Sometimes I wish choreographers revealed more about their intentions in titles and program notes; sometimes I wish they said less. Then there’s the usual dance critic’s dilemma: Do I see the work in the light of its maker’s stated intentions? Or do I keep my mind on what the work itself is telling me? A little of both?
For the performances at Dance Theater Workshop shared by Gallim Dance and Sidra Bell Dance, both Andrea Miller of Gallim and Sidra Bell, director of her eponymous company, reveal in titles, program material, and prior interviews what they’re up to. Sort of. Miller’s For Glenn Gould was inspired by Gould’s two famous recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Between 1964 and 1981, his virtuosic performance at the keyboard refined into something more intimate, as if Bach’s notes were simply escaping from his fingertips while he watched—his breathy humming along audible.
Bell precedes the program credits for her POOL (how significant is the all-caps type? Should I care?) with an enigmatic set of framed words:
Bach is not the only strong presence in For Glenn Gould’s aural landscape; Strauss, Alvo Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Nick Drake also figure. What has seeped into Miller’s intriguing new piece from Gould’s two takes on Bach indirectly reflects Goldberg’s theme-and-variations structure, the notion of transitions, altering performing styles, and what constitutes performance anyway. Not knowing or sensing this, you might think the choreography was a comment on consumerism and decay and conspicuous waste.
Miller is a brave choreographer and an extremely gifted one. For Glenn Gould sucks you in with luscious, lusty, beautifully organized dancing, and all of a sudden the stage gets covered with islands of mysteriously mismatched debris (or treasures) amid which the dancers pursue solo variations and other events.
Bach would have approved of the formality of the crystalline three-part contrapuntal dancing with which Miller begins the work. That there are only six memorably marvelous dancers in the cast (Caroline Fermin, Troy Ogilvie, Francesca Romo, Dan Walczak, Jonathan Royse Windham, and Arika Yamada) heightens the image of clarity. As they move in pairs over a white floor to piano music, that clarity contrasts piquantly with Miller’s movement style. Although almost balletic tiptoe steps creep into this opening dance, the dancers often keep their knees bent and their feet wide apart, canting their bodies at odd angles and exploring unusual modifications of gesture.
Suddenly, the music disappears into the sound of yelling voices and city hubbub. Vincent Vigilante’s lighting acquires a temporary greenish cast, then turns the floor lavender. The dancers—their simple monochromatic practice attire replaced by bright-colored clothing by Yamada and Miller—bring in traffic cones, ropes, folding chairs, and objects of all sizes and uses, while Fermin (perhaps channeling Gould?) breathes heavily into a mike. The formality becomes informal. In an impishly fugal passage, all six sit, wriggling on the chairs, and, beginning at the left end of the semi-circle, make and erase a trail—clambering one by one over their colleagues in various athletic but companionable ways toward the right. Meanwhile Walczak, the right-most person, turns to us as they advance toward him and mouths, “I’m performing now.” His voice gets louder and more assertive, as the others clump themselves on and around him. The chairs are removed, and dancing resumes, but other objects amid the artfully, if eccentrically arranged detritus occasionally draw our attention (Fermin removes her trousers and blouse and lays them out like a dummy on some of the stuff, others drape themselves over the shapes provided, as if accommodating to uncomfortable new beds).
At least twice during the piece, performers copy a leader, giving the illusion of picking movements up on the spot (a very subtle form of canon). Just before the end, Walczak performs an extraordinary solo to a limpid passage of Bach, as if exploring terrain new to him. Watching him, the others try bits of his movement, then freeze, but finally join him fully. An offstage voice announces, “There has been a transition.” Just as I’m pondering that, the voice says, “Now I’m jumping on the bed. I feel like I’m disappearing.” The lights go out.
During the intermission, the dancers collect “their” objects from each area. I realize that I’d been expecting to be shown those things in terms of what they meant to people. But I don’t think that entered Miller’s scheme. Perhaps she simply wished us to see them as both challenges and discards—what we leave behind when we’ve gotten what we once needed out of them. Like the performance trappings that slid away during Gould’s voyage into a different and deeper virtuosity.
The words that surround Bell’s POOL (including those by a variety of recording artists such as Berlin-based Gudrun Gut and Peter Grummich, the French Agoria, the Japanese Coppé, and others) fly around the images that Bell, a fast-rising choreographer in the U.S. and on the international scene, puts onto the stage. I can attach “I will drink you in, drown in every drop” and “the mirror of your face” to episodes between Jonathan Campbell, a sort of leader of the witchy revels, and Austin Diaz; they press together, breast to breast, nose to nose, cheek to cheek. Diaz, with his uncannily mobile spine and gasping mouth, swims and flails through dancing as if seeking air.
Similar images of fighting for breath or trying to revive someone crop up; Diaz slings Campbell over his shoulder and carries him away. The group that includes Maud de la Purification, Alexandra Johnson, Caroline Kirkpatrick, Zach McNally, and Kendra Samson hoist Diaz overhead and laid out. At several points, Vigilante throws four oval, greeny-gold pools of light on the back wall where the dancers swim vertically.
While Miller’s movement—deconstructive in terms of traditional Western forms—has a kind of robustness (perhaps in part because of her work in Israel with Ohad Naharin and his “Gaga” technique), Bell’s is slipperier and, in this piece, it has a decadent, preening quality, as if she wants both to parody and to embrace the forwardness of club dancers’ look-at-me, butt-first presentations. If the rippling and undulating and erratic deformations sometimes take on an underwater look, the black goth costumes and bizarre, wounded-looking makeup (by Johnson) enhance the image of a vampire get-together. One of the phrases printed in the program is “dancing in the dark,” and that “dark” can summon up sweetie-pie romance, ignorance, lust, or bravery in the face of danger. It’s too much to try to parse, and POOL, as it winds toward the end of its 41 minutes, threatens to drown those in the audience whom it’s not still exciting.