Friday, April 28, 2017

"Touch Bass"

Risa Jaroslow & Dancers with Lisa Mezzacappa
Touch Bass
ODC Theater, San Francisco
April 27th, 2017

Nine souls met in an interactive investigation last night at ODC Theater. In one of the most honest and pure performance collaborations I have seen so far this season, choreographer Risa Jaroslow and composer Lisa Mezzacappa birthed a rich, living environment for dancers Brendan Barthel, Tara McArthur, Lauren Simpson, musicians Mezzacappa, Eric Perney, Matt Small and three upright basses. The nine explored this democratic container of movement and sound, engaging with lush artistry and talking to each other in real-time. And what a dialogue it was!

Sometime the conversation was serious and deliberate, sometimes playful and witty, but always thoughtful and thought provoking. As Touch Bass opened, there was a moment of introduction, or perhaps re-introduction, between the players. In silence, the dancers and musicians began gently passing and carefully encountering the three basses. As this phrase progressed, Barthel, McArthur and Simpson started to mirror the movements of the instrument Рswaying back and forth and swiveling their upper bodies. Then, the piece was off and running. A juxtaposition of textural variance was present throughout as was an innovative response to dynamics. At one point, Mezzacappa, Perney and Small were using their bows to vibrate the strings very quickly, while in contrast, Simpson, lying on the ground, slowly and methodically articulated through her arm and hand. In other moments, the instrumentation and choreography almost matched Рwavy bowing meeting with similar sweeping motions, undulating spines, circling hips and wide, bird-like winged arms. I even saw some phenomenal repeated body isolations that Fosse dancers spend their whole career chasing. Crescendos in the score and crescendos in the movement seemed to fuel and energize each other. And there was a fascinating recurring physical motif. One leg and hip would turn out and turn in, all while in demi-pli̩. Was this inspired by the action of bowing itself or by how the arm moves during that task? Was it a representation of a particular sound, or maybe an ode to the plucking of a single string? Perhaps it was none of the above and just a movement in space. Whatever the answer, it was mesmerizing.

The most compelling parts of the sixty-minute work were when both the dancers and the musicians physically interacted with the basses, like they did at the beginning. The excitement in those moments was palpable, like as they touched this overwhelming musical vessel, they were winning a prize. At the mid-way point, dancers and musicians together explored the neck and fingerboard of the bass, bowed the instruments, and laid the bass down on top of their bodies.

Occasionally the sight lines proved to be a little challenging, with some of the instrumentation and choreography hidden from view. And there was a lengthy musical interlude where the dancers held scorebooks in front of each the musicians. It was amazing to see the musicians’ incomparable talent, to experience the stunning score and to witness what the bass can do, though the interactive thread that had been so well established between the entire ensemble was lost a bit for me during that particular section.

Lauren Simpson, Lisa Mezzacappa & Tara McArthur in
Touch Bass
Photo Margo Moritz
As Touch Bass reached its last third, a strong quartet developed between Mezzacappa, McArthur, Simpson and a single bass – one with a sultry, smoky undertone. A quintet by Barthel, Perney, Small and two basses followed, which made a striking comment on space and spacing. It started with a wide perspective, and bit by bit, closed in. Perney and Small moved from the sides of the stage toward the center, while Barthel, who was stationed in the middle, cycled through a series of movements that were vast at first and then similarly moved inward, centering around his core. One of the final group statements brought a percussive energy to the space, where specificity reigned supreme – a set of defined rhythms, movements, directions and gestures. And Touch Bass’ ending felt reflective and calm, like a prayer or a class réverence, in which the cast took the space and time to thank one another and bid each other farewell.

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