Dancing Death

Scandinavian company tackles a dark subject

It takes a brave choreographer to tackle the subject of dying. Dance is essentially active. Fading away goes against the grain of its life-affirming force, although arching and curling-in bodies can eloquently signify mourning (Antony Tudor's exquisite Dark Elegies comes to mind). The most memorable and wrenching moments in Tim Rushton's Kridt involve very little dancing per se, although the eight members of the Danish Dance Theatre, the Copenhagen-based company Rushton directs, explode into straight-up jumps or fall slowly backward with expressive power.

The title of the 2005 piece (given its U.S. premiere at Jacob's Pillow) means chalk, and it's the act of writing on a blackboard that charts the decline of one dancer most tellingly. As the piece begins, Luca Marazia is chalking around a fallen body that turns out to be Kenneth Carlson, and, at the black rear wall, Stina M is adding to the string of chalked letters that refer to Ecclesiastes: "atimetobebornatimetodie." What she writes is neat, but also illegible (later she recites some of the words in French). When Carlson rises and leaves the chalked outline, Marazia, squiggling along the floor, erases other lines written there, and when M has completed her task, Marylise Tanvet-Schmidt drags her hand along the wall, rubbing out the middles of the letters, flatlining the message.

The impressive neo-Romantic score for string orchestra, Peteris Vasks's Musica Adventus, provides melodious elegiac passages, along with others that are more fraught. While the music supports sequences like Tanvet-Schmidt's beautiful expansive solos and a duet of slow embraces and counterbalances by Hilary Briggs and Adam Schütt, the tensions its lushness sets up with the more mundane actions pull most powerfully at the heart.

Patrick Bragdell, Kenneth Carlson, and Adam Schütt in Silent Steps
photo: Henrik Stenberg
Patrick Bragdell, Kenneth Carlson, and Adam Schütt in Silent Steps

Details

Danish Dance Theatre
Doris Duke Studio Theatre
Jacob's Pillow
Becket, Massachusetts
July 27 through 30

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Twice, against the blackboard-wall, Carlson starts to fall, and twice small M props him up before she walks away to watch as he moves slowly along, pressed to the wall, collapsing and straightening up again as he goes. Marazia takes on the task of tracing him; because he never takes the chalk from the blackboard, a continuous line connects the unfinished poses. When Carlson reaches the opposite side of the stage, falls, and is caught by M we see the completed drawing not just as the imperfect relic of a man's voyage but as the graph of a perilous heartbeat. At the very end, after the group has lifted Carlson into a stream of fine sand, poured gleaming from above, and laid him down, and Marazia has begun tracing around him with a finger, M returns to the wall and fits herself into one of the white outlines. The music dwindles into high, thin notes.

Rushton, British by birth, has moved far from his ballet training in London and his five years as a member of the Royal Danish Ballet. Although his choreography demands technically accomplished dancers, his movement style is weighted, and the performers do a lot of inventive crawling and rolling on the floor and bracing themselves in uncomfortable-looking positions. In an excerpt from Silent Steps, Rushton harnesses this floorwork, along with a lot of boisterous walking and running and a variety of springy steps, in the service of joy. The dancersincluding Dan Langeborg, Laura Lohi, Jonna Savioja, and Philip Schmidtare accomplished and ebullient in their many comings and goings, pairings, and clusterings. And they look handsome in Charlotte costumes: dark pants and shirts for the men and brown dresses that show red underskirts for the women.

Silent Steps, crowd-pleasing though it is, raises some questions. If these five segments, set to selections from J.S. Bach's harpsichord concertos, seem long, what can the unedited version be like? The sense of length is not just a matter of actual elapsed time, but the fact that the dancingwhile technically with the musiconly intermittently rides its waves, throbs with its ongoing pulse. You feel a flood of this, a pretty bit of that, a clever phrase, a rush into something else. A suspended camera occasionally projects Busby-Berkeley views of the dance on the back wall, to no apparent purpose.

Rushton's choice of music, the prevailing mood, and a few of the moves (such as a man picking up a woman and transferring her to another man, who carries her away) are more than a little reminiscent of Paul Taylor's great Esplanade and Junction. The superficial resemblance makes it even clearer that Rushton doesn't always allow his ideas to develop before moving on. And he definitely has some bright ideaslike men dragging their partners backward as if the women were sitting on invisible chairs. What emerges most engagingly is a sense of community endeavor, cemented at the end when the dancers, holding hands, form a wavy, incomplete circle, and the last man joins to fill the gap as the last chord sounds.

 
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