Ring Around Desire

Stepping Into Another’s Shoes

Remember program notes and telling quotes from poets? Common during modern dance's drama-infatuated middle period (the 1940s into the 1950s), they always had a suspect rep. It was thought that if a choreographer was on target, the dancing should need no aids to reveal whatever it had to reveal. The program for Kate Gyllenhaal's four-year-old MoCo (at Dixon Place last week) lists only titles, music, and personnel. But when I read the statements on each piece in the press kit, I'm bemused.

For each of three dances—one a work in progress—Gyllenhaal developed a concept to produce movement and help structure the piece. The choreography for the performers in Wonder Where You Are was inspired by their horoscopes in various papers on each rehearsal day. Gyllenhaal drew the vocabulary for In Your Shoes from many kinds of greetings and goodbyes. Her work in progress, The Night a Meteor Fell Through My Roof, involves a complex process of interviews yielding accompanying text and gestural responses (recorded on video for research purposes). The dancers' favorite pieces of music were incorporated into the work.

You don't see much of this onstage, although you suspect that something private and meaningful is generating the movement. Gyllenhaal's notes refer to snapshots, and moments in the dancing—precise, strong, and rather brusque—snare the eye. This is not choreography that slides and bounces around.

MoCo at Dixon Place: only connect.
photo: Cary Conover
MoCo at Dixon Place: only connect.

I bring up the issue of process-into-product not because I'm advocating program notes, but because so little of Gyllenhaal's process shapes our actual perception of the work. Maybe that doesn't matter to her. A work needn't be about its processes. What I see in Wonder Where You Are, set to Mozart's variations on "A Vous Dirais-je Maman" (nicely played by Julia Dusman in a bathrobe) are four people on chairs, preoccupied with homey activities: Alice Kaltman paints her nails, Eric Diamond sews, David Dinolfo reads, Kristin Eliasberg writes on a pad. When each takes a turn to solo, the others occasionally, rather dreamily, echo one gesture or another. Among the dance movements, like Eliasberg's kicky little jumps, are odder ones. Kaltman draws unseen things from herself on unseen strings. So does Dinolfo, but he also tries to tug his fingers off. So does Diamond, who might be referring to his earlier sewing.

In the energetic and smartly choreographed revels of In Your Shoes, any hellos and goodbyes are overshadowed by Kocani Orkestar's boisterous Macedonian music, by Lori Bevans's kinky costumes (bright colors, fringe, sequins, and gaudy footgear), and by those shoes—major players. Diamond, Gyllenhaal, and Kaltman take theirs off, try on one another's, and sneak up to feel the shoes of front-row spectators.

Taped voices recounting formative memories for The Night a Meteor Fell Through My Roof provide a counterpoint to the piece's opening. All five performers, dressed in sharp red and black outfits, lie side by side, executing a formal pattern of rolling, twisting, and reaching. But as the work progresses, words and the changing musical accompaniment empower the material drawn from research. We don't need to understand exactly why Kaltman is lifted and swung like a doll; we hear a child's voice. Subliminally, everything connects. In the other two pieces, because Gyllenhaal's strategies produce intriguingly detailed and particularized choreography, I often find myself pressed to discover "meaning."


The last night of the "Bratislava in Movement" festival—my last night in the Slovak Republic—roused thoughts about the complicated relationships between tenderness and manipulation, the gazer and the gazed at. Felix Ruckert, the Berlin-based choreographer of Ring who danced with Pina Bausch from 1992 to 1994, has recently become interested in querying the boundaries between performers and spectators. Hautnah (performed in New York at the Joyce Soho in 1999 as part of the New Europe festival) places audience and performers in transactions that have the transgressive aroma of a whorehouse. Each spectator selects a performer from photos and bios, pays the performer, and follows him or her to a private room, to be danced for and with. Ring, which premiered in Paris in 1999 and was also performed here (at Judson Church) during that same festival, pairs dancers who've completed a five-day workshop with an equal number of audience members brave enough to sit in an outward-facing ring of chairs and accept whatever is done to them.

In Bratislava at the Slovak Women's Union, spectators seated on three sides of a big room are initially shy about adventuring into the ring and being put on the spot for as long as 40 minutes. Accompanied by Christian Meyer and Ulrike Haage's excellent live-mixed music, the 14 in control begin by whispering (compliments, I later learn) into the ears of the recruits, who giggle or blush or listen gravely. Some volunteers look slightly apprehensive: If things start out this personal, what may be down the road?

Over the duration of Ring they will be touched gently, manipulated, woven into simple choreographic designs, and given a chance to do whatever they like to their partners of the moment. Little kisses will drop down on them. They'll be offered surprises; on cue the boss performers race about as if this were a game of musical chairs, landing as quickly as they can in front of a seated person to offer a bit of idiosyncratic entertainment.

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