Friday, September 11, 2009

Notes on Headlong Dance Theater’s "more."

September 2009 in the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival

Usually on first viewing I form a composite sense of a dance’s elements in the same way that we all perceive movement while watching films - our brains link what are actually still shots. "more." initially defies this kind of synthesis. Its nature is of fracturing and fragmentation. Its six dancers do not interact so much as co-exist, demonstrating, at times for each other, at times for the space itself, their personal movement statement of the moment, then settling back into a generalized passivity – a state of waiting, watching, slightly irritated togetherness. All acts dissipate like waves in an ocean.

"more." is dark, something no other Headlong piece I’ve seen could truly be called. Christina Zani, her left leg in a big brace and often seated in a wheelchair, embodies physical dissolution. At the piece’s emotional center, she enthusiastically marks out for the five others a dance she envisions, but they slip back into their default position, poised on a four-seater turquoise couch in their living room set. Zani’s dance never happens. She is left alone, wheelchair-bound, facing the audience. The subtle play of responses passing over her face is wondrous - I see despondency and the kind of “bucking up” self-talk our society favors. Her story is of the fragility of the body, and isolation, and contrasts with Nichole Canuso’s repeating far-upstage displays of balletic virtuosity. Nice, in a chilling way.

Zani later receives a healing treatment onstage and the space is transformed into a verdant oasis with the addition of leafed-out saplings. Maybe things aren’t so bad after all…

Most of "more."’s movement is spasmodic . Occurring in snippets rather than arcs, movements are nearly all small, repetitive, and gestural, like enlarged tics with interruptions and responses. With an exception or two, no one dances “together” in more. Instead, unisons performed in close proximity or spread apart have the effect of underscoring the movement and calling attention to the space and its composition of seated figures, furniture, and upright dancers. Decisions are formalist and transparent- how do moments arise and transform and cut off? How does a phrase replicate itself at different times in different configurations?

Three of "more."’s players are nearly faceless. Nicole Cousineau in particular recedes, seeming to create a character whose modus operandi is vanishing . At one moment she stands up after having been concealed for some time behind an overstuffed armchair. It resembles a moment of seeing someone who had been previously “invisible,” suggesting a forbearing housewife or mother (“oh, don’t worry about me…”).

Headlong has often seemed less drawn to using movement as a medium for its intrinsic qualities than for its versatility as a vehicle for communicating about other concepts and states. The dancing in "more." sometimes appears like chatter: something to occupy its players, like random statements blurted out into an infinite ether. But "more." delves more deeply into the nature of its movement than any Headlong piece to date, with a movement palette that’s exploratory, thoughtful and of a piece. It unspools in a way that continually reveals the minds of its makers, and the myriad decisions comprising the whole. "more." could benefit from being pushed further structurally to reveal a logic for its myriad short movement bursts that now seem underdeveloped.

"more." is not warm and fuzzy. It’s not cute. But it has a tender regard for some of its characters – Devynn Emory begins and ends the show as an androgynous, human-animal spirit. She is given a whole new environment at the end - perhaps it’s the place of her dreams. This marks a moment of generosity in the piece, and isn’t saccharine, being tempered by the trivialization of a cheering throng.

Dance addresses the ineffable. One of Headlong ’s members said to me after the show that "more." is the first of the group’s dances where what it’s saying can’t be captured in language. I agree. While an unsettling viewing experience, I find it an exhilarating leap in the company’s artistic adventure. And, I wonder whether it might be one of those very few shows that yields its fruits slowly, being puzzling on initial viewing and later coming to mean a great deal, or even representing a turning point in theatrical convention.

[Disclaimer: I have worked closely with several of the performers and directors of "more." and cannot claim impartiality or absence of conflict of interest.]