Whenever I see dance theater, I leave feeling confused. I find myself annoyed by the whole idea and phenomenon of ‘dance theater’ itself. This is exactly what happened with Rosanna Gamson’s Ravish, part of “Off Book: Stories That Move”, presented by ODC Theater. After seeing it, I can state with confidence that I don’t know what she was trying to say. The piece was based on the Brontë sisters and the environment that shaped their literary creations. I have little experience with these writers and therefore, limited framework for this particular dance. Prior knowledge of the story should not be a requirement; there is no way that every audience member will be familiar with your subject matter. The performance must be able to stand on its own in order for it to be accessible. Otherwise, choreographers are limiting an already diminishing audience.
Besides the lack of context, I was completely preoccupied with Gamson’s random mixing of dance and theater elements in the piece. So much so that I lost sight of her amazing choreography and the dancer’s passionate interpretation of her movement. Unfortunately, the disjointed dance theater elements completely overpowered and overshadowed the positive aspects of the piece.
Dance theater is everywhere in today’s modern dance scene. It is the “it” choice of present-day choreographers. But the trendy and fashionable is also incredibly difficult to do well. Dance theater is movement combined with media, text, video, visual art and/or vocalization in an effort to create an integrated performance art piece. All these components should work together to produce the artist’s vision on the stage. The problem is that many choreographers treat dance theater as a mathematical equation: movement + alternate media = dance theater. Dance is not math. In math, you may be able to add two numbers together and reach an absolute sum. In dance, we expect more from the combining of terms, and with dance theater, we usually get less. Parts of a performance piece have to be carefully integrated and mutually interdependent or the piece looks haphazard, disorganized and choppy.
Gamson made an attempt to use text, mostly at the beginning of the piece. The dancers were speaking, but you couldn’t hear them. It was unclear whether the audience was supposed to hear them. Was the mumbling meant to be part of the musical score or were they actually saying something that would help the viewer to make sense of the work? The intent was unclear and it distracted from the movement. And I can’t say enough about how beautiful the movement was. Long spirals all the way through the spine to the floor; tombé/relévé turns in attitude and arabesque where the rise and fall of the body was palpable. Gamson’s movement should have been unencumbered; it was good enough to stand on its own.
There was one place in the piece where I felt like I got it. But, it was during a section of pure movement without any of the peripheral dance theater ‘stuff’. One dancer kept trying over and over again to create a beautiful balance in attitude en pointe. She would slowly attempt to bring her entire body into this stunning position and right before that moment of repose, when the balance was almost there, she would crumble to the ground and then start all over again. In this segment, I could see the idea of balance as precarious. It was so obviously being communicated through the movement and only the movement, nothing else.
Throughout the piece, there were interludes of video projection on the floor that were like miniature vignettes-scenes of eating, sleeping, and painting. They were filmed from above which gave an unusual perspective to each of these activities. Before each of these video projections, the dancers would conclude what they were doing and leave the stage. Then, the video imagery would proceed and finish alone, and the dancers would re-emerge. It was destabilizing. Not only did the performers leave and return to the stage with no connection to the media, but also, the videos had nothing to do with what the dancers had been doing or were about to do. These scenes, although visually fascinating were unrelated stimuli.
I think when it comes to dance theater that choreographers try to do too much all at once. In this piece, there was movement, video projection, text and vocalization (one of the dancers had a long, loud screaming sequence at the end). With all of these elements, the main idea was lost. Maybe it’s better to just look at movement and one additional dance theater component. Maybe the choreography should be more integrated into the media choices. I don’t know how but I have faith that dance theater can work; I just haven’t seen it yet.