Words by Willem de Kooning, “Reality is a slipping glimpse,” gave Margaret Jenkins a title for her recent, enthralling piece. During the prologue to A Slipping Glimpse in St. Mark’s churchyard, the words begin to slide through my mind and tilt my eyes; they haunt me still. There are many layers to absorb—the old graves, the lights and sounds of traffic on Second Avenue, the passersby looking through the iron fence, the dancers. These last, their gold-tinged white costumes glinting slightly, seem both foreign to the space, like visiting butterflies, and in tune with it, as, facing different directions, they make calm gestures that seem to bless the ground. Four are guest artists from the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company in Kolkata, India, and, like the 10 members of Jenkins’s San Francisco–based company, they are listed not just as dancers but as collaborators. Even in these few minutes, you can glean the subtle mingling of cultures, the interplay of freedom and precision, and the larger notion of outside and inside that Jenkins has fostered.
Once part of the New York scene as a dancer in works by Twyla Tharp and others, and a teacher at Merce Cunningham’s studio, Jenkins has been a vital force in the Bay Area since 1970. To develop ideas for A Slipping Glimpse, she went to India, having already created a piece in 2003 for Tanusree Shankar’s company, a group that emphasizes a blend of tradition and innovation. Even though much of the choreography developed over great distances (dancers creating movements according to Jenkins’s directives and sending them between San Francisco and Kolkata via DVD), the piece projects the image of individuals acting within a community and of an urge toward harmony that’s almost utopian.
As the piece moves indoors, that image continues to resonate. All but one of the dancers wait on the highest of Alexander V. Nichols’s eight red platforms, this one straddling the altar steps. They’re watching Mary Carbonara on the red floor below as she reframes some of the poses seen in the churchyard with more adventurous, far-ranging steps. Then they descend slowly, one by one, lowered by helping hands into receiving arms.
Their world is solid but complex. Four of the platforms in Nichols’s brilliant set anchor the far corners of the space; two are set amid the two banks of spectators on the church’s long sides, and a third in front of the entrance door. We glimpse dancing in front of us, out of the corners of our eyes, and, if we turn our heads, almost behind us. Above on the balcony, four musicians play Paul Dresher’s magical score for electric guitar, electric bass, quadrachord, live electronics, cello, and percussion.
For 70 minutes, the dancers create a rich, changeable array of movements and feelings—rushing about as if on a busy street, dodging and jumping and whirling, sinking into meditative poses, joining as couples, meeting as convivial trios, or dividing into two briefly combative forces. Although scraps of text by Michael Palmer hint at the piece’s concerns or relate dancers’ dream fragments, no stories are acted out. Still, we can see wariness in a solo by Levi Toney or an exuberant eroticism in his duet with Deborah Miller; five men loping and lunging flash visions of a hunt. The dancing is luscious, but purposeful rather than indulgent or wildly flung. The clarity of focus and precision so natural to Debjit Burman, Varshaa Bardhan Ghosh, Jaydip Guha, and Sumana Roy extend beyond their own occasional performing as a unit, infusing the dancing of Joseph Copley, Kelly Del Rosario, Melanie Elms, Steffany Ferroni, Matthew Holland, Heidi Schweiker, Ryan T. Smith, and those mentioned, just as these Jenkins dancers extend their freedom in space and their silky ease to their colleagues.
A Slipping Glimpse acknowledges violence and disruption, but what a beautiful, healing work!