Other Arts: Dance
Explosive Jumps and Free Swings:
Two Dance Performances from the Next Wave Festival
at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
by Neal Jahren
"Crumpled" and "Corrupted 2"
BAM Harvey Lichtenstein Theater (10/10-13)
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (10/16, 18-20)
Every year in the late autumn, the Brooklyn Academy of Music presents its Next Wave Festival, dedicated to bringing international avant-garde performing artists to its campus in Brooklyn. This year, a subset of the performances comprised "Next Wave Down Under," a mini-festival of contemporary Australian performers, writers, and filmmakers. As part of this effort, Chunky Move, a dance company based in Southbank, Victoria brought two pieces titled "Crumpled" and "Corrupted 2" by their Artistic Director Gideon Obarzanek. Both pieces were about a half-hour long and shared powerful, almost frenzied dancing, an ultra-contemporary visual design, and loud, aggressive music, but each stood on its own as a distinct work.
The evening began with "Crumpled," a rough-and-ready work that takes place on a blue gymnastics mat. The music ranges from an industrial heartbeat soundscape to generic guitar-driven alt-rock to techno dance music. The women wear plastic mini-dresses that are about the consistency of duct tape. The men wear pants and shirts of the same material. Their clothing is wired for sound, so that at times every rustle or the stickiness of the plastic against their skin or the floor is amplified into the auditorium.
The spastic collisions of bodies that begin the piece give way to more intricate patterns. The collisions give rise to a great deal of physical partnering, but not the standard lift-and-carry variety. Most of it involves one person pulling a partner to the ground and rolling over each other. As they roll, the dancers have their limbs intertwined in such tortuous configurations that you wonder how they can roll and break apart with such speed and economy.
The tumbling resembles gymnastics, but lacks the studied athleticism. The attack of the movement looks like something from martial arts disciplines, but without the sense of grace and competition. Much of the movement vocabulary comes from standard ballet and modern dance forms, but they are executed with a choppy, manic quality. If you think of most concert dancing as analogous to finding pure tones in music, then this movement is exceptionally noisy. The dancers bring a clean confidence to the movement that maintains its focus through the noise, however.
At times, the curtain lowers, trapping one or two dancers in front, cutting them off from the stage and pushing them closer to the audience. They react variously to the situation. One becomes so self-conscious of the sounds of her amplified dress that she locks up, unsuccessfully trying to inhibit all movement. Two men start bouncing and pretending to play guitar like nerds at the fringe of a mosh pit, and another solo dancer executes a difficult series of robotic movements.
The music for "Corrupted 2" was more of a soundscape, fortified with a techno beat, that mixed electronic distortion, white noise, and the kind of hum you get when something is plugged in wrong. The piece begins with a single dancer doing a long series of quick jumps, sharp turns, and rapid changes of position while video patterns play across her naked body like a downloading data stream. The solo is difficult, but the shifting patterns breaking up her endlessly transforming body make it look physically impossible.
For the rest of the piece, the five dancers were dressed in translucent plastic clothing. The stage was dominated by a large square screen, free to rotate on its diagonal, which showed a video montage of quick cuts and dissolves between geometric patterns, "snow" from a dead TV channel, and found video clips and images. Compositionally, the movement was anchored by a women's trio and a men's duet---configurations that recur throughout the piece.
In terms of the logical structure of the dance, you could place the men's duet and women's trio at opposite poles, and then a mixed duet and the entire group dancing as a quintet appear as intermediate forms in the spectrum. The mixed duet is particularly explosive, the quintet is almost entirely unison, but the unison is noticeably imperfect. Throughout the piece, the movement phrases are punctuated by moments of stillness.
The dancers bring the same clean, confident assertiveness to "Corrupted 2" that they do to "Crumpled," and their accomplished dancing in both pieces is impressive. Evaluating the choreography itself is more difficult, despite its obviously careful and meticulous construction. Statements in the program go to great lengths to explain the conceptual underpinnings of both of the pieces, but in neither case does the finished product truly demonstrate a dependence on the conceptual content as an important component of the audience's experience of the work.
The piece that comes closest is "Corrupted 2," where the corruption referred to is digital corruption, the phenomenon of damaged or defective data storage. The visual design supports the work's taking information as its subject matter, and despite the manic explosiveness, the tone and attitude of the piece is detached, signaling that we are dealing with the formal properties, not the meaning, of that information. Still, more detailed examination of the dancing does not add any granularity to these conceptual vagaries. When we see the imperfections in the unison dancing, perhaps this is part of the corruption that the title refers to, or perhaps it is just part of the company's overall rejection of a polished aesthetic.
So, the substance of the choreography is not particularly distinguished, but it nevertheless generates plenty of exciting action and shows off the dancers well. Chunky Move should remain an outfit worth following for as long as it can maintain the quality of its dancers.
