In a classical pas de deux, the man’s gestures say, over and over, “She is beautiful, and I am strong.” The woman says, “He gives me whatever I need, and I don’t even have to ask”—adding, in certain cases (see Swan Lake, Act III), “And when we’ve finished, he’s toast.” I will skip over innumerable contemporary s/m versions of this duet, in which virtuosic lifts assert subjugation and legs become garrotes.
But a postmodern dance for two, like Jennifer Nugent and Paul Matteson’s engrossing Fare Well, is more apt to make us think we’re seeing moments from a life lived together, with its push-and-pull squabbling, joint adventuring, and fatigued tenderness. Dancers who have spent long hours together in the studio (these two superb ones have worked in David Dorfman’s company for years) know each other’s bodies, whether or not they have an offstage relationship. The shape, the weight, the timing, the heat—all are familiar. We see this intimacy from the moment Nugent and Matteson begin by tangling with a kind of voluptuous ease, slipping into the intricate spaces shaped by their bending torsos and swinging limbs. They are clearly equals, able to bear a partner’s weight. Their resilience, their ability to duplicate moves when they dance side by side, and the speed with which each can accommodate to the other’s new ideas bespeak understanding and respect, and symbolize love.
The environment beautifully evokes the sheltering aspect of a relationship as well as its veiled moments. Sue Rees has draped the entrance area of St. Mark’s with floor-length curtains of filmy ecru fabric. These extend along the sides of the church for a short distance, climbing part of the carpeted steps. Garin Marshall’s lighting collaborates brilliantly with this design and with the choreography. The sound score by Edmund Mooney is also delicate and evocative. A soft humming may prevail, or a choir of voices or single struck notes. Often music is absent altogether, and the sound of the dancer-choreographers’ breathing brings them even closer to us.
Matteson and Nugent dance together so sensitively, so beautifully, that during several passages they seem to be holding one of those intense late-night conversations that reach profundity but after a while seem self-perpetuating. (Part of me yearns for them to pause occasionally midphrase, part of me relishes every big, sweeping, juicy step.) They do, however, periodically wind down from the most complex choreography: the daily labor—sometimes gentle, sometimes fevered—of accommodating to each other. Sometimes they hold hands and run or slog side by side. Once they crawl like kids playing dogs, Nugent in the lead looking back to make sure her mate is following. For a while she sits on one of the side steps surveying the space, while Matteson rests behind the curtains. So, although the lights in the nave dim and those where he stays brighten, when the two dance in unison he is veiled. After a moment, she pulls the center drape aside, and he stands there waiting, as if outside an open door; they talk silently before she invites him in. When they start to dance again, they’re silhouettes—shadows of themselves—shuffling along together as if the ground of their partnership had thickened.
As choreographers, Nugent and Matteson use repetition wisely and subtly. Close relationships, like well-structured dances, abound in reiterations. Several times she leans toward him, and he, on his knees, reaches up to feel her forehead. He lunges and she briefly rests her head on his thigh; later she lunges, and he presses his cheek to the back of her calf. They face off and peck at each other.
Inevitably, a committed pairing maps out a future; certain things may happen, others may be ruled out. The solos in
Fare Well suggest thinking things over, remembering, planning. Finding a balance on one leg alludes to other kinds of equilibrium; leaning backward at a dangerous slant assesses risk. Matteson and Nugent compress into 50 minutes feelings as deep and as fluid as their dancing. At the end, she sits facing us. He stands close to her, facing away. She surveys the room; he lowers a raised arm. And slowly, slowly, slowly, the light and music fade. This is today’s forever.