Alwin Nikolais’s spectacles of light, sound, and motion bowled over Parisians when his company paid its first visit to France in 1968. The company subsequently began an enduring relationship with the Théâtre de la Ville, and for a while, beginning in 1978, Nikolais headed the Centre Chorégraphique Nationale in Angers. Carolyn Carlson, the tall beauty who could dissect the motion of her limbs and torso into minute, supple articulations, was one of his stellar dancers in the early 1970s, even as she was beginning to make her own works.
Carlson has been based in Europe for years now—holding important and influential positions at the Paris Opera, Venice’s La Fenice, and elsewhere in Europe. She currently has her own school in Paris and a company at the CCN in Roubaix. A company of hers last played New York, at BAM, in 1985. Coincidentally, this month, two of her works surfaced here. The Finnish choreographer-dancer Tero Saarinen performed her Man in a Room during City Center’s Fall for Dance festival, and Carolyn Carlson–CCN Roubaix appeared on Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series.
I mention Nikolais because Carlson learned from him the magical powers of light and projections to transform dance. While he told no stories but those of moving images and fantasy worlds grounded in nature, she ventures into character and emotion. And, of course, contemporary technology enables her and her collaborators to devise effects that can be more elaborate and easily produced than those available to Nikolais.
What struck me about both the solo she made for Saarinen and Double Vision, which she danced alone in Montclair, is that the soloist rarely seems to control the created environment but is controlled by it in a variety of ways. Man in a Room was inspired by Mark Rothko—less by the look of his works than by his mental torments. In a brilliantly crazed performance, Saarinen periodically dips his fingers into paint pots and smears stripes on his face and body, as if his art were colonizing him (you can check out video clips at terosaarinen.com). In the hour-long Double Vision, Carlson (now 67) sometimes seems impelled to move in order to create a desired visual effect. Even though she has cast herself as an observer-mediator in three different, fabulously gorgeous mobile environments by Electric Shadow (Naziha Mestaoui and Yacine Aït Kaci), plus lighting collaborator Emma Juliard, and she is a commanding figure onstage, she’s sometimes overwhelmed by her constantly changing surroundings, like a householder who doesn’t know what area to clean up next.
As the title of the solo promises, we see her and her world doubled. An immense suspended mirror tilts forward, so that her ground is also her sky, and we see her from the front and from above. For the first part, which bears an environmental message, she inhabits a roiling natural world that sometimes resembles the dry, cracking canyons of the Southwest, but also billows like the ocean, and spews snowflakes. Cells multiply. Black holes appear and fade. Carlson amplifies the motion of the video projections by a device that also limits what she can do. The “screen” for the projections is the vast, floor-covering white skirt that she wears—along with a white jacket and a strange headcovering with a single long horn projecting from one side (costumes by Chrystel Zingero). Mechanisms here and there under the skirt causes it to puff up and subside, but it is she who twists it into folds as she turns. Sometimes you can make out words amid the non-musical tumult of Nicolas de Zorzi’s score (her recorded voice mentions “The smell of dead fish and blood” while she is squirming on the floor).
Her own movements mostly involve bending and twisting and undulating, but she also strikes commanding or aversive positions, or slumps over a hummock. Her hands are busy, sometimes jabbering in the air when the pace heats up. Her mouth is often open, as if to echo the gasping, stylized breathing that’s an element of the score.
In the second section, she’s part of a dizzyingly busy fantasy city, where the audience has the illusion for several minutes of being on a train whizzing along white tracks through an infinity of white, deserted stations. This partly black-and-white cityscape is projected on five hanging panels, and sometimes Carlson—head, limbs, and body trapped in a form-fitting black suit—tracks or echoes her all-white projected self, darting from panel to panel. Her dancerly proficiency comes to the forefront, when the music delivers something like a rock beat, and she subtly reflects that.
The third part is an imagined world, as something like a theremin announces in its eerie voice. The opening image looks like sunset at the edge of the sea. Now Carlson wears an elaborate black coat with red and white accents; she leaves it on a low, arched structure and continues clothed in white. Now she’s free to spin and circle, to quiver her feet and dither with her hands amid projected lines and golden rays. She concludes with a kind of poetic lecture, seated on the arch, holding a mic and referring to the “super architect” of a creation she would like to see survive. Projected words echo “the world I see,” “the world I make,” and “the world I imagine.”
