Photo: Kegan Marling
co-presented by FACT/SF and ODC Theater
ODC Theater, San Francisco
October 30th, 2015
The score was made up of ambient street sounds, happening in real-time only two blocks away. Four dancers stood in a line, facing upstage while a fifth approached them from downstage left. Her movements started like a wave, washing over the floor, then as she got closer, morphed into tiny, staccato impulses in the hands, arms, back and head.
These were the opening moments of Still Life No. 3, by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg, and FACT/SF’s 2015 JuMP program. This is the second consecutive year for the commissioning residency, designed to allow dancemakers the opportunity to, as the title conveys, ‘just make a piece’. I love this sentiment; I love the supportive environment it proffers; and I love that a San Francisco contemporary company is fostering this kind of outlet for the choreographic community. This year’s edition joined two new works on a shared program, Simpson and Stulberg’s Still Life No. 3 and spread t h i n, by FACT/SF Founder and Artistic Director Charles Slender-White, both danced by the FACT/SF company artists.
As Still Life No. 3 continued, the soloist joined the line of four dancers and the entire group began moving slowly in unison – pivoting, shifting, taking single steps front and back, heads curving forward and then lifting to the ceiling. Here was an early statement of individuals working together; acting, reacting and sculpting shapes as a whole entity. Then the line fractured and different patterns emerged. Through mechanized walking and held positions, dancers went out on their own, or formed smaller internal groups. After an impressive and slow grand plié in first position, the quintet came back together in a sequence that took its lead from the opening solo – waves plus isolations. And these isolations themselves had an interesting quality and intention, almost with marionette or robotic characteristics. In Still Life No. 3, Simpson and Stulberg are looking at what movement is, how it appears, and how it can be altered. The dance is a complete movement dissertation, at times minimalist and pedestrian, at others, complex and stylized.
The FACT/SF company spent the majority of Still Life No. 3 facing away from the audience. They had on matching dark blazers, but were wearing them backwards. At first, I wasn’t wild about the costumes, but as the dance progressed, I came to realize that not only were they a fitting design, but a genius move on Simpson and Stulberg’s part (who together, also did the costumes). Visually, the choreography and the movement claimed the spotlight – the viewer could completely focus on what the body was doing, and not be distracted by anything else. And the movement/physicality was the point of this dance. The costume design showed inventive and outside the box thinking, and truly served the work well.
Slender-White’s spread t h i n emerged directly out of intermission; house lights still up, stage glowing, the dancers dressed in all black. In stark contrast to the previous work, the five stood facing the audience and for a long time, were still and just stared. Then together, they moved forward, reciting a phrase in whispered tone while their arms, heads and upper bodies accented certain words. A lengthy circular running segment followed, neither panicked nor frenetic, but certainly charged. It was as if the dancers were communicating a simultaneously polar experience. On the one hand, they knew where to go, but at the same time, seemed a little lost. The narrative of uncertainty read loud and clear. The running was peppered by violent and dramatic collapses, the point of articulation being in the torso. And during the running/collapse motif, five small black boxes with attached balloons were brought out and placed on the stage.
The introduction of the black boxes ushered in spread t h i n’s second major chapter, a floor sequence steeped in body percussion. Dancers came in and out of this movement phrase - sometimes doing the whole series from beginning to end, sometimes in a partial expression, or even changing the choreographic order. And again, there was a narrative struggle being played out; one that posed a question. Should we conform to the collective or branch away on our own?
The black boxes were an intriguing element to the work. After wiggling around them in a protective cradle, the quintet tentatively left them behind. Walking in a yoga-style downward facing dog position, the balloons were now balanced on their backs and the boxes were in the past. What were these boxes? Safety? A place of serenity? Some event from long ago? Maybe none of these; maybe all. As a theatrical tool, they were curious and compelling. I definitely wanted to know more about them and I still want to know.
Otherworldly, mystical and celestial describe the final part of Slender-White’s spread t h i n. The stage went dark, revealing lights on the balloons. The company revisited the first text and movement phrase; after which the balloons floated up and the dancers were lit from above in circular pools of light. In this stunning scene, their bodies moved through space, and time seemed to slow down, at least for a brief instant.