Monday, February 12, 2018

Nancy Karp + Dancers

Nancy Karp + Dancers
On Beauty
David Brower Center, Berkeley
February 10th, 2018

As the 6:00pm Saturday showing of Nancy Karp + Dancers’ On Beauty concluded, an audience member asked Karp whether a particular element of the performance had been on purpose. Karp answered quickly, “everything in this piece is intentional.”

Intentionality was certainly evident in the new work, held this past weekend at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. The current exhibit in the Center’s lobby, titled “Douglas R. Tompkins – On Beauty”, pays tribute to conservationist Douglas R. Tompkins with a collection of vast photographs by Antonio Vizcaíno. Stunning images of national parks in Argentina and Chile graced the walls, lands that Tompkins had long been dedicated to preserving and protecting. It was amongst these pictures and the Center’s own structural elements that Karp’s On Beauty would unfold, a thirty-minute quintet performed by the incomparable cast of Sonsherée Giles, Sebastian Grubb, Amy Lewis, Megan Lowe and Charles Slender-White, set to a score by longtime collaborator Charles Amirkhanian.

Pictured: Megan Lowe and Sonsherée Giles
Photo John Hefti 
On Beauty began above us, in the Center’s square atrium. We looked up and saw the ensemble taking turns sliding, turning, rebounding and suspending off the railing. Bodies and arms rippled delicately, carving out the space. Waves of sound permeated the room; low enough in tone that it made you wonder whether this was indeed water or the subtle roar of an animal. These opening moments revealed one of the strongest intentional themes running through the work. That of scarcity. Only parts of the dance were visible, and everyone in the audience had their own unique lens, depending on where they were standing in the space. Considering the Center’s celebration of conservation and this particular conservationist, On Beauty’s comment on scarcity (which would continue throughout the work) was particularly poignant.

Then the dancers moved to a corridor on the Center’s main level. With a spectacular, vibrant photo in the distance, they, costumed by Giles in the same bold colors as the photograph (again another intentional connection), began to explore the air around them. Hands carefully and mindfully washed and swept the space; the spine, core and legs eventually joined in the movement; and the phrase accumulated and changed levels. But everything grew from those first hand motions, cleaning and protecting the landscape.

Pictured: Sonsherée Giles
Photo John Hefti 
We walked down that same corridor into another slightly larger room, the concrete pillars and floor suddenly making a more visible impression. In this next group sequence, the sweeping arms and legs recurred from the previous vignette, while new material was also added in. Standing on one spot, the dancers swayed gently, as blades of glass in the wind. Pathways were investigated through the circuit of the limbs, chaîné turns in plié, and leg extensions enveloped into passé. The dancers clustered against the stone pillars of the building, altering the visual perspective and transforming the pillars’ surfaces. Though standing vertical, the movement encouraged you to consider them as the base, the floor. All of the choreography was so calm and legato, whether a simple hand gesture or a dynamic lift, and much of it (the swaying like blades of grass) evoked the natural processes, elements and wonders depicted in the nearby images.

On Beauty led us into another small corridor, keeping its eye on the building’s structural details. Here as well, the walls were not simply framing the action; they were active players in the scene – as supports, as counterbalances – Karp engaging the surrounding environment in the overall experience. Again, the thread of scarcity ran through. There was dance happening on a nearby staircase, but depending on where you were, you might not have seen it (I didn’t). Once you arrived at each performance ‘station’, moving around wasn’t really an option. At least not on Saturday night with the size of the audience coupled with the small space. But again, perhaps that was purposeful!

The cast re-assembled for On Beauty’s final chapter, a section about looking outward and being in community. Arms peeled up from body, eyes looked beyond the fingers. Shinbusters (whose piercing beams had unfortunately been tough to avoid throughout the performance) projected shadows on the walls, making it feel like many more souls were present. There was an awareness of sharing the space, certainly with other individuals, but also perhaps with other beings and other lifeforms. A desire to be cognizant of co-existence. 

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