When the applause died down after Wally Cardona and Rahel Vonmoos’s collaborative duet, A Light Conversation, a colleague turned to me and said in wonder and deep satisfaction, “two grownups dancing.” This is true. And rare. Minutes later, walking along Mercer Street, I remembered a sentence about Socrates that surfaces in the piece’s sound score via a taped discussion about the Danish philosopher Søren Kerkegaard (1813-1855). Kierkegaard very much admired Socrates—in part because, as one panelist noted, the Greek philosopher’s ideas could “rearrange the furniture in somebody’s head.”
That’s how I felt during and after A Light Conversation. The title itself is provocative, since the “conversation” is profound on many levels. But it’s also luminous, and its moods are movingly delineated by Roderick Murray’s interplay of brightness and near darkness. Cardona’s program bio mentions that one of his current projects is teaching a course at the New School called Performance/Phenomenon: Theory and Philosophy Into Physical Practice, and that title hints at what he probes in this mysteriously stirring dance.
A Light Conversation is, however, anything but pedantic, and the statements made by participants in the BBC’s In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg slip around the dancers’ bodies, now floating free, now congruent (remarks, for instance, about Kierkegaard’s wrestling with the relative merits of the “aesthetic man” and the “ethical man). One event in the philosopher’s life seems particularly relevant to the duet. At the age of 24, he fell in love with Regina Olsen and she with him. Yet he broke off the engagement, perhaps feeling that his gloomy nature would render married happiness impossible (today, he would undoubtedly be dosed for clinical depression, depriving us of works like his Fear and Trembling). The same year, 1843, in which that famous work was written he published Repetition, about a man who left his beloved.
Perhaps you don’t need to know all this to appreciate the duet, but shards of whatever brought A Light Conversation into being cling to it, and that’s part of its beauty. The reason my friend can use the word “grownup” so decisively is that the performers seem always to be thinking—weighing options, untangling ideas. An outstretched arm is a statement to be considered before moving on. Cardona and Vonmoos are usually calm and strong within the richly nuanced dancing, although speed takes them over in one passage when hard-hit drums all but drown out the cool, British voices, and the two reel about the space as if buffeted by forces—inner or outer—sometimes snagging on each other. They can’t quite control these tempests but neither do they yield entirely to them.
In less than an hour, we live through what seem like myriad decisions on their part. They’re beautiful to watch, tender with each other, and slightly guarded. Cardona—bearded, erect, and intense—resembles one of Piero della Francesca’s muscular saints (although without a saint’s certitude). Vonmoos is his equal in strength, but beside him, she tends to look modest and questioning. Perhaps this impression is produced by a passage in which they dance separate monologues opposite each other and at the perimeters of the space; his gestures are large, hers small; she appears to be ruminating over alternatives, trying to put her mind in order. Once, they struggle together—not messily, but leaning together in various ways on a slant and applying enormous pressure. At times, the voices of the intellectuals on the panel are subjected to pauses in the tape, suggesting. . . what? Perhaps Cardona’s impatience with their glibness. Later they’re briefly replaced by his own recorded voice (and Vonmoos’s barely audible responses) talking in rehearsal. In this deliberately edited dialogue, Cardona never finishes a sentence or gets to the meat of a thought.
In one of many moments that stop your breath, Cardona moves behind Vonmoos, pressing himself along by pushing down hard on her extended arm. She leans against him, her head thrown back while he holds her. He bends his head close, perhaps whispering to her. No, imprinting his lips on her neck. She doesn’t move. Later they repeat this sequence, but he doesn’t put his face against her, only leans her farther back, while the stage goes temporarily dark.
Watching this small, remarkable collaboration, I sense, as if by contagion, the shadows that beset a thinker’s mind, the moments of illumination, and the constant struggle between these. The painful contest between desire and what is perceived as truth lodges in the heart.