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Predict The Unexpectable: Ririe-Woordbury Dance Company Presents Prism

Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, in a run which lasted from December 8th through 10th, presented Prism, a showcase of the choreography of Charlotte Boye-Christensen. Since 2002, Boye-Christensen has brought state-of-the-art dance to Salt Lake City, and Prism continued to do nothing less. True, the first two pieces of the evening had been performed previously by the company. Push, the first number of the evening, was taken from this September’s performance of Polychromatic. Touching Fire, which followed, was debuted as the finale of last December’s Cipher. Neither piece, however, felt a mere reiteration. Set in a different context – the first within the smaller Leona Wagner Black Box Theater, and both within a different suite of dances – each took on a leaner feel and a greater sense of self-awareness.

Push is remarkable amongst Boye-Christensen’s ouvre, because the piece, unlike so much of her work, makes no obvious reference to film or video projection. Here, so extensively are all references to cameras and projectors eschewed, one can only read this absence as deliberate and significant. That this claim is borne out by the rest of the show, I hope this review will demonstrate. The use of bare, black-box staging made the dance feel situated in a studio or rehearsal space. The simplicity of the music of Black Angels and Sigur Rós contributed to this effect. Push began with the dancers seated and breathing on the floor, as if attending their yoga class. Over the course of the piece, the dancers rose to their feet and struck more dramatic poses, including some impressive examples of partnering. Especially powerful were the moments in which three members of the company pressed their heads together, as if locking horns, and created a human tripod, without any use of arms. The feat creates not so much a sense of physical danger as of intense physical pressure, a given in dance which this gesture suddenly and provocatively brought to awareness through an unexpected meeting of heads.

The same gesture was repeated later in the dance, though this time with only a male and female dancer, the latter of which exits the mock showdown – whether in victory of defeat, it is hard to say – by precipitously plunging forward, face-first, directly toward the stage. Though her rival is there to catch her, there is no missing the daring and trust involved in such movements. Again, though such is almost always the case in modern dance, it may too often be taken for granted in the work of other choreographers. But, unlike other choreographers, Boye-Christensen’s goal seems to make dancing appear to be the opposite of easy. Neither the body or anything else can be taken for granted in her work. As if she had immersed herself so deeply in cinema and video that virtual realities had traded places with actual reality, Boye-Christensen, in Push, seems now to look back at the unphotographed body, still dense and weighty, not with a sense of nostalgia so much as a renewed curiosity. What is this strange object that dance used to find so compelling, all on its own? Push seems to inquire, with genuine sincerity. What exactly can a body be, it asks, and what can it do?

The answers to these questions are not given definitively. But Boye-Christensen explores some possible answers through employing the most basic physical actions, such as pushing, and then immediately reversing it into its opposite, pulling. The actions are elementary enough, but placed – through gendering and clothing –within a minimal social context, such motions become highly evocative of more complex human relations. If the only modernist adage “less is more” still has any value, Push may well be an example of its continuing currency.

Touching Fire, the next piece of the evening, features music by Nick Cave, Boris and Sunn O))), Franz Schubert, and Black Angels. The piece functions as a relentlessly reflective and confessional investigation of private experience, an exploration of impossible contradictory states which, by their very nature, can only be experienced in the form of dreams, fantasies, and private myths. The piece opens with a single female dancer, clad in what appear to be Victorian wool stockings and a long chemise – eroticized undergarments of the sort seen in the paintings of Balthus or the eerily sexualized mannequins photographed by Hans Bellmer. Evoking the feelings of desire, curiosity, and confusion associated with nascent sexuality, the dance unfolds in a series of inversions and rolls which suggest auto-erotic self-exploration. My own confession: I may be reading too much into Touching Fire. However, I cannot recall, for all the modern dance performances I have by now attended, one in which seeing up a dancer’s dress so completely counted as seeing up a dancer’s dress. The sexual display, though evidently conscious on the part of the choreographer, is depicted as taking place in a state prior to self-consciousness. As in Push, the body, prior to its conversion into a spectacular image, becomes an object of inquiry. Though not yet brought to the foreground, a mirror placed at the back of the stage conjures associations of music-box dancers and creates the impression of a young girl toying with the notion of her own image. The dancer, here, has almost become a mere representation, but not quite yet.

