Experiments, Some Realized, Some Not
by Rita Felciano
Since the body is the most tangible aspect of our identity as well as the dancer’s most important tool, trying to find residual aspects of our being in that fleshy muscular part of ourselves seems a reasonable mode for choreographic inquiry. If the knowledge gained is often ephemeral, we should not be surprised. At least, choreographers argue, it is an entry point into awareness. True enough, but this doesn’t solve the artist’s challenge to shape the process into a theatrically convincing whole. Like it or not, what choreographers put in front of us is a product. The relationship between process and product is complicated but even a contact improv jam has something of a “consumable” product for the viewer. At its most exciting, process and product take shape right in front of our eyes. The ups and downs of these connections were very much in evidence at Dandelion Dancetheater’s most recent concert.
Kimiko Guthrie and Eric Kuper, co-artistic directors of the fourteen-year-old ensemble, took radically different approaches to exploring the recesses of the human body. Guthrie seemed interested in memories and images stored and retractable while Kuper was digging into more inchoate aspects of our being. The fact that he used a highly intellectual, highly systematized tool as an entry point —the chakras of Kundalini Yoga—seems almost ironic.
The three works’ program, Guthrie’s “There” and “You” and Kupers’ “Octagon,” started on a high note. Unfortunately, it didn’t maintain the level.
Guthrie likes to explore the surprises in the everyday when, all of a sudden, you see yourself in a new way. In “There”, created two years ago, it’s the realization that your prized individuality is much less than you thought it to be. Guthrie plays with that kind of tension in exploring the inevitability of change and being caught in our backgrounds. It’s the moment when you realize that you are much more tied to your family than you have believed ever since you left home at eighteen. The shock when you look in the mirror and you see your mother, or glance at your hand and realize that you have seen those finger nails on your father, can be quite disconerting.
If anything, this time around, “There” was even better. Structured for two couples, it featured Kupers as a younger and Frank Shawl, who danced on Broadway some forty years ago, as an older man. The opening section showed them sitting on chairs tyieng their shoes. You see not only sameness but difference. Shadowing them were the flighty Debby Kajiyama and Rebecca Johnson who appear to embody the emotions—panic, uncertainty, confusion, rebellion—that the men’s outward stoicism cannot express. It was a lovely use of what traditionally are considered female/male qualities. Guthrie’s reading of her own poetic and reiterative text about the inevitability of aging, changing and connection propelled the dancing. At other moments it cut through the movement like a laser beam.
“There’s” examination of the life span goes both ways. Kupers’ determination at not wanting to become like his father is matched by Shawl’s panic that he has become like his father. Yet the work’s territority is not clearly defined. Like a tectonic plate it slides between the two men, the present, past and future. This leaves the dancers, and the audience, off balance, never sure how and where to alight. The choreography is abrupt often using sharp, staccato changes of direction, explosions that retreat into calmer unisons, with the two women flying off and also trying to shape the men’s interactions. “There” is thoughtful, excellently realized, and poignantly touches a crucial part of living.
“You”, a fragile sextet and the first of the evening’s two premieres, is not quite as well shaped. However, sustained by a strong foundation, this airly spaced and intriguingly conceived trip between memory land and reality warrants further tinkering. Ryan Francesconi’s delicate score for guitar, computer and accordion picks up the ephemerality of what the dancers are trying to do. In the program notes, Guthrie succinctly explains what, among other things, this is: “we are exploring the blurry lines between having a relationship with a memory versus an actual person.”
Since it is well known that Guthrie and Kupers, who were married at one time, broke up a few years ago, certain of the work’s moments seemed so personal—though maybe unintended—that I found myself in a quite uncomfortable, quasi voyeuristic position. As a chorographer, Guthrie fluidly uses dance’s contrast between movement and stillness when the dancer, who a second ago seemed pure energy, becomes an image frozen in time. It’s a good way of conveying the tenuous process of trying to recall, hang on to and reshape memory—of a person, an incident, a feeling.
Mini narratives, probably worked up from dancers suggestions since they are given co-credit for the choreography, