DD Dorvillier and Jeanine Durning Get Curious

Questions sometimes overheard during dance performances: “What did all that mean?” and “Did you understand that?” These queries were seldom asked back when Sleeping Beauty was a debutante, but they bedevil some dancegoers today, when so many works are either non-narrative or smash narrative into tiny fragments that have the name Jacques Derrida scratched onto their undersides. The great critic Edwin Denby wrote reassuringly to audiences of the 1940s that anyone who appreciated adroitness and natural grace in, say, animals or athletes should have no trouble “understanding” ballet if just they’d relax and stop worrying. George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham more or less told us that a dance meant itself, and whatever we wanted to read into it was OK by them.

Many people are not consoled by this. They may have no trouble with music, but when human beings are the “notes,” it’s impossible not to attribute human feelings to them (even when they’re doing things rarely seen in public places). Yet dance’s aptitude for enigma and multiple meanings often confounds clear interpretations.

DD Dorvillier tackles the “I-don’t-understand” issue in her new Choreography, a Prologue for the Apocalypse of Understanding, Get Ready! Both intellectually stimulating and entertaining, like all Dorvillier’s pieces, it explores how we interpret what we hear, see, or read. It also raises the issue of translation—English into Spanish and back, as well as the language of words versus the “language” of movement. I think she wants us to experience understanding the nature of understanding, almost more than to understand the performance.

DD Dorvillier’s "Choreography, a Prologue for the Apocalypse  
of Understanding, Get Ready!"
Yi-Chun Wu
DD Dorvillier’s "Choreography, a Prologue for the Apocalypse of Understanding, Get Ready!"


DD Dorvillier/human future dance corps
Dance Theater Workshop
January 10 through 17

Jeanine Durning
Danspace at Saint Markís Church
January 15 through 17

For starters, sentences are projected on a screen. “No language,” we’re warned. (Dorvillier is being obstreperous. Using printed words to prohibit language?) All that’s permitted are “grunts, groans, murmurs. . . chattering teeth, shuffling feet.” Every now and then composer-musician Zeena Parkins engineers a soft chord from her array of electronic equipment and instruments. I’m struck by the way this projected print manifesto dances. Some words hang out on the screen; others speed up and then stop short—the way a person speaking might phrase her thoughts.

In the second part, a duet, language disobeys the previous injunction. Dorvillier becomes a self-consciously charming, big-eyed, childlike cutie with a pronounced Southern accent (Marilyn Monroe on uppers plus a touch of Scarlett O’Hara). She says that she’s supposed to do something and tell us what she’s doing while she’s doing it. Her actions are mundane, like moving one foot to the side. She also informs us that the book she’s picking up is by a philosopher and, by the way, matches her lavender tights. Her companion, Joaquin Pujol, translates her words into Spanish, then describes her ensuing dancing in a rapid barrage of Spanish while she remains silent, and, finally, interprets her movement in movement (it looks almost nothing like what she did).

Pujol also responds to her invitation, “You want to do the egg?” The two adopt a position that looks like something out of a tantric sex manual and, muttering, struggle from there into an egg-shaped bundle, with almost no crannies between their wrapped limbs and burrowing heads. They separate with shyly seductive glances.

Suddenly I’m confronted with my computer’s ink-level display. The performers in the last section wear shiny unitards in yellow (Heather Kravas), cyan (Dorvillier), magenta (Amanda Piña), and black (Elizabeth Ward). It’s no coincidence that Dorvillier’s parents ran a printing press while she was growing up. The four women embark on didactic if playful cause-and-effect interactions between their wordless vocal sounds and Parkins’s music. To begin, they sit on the floor around a small keyboard; each keeps pressing an assigned note in a pattern, at the same time silently opening her mouth. Do we think we hear singing?

The four also combine gestures and spoken syllables into a kind of choir, and later coordinate simple gestures that trigger tones (and hence a halting melody) from Parkins —i.e., the woman touching her neck induces a higher note than the woman touching her hip. Or, wait, does the sound cue the gesture? This is not as cut-and-dried as it might seem; Dorvillier’s games and patterns are often beguiling. Parkins’s music builds and emits crashes in time to the on-off drama of Thomas Dunn’s spectacular lighting (at one point, each dancer operates in a spotlight the color of her unitard, with a white one for Ward). These women certainly don’t blend like inks. Sometimes following individual paths, sometimes in unison, they weave designs that suggest a scheme to keep reconfiguring the space. Their movement is precise, but inelegant—clunky in its shapes and dynamics, aerobic in its speed and rhythm. Just before the lights go out, Ward spits out a passage of fast-footed dancing. The black-ink queen of the keyboard.

I leave, not so much feeling that I understand Dorvillier’s every strategy, but that my understanding has been tested very pleasurably and given a little spit-and-polish.

Jeanine Durning’s new Ex-Memory: waywewere makes us aware of the depredations time makes on memory. This theme gives her the right to slide our minds around and not worry whether we “understand” every moment. And Durning, another very bright choreographer, works in curious, beautiful, and provocative ways. A telling photo of her in motion dominates the cover of her brochure. Her left leg is reaching way across her right one, while her right arm points so far across her to the left that her torso twists. Meanwhile, she’s turning her head to the right to look past that left leg; her eyes are wide, her mouth slightly open. She looks as if she’s indicating a direction she’s not sure she wants to go in.

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