A later movement in the piece brilliantly employs semi-transparent panels. Dancers positioned between these shiny surfaces enact highly ambiguous scenes from domestic life in which breaking up and making up become all but indistinguishable. The mirrors multiply the dancers’ images, making them seem strangely disembodied. This use of windows/mirrors, a technique first pioneered in the 1970s in work of conceptual and media artist Dan Graham, confounds not only image and reality but also sculpture and architecture as well as public and private space. It becomes hard to tell whether the dancers in this portion of Touching Fire should be understood as inhabiting domestic, retail, or televised reality. Are they to be seen as actual human bodies or merely simulacra of human beings? Their status remains ambiguous. What is certain however is the feeling of discomfort created in the audience as it suddenly perceives its own image captured within the set’s visual apparatus. Through an elegant but powerful shift of familiar coordinates, the audience unexpectedly sees itself on stage, sees itself seeing, as if from the dancers’ perspective. Here the audience is forced to confront its—generally unacknowledged—voyeuristic investment in modern dance. We are made to recognize that the spectator of any stage performance is caught up, and indeed created, by a closed circuit of gazes.

This inverted power relationship between human and mechanism is illustrated with compelling simplicity in an even later movement of the dance. Here, a suspended electric fan—shiny and mindlessly driven, like a housefly trapped behind window glass—descends from above the stage and wanders as its tether will permit. Beneath the buzzing machine, a solitary dancer sways gently in response. The human form takes its lead from a brainless but graceful machine.

Above these scenes of soft violence by surveillance and air conditioning, the disembodied voice of fiction writer David Kranes issues an ongoing inner monologue. The solitary voice, in a series of pronouncements reminiscent of philosophical antinomies, speaks of its longing simultaneously to enjoy contrary states: to be firmly grounded and yet suspended in air, to be wholly engulfed by another and yet utterly alone, to experience perfect familiarity and yet abide with a total stranger. These impossible yearnings would seem to represent an inaccessible but powerfully felt reality which lies beyond the world of images and appearances. In the words of the 14th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart, to access such a reality would be to dwell in fire and not be burned. In Touching Fire, multimedia performance, a mode of artistic production which increasingly smacks of our everyday digital lives, becomes a meditation on a fundamental spiritual proposition: that we will never have access to our innermost selves without first annihilating our egos, which exist most powerfully and persistently in the form of our body images.

After a brief intermission, the company returned with two pieces never before seen in Utah. Indeed, the first number, West, is, technically, not yet completed and was presented under the aegis of preliminary sketches. The dance, which features the music of Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and Cat Power, begins with two rows of dancers seated facing one another. If Touching Fire, through the use of mirrors, confronted the audience with an image of itself, West, instead sets the company as two rows of audience members made to face one another. Each struggles to stay awake, or keep its counterpart awake, though each alternately drifts off into states of somnolence. The effect is, if one views the piece as I do, frankly, hilarious. Though perhaps the audience at Saturday’s performance knew better than I.

Next, the facing rows of chairs were removed and three office chairs were set in a loose cluster. The various movements of deep emotion and attentive rest, contrasting sharply with the earlier sleeping and starting, evoked the expressive swaying of classical music performers, and indeed this whole section of the piece created the impression of a string trio performance, though one written not for actual strings but rather dancers. Body and instrument appeared to be one and the same. When other members of the company entered the scene they seemed not merely to remove the chairs but rather to replace them with their bodies. The various poses and pairings allowed one dancer to figure as living human form while its partner assumed the status of mere equipment. This section of the dance, then, became a clever albeit serious pun on a game of musical chairs.

After this, the use of music by singer Tom Waits took the dance in a more overtly humorous direction. A deadpan monologue about domestic felicity and arson, from the album Rain Dogs, drew audible and unabashed laughter from the audience. The movement of the dancers, at this point, shifted suddenly from deeply expressive to perfunctory, indeed blasé. These seems, over the course of several seasons, to have emerged as hallmarks of Boye-Christensen’s choreography: the 90˚ shifting of customary visual perspectives, the quick inversion of assumed givens, and the sudden and unmotivated reversal of bodily actions, from activity to passivity or from diving to rising up. In keeping with this method of shifting familiar coordinate points and functional roles, the final section of the dance returns the company to the position of audience members. A group of dancers circle a central figure and actively observe all movements. Here, West seems to run through a variety of possible reactions and attitudes shared between audience and performer, a gamut which includes attention and oblivion, seriousness and hilarity, solitude and solidarity.

