Questions sometimes overheard during dance performances: “What did all that mean?” and “Did you understand that?” These queries were seldom asked back when Sleeping Beauty was a debutante, but they bedevil some dancegoers today, when so many works are either non-narrative or smash narrative into tiny fragments that have the name Jacques Derrida scratched onto their undersides. The great critic Edwin Denby wrote reassuringly to audiences of the 1940s that anyone who appreciated adroitness and natural grace in, say, animals or athletes should have no trouble “understanding” ballet if just they’d relax and stop worrying. George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham more or less told us that a dance meant itself, and whatever we wanted to read into it was OK by them.
Many people are not consoled by this. They may have no trouble with music, but when human beings are the “notes,” it’s impossible not to attribute human feelings to them (even when they’re doing things rarely seen in public places). Yet dance’s aptitude for enigma and multiple meanings often confounds clear interpretations.
DD Dorvillier tackles the “I-don’t-understand” issue in her new Choreography, a Prologue for the Apocalypse of Understanding, Get Ready! Both intellectually stimulating and entertaining, like all Dorvillier’s pieces, it explores how we interpret what we hear, see, or read. It also raises the issue of translation—English into Spanish and back, as well as the language of words versus the “language” of movement. I think she wants us to experience understanding the nature of understanding, almost more than to understand the performance.
For starters, sentences are projected on a screen. “No language,” we’re warned. (Dorvillier is being obstreperous. Using printed words to prohibit language?) All that’s permitted are “grunts, groans, murmurs. . . chattering teeth, shuffling feet.” Every now and then composer-musician Zeena Parkins engineers a soft chord from her array of electronic equipment and instruments. I’m struck by the way this projected print manifesto dances. Some words hang out on the screen; others speed up and then stop short—the way a person speaking might phrase her thoughts.
In the second part, a duet, language disobeys the previous injunction. Dorvillier becomes a self-consciously charming, big-eyed, childlike cutie with a pronounced Southern accent (Marilyn Monroe on uppers plus a touch of Scarlett O’Hara). She says that she’s supposed to do something and tell us what she’s doing while she’s doing it. Her actions are mundane, like moving one foot to the side. She also informs us that the book she’s picking up is by a philosopher and, by the way, matches her lavender tights. Her companion, Joaquin Pujol, translates her words into Spanish, then describes her ensuing dancing in a rapid barrage of Spanish while she remains silent, and, finally, interprets her movement in movement (it looks almost nothing like what she did).
Pujol also responds to her invitation, “You want to do the egg?” The two adopt a position that looks like something out of a tantric sex manual and, muttering, struggle from there into an egg-shaped bundle, with almost no crannies between their wrapped limbs and burrowing heads. They separate with shyly seductive glances.
Suddenly I’m confronted with my computer’s ink-level display. The performers in the last section wear shiny unitards in yellow (Heather Kravas), cyan (Dorvillier), magenta (Amanda Piña), and black (Elizabeth Ward). It’s no coincidence that Dorvillier’s parents ran a printing press while she was growing up. The four women embark on didactic if playful cause-and-effect interactions between their wordless vocal sounds and Parkins’s music. To begin, they sit on the floor around a small keyboard; each keeps pressing an assigned note in a pattern, at the same time silently opening her mouth. Do we think we hear singing?
The four also combine gestures and spoken syllables into a kind of choir, and later coordinate simple gestures that trigger tones (and hence a halting melody) from Parkins —i.e., the woman touching her neck induces a higher note than the woman touching her hip. Or, wait, does the sound cue the gesture? This is not as cut-and-dried as it might seem; Dorvillier’s games and patterns are often beguiling. Parkins’s music builds and emits crashes in time to the on-off drama of Thomas Dunn’s spectacular lighting (at one point, each dancer operates in a spotlight the color of her unitard, with a white one for Ward). These women certainly don’t blend like inks. Sometimes following individual paths, sometimes in unison, they weave designs that suggest a scheme to keep reconfiguring the space. Their movement is precise, but inelegant—clunky in its shapes and dynamics, aerobic in its speed and rhythm. Just before the lights go out, Ward spits out a passage of fast-footed dancing. The black-ink queen of the keyboard.
I leave, not so much feeling that I understand Dorvillier’s every strategy, but that my understanding has been tested very pleasurably and given a little spit-and-polish.
Jeanine Durning’s new Ex-Memory: waywewere makes us aware of the depredations time makes on memory. This theme gives her the right to slide our minds around and not worry whether we “understand” every moment. And Durning, another very bright choreographer, works in curious, beautiful, and provocative ways. A telling photo of her in motion dominates the cover of her brochure. Her left leg is reaching way across her right one, while her right arm points so far across her to the left that her torso twists. Meanwhile, she’s turning her head to the right to look past that left leg; her eyes are wide, her mouth slightly open. She looks as if she’s indicating a direction she’s not sure she wants to go in.
That’s Durning for you. Dancing, she creates a fascinating vision of certainty undermined by confusion, wildness battling control, beauty challenging ugliness. When the audience enters St. Mark’s, a video by Rachel Boggia is playing on a big screen. It shows a number of dancers recalling the work we are about to see (or an earlier version of it). Some have performed with Durning, others are observers. They all remember the piece very differently.
During this, Durning enters matter-of-factly and sets up equipment. Sitting on a chair in front of a console of four small speakers, she activates a metronome and a small device harnessed to her chest that emits a click-track; together these create a double beat, to which she sings in a clear, unaffected voice. The music and lyrics (which stem from a text she wrote) are by Jules Maxwell. The words in this song, as well as in two other sung later, are prosaic, if a little askew. “Where are these days?” she sings, and “Are you around?” Later she turns a few knobs, and her voice is sent gasping and stuttering through the speakers, as if she were speaking deep in a well.
When she begins to dance, she seems to search for something. Her mobile face
reflects a passing flood of thoughts. Boldness and uncertainly vie within her small, powerful body. Her acting is as fine as her dancing, whether she’s telling us with an engaging smile, as she manipulates wires and dials, that “This is a solo, so I’m trying to do everything myself”; or planting one foot about five feet up one of the church pillars and talking at a feverish speed; or sitting on a chair and perfectly synchronizing her words about time and the perpetual act of becoming with the silent, moving mouth of her video image.
Her aloneness and her solitary efforts to cough up (literally) feelings are deeply touching without being sentimental. As she dances, she recalls a disturbing moment. Her mother is looking at family snapshots and throwing some away. “Ma, that’s me,” she says, “your youngest.” And the mother says, “I don’t recognize her.” Soon after that, Durning, still in motion, rubs a microphone furiously over her body and the objects around her—letting it voice her agonies.
What turns out to be only the first half of this long piece ends with composer Maxwell, and five suddenly-appearing, non-dancers (Lenny Manoff, Peter Doyle, Major West, and Victor Giganti) singing in slightly imperfect harmony about sleeping soundly for a week. All but Maxwell are probably over 65. The sudden apparition of a chorus of stand-in daddies?
The evening could have ended there, but the second half re-states in very different, more formal ways, some of the solo’s concerns. In the terrific opener, Molly Poerstel and Rachel Lozoff sit side by side on chairs. Poerstel—laughing so hard she can barely get the words out—recounts several hilarious events that the two were present at. “Do you remember this?” she keeps repeating, as she nudges the completely blank-faced Lozoff. She gabbles so breathlessly that you can’t make out what she’s saying.
These women dance both wildly and calmly, sometimes holding hands and traveling around the space in a chaining pattern like that of a remembered folk dance. Maxwell plays the piano quietly for them. They too cough and choke, move warily, explode into physical and vocal exertions. And, joined by Matthew Rogers, they take turns being dragged, reminding us how earlier Durning had recruited Maxwell and Manoff to drag her. In the end, the white sheet on which the videos were projected falls, and Durning reappears beside Rogers.
It’s hopeless trying to interpret Ex-Memory in any literal way. Sure, the white sheet falling suggests a wiping out of memories. Yes, Durning is both the agent of her recollections and the sensual surface that refracts them. She instigates an inquiry into the process of remembering that stings her as if she’d blundered into a beehive. While you’re watching her, you don’t wonder what she’s doing; you shake in your boots.