Oddly, in this tour de force, this highly motivated creation, it’s difficult to understand and feel for the figure at its center. She seems sometimes a concerned artist, sometimes a wandering magician, and sometimes an abstraction of humanity—a puppet of the universe.
And now for something completely different. Like Carolyn Carlson, the Australian choreographer Russell Dumas rarely shows work here, but for him dance is about movement and form and whatever feelings those may generate in performance. No scenery in the traditional sense. Music only occasionally. Although Dumas danced with Britain’s Royal Ballet and other European companies, he performed here (briefly) during the 1970s with Twyla Tharp and Trisha Brown, before founding his Sydney-based dance Exchange in 1976. And seeing his choreography always takes me back to the decade when dancemakers I admired were investigating the basic processes and possibilities of dance movement and the dancer’s body. The most recent glimpse of that kind of work we’ve had is last spring’s revival of Sara Rudner, Dana Reitz, and Jennifer Tipton’s Necessary Weather and Rudner’s glorious 2007 Dancing on View (Preview/Hindsight). Dumas has collaborated with Rudner, and a member of his company once performed a long phrase of his throughout an earlier version of Dancing on View.
For his presentation at the Baryshnikov Center, dance for the time being (N.Y. Premiere), which is dedicated to four Tharp alumni (Rudner, Rose Marie Wright, Jennifer Way, and Tom Rawe), Dumas hoped to show simply “material” that he could spread over two 50-minute segments on a single day, but instead felt it best to arrange it into one longer segment and do it twice. At the 5:30 p.m. showing, the sun is laying shadows of the huge, paned windows on one wall and a portion of the floor. Sometimes it glances over spectators seated in two rows of chairs on two sides of the big studio. The light changes, glows more orange, darkens as the dancing unfolds. There’s no other form of illumination. By the time Stuart Shugg has finished the solo that ends the piece, the sun has set behind the New Jersey cliffs, and the dimness makes his small leaps and springy steps seem suddenly bold. The only sound is that of the occasional slap of a foot against the floor or the performers’ breathing.
This is beautiful work—simple, yet complex; highly imaginative; profoundly physical; sensuous without being overtly erotic. You feel the choreography as a warm current of motion that the dancers are guiding through their bodies. The prevalent dynamic is deliberate, with occasional surprising little eruptions. The five performers (Jonathan Sinatra, Shugg, Nicole Jenvey, Linda Sastradipradja, and Christine Babinskas) look relaxed and unperturbed, as if they were concentrating on demanding, yet pleasurable tasks; occasionally one of them smiles. When they’ve finished one passage, they walk to another spot and begin a different one. Seldom have I been as aware of feet and how they press into, rebound from, or test the floor. One person causes another—lying on his or her side—to turn by walking in a close circle, hooking each step under the partner’s ankle. Two people rolling head to toe may be holding each other’s feet against their faces.
The five begin by walking into the performance space and executing a passage in unison, but all of them seldom dance together over the course of the evening. The two men perform a duet, while the women, in a line on the floor, do a slow, meditative, sitting-lying dance. In all the duets, partners mold their bodies together and touch each other in unusual, oddly intimate ways with what comes across as tenderness. Jenvey may sit on the supine Sinatra’s upraised feet and bend sideways to lean over him and grasp the hands he reaches up to her. Or, when he’s in the same position, sit down on his body and embrace his feet tightly, after which he pushes her hips up into an arch. Moves like this may sound tricky (and they are), but the calm clarity with which they’re performed make them look as unaffected as breathing, and every recovery from a maneuver is unhurried, smooth, and resilient. This makes an accent as small as the quick flip of someone’s hand or a sudden run or the deliberate stamp of a foot against the floor seem startling.
We’re very close to the dancers—close enough to focus, to feel how one person’s arm slides down another’s body, how someone subtly prepares for the effort of lifting someone else. We watch the duets, a trio for Jenvey, and two simultaneous duets differently, depending on where we sit. Shugg and Sastradipradja are so close to my row during their duet that my eyes track the flow of movement around their bodies. A quartet consisting of two mostly different duets happens at the far end of the room, with the two couples so close together that one pair is seen through the other, and they merge into a single shifting shape. A wonderful unison duet for Sinatra and Shugg that uses part of a wall for support is a both an underplayed athletic event (with a slight hint of competition) and a human calligraphic design.
I almost hoped the five superb dancers would keep going until the night had fully fallen, and we’d all be together, listening to the darkness.