Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company - A Slipping Glimpse

Patrons of the arts often have pre-conceived notions about ‘the what, how and where’ when they purchase tickets to attend an arts event. Expectations may include the theatre as the traditional venue, with a raised stage structure, a standard proscenium archway and a curved downstage apron. The majority of playhouses and theaters have this type of arrangement. And, the seating in these theaters is designed to follow the curvature of the stage, affording any audience member premium viewing capacity, regardless of their particular angle. Aficionados of modern dance, which has a reputation for being anything but conventional, know better than to come to a performance with any rigid ideas of what may or may not transpire. Rather, these fans know to expect the unexpected. Margaret Jenkins Dance Company’s world premiere of A Slipping Glimpse at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts certainly was no exception-the two-part piece explored an unusual dramatization of her choreography in an unorthodox venue with an alternative stage design. The second section, which was the bulk of the piece, achieved stunning results with the successful use of nonconformist staging and ingenious dance composition. In contrast, the introductory portion’s use of alternate space didn’t work and its manipulation of movement lacked continuity, failing in its endeavor to initiate and support any degree of consistency between the two segments of the work.

The piece began with a ten minute “prologue”, as the company called it, outdoors in the garden setting of the YBCA. This overture or prelude resulted in two challenging problems. Firstly, in San Francisco, it is always a crapshoot to perform any dance outside-it is more than often too cold. Past dance performances at the annual outdoor Stern Grove Festival have been cancelled half-way through because of the dropping temperature. This sometimes “arctic” environment is too dangerous for the dancers and not pleasant for the audience. It is difficult to concentrate on the intention of, the meaning behind, or the movement within the choreography when all you can think about is goose bumps and frostbite. Second, and more importantly, the prologue of A Slipping Glimpse lacked connection with what followed in the rest of the piece. In fact, the two sections really could have been separate works-the only commonality was that the dancers were wearing the same costumes for both. This lack of correlation was most obvious in the drastically different choreographic vocabulary within the two segments. The prologue section was a unison, “yoga-like” salute to the sun, with slow controlled movements that were calming and meditational in nature. This piece was a world premiere so perhaps over time, the link between the prologue and the body of the piece will be further explored and will evolve in terms of the work’s overall cohesiveness.

Following the outdoor prologue, there was a ten minute pause so that the audience could move inside and be seated for the duration of the piece. The rest of the dance was a juxtaposition of different groups of dancers, performing dissimilar choreography that had much more of an energetic, up-lifting, and vigorous feel to it. The movement vocabulary of this indoor section was completely different than what had occurred outside. The choreography seemed to be stylized like original contact improvisation, created by former Judson dancer Steve Paxton in the 1970s. This type of movement explored the idea of lifts and balances where two or more dancers were connected by a particular point on each other’s bodies. It challenged the idea of traditional lifting in choreography by creating a method by which women could lift men, men could lift men and dancers could support each other in unusual ways as opposed to the common balances in dance that had traditionally been performed on both feet and hands. This was all possible by a process of giving and receiving weight. One specific example of the use of this method came at the beginning of the inside portion of the piece. The company began on a platform which must have been approximately ten feet above the ground and through this idea of giving and receiving weight, all of the dancers were lowered effortlessly from this podium onto the main dance space. It is important when talking about contact-improvisation to make the distinction that Jenkins’ piece was not improvised, it was clearly choreographed, but the style of the movements and the gravity-defying lifts and balances brought contact-improvisational technique to mind.

The staging area inside was arranged as a diamond-shaped Marley dance floor, with bleacher-style audience seats on each side of the diamond. Also, platforms had been built behind the seats and jutting out from within the seats so as to create further surfaces for choreographic exploration. Jenkins had composed some movement phrases on the main part of floor as well as on all of the other smaller stages, which together, comprised this unconventional stage design. Sitting in the audience, it immediately became clear that it was impossible to watch everything that was going on at the same time, because dance was happening literally all around you, causing your focus to be constantly moving. At first, this seemed troubling-one minute you were engaged with a group of dancers directly in your line of sight. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you would be drawn to a soloist performing so close to you that you really could touch them. What is important to realize is that this one element that appeared to be disturbing at first was the whole point of the piece. Through her creativity with movement and space, Jenkins was able to emphatically emphasize the importance of constant motion in our world and often our inability to control what we see. In life, do we ever really get the chance to completely focus on what is right is front of us?

Berkeley Dance Project 2006

Much of modern and postmodern dance seeks to challenge the current limits of movement and choreography, push the boundaries of social, economic and political subject matter, and provoke its audience to question accepted gender roles and relations within performance. While attempting to achieve these lofty goals, modern dance choreographers have often leaned towards the production of extremely serious and weighty interdisciplinary works. In fact, attending an evening of modern dance can often feel like an angst-ridden emotional roller coaster ride through an avant-garde exploration of one’s inner demons. Thankfully, from time to time (although not often enough) audiences do get a break from the melodramatics of modern dance when choreographers create pieces that are purely celebratory in nature minus the internal histrionics.

