Theater archives

Feel the Burn


Sometimes the quietest images sear the mind. As Incidents, the first of Ronald K. Brown’s three programs, begins, a woman (Torya Beard) sits on the floor, her head in Dafinah Blacksher’s lap, while Blacksher plucks something–thorns, maybe–out of her back, gently touching each place with something from a small pot that Dierdre N. Dawkins, hovering, seems to hold. In front of them, Angelica Patterson, dressed in white like the others, travels tremulously around the area, as if uncertain what each step may bring. Watching her, my eyes keep returning to the three and the quiet way they go about the business of healing. These are black women, and this section is called “out of hiding.” Some of the “incidents” date from the days of slavery.

Where “dancing” will not suffice, Brown has a gift for edging the literal and gestural into succinct, even enigmatic, images of mood and behavior, sometimes relying on sound to provide a context or an ironic comment. The rusty voice of Moms Mabley, engulfed by the hilarity of her audience, jokes about the “good old days” when girls of 14 or 15 were forced to wed old guys (“He got out of breath threading a needle”). Meanwhile the women–suddenly looking as if their teeth hurt–embody the crankiness of a sour old age, relieved by a feisty sense of humor. While British comedian Anna Russell flutes on about women’s musical clubs, the dancers act gawkily proud and shy, their behavior explained by the subtitle “Made it to the Big House. . . . ” Brown’s choices of text are intriguing, although one–an 18th-century tract by slaveholder Willie Lynch on how to control human property (foster envy and distrust to keep slaves from uniting)–needs to be read by a voice with more edge to it.

Blacksher, Beard, Dawkins, Hope Boykin, Celise L. Hicks, Patterson, and Pofina Williams are powerful women and powerful dancers. When they get going, their energy scours the place. In choreography that honors a West African lineage, they hunker down a bit, knees lifting high, feet stamping and flying about, arms wheeling. Brown gives you ample opportunity to admire each one’s different beauty, each one’s humanity.

In long time no see, Marta Renzi and her Slovakian colleague Anna Sedlackova pace separate areas delineated by light from the kind of standing lamps you might have beside your armchair. They dance meditatively, but not entirely privately–as if this duet were an embodiment of the transatlantic dialogue the two choreographers have been having for several years. Between them, on a bedsheet that serves as a screen, a projected video prowls a bleak, wintry landscape. At the end, Renzi takes down the sheet the way a woman takes her laundry off the clothesline, and the gray road and bare trees swell to fill the altar wall of St. Mark’s.

Renzi’s dances open up in my mind in much the same way. What may seem low-keyed and domestic gradually becomes larger–both more mysterious and more familiar. Performers in her dances are often observing one another. Unison dancing seems less a compositional strategy than a decision among friends. People separate and come together as if they’re at a family picnic.

But the tenderness that underlies Renzi’s dances doesn’t make them bland or oversentimental. Hers is a robustly sensual physicality, and it has its sharp edges, its terrors, its fantasies. She and Aislinn MacMaster, two women wearing sturdy black shoes and wielding wooden spoons, perform the first part of hungrymouth (1997). In this fierce yet elegantly structured grapple, gestures that indicate tasting soup mingle with other, less obvious ones to suggest the joys and burdens of domesticity and frustrated soul-freedom.

In the 1996 That Night, Marta Miller is relaxing on her side when Susan McLoughlin hurries up, steps lightly onto Miller’s hip, and launches herself at Brian Nishii, arms reaching to embrace him. The act goes beyond a Big Moment or the intrinsic familiarity dancers have with one another’s bodies; it’s a resonant model for, perhaps, how we take one thing for granted and turn greedy eyes on another, for how a stumble can generate a flight.

In the lovely new Field Studies, with bird calls, accordion music by Guy Klucevsek, and bits of Handel, the landscape seems partly an open field where two (Sedlackova and fellow Slovakian Peter Groll) might sleep and be awakened by a crow’s call and partly a tangle of tunnels and narrow avenues that MacMaster, McLoughlin, and Chris Dohse build with one another–the structures dissolving and reforming as they pass through. It all looks as easy, and as complicated, as breathing.

The movement in David Dorfman’s dances, as in Renzi’s, has a rough-hewn look. Virtuosity is muted by natural behavior. Typically, his wonderful performers whirl and tumble, bounce off one another and cling together, dancing out such hot impulses and inner turbulence that they can’t worry about looking graceful. When they stop and hold a pose, they seem to be maintaining perilous stability in a high wind. Then they’re off again, addicted to momentum.

So is Dorfman. Both the revised version of the 1997 Gone Right Back and the premiere, A Cure for Gravity, strike me as slightly longer than they need to be, but both have more structural rigor, more punctuation, more dynamic variation than some of Dorfman’s earlier group choreography. These are rich works. By the time they end, my soul has broken out in a sweat. The new dance is set to selections from the album Heaven and Hell by startling crossover composer Joe Jackson. At one point, what might be a kid playing something classical on a toy piano lurches into funk. Dorfman begins with formalized heat. Jeanine Durning and Lisa Race, Curt Haworth and Tom Thayer, Hetty King and Dorfman stand in a line kissing–maintaining or renewing the kisses as they change places and move the line backward. They all wear handsome red costumes–flame, crimson, mauve–by Liz Prince, and above them is angled a huge, three-sectioned aluminum ladder. The ladder shifts during the dance until one end is within reach and its line a pure alluring slant upward.

Dorfman juxtaposes images of release and control, defusing intensity with sudden casualness. Many times, the dancers lunge as if ready to begin a fencing match, or take aim with a weapon. Once, they seem to be aiming at King. But she simply stares at them for a while, then walks by; one by one, they leave. Three of them gently mold partners who lie on the ground; when the partners slip away momentarily, they continue stroking air. The dance is full of such images of forming and dissolving, of violence dissipating.

Both pieces are uncannily moving –in part because of Dorfman’s charged images, but also because of the power of this community of performers. Dancing stirs them, and they allow that warmth to emerge through passionate concentration. Dorfman has greatly strengthened Gone Right Back. Its bits of dialogue–witty and terrible–with which dancers assert that they’re “stuck” or ask a colleague, “Could you please move me?” are now distributed more wisely. And the words foster analogies in the choreography so that the concepts of being stuck and needing others now surface like worried flags even in intense dance passages. Now that the piece has come into its own, the wonderfully creative musicians (I have blood ties to one of them, I admit), reinforce the theme. Violinist Hahn Rowe leaves his spot at the back to waltz slowly across in the embrace of Chris DiFrancesco (clarinet, saxophone) who’s pumping an accordion behind Rowe’s back. And if you can lift a comrade to his feet, you may also be able to stand over him and play him upright.

For all three artists, dancing doesn’t reflect an idealized state. Refinement comes through the way these choreographers formalize the hot and heaving in all of us.

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