Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Beautiful Beast

Photo: Jordi Bover, used by permission

Steve Paxton is a dancer I've been watching over the course of nearly forty years. When I told him that my children are grown enough that they now go up to Vermont on their own (that’s where he lives and where we met as teacher and student) he said that time just telescoped, decades down to a moment. Watching Paxton perform his new solo The Beast at Baryshnikov Arts Center, time telescopes too. I visualize the kinetic lusciousness of earlier Paxton incarnations, but here he shows us the dancing’s skeleton. Rather than nostalgia there’s joy in this fruition of his dancing life. The distillation of his focus and the stripping away of connective actions makes for the sparest presentation of one human body’s range of motion and properties of balance. Paxton presents his own body as a locus for inquiry, as he always has. His investigation has become increasingly detailed, exquisite. Without the spongy bounce and space-eating flow of his earlier incarnations, he is pure facet, pure torque, pure stacked bones and stretched sinew.

Merce taught us to look at movement without asking for its implied narrative. And the Raineresque performative straightforwardness of the Judson era finds its apogee in Steve whose weathered face is that of a deadpan everyman. Why then do we have the sense that there’s a scenario here, teasing us by laying just beyond our comprehension? The Beast has a sound score that’s hard to place – is it electronic, made to sound like birds? Water droplets? There’s a percussive rushing quality to it and it rises and ebbs, just as the light, a shifting pool now oblong, now a rough round, moves without provocation. Paxton seems to be lodged in this place, a dark nowhere. Atmospheric, mysterious, this visual and aural setting make a habitat for The Beast. And just who is that?

Paxton’s bio states right off that he lives on a farm. Watching him dance is not unlike watching someone scythe a field, or build a wall. Action is in service of something, and delivered without flourish or emphasis. He seems engaged with questions: ‘What is this? What happens if I shift balance by curving the spine laterally? What happens if I cross one foot over the other, standing? Or tip my head back as far as it goes?’ The action produced by that last inquiry, looking upward, is often associated with a kind of aspiration. Here it’s not that, or anything you could nail. And although that action recurs frequently, as does a full torqueing twist of head against pelvis, or a thrust through the hands, they never reveal any further reason for being. They just are. ‘Testing the Apparatus’ is the shorthand that comes to mind.

In 1986 Paxton began performing his Goldberg Variations to both of Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s masterwork, the first made at the promising outset of Gould’s career, the second after a life in music, more settled and measured, and just months before his early death. The metaphor of the maturation of the artist over time was deeply moving. Paxton’s face in the second half of Goldberg was smeared with wet clay which, over the course of the work, dried and contracted, creating a crinkly premonition of older age. Today his face looks like the one he projected twenty some years ago. And I believe that the dancer he is now is the one he was imagining in Goldberg. And how essentialized and brilliant that dancer has become, like a diamond.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Tasting "Excellence"

[Photo: "Only Sleeping" by Subcircle and Geoff Sobelle]

A recent meeting at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage posed the question “what kinds of formats provide and encourage evaluative critical feedback that promotes excellence?” It’s obvious that most everything you see can be developed further in a variety of ways. Sometimes a choreographer has a blind spot, sometimes not enough time, or both. And sometimes excellence will elude even the most thorough worker. There’s a mysterious component too: the ineffable brilliance factor, impossible to manufacture.

How thrilling then to see a dance work, or even big hunks of a dance work, that are beautifully considered, clearly the product of prodigious intelligence, and breathtakingly executed. Two such experiences in one week leave this viewer delighted, relieved, as though drenched with rain in a dry time.

Pennsylvania Ballet demonstrates itself alternately as being top drawer or nearer second string. In mounting William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” the Ballet has taken on a work that crackles with brilliance throughout and pushes the dancers to unimagined heights. Forsythe plays between the pedestrian and the meta-virtuosic. Shambling entrances or casual shifts in space are ‘breathers’ that just whet the appetite for more of his whippet swift distortions of traditional ballet line. Formations recall the studio dynamic of ‘in-betweens’ – a line far upstage with each dancer in a different resting pose, a cluster to the side that forms and reforms before the “hit it” moment. And when they do hit it, the action is perilous: partnering with leans at precipitous angles and thrown weight. This was Forsythe before his work strayed too far from the ballet lexicon so every stretch away from the familiar is illuminating, delightful. And the dancers, thoroughbreds that they are, lap up the challenge. I have never seen principals like Zachary Hench, Riolama Lorenzo, Julie Diana, Amy Aldrich move so big, so fast, and so wild. It goes so far beyond even the most virtuosic turns I have witnessed at PA Ballet in the past that I’m left dazed, an adulating fan.

On quite another end of the dance spectrum, Niki and Jorge Cousineau, known collectively as Subcircle, in collaboration with Geoff Sobelle, have mounted an exhilarating synthesis of projected video with dance, text and original music - “Only Sleeping.” This is one of those works where a long history of collaboration and time to chew on multiple possibilities before settling on finalized images have resulted in moments of exquisite complexity. You read intelligence from the get-go. Sobelle appears on video only, a Magritte-like everyman, a counterpart to Niki Cousineau’s everywoman/mother (we learn on audio). Mike Kiley’s music has a rock sensibility and uses a wall of voices for intensely cinematic moments.

In a set resembling a living room with two doorways, a window, and an expanse of wall serving as a large projection surface, “Only Sleeping” relates a tale of parallel worlds, a fantasy of being swept from one’s life into that of another. The lightly sketched story line is given a sense of place through video imagery of hallways, empty rooms, and an expanse of ocean. It mines earlier works by Subcircle (“Somewhere Close to Now” above all) with a live performer in perplexing circumstances involving changes of scale and orientation.

The piece has knock-out transitions that shift nearly imperceptibly from the offhand and conversational to the theatrical (like Forsythe’s switches from preparation to full out execution). The interrelationships of multiple projected video images are orchestral in their density. Layered over time they conform to or thwart expectation, as when after seeing a door open multiple times to reveal Sobelle behind it in some quasi-pedestrian but indescribable activity, the door finally opens to reveal another door and another and another, ad infinitum. “Only Sleeping” is like that, opening out to new ground, who knows precisely where.