"This choreographer has done about as much as you can do when you limit yourself to repetition and unison movement," was the comment that a dance composition teacher made after showing the videotape that introduced me to the work of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. In "Drumming," another offering of the Next Wave Festival, De Keersmaeker is still, in the words of the program notes, working with "a single motion phrase, explored exhaustively and unremittingly for an hour[....]" This wording makes the piece sound a lot less fun and sensitive than it turns out to be. "Drumming" is set on Rosas, the dance company that De Keersmaeker founded in her native Belgium, and it takes its title from the music by Steve Reich, who composed his four-movement work for percussion in the 1970's.
Reich bristles at being called a minimalist, and rightly so, since the term "minimalism" seems to imply a stripping away of compositional elements as a statement or end in itself, while Reich all but eliminates traditional western elements such as melody and harmonic progression so that he can focus his attention more closely on other aspects of music, most notably rhythm. "Drumming" is one of Reich's signature works, a work where he makes the most of a type of "phase shifting." During these shifts, two musicians start out playing a rhythmic pattern in unison. Then one of the musicians speeds up ever so slightly, bringing their playing out of synch; however, the measures played by the faster musician are shorter, so over the course of several measures her pattern will re-synchronize with her partner's and they are playing in unison again.
Reich's emphasis on this type of rhythmic complexity has made him a perennial favorite of dancers, and the pairing of De Keersmaeker and Reich in this production invites comparison to the work that Lucinda Childs has done with the music of Philip Glass since the 1970's. The comparisons turn out not to be apt. While Glass and Reich at their best both produce a hypnotic flow that takes over the consciousness of the listener against backgrounds of repeating patterns, Childs brought an evident rigor to her work. Geometry infused not only the spatial patterns of her compositions, but manifested in a logical rigidity of the movement material that could match any Euclidean proof.
De Keersmaeker uses a limited palette of steps, skips, jumps, and turns, but she uses them more like a watercolorist who needs only a few colors to brush in a suggestion of a picture, not like a draftsman tracing every line along a collection of templates. She accents the movements with joyful swings of the head and limbs through the air. Also, while Childs tied her movement very closely to Glass's music, even if her intention was to counter it, De Keersmaeker takes only the tempo and dynamics from Reich's music, which otherwise forms only an environment which the dancers inhabit, rather than a controlling principle for their actions.
The dancers perform with an easy, relaxed quality. They are precise and clear with the material, but not meticulous enough to appear fussy or controlled enough to be robotic. Often, dancers who are not active simply stand at the perimeter of the action and watch, as if this were a social dance or an informal gathering of friends. This atmosphere is reinforced by the placement of the musicians, who work upstage in plain view of the audience. The dancers occasionally call cues to each other (a technique Reich has sometimes used to keep his musicians together).
So it is actually all quite busy on stage, but De Keersmaeker has ways of navigating this potential liability: The pleasure her dancers bring to their dancing is returned by the pleasure we take in watching them, and so while the stage picture is often busy, it is never confusing or frustrating. Also, De Keersmaeker gives us several breaks throughout the piece, where only a few dancers are left on-stage; often they dance in unison or in some easily discernible pattern of symmetry. The music also has such breaks, where the layering of patterns and instruments gives way to a single pattern on a single instrument; however, De Keersmaeker has wisely chosen to locate her breaks away from Reich's so the dance is not a simple reflection of the music.
The dancers partner often throughout the piece, in duets or small groups. Like the overall tone of the movement, the partnering is relaxed and friendly, physical, but not risky. The one exception is when a dancer jumps backwards and horizontal through the air towards a partner. He snatches her out of the air like a handkerchief. Still, although the visual composition makes them the center of attention at that moment, there is no dynamic buildup or release surrounding the moment, like there would be for a spectacular move in a ballet pas-de-deux. A different moment is exceptional because it is idiosyncratic: two dancers snap a chalk line on the stage with a carpenter's tool, but no reference is made to the line for the rest of the piece.
The costumes are also used sometimes to set individuals off from the ensemble. They are mostly white, with a few pieces of black. Occasionally elements are added, such as an orange jacket or vest. Often, these added elements signal that the wearer is a soloist, as when a woman wears a shiny dress for a quintet she dances with four men who lift and twirl her. Scenery and lighting were designed by Jan Versweyveld. The music was performed live (and, as mentioned earlier, on-stage) by Ictus, a twelve-member contemporary music ensemble who would have been worth the price of admission by themselves.
(Neal Jahren has studied dance in various cities throughout the U.S., including at the studios of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Movement Research, Inc. In April, he contributed an article to Big City Lit's Free Expression section, "Yo Mama! Standing Up to the Anti-Arts Bullies".)