At the beginning of John Jasperse’s brilliant and chilling California, three women (Eleanor Hullihan, Rachel Poirier, and Katy Pyle) enter on cautious tiptoe, while Jasperse writhes on the floor as if he’s having a serious case of insomnia or a nightmare. Hanging low above Jasperse and partially blocking the women from our view is a huge, compelling thing—Ammar Eloueini’s sculpture of white, sutured-together polycarbonate panels. You imagine that these people bought it without thinking how it would look in their home, or—given the dark-blue coveralls they’re wearing—that they worked on it in some factory without understanding what they were making.
Jonathan Bepler’s fascinating score for California augments the impression that this world (like the state) is one in which grandiose dreams disintegrate or fly apart. Four pianists—Anthony Coleman, Jenny Lin, Lisa Moore, and Antony Widoff—hold down the corners of the stage, attended by Foley artists (the composer plus musicians Willa Bepler, Matt Rocker, and Daniel Teige). The latter create sounds by dropping objects on a mic’d board, pouring water, rubbing sand, preparing the pianos, and so on, in intricate relationships with the spare piano notes. Pitted with stillness and long silences, both music and dancing are elusive, repressed, and as stark as the lighting by Jasperse and Joe Levasseur. Training leaf blowers at the set, as the dancers do a couple of times, seems pointless.
Relationships are fittingly elusive. The cast performs the same uncomfortable movements at the same time, or in follow-the-leader fashion. They sit companionably close. In shadowy light at the back, Hullihan and Steven Fetherhuff wrestle each other into—what? Acceptance, maybe. No matter how violent, they’re always stuck together in some way.
Even when the five performers haul on ropes and pull the sculpture apart, it still looms over them—if possible more threateningly. They too crack open symbolically when Pyle unzips Jasperse’s coverall and peels him down to his raggy underwear in order to feel his throat, his belly; but it’s no surprise that the pair begin their duet bracing against each other. Before long, the others have shed their “skins” also and are taking big, slow steps, like grazing animals.
But no easy solutions appear; coiling the leaf blowers’ endlessly long electric cords emphasizes only broken connections, and the sound of pouring water is no panacea. In the end, as darkness gets even darker, beneath the dismantled sculpture Jasperse and Pyle are still trying to accomplish a duet.
“When a group of red deer stands up, they are not simply stretching their legs; they are voting on whether to move to greener pastures.” That’s the first sentence on one of the cards passed out by dancers partway through Guta Hedewig’s Menagerie. I receive an equally interesting one about bees.
We already know that animal behavior shaped the piece, what with the polar bear waving its legs—looking uncannily like a furry human infant—as it swims through a blue-green video (by Anja Hitzenberger) projected on one of the irregular-shaped screens in Illya Azaroff’s installation. The four musicians who play Edward Ratcliff’s lovely score for string trio plus trumpet or accordion sit up in the church balcony backed by a screen of woven branches that, in Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting, cast shadows on the ceiling. We note subtle allusions to varicolored pelts in the sleek costumes Reiko Kawa-shima (with Reiko Tomita) has designed for Hedewig, Theresa Duhon, Rachel Lynch-John, and Kristi Spessard. And we see more piercing allusions in the dancing.
What impressed me about Hedewig’s 2003 Stabat Mater was how her witty contemporary choreography hinted at the imagery of Pergolesi’s great religious com- position in ways so oblique as to be almost hidden. In Menagerie, her references are more forthright but even more elegant. The patterns and rhythms of the dancing suggest herding, tracking, competition, and repose, while the arresting choreography offers nonliteral glimpses of claws and tails and antlers. No four-legged animal walks on four small stacks of books, but Lynch-John, carefully doing that, suggests a beast’s cautious plodding.
Hedewig begins her opening solo by squiggling in on her back, her fingers fluidly clawing upward, while the music turns liquid and melodic. As the others come and go, a limply swinging limb suddenly looks like a tail; in the trembling of a lifted leg, you might glimpse a squirrel’s twitching. Three women dance; their arms, held up in wide curves, snag on one another’s arms the way mating bucks lock antlers. Sometimes they try something and wander off, just as the image of a cat invades and passes through the projected view. When they gather to move as a squad, you remember the elephants that strolled across one of the screens.
The women’s grave attention to what they’re doing and to one another is beautiful to see, even in the simplest moments, like one in which Spessard and Lynch-John tangle on the floor while, off to one side, Duhon waits motionless in a deep lunge. Watchful stillness is as important as the music’s silences. The piece ends with the bear again. Captive in a zoo pool, he plays with a can, looking in his lonely dance more than ever like a human child.