that dancer disappear, unless you bring him back with another touch. I didn’t try it with more than three simultaneous variations because eventually the crowd becomes unreadable. A timeline runs from the activation of the first coded signal and continues through your interruptions. Peck has arranged all the variations to be compatible with each other. His language is balletic, mostly expansive movements like jumping and turning, with extended arms, in a high-energy mode except for a few built-in slowdowns. A more-or-less-matching sound score by Aaron Severini, with different instruments and musical ideas for each variation, allows the whole mix to look and sound like one orchestration.
I found I was more interested in figuring out how the app worked than I was in creating my own dances. But I learned some things about choreographing. It takes a great memory to visualize what to put together out of the seemingly infinite array of moves you can invoke. Decades ago, in a more low-tech era, Twyla Tharp began videotaping her prolific choreographing sessions for the same reason. Visual memory plays a part in clarifying your choices, assuming you make deliberate choices. Do you want two dancers in the frame at the same time? Should they dance together or echo each other? Face each other? Behave symmetrically or independently? Should one be closer to the audience/camera than the other? Selection and connection are major issues in this choreographing game. If you’re dealing with more than one or two dancers, the questions proliferate. Maybe that’s one reason so much contemporary choreography doesn’t seem to have been shaped in a deliberate way. It’s fairly easy to make up movement, not so easy to plot it intentionally, rationally. Passe-Partout gives you the option of saving your favorite variation, but I’m not sure how much leeway you have to change it later.
As a choreographer, Peck may be better than I can tell from Passe-Partout. He’s a current up-and-comer in the ranks of ballet chore- ographers, with a string of freelance assignments and a recently-announced choreographer-in-residence appointment at New York City Ballet. I’ve never been able to see one of his ballets live onstage. Peck’s movement for Passe-Partout is pretty standard classical ballet, with occasions of stretchy upper-body plastique and lapses into the vernacular. Ulbricht performs it with classical correctness; Peck is more casual about hitting the requisite positions. I ran out of interest in the app when I decided the vocabulary was a limitation. The one-minute phrase duration is a liability too. Passe-Partout supposedly can yield thousands of dance possibilities. I wasn’t able to hang onto it beyond about 20.
Prompted by a New York Times Arts & Leisure coming events page, I looked online at some of the information for a new interactive app, Bounden, put out by a company in the Netherlands. It plots a course for two people holding an iPhone. Prompted one move at a time by the device, they can make a duet. On the basis of the online trailer for the app, I thought the results looked a lot like an exercise we used to do in movement improvisation classes that starts with two adventurous persons touching hands. The rule to stay in contact while moving can evoke complexities you wouldn’t think of by yourself. Eventually, the idea would lead to the sophisticated lifting and carrying moves of Contact Improvisation. Bounden in the promotional material looked much simpler than either Contact or its primitive studio predecessor. More like a beginners lindy class.
Another new diva, tap choreographer Michelle Dorrance, has linked up with technology in a different way. For their two-week appearance at Jacob’s Pillow last summer, Dorrance and company presented a piece called ETM: The Initial Approach. The provisional tone of the title suggests there’s more to be done, and in a post-performance conversation at the Pillow with dance critic Suzanne Carbonneau, Dorrance’s collaborator Nicholas Van Young cited the multiple possibilities of the sampling devices he’d designed as a “crazy mind game.” The idea, carried through the one-hour piece, was that the floor under the feet of the ten dancers was fitted with sensors to produce specific sounds when touched. A tap could become a tone, a voice, an echo, a wow, and it could be extended in various ways with a remote device held by the dancer. In her introductory talk, Pillow director Ella Baff called the performance a “technoscape.”
Sampling techniques allow any sound to be modified, repeated or overdubbed with another sound. Once you input a sound, the device can repeat it until it decays. I think the first time I heard this in performance was back in the early 1980s, in Steve Reich’s counterpoint pieces. They began with a solo instrumentalist sampling a phrase, then overdubbing himself into a string of nonsynchronous echoes. Dorrance does the same thing but with dancing translated into voiced rhythms. Not only do the dancers create extra sounds with their feet, they have to place their feet accurately in order to hit the right tone-producing panels. A keyboardist (Donovan Dorrance, seated upstage in the shadows) probably has a lot to do with the kinds of sounds that come out of the samplers and possibly with making the triggers change from a tap on the floor panels to a swipe of the hand. I’m sure there are technical terms for all this equipment, but what’s really impressive about the piece is that it succeeds without the viewer needing any technical expertise.
Dorrance has a feel for space as well as a tap dancer’s spontaneous flexibility with time. She can orchestrate a stage with groups of dancers and accompanists to make readable designs as well as percussive music. So her work is visually coherent as well as rhythmically spectacular. Dorrance’s movement is basically all footwork with a certain amount of traveling. Break dancer Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie, whose fast acrobatics are also sampled, gives the audience the full-body thrills it might be missing.