The final piece of the evening, But Seriously . . ., was a genuine debut performance. It combined the talents of Boye-Christensen with those of David Kranes, set designer Nathan Webster, and standup comic Ethan Philips. The score featured songs by The Shins, Ernesto Lecuona, Gogol Bordello, and Charles Aznavour. Projecting a larger-than-life profile head-shot of Philips above and behind the company, Boye-Christensen seems choreographically to echo the famous question asked some decades ago by Frank Zappa, Does humor belong in music? Here the audience, and with them the members of the company (for the barrier between audience and company had already been effectively broken down by earlier pieces), are invited to answer similar questions: Does humor belong in ‘serious’ art and dance? And far more important and awkward: Can serious dance itself endure being made the butt of humor? Can modern dance laugh at itself, and benefit from such self-deprecation? That a feeling of acute awkwardness might have been in any way incidental to the piece, was hardly the case. Not only does Philips, in his monologue, make himself the subject of his own savage wit, but even the very stuttering of the video editing, which mimics Philips’s own stuttering delivery, creates a thick feeling of ill ease. The juxtaposition of the dancers against this manic figure creates a genuine sense of competition. One can’t help but ask the question, which of these two juxtaposed performances is actually the more interesting? One can certainly render up the socially acceptable answer. But this eager assertion is nevertheless repeatedly belied by one’s own eyes, when despite one’s best intentions, the gaze drifts away from the beautiful and athletic posturing on stage and toward video images of a balding and disheveled neurotic who hovers – like Oz The Great and Pitiful – on a screen above the live action.

The stakes of the dance are significantly raised when the standup comic shifts gears and becomes a veritable insult comic. Now, instead of directing the blade against himself, Philips begins to mock the dancers themselves, remorseless lampooning all the stereotypes associated with modern dance, including the dancer’s emaciated physique. The few breaks offered from Philips’s seemingly endless reserve of humor and outrage presents the audience, not with an empty screen, but instead an uninterrupted snowstorm of video static, the analogue of thoughtless and relentless applause. During this the dancers performed a waltz which appeared, at least to my eye, as deliberately mechanical, a dance set on automatic and left to run all night, long after its audience has dozed off on the sofa. So, how much anxiety can a modern dance audience endure? Again, But Seriously . . . aggressively tests the boundary, bringing Philips back to launch into a prolonged series of boasts about his prodigious sexual endowment, a slew of ribaldry which does not end until the comic begins to laugh at this own absurdity and can no longer go on.

Perhaps one of the greatest and subtlest strengths of this piece, and one of the greatest sources of its tension, is the attitude maintained by the company throughout the torrent of Philips’s insults, which constituted a virtual celebrity roast. The audience, throughout the torrent of abuse, could not help but ask itself if the dancers themselves were in on the joke. The expressions of high seriousness on their faces seemed to argue that the jokes were not in fact funny to them. Looking down from my seat in the tenth row, I had to wonder what the dancers themselves were actually thinking, if they didn’t feel this was perhaps a joke played on them, a joke that had slipped entirely out of their control. And I began to ask – not simply theoretically, but as a feeling private individual seated there – how much discomfort I was willing to experience. Never before had I so wanted a dance performance to end. This was not because I was in any way bored. Just the opposite was the case. But I needed to see what attitude the dancers would display when they took their obligatory curtain call. I will admit that, to my great relief, the entire company appeared a model of beaming good humor as they smiled and bowed to the applauding house. Rather than being oblivious to Philips’s attacks, the company now seemed entirely included in the joke. In fact, they were an active part of Philips’s performance, willingly adopting not only the role of butt, but also of straight man to Philips’s vaudevillian ranter. Here, two small achievements took place. The Ririe-Woodbury dancers showed that they, and by extension modern dance, could indeed endure the heat of satire. Meanwhile, on a subtler but hardly less significant level, the curtain call itself was made a crucially significant part of the dance. The line between primary performance and secondary social custom had been breached, and with it the barrier separating stage performer and private individual.

Transgressive, indeed threatening, innovations of this sort have come to be a regular occurrence as Charlotte Boye-Christensen continues to keep modern dance in Utah genuinely avant-garde. But for all that innovation is now to be expected at the Rose Wagner Performing Art Center, the precise form such innovation will take, thanks to the work of a truly critical choreographer, remains ever unpredictable.

The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company continues its 2011 – 2012 season with Kaleidoscope, which takes place on February 3rd and 4th, at the Capitol Theater.

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