Sunday, October 04, 2009

Nejla Yatkin/NY2 Dance-Dance Place, Washington, DC

Narrative's role in modern dance has been in a desperate state for some time now. Storytelling got a bad rap in the 1960s, when formalist choreographers turned away from meaning and representation in favor of structure and minimalism. What followed was decades of contentious debate over what was more important: form or content. Strong opinions existed and still exist in both camps. With all this bickering, dance, and its power to affect and move an audience, has gotten lost. But, there is reason to hope. Nejla Yatkin/NY2 Dance's Wallstories, which premiered Saturday night in D.C., points us toward a new and exciting explorative trend in the narrative. Yatkin has successfully re-invigorated this aspect of modern dance with her particular use of a true historical entity: the Berlin Wall. The piece was not a linear chronology of the Wall, nor was it a conceptual musing. Wallstories represented actual emotions and memories linked with this historical structure. She has breathed new life into narrative modern dance; audiences have been waiting for this.

I, too, have struggled with the issue of content in modern dance. To me, many modern choreographers mask the narrative so deep within their own strangeness and oddity that it becomes completely obstructed. Still, the narratives that are deeply buried like this must have valuable lessons to teach. But, they are often conveyed with extreme theatricality or supernatural myths. Nejla Yatkin's use of a real entity as her narrative made it both accessible and relatable. With such realistic imagery, audience members are likely to feel a personal connection in some way. They may remember something that links them to the work; they may perceive the same event much differently than the choreographer. Regardless, there is some tangible association. No matter what anyone says, relating to art is important. The audience does not need to understand every moment in a piece, but there must be that speck of inspiration. Otherwise, they will not come back the next time.

Additionally, the narrative in Wallstories had an evenness to it; there were multiple emotions represented with respect to the Berlin Wall: despair, fear, sadness, frustration, excitement, joy, freedom and anticipation. Numerous accounts and differing perspectives are always present; very little can be understood with one explanation. The complexities of this situation were not hidden nor was there an effort to solve them. Every feeling and every action was permitted as valid, important and present. This work celebrated the whole.

Wallstories was also the first time that I had seen effective mixed media elements. In this piece, it was because the dancers were engaged and involved with the video and audio components. Usually, I find these additions peripheral and too often, they compromise the cohesiveness of the piece. It has become a bit of a trend to add extra 'things' to dance, yet, the additional work to relate these entities to the choreography has rarely been done. Nejla Yatkin has done the work. I don't know if the text score was actually the voices of the performers, but when that audio accompanied their movements, the body and the words were one. When video was projected on the white brick wall at the back of the stage, the dancers were aware of it; they watched in awe as if those images were informing their reality. The addition of shin buster lighting which shadowed choreography onto the wall was genius. In an instant, the dancers that we had been watching all evening became anonymous. They could have been anyone and were everyone.

I don't have a personal history with the Berlin Wall, and when it came down twenty years ago, I was very young. Yet, because of the comprehensive narrative, I still felt that I could relate to what was happening onstage. Near the end of the work, there is a section where the choreographer's taped voice talks about barriers and moving past obstacles. A simple message that is incredible hard to live out.

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