Wednesday, March 17, 2010

CityDance Ensemble-Catalyst

Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, DC
March 14, 2010

The relationship between narrative and abstract dance is tough to navigate. So, we still cling to a very basic differentiation between the two: in narrative dance, the choreography unlocks the premise, and in abstract dance, the choreography is the premise. This statement seems harmless, but it unwittingly separates content and form into two competitive camps. This struggle for artistic worth is fueled by scholars, theorists and academics. While they are stuck bickering over these stringent categorizations, choreography has moved on. Most dance exists somewhere in the middle, blurring the line between narrative and abstract dance a bit more every day. CityDance Ensemble's recent concert, Catalyst, showcased five works that revealed both story and structural elements. All five pursued some message, whether linear, conceptual, or based in imagery. Concurrently, they all committed to a structural interdependence of music and dance, reflecting musical form within choreography.

I had the opportunity last month to preview Little Adorations and Entangled, two works by Paul Gordon Emerson that examine flirtation: the fun, the risk, the excitement and the abandon. At this weekend's performance, the musical polyphony was still well-integrated into Little Adorations. At times, the three dancers had their own lines of movement and at others, they came together in unison. This is the magic of polyphonic technique - that voices that can continually merge and separate while still remaining a cohesive unit. Emerson has a real gift for reflecting this complex musical form in his choreography. When I last saw Entangled, I was so captivated by the technique of Elizabeth Gahl and Maleek Mahkail Washington that I missed the relationship between the choreography and the music. This time I could see that their dance was like another musical instrument; they added to and interacted with the live jazz ensemble. Live music is odd component in dance performance. We want it to be present, but usually, there is very little (in fact, almost no) acknowledgement between the dancers and the musicians. In Entangled, the musicians and dancers worked together, to create a truly collaborative artistic experience. I have only seen this done successfully one other time, in Balanchine's Duo Concertant.

+1/-1 is brand new (Catalyst was its preview performance), but already it is my favorite Christopher K. Morgan piece. From a musical perspective, the staccatos and accented notes in the score were equally indicated by percussive movements in the body, particularly the recurring motif of shuffling jumps in parallel second. Morgan offered a brief comment in the program, explaining the conceptual side of this work: the addition and subtraction of dancers from the choreographic space. I love this idea because it takes the rehearsal process and places it into the performance realm in a very unique way. Choreographers experiment, develop and re-work sections to discover what can be said with more or with less. But, audiences rarely get a chance to see any part of that developmental phase. Here, Morgan is combining 'the creating' with 'the creation'. On yet another level, +1/-1 spoke to everyday relationships. The choreography displayed a genuine sense of meeting, relating and then parting ways; an experience that can be joyful, sad or frightening. Morgan's +1/-1 is a substantial work.

Two divergent Paul Taylor pieces completed the evening, Last Look and Images. For me, Taylor's work always demonstrates a strong narrative element - usually not a linear story, instead, a significant conceptual basis. Though this time, his commitment to musical form also stood out in both dances. Last Look is a frightening descent into the human psyche. I'm still not sure whether it is a comment on insanity, psychosis or self-loathing, but whichever, it is dark, dark, dark. The trills and arpeggiation in Donald York's music were imitated by the twitching and writhing onstage. The most ingenious marriage of music and dance in Last Look occurred in the 4th position changement jumps (which were performed overtop of dancers laying on the ground). These happened in concert with sforzando chords in the music. The immediate accent, followed by the abrupt pull back of sforzando lived in those jumps. The second Taylor work, Images, had snapshots of and glimpses into the pioneers of modern dance. We saw the tilt, contraction and spiral of Graham, the straight line profile of Denishawn, and the chorus work of Humphrey. Each picture of modern dance was its own complete entity with a very clear beginning and ending. There was little transitional material in Taylor's choreography, which is very much the same as Debussy's music. Within one composition, it is characteristic for Debussy to introduce and complete a section, and then move to a completely new and different idea, usually with a unique time signature, key and theme. Images had vignettes of modern dance styles that fit well with the vignettes of Debussy's music.

Dance scholars love to debate: ballet versus modern, interdisciplinary versus new media, content versus form and Balanchine versus everyone else. There is nothing inherently wrong with these arguments, except that our field is moving on and leaving us behind. CityDance's Catalyst illustrates that choreography exists at every point along a spectrum. Polarized views of performance are dated. Dance theory must be flexible and adapt; maintaining the status quo is pointless.

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