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?

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