Theater archives

Crossing Boundaries (Or Not) in Works by Douglas Dunn’s and Margaret Jenkins’s Companies


It’s entirely coincidental that Danspace Project has moved its curtain time from 8:30 P.M. to 8. But how appropriate that seconds before Douglas Dunn’s Cleave begins, the bells of Saint Mark’s Church ring out the hour. Like Dunn’s Sky Eye, first shown there in 1989 and revived a week before Cleave’s premiere, the new piece resonates in oblique and surprising ways with the aura of religious faith that clings to any church. “Cleave,” I suddenly remember, is a very strange word, meaning both to sever in two and to adhere to a belief. Dunn being one of the wilder dance visionaries operating today, there are many narrative crannies in what appears to be—certainly is—a tapestry of vibrant and vigorous dancing.

Here’s how it begins. Carol Mullins’s seductive lighting reveals Christopher Williams thrashing about on the floor with controlled fervor. From three corners of the space, Brian Lawson, Paul Singh, and Timothy Emmett Ward creep in on all fours, watching him (this isn’t the only time that animal imagery crops up in Cleave). Suddenly the light is very bright, and multi-paned windows appear on the floor. The women (Kira Blazek, Hope Davis, Liz Filbrun, and Jordan Kriston) spin in to join the men.

They’re all bare-legged, clad only in Mimi Gross’s elegantly cut white leotards slashed with black in slightly different ways. But the two people who proceed grandly down the aisle that the others suddenly form are of a higher class. Dunn and Grazia Della-Terza wear crowns and black-and-white robes, with huge fluffy white boas falling from the shoulders. They look something like the king and queen on playing cards, but they could as easily be church prelates as royalty. While they mount the altar platform, remove the robes to reveal trim black and silver outfits (rip goes the Velcro) and hang them neatly, the others point and stare and whisper, as if unaccustomed to being so close to these special people.

What pianist Benjamin Bradham eventually begins to draw so expertly from his instrument underscores the elegance of the ambiance. The composers—J.S. Bach, François Couperin, his uncle Louis, and P.D. Paradies—all worked in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, mostly during the reign of that major dancer, Louis XIV. Dunn’s choreography, nevertheless, is a mixture of grace and clumsiness. The performers lilt about, springing into little skips, hops, and leaps; they also crawl spraddle-legged, jump heavily, and bump along the floor on their butts, while Dunn and Della-Terza play gracious hosts and benevolent leaders.

Performance itself is a subject. Reading a text with languid, purring seductiveness, Della-Terza notes, “I want to dance for you. I have these steps Douglas gave me. . . .” But he has her speaking, not dancing, at the moment, and whose words are these, she wonders? (Meanwhile, Filbrun is performing a long, complicated solo). When the dancers station themselves very close to the audience, they clearly see us and offer their silky movements to us. After Dunn finishes an eccentric solo, he sends a finely timed hand gesture our way, and then cocks one hand to his ear; evidently we’re supposed to applaud (or say “amen”). Twice the women comment in Latin (translated in the program) on the behavior of this choreographer-king-prelate, saying things like “the master has spoken” and “not of sound mind,” but also “Applaud, citizens!” and “Lift up your hearts.” This slim, quick-footed man in his sixties, dances, presides—you could even say “cavorts”—as both wise man and fool.

Latin plays an important, somewhat inscrutable part in Cleave. But it’s not church Latin (surely inappropriate in this Episcopal sanctuary). While Christopher Williams rants beautifully in movement, trying to master his body’s impulses, Dunn reads Seneca’s words on anger (“. . .it is easier to exclude harmful passion than to rule them”). When Della-Terza and Dunn recite an excerpt from Martial’s Epigrams about animals, wild and tamed, we can see the dancers as beasts crowding around.

All this craziness is modulated by order, fine dancing, athletic vigor, and moments I can only think of as touched with holiness. When Bradham bursts into the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, the performers go from creeping like recalcitrant dogs to forming diagonal lines and London Bridges to pass beneath. They’re still romping when Dunn and Della-Terza put on their robes and exit without fanfare.

Was this a wonderful evening in the theater? You bet. I mean, “amen.”

Margaret Jenkins, like Douglas Dunn, grew up in the work of Merce Cunningham—studying in his school, teaching there, and mounting some of his works on other companies. You can see in her work the conviction that movement is the message, that we are free to interpret its patterns and steps as we see fit. But her style is her own—warm, resilient, emphatically humane, and not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve.

In recent years, she and the members of her San Francisco–based company have been crossing cultural borders, collaborating with the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company of Kolkata, India, for A Slipping Glimpse (shown here at Saint Mark’s in 2007) and with the Guandong Modern Dance Company of Guangzhou, China, for Other Suns (A Trilogy). It’s this last that the enterprising Peak Performances series brought to Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater for its East Coast premiere.

The result of several years of transatlantic visits and correspondence, the finished work is in three parts—all set to music composed by Paul Dresher. Other Suns I was choreographed by Jenkins and her company, plus guest dancer Amy Foley. Liu Qi, deputy artistic director of GMDC, choreographed Other Suns II, in collaboration with her company members and guest dancer Norma Fong (and after joint workshops with the MJDC members). Both companies appear in and contributed to Jenkins’s Other Suns III.

In this endlessly beautiful production, dancers negotiate boundaries, collide, and explore ingenious ways to support and test one another. At times, the action is so gripping that you can’t look away. At other times, it almost seems as if you’re watching an art installation in motion. Your eye can wander to this group or that duo, even briefly tune out. And that feels all right too.

In Alexander V. Nichols’s stunning visual design, a host of little lights hangs above the stage. It’s one of them that Joseph Copley is trying to swat at—jumping over and over as the lights dim on the first part of the trilogy. Luckily for the audience, Dresher’s score for guitar, violin, keyboard, piano, bass, and mallet percussion is played live by members of his ensemble. The music’s spare delicate moments, lush melodies, and thunderous, driving repetitions underscore the dynamic variations in the choreography.

In the resonant opening of Other Suns I, Foley tries to attach herself to Copley, who’s impassive. By the time six other Jenkins dancers have entered to stand shoulder to shoulder with Copley, Foley is confronting a wall. It gives a little when she pushes at one end, but still resists. Later, a line forms again, but this time those in it respond more swiftly to her pushing, even though four of them instantly form a square, almost like a traveling cage, inside which Kelly Del Rosario tosses himself about. In Other Suns II, Fong too confronts a wall, but when she jumps at it, the other dancers of GMDC catch her and, holding her, turn to face another direction; she’s made them change, and they bend over so she can crawl across the backs. Walking walls of people absorb and disgorge soloists.

Often in all three pieces, the dancers cling to one another for stability, yet when we first see five of the six Chinese dancers in Other Suns II, they’re wearing gray satin pants and gray tops by Liu Qi, and they move in immaculate unison without ever rising from the floor. Rolling, arching up, falling backward to thrust their legs in the air, they seem more balanced, more at ease than the dancers in Other Suns I.

The variety of lifts and entanglements is astonishing. In all three dances, people fly through the air, rebound off one another, labor together to create a kind of perpetually shifting sculpture of give and take. The stage is often a busy place—a duet may continue while other activities come and go in front of it. Soloists may succeed ensemble endeavors or roam among them. Often three or four different groups are tracing their own patterns simultaneously. Sometimes the encounters occur with violent speed; sometimes they flow serenely along.

Other Suns III is particularly vivid. Now all 14 magnificent dancers, costumed in similar browns and beiges by Vivi Zhang, vault on and off the stage. As Margaret Cromwell, Qi, and Hui Guanglei mesh together to create constantly shifting images of support and gentle daring, others from both companies stand like trees or lie on the floor, and still other men enter or leave, each carrying a woman draped over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Some of the images have a dramatic urgency—Copley, for instance, ringed in by four others, or men carrying women who are frozen in poses and tipped sideways and then dropping them. The choreography is a panoply of swirling, flying motion, of clusters breaking apart, of contrapuntal patterns, of quiet moments for two or three.

It’s in this last part of the trilogy that the concept of a barrier between the two groups or within each group becomes porous. Once, about halfway through, all the dancers stand clustered at the back. They walk quietly forward, four or so at a time, and then retreat as others come forward. Sometimes, they have to touch one another lightly to make their way through. They repeat this sequence at the very end of the piece. Only this time, subtly touching one another, or shifting to make way for a comrade, becomes a gracious, even affectionate symbol of accommodating to differences and sharing the dance. It sends a message of across-borders collaboration just as powerful as the daring, trusting leaps into one another’s arms.