A film by Summers opened the gone-down-in-history first concert of Judson Dance Theater in 1962. Arriving audience members had to walk in front of a film by Summers and composer John Herbert McDowell to get to their seats. Dancers passed in and out through a split in the sheet it was projected on. The two had made it by cutting up some available filmstrips and splicing them together—all via chance procedures (Summers also showed dances of her own on that hours-long, tradition-flouting performance). I wish I’d gone to Judson Church in 1964 to see the full-length work that she considers her first important intermedia creation; those who experienced her Fantastic Gardens have never forgotten it.

I’ve always thought of Summers as a wise, benevolent, impish sorceress. She sees deeply into nature, whether it’s the nature of the landscape or human nature. For all her wisdom, she retains a certain innocence and playfulness and a respect for—and delight in—chance. Her Danspace program, titled “Improvisation With Sun, Moon & Stars,” begins with a short film, Absence and Presence (1968-87), on which she collaborated with Phil Niblock. The screen fills with a slowly shifting arrangement of very dark shapes. They look like hills, but as your eye revises them and the white interstices between, you realize that you’re seeing a woman’s thighs, maybe the intersecting bodies of two women: humanity as landscape.

In the 11-minute Two Girls Downtown Iowa (1973)—choreography by Summers, camera and editing by Bill Rowley—the two subjects approach each other in vanishing perspective; one, small and far down a sidewalk, advances toward the camera, while the other, her back to us, goes toward her. They run and leap in what seems like coltish abandon, but their progress was shot at 800 frames per second and projected at 24 frames—creating an illusion of extremely slow motion; they look as if they’re swimming in air to get to their exuberant embrace. Then they pass and move on, while a few pedestrians turtle along.

Divided dueo: Bridgman/Packer Dance in "Double Expose"
Photo by Julie Lemberger
Divided dueo: Bridgman/Packer Dance in "Double Expose"

Details

Bridgman/Packer Dance
Baryshnikov Arts Center
March 25 through 28

Elaine Summers Film and Dance Company
Danspace at Saint Markís Church
March 18 through 20

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In the church, Douglas Dunn improvises in front of Summers’s 1976 film Windows in the Kitchen (camera work by Paula Court). The filmed dancer is the beautiful young Matt Turney, memorable for her appearances with Martha Graham’s company (Turney died in December, and Summers dedicated the Thursday night performance to her memory). The tall, slim Turney dances on what looks like a radiator cover by the old Kitchen’s windowed wall—dark against the sky—her long arms and legs exploring the flat expanses of glass. Dunn sometimes imitates the fluidity of those arms, but he also hops about, picking up on the birdlike sounds of composer Jon Gibson’s flute-notes in the film’s score. When he climbs onto a slight ledge above the church’s altar platform, he seems to be an admirer, wishing to join the dancer at her years-ago windowsill.

Saint Mark’s is a wonderful setting for a version of Crowsnest/Solitary Geography. We can’t see the film projected on the four sides of a cube the way it was at its 1980 premiere as an intermedia event at the Guggenheim Museum. But the members of the chorus intoning Pauline Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation do so from stations around the U-shaped balcony, so that their beautiful sliding dissonances float above us in a continuously re-forming cloud of sound. Four dancers, one in a white dress, intermittently merge with and retreat from the projected landscapes—a grove of birch trees in the wind, the branches of fruit trees, cacti, and red rocks; scarlet flowers, shot in closeup, loom over the performers like giant umbrellas.

For Skydance/Skytime/Skyweb (1984), composer Carman Moore (once a music writer for the Voice) leads a septet of instrumentalists in excerpts from his original, vibrant score. The whole church seems to be shimmering. There’s the music, Carol Mullins’s lighting, the swirl of clouds and sun glow projected on the floor and on the wall behind the altar, the tiny lights waved by some of the nine dancers, a glittery jacket on one of them, a silver sheath on another.

The dancers are, I imagine, improvising within a structure. Sometimes there’s thunder in the music; sometimes the projectors cast whirlpools on the floor. The performers create their own turbulence: At one point, a man is circling a slow-moving woman, dancing faster and faster, as if he means to snare her. When the music is calmer, another dancer turns herself into a jellyfish—her limbs like fluid tendrils. Dunn, wearing a sort of snowsuit and a blue cap, picks up a woman in an aviator’s helmet and gives her a whirl. Behind them, the film segues to what might be a campus with dancers on a lawn. Balloons appear in the church.

The evening ends with Invitation to Secret Dancers. Moore’s ensemble keeps playing, and the dancers bat the balloons at us and invite us onto the floor. It occurs to me that if this were the ’70s, people would dance out of their seats in a second. In 2010 it takes a bit longer to turn the space into a party.

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