Tuesday, June 20, 2006

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?

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