Under a Microscope

Chris Elam's choreographic knots tell us much about ourselves

Mingling elements of Balinese dance with a propensity for tying himself in knots, Chris Elam interprets inner quandaries and drives as muscular tangles. Yet the body shapes in his choreography are precisely designed and assumed, and little in his short, highly original works seems fraught. Although he and his dancers may occasionally look worried or excited as they cope with their own recalcitrant limbs, step onto a colleague to get a better view, or try to fit their angled arms into some composite shape, they behave as if all these implausible things were commonplace. As a result, as with the Simpsons, they look like an alien race that resembles our own in often witty or touching ways.    

The three premieres on his recent program show how he is working to develop character and narrative. There's a competition afoot in Ta ta ta among Brynne Billingsley, Dorian Nuskind-Oder, and Adam Scher—all clad in red shorts and singlets. Their goals and the nature of their collaboration are enigmas; we might as well try to figure out the habits of rare mammals by watching them for 10 minutes. To robust songs by the Italian pop composer and singer Paolo Conte, they bustle around, race slo-mo, sit in a circle and bounce on their butts. Aloft on Scher's shoulder, Nuskind-Oder looks as thrilled as if she were looking out into a glorious new world. The most peculiar gesture: people suddenly sticking both arms straight up as if hanging them out to dry,    

Elam's movement style is admirably suited to copeless duets. At the beginning of Fill in the Blank, when he jumps onto the stage in a spraddled stance, he's clearly fascinated by Jennifer Harmer, who advances on him in a stiff position that mimics his own (at this point, composer Rob Erickson, who's mixing his score in real time, provides complementary buzzing, humming, and high voices). Elam tries to fence this accommodating woman in with arms that don't seem to bend; anyway, how do you contain a partner who keeps changing her shape? She's strong, though; when he kneels pensively on her bent-over back, she slowly lowers herself to the floor. No wonder he plucks an invisible something for her out of the air.    

Toes of a Snail is Elam's most ambitious piece to date in terms of narrative and, although it wanders a little—not fully clarifying its protagonists' goals and problems—it's fascinating. The opening image is clear as a bell and delicious in its weirdness. Abbey Dehnert makes winging arms over a heap composed of Billingsley, Harmer, Nuskind-Oder, and Scher. Erickson, again live-mixing his score, gives us a soothing woman's voice altered so that her song sounds like a bizarre lullaby. When the four sit up suddenly, we hear the squawk of baby birds. Given that feathers here and there deck Sarah McMillian's costumes, we're prepared for a postmodern nest-leaving scenario. Which is sort of what we get. Wonderfully odd visions abound: Scher toddles about stiff-legged, inclined forward, mouth open wide. He looks like the baby of the family, watching while the girls take off, but it's Nuskind-Oder (dressed just like Dehnert) who often clings to Dehnert's leg. There are many departing and arriving flights.Harmer moves seductively with Scher, standing on him to scan the horizon, clutching his upraised leg as if it were a mast, and joining with him to form a composite "snail"  (he's not entirely sure he likes all this). In the end, it seems Dehnert will be left alone. She's not happy. Nuskind-Oder reluctantly returns and tips her over into an awkward pose, chin on the ground; it's the same position Dehnert earlier forced Nuskind-Oder into. It doesn't really bode well despite the tenderness.    

Because those who populate Elam's dances are so strange, it's important that the work be performed "straight" and not commented on. Playing a character is different from performing an attitude (Billingsley does a bit of the latter and so—very rarely—does Elam).  For the most part, the vigorously athletic, fully invested dancers do convey the idea that their curious shenanigans are both spontaneous and a meaningful part of tribal life.

 
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