Irons in the Fire


Finnish choreographer Kenneth Kvarnström’s stunning Fragile premiered on September 12, 2001. Even had it not borne the weight of the previous day’s disaster, it would have raised the specter of human fragility. On a steamy night at Jacob’s Pillow, the five marvelous dancers who make up the Stockholm-based K. Kvarnström & Co. submit to a sensuous, elegantly regulated ordeal—the heat causing the sweat to pour off them, tempering them like irons in a fire.

Aside from watching a rehearsal in the ’90s at the finely appointed Helsinki City Theater, when Kvarnström headed its resident dance company, and scrutinizing the compelling photos of his work collected in the book Watch Your Step, I know little about his dances. Certain pictures and titles ( . . . that was all I wanted, so I stuck my finger in his eye . . .) bespeak violence. But Kvarnström presents the young performers of Fragile—all new except for Cilla Olsen—as members of a fiercely tender community. Entering the Doris Duke Studio Theater with water bottles and extra shirts, they step, one by one, onto the white floor dominated by Caroushka’s large, overarching sculpture (like a motionless Calder). Jenni-Elina Lehto and Oscar von Seth face each other; he raises a hand and strokes her head; just as she falls backward, Anders Jacobson steps in and catches her.

The duets and trios are full of these shifting contacts. The silky, springy dynamic is a familiar one in postmodern dance. A woman is slung into a tilt by two men, then pulled backward to rebound into some new complication. People are busy with one another’s bodies—pushing a knee, say, then hurrying to redirect the resultant collapse. But Kvarnström also makes striking full-bodied dance phrases that contrast melting curves and sharp-angled designs. Each of the women (Lehto, Olsen, and Emelie Jonsson) gets to be the centerpiece of a trio with the men, yet everyone is equal, and aware of everyone else. Sometimes one or two will try out a short passage of movement, then stop, as if to measure the response or share the pleasure.

Fragile has no narrative. And, in one sense, it doesn’t go anywhere. Kvarnström uses repetition deftly: recycling phrases, varying them, passing them from dancer to dancer, setting them contrapuntally, adding new gestures, like reaching out as if to grasp something, touching oneself as if probing a wound. From time to time, a dancer takes a Polaroid self-portrait and shows it to us. Maria Ros’s beautiful lighting alters the space; music by dancer Jacobson and Amon Tobin now assaults it with harsh electronic sounds, now falls silent. The piece develops simply through the weight of its own accumulated beauty and the ardor of its dancers, which seems to increase with fatigue. They pull off shirts or put fresh ones on and return to the fray. Fragile heroes.

It’s fascinating to see how dancers in countries with powerful traditional styles struggle to come up with contemporary statements. In Asia, martial arts forms have become a resource; they provide big, muscular movements and can neutralize ancient gender distinctions. Madhu Gopinath and Vakkom Sajeev founded Samudra in 1998, and their work—still very raw—illustrates some of the difficulties of creating viable new forms in India. The audience in the small Roman amphitheater at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, was enthusiastic but puzzled, although some had seen the troupe the previous summer.

The movement is a melange of Kalaripayat (a martial arts discipline), Kathakali, Bharata Natyam, Kuttiyattam, et al.—including, says the program, “Spanish American tap dance.” Jalam, the title of Samudra’s latest work, means water, and the message the choreographers are trying to send concerns the divinity of water, its importance to life on earth, and the pollution that endangers it. But they can’t really make us see this. They don’t use traditional facial expressions or gestures to reveal meaning, and haven’t found enough useful substitutes. Gopinath speaks of water’s power, Sajeev stands on a pedestal with a pitcher while an ensemble plays traditional instruments. Rippling arms might be symbols of waves, spins a whirlpool. But the artless eclecticism sabotages meaning. A duet for the two choreographers acquires a hip-hop bounce for no apparent reason. Two expressionless women stand behind each other and simulate a multi-armed goddess, then begin a combat. At one point Gopinath rushes on in a mask and a Kathakali-style skirt, but short as a tutu.

There are, however, some very exciting passages, executed with skill and vigor. At the end of 45 minutes, the troupes take a bow, and Gopinath asks us if we like them. We clap, so they take a break and come back and dance some more.

Archive Highlights