ETM worked up from a quiet beginning to ensembles of dancing and singing. Aaron Marcellus supplied his gospel vocals to the musical mix, creating his own beat by stepping from side to side on a tuned platform. His songs were prerecorded and added into the tap dancers’ composition along with his ostinato bass line for support. Technological innova- tions can overwhelm a dance; film and “mixed media” often did in years gone by. But, rather than diminishing the live dancers, Dorrance uses her arsenal of devices to make you more conscious of their versatile presences.
Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener’s series of performances at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston went in the opposite direction, away from technological refinement toward a kind of minimalism. The spareness and simplicity of their dance didn’t make it any less absorbing. Ten performances, spaced from late June till mid-August, materialized almost surreptitiously in conjunction with the Gardner’s exhibition of textiles by Carla Fernandez. “The Barefoot Designer” occupied a gallery in the Gardner’s new wing, a modern structure by Renzo Piano that was appended in 2012 to the lush Italianate palace and gardens built at the turn of the twentieth century to house the owner’s celebrated collection of fine art.
Carla Fernandez acts as an ethnographer as well as a fashion designer. She travels around Mexico to learn the techniques of textile making from the indigenous communities that practice them; her own fabrics adapt these traditions into contemporary fabrics and clothes. In the Hostetter Gallery at the new Gardner, Fernandez’s work was on display in many forms. The fabrics themselves, sometimes made into lightly constructed clothes, were draped on mannequins and racks. There were photo enlargements of gorgeous models wearing the clothes and hands-on exhibits of the crafts that went into them. In an adjacent lobby, several video loops displayed Mexican craftspeople as they wove, knotted, twisted, and carved in the techniques Fernandez had adapted.
The dancers’ contribution seemed an extension of the textile show. Little publicity was given to Riener and Mitchell’s appearances and no seats were provided, so the drop-in audience stood around the edges of the room or leaned on the walls. Mitchell and Riener had prepared five separate “scenes,” each using a different Fernandez design. Low octane, like all their work, it was a kind of fashion show without the preening that lubricates a runway performance. Announced only by recorded drumming and other sounds, they would emerge from the adjacent space, do some minimal movements in the center of the gallery, and exit. There wasn’t much overt dancing, but a lot of posing and deliberate distortion, mainly to model the costumes, I thought. The whole event had a dry, nearly invisible humor to it, as if to acknowledge the absurdity of what they were doing and where they were doing it, while at the same time respectfully showing off Fernandez’s craftsmanship.
In the first episode, the two men entered by different portals from the outer lobby, inching on their backs, with lengths of material underneath them that allowed them to slide. Both were wearing large round things the size of soccer balls or helmets on their heads. (The videos of the craftsmen revealed that these were huge balls of material.) Mitchell wore oversized goggles. Slowly they got to the center of the room. Positioned on their backs, they couldn’t see each other, but some radarlike instinct kept them from colliding. They continued scootching past each other, and exited, but not before Riener did a short series of jumps and balances with the globe perched on his head.
In the next scene, Mitchell wore a grey poncho with a large green reptile stitched on the front and long white fringe on the edges. He made spirals with his upper body, whipping the fringe out. Riener wore a tight black outfit, pants and a bolero-like jacket with blue designs on it. As he exited he snatched another piece of fabric off a hook. Mitchell wore this as a cape in the next scene. His partner had a matching piece, with a snake design, and each of them seemed to have a gourd or another large object on his head. Riener’s long hair was tied under his chin like a beard or a muffler. After some slow walking around the room, Mitchell disappeared behind one of the display panels. Riener slowly pushed the panel in circles, gradually revealing a Mitchell-mannequin posed on a low shelf. Both of them were focused inward, withdrawn from the nearby audience.
Riener came in for the next scene with a large furry ruglike swatch. Mitchell, wearing several carved wooden bracelets and a black quasi-sarong, spread the swatch over him like a blanket. Then he slowly pulled in the rug and Riener backed off, crouching. In a curious ritualistic moment, Mitchell transferred the bracelets to his partner. By this time, I was losing track of the eccentric activities and the simulated costumes. In the last part, I think they wore similar outfits made of batik-like panels of cloth. After posing on the edge of the floor-to-ceiling windows, they mounted a work table that had been cleared by museum staff members. Riener got up on the table with a somersault and Mitchell with a stealthy hurdle. First facing the windows, then facing each other, they did fast jumping, spinning, and gesturing phrases for a few moments, then got down and left.
When I returned to see the show a second time, the dancers repeated all but the third section. I asked one of the museum people whether they were doing the performance as I’d first seen it. Not meaning to be cryptic, she replied that we’d seen a repeat, but the choreography hadn’t been the same. Thinking back on it all, I wondered how much of the performance was improvised. Then I got to pondering about how easy it had been to forget, and how ephemeral it was meant to be. And how Fernandez, in sincerely working to preserve the traditional textile techniques, was reconfiguring the products into new shapes if not artworks. As wearable clothes, they seem no more outlandish than anything in the New York Times fashion sections, but they’re still folksy. I couldn’t visualize them making an entrance at a fancy New York opening night. Fernandez seems to work with a curious blend of handwork, rough raw materials, highly developed skills, modern imagination, and discreet marketing. Maybe one could say the same about Riener and Mitchell.