Saturday, February 04, 2017

"Available Light"

Cal Performances presents
Photo: Craig T Matthew
Available Light
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
Feb 3rd, 2017

When it comes to restaged, returning or revivals of choreographic work, it is common to compare the updates with previous iterations, or even with the original premiere if you were fortunate enough to have seen it. I do it all the time. How was the dancing different? Did the choreography change? How did a new venue or cast inform the piece? But what if, as an exercise, you took comparison off the table and simply immersed yourself in the work, experiencing it with a fresh and unencumbered lens.

This is how I decided to approach the newly commissioned revival of Available Light, which began its two-performance run at Cal Performances on Friday evening. A collaborative endeavor with choreography by Lucinda Childs, score by John Adams, stage design by Frank O. Gehry and danced by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, Available Light premiered more than thirty years ago (1983), originally a site specific piece for an emerging artspace. But here we are in 2017 and in a traditional proscenium theater. What does this Available Light reveal?

With the house lights up, Gehry’s industrial design greeted the audience – scaffolding, chain link cyclorama, a platform stage raised above the main space. As the lights slowly dimmed and Adams electronic score rose (this event is also in honor of the composer’s upcoming seventieth birthday), the fifty-five minute paragon of compositional form and structure was underway. The dancers appeared at the back of the stage, visible through the steely structure. Slowly, eight walked forward and took their positions in the space, while two ascended side staircases to the raised second stage. What followed was a lengthy opening chapter; a stunning interplay on phrase development and points of facing.

The first movement phrase commenced – stylized walks, pivot turns, wide arms in second, piqué arabesques. Different groups cycled through this sequence with staggered starting times and traveling in various directions. After completing their given phrase, those who had just been moving would stand stationary in first position while others took over. This initial phrase repeated while simultaneously developing and evolving. New movements were infused into the existing circuit (sautés, grand battements). Childs’ vocabulary was beautifully specific, but what I found most interesting was how this first choreographic statement was explored completely on the diagonal. No matter what part of the phrase the dancers were performing or if they happened to be in repose, every moment of physicality was tied to and experienced on the diagonal.
And then, Available Light shifted and the dancers faced the audience. With this new ‘en face’ posture, so too a new phrase was introduced. One rich with emboîté turns and small jetés. And again, it grew with repetition, adding ballonés and attitude poses. Available Light’s third major phrase brought these two facings (the diagonal and straight ahead) together with triplets and high relevés in fourth position. A monument of choreographic formalism, this exposition of movement phrases and body facings was pure and masterful. Pure steps, pure pathways, a pure understanding of the axis and lines of the body; nothing was superfluous. It evoked a mesmerizing pattern all over the stage, ever changing, like a kaleidoscope. And the dancers! Such technical clarity, attention to detail and spatial awareness – an extraordinary display of strength and elegance.

In the second, shorter movement, the company entered the space from the downstage right front wing, again walking slowly as Adams’ score suggested nature elements and beings – it made me think of birds and wind. Choreography from chapter one was revisited as a bright light shone from above, scattering shadows across the stage’s surface. Though recurring, the phrases felt different and renewed in this other atmosphere – more buoyant, more voluminous, more suspended, yet still holding fast to their established specificity.

The elevated stage surface provided unique depth and layering to the work, though I have to say that with the lush abundance in the main space, my eye seldom wandered up to that upper floor. And in the second part of Available Light, an eleventh dancer suddenly appeared in the ensemble, which I found a bit curious. I suppose that with development and growth being prevalent in the piece, adding another performer could be related to those themes. But it seemed odd to be so late in the game (well past the two-thirds point); in fact, I found myself wondering if I had missed his presence earlier. Maybe I did.

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