Two examples of this type of composition were recently produced in The 2006 Berkeley Dance Project, featuring student performances from UC Berkeley’s Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies program. This mixed repertory evening was not entirely made up of doom and gloom; and, with two of the five pieces, allowed a glimpse into sentiments rarely expressed in present-day modern dance-namely, joy and engagement. Although both of these concepts were apparent in the re-staging of Margaret Jenkins’ The Gate of Birds (1993), they were particularly evident in the premiere of Reggie Wilson’s People are dying (some/every) where and I [still] don’t know what to do (ANYTHING)! So. The title of this piece certainly suggests a heavy, emotionally-charged narrative; however, such a narrative was downplayed and the focus was placed on the exuberance and entertaining nature of the work itself. While not an entirely abstract piece, the choreographic theme suggested ancient African tribal dance, with percussive rhythm-based foot movement that clearly evoked images of the final segment of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. While the sequences of the feet definitely drew focus, it was also impossible to ignore the torso of the dancers, which were completely void of the verklempt Graham contraction that is present (and grossly overused) in so much modern dance. Wilson’s dancers displayed a feeling of openness in the torso, drawing the gaze upwards to the faces of the dancers. These faces were so full of joy: engaged with the movement; engaged with the audience; engaged with the music. How wonderful to see modern dancers who are both technically proficient and look like they love to move, as opposed to much modern dance choreography, which often appears to be dancers fighting against movement in an exercise of rage, guilt, revenge and shame. It was so refreshing to see a new work, clearly within the classification of modern dance esthetic, where the choreography allowed the dancers, and in turn, the audience, to be transported to a place of elation and happiness instead of feeling punished for the sins of mankind.

The evolution of modern dance is confusing. What began as a fundamental struggle against the conventional structure and rigidity of ballet has really changed. Unfortunately, by working so diligently to avoid any deference to the authority of ballet, modern dance itself has now formed its own establishment and institution where the acknowledged norm is this negative, fatalistic view of the world. And, choreographers that examine a different perspective from this often are accused of bowing to the pressures of the vision of traditional dance and betraying their revolutionary heritage. But, aren’t these choreographers the ones who are now challenging what has become an often static enterprise known as modern dance?

Matthew Bourne - Swan Lake

Modern adaptations of traditional stories are by no means unique in the performing arts. We continually see this phenomenon in film, music, theatre and dance, sometimes with a successful result and at other times to no avail. Last month, San Francisco witnessed an example of the latter with Swan Lake, this time through the eyes of director-choreographer Matthew Bourne. Traditionalists may suggest that Bourne’s progressive Swan Lake compromises perhaps the most popular narrative ballet with the insertion of modern elements (sound effects, avant-garde sets, and uncharacteristic gender choices). In reality, it is with his choreography that the ballet falters, and not the external contemporary components. His staging did not adequately tell the story nor did it establish continuity between the scenes. In narrative dance, continuity is imperative; the audience must comprehend the order of events, the significance of characters and the materialization of relationships. There isn’t any dialogue or verse to facilitate the story telling; it must occur through the dance composition. How else can the story logically unfold in an art form where speech is absent?

The void is specifically apparent in the second act of the ballet where we should be seeing the clear development of the central character relationship, the passionate love story between the Prince and the Swan. The magic, mystery and in the end, tragedy that unfolds in the remainder of the ballet are all based on the romantic bond shaped between these two characters. The story of Swan Lake simply does not make sense unless this connection is made and developed within the choreography in the second act.

To be fair, the bond between these two main characters should not be obvious at their first encounter; a certain level of ambiguity should be present. The two aren’t really sure what to make of each other as they first meet. In fact, the Prince and the Swan are initially apprehensive of each other. However, from the beginning of their encounter, Bourne’s choreography does not represent this tentativeness; it is plain confusing. The choreographic interplay did not elicit a feeling of nervousness, anxiety or even anticipation; it was simply antagonistic. The movement choices were severe and abrasive, and did not illustrate even a slight curiosity or expectation between the two characters.

In the original story, the hesitancy between the two then wanes and desire takes over. In order to demonstrate this change, we expect that the subsequent pas de deux should be tender, depicting the two characters’ growing emotions-love, want, and need. Rather and surprisingly, Bourne’s version is contentious and in places, violent, as the two dancers continually collide and rebound off of each other, performing lifts that call to mind throwing, pushing and flinging rather than the supportive calmness that is often present in a pas de deux, especially one that should be trying to convey a budding romance. In addition, the aggressiveness present in the choreography was not persuasive as intense passion nor fervent fire; it was simply reminiscent of an angry struggle between two individuals. Two individuals that do not appear even to tolerate each other, let alone deeply care for one another.

At the conclusion of the ballet, the continuity problem reaches its pinnacle. In the last image, we see the Swan lovingly cradling the Prince in his arms. Their true relationship is finally clearly articulated through the choreography, but in this ending scene, it is far too late to establish their link and unfortunately, the message of the ballet has been lost.

Perhaps the single-most saving factor of Bourne’s Swan Lake was the artistry and athleticism displayed by the dancers. Although his choreographic choices were both suspect and problematic, the dancers execution of the steps was particularly compelling and impressive. The extraordinary talents of the company and the performances they gave were far more gripping for their abstract qualities than was the choreography’s ability to portray the narrative of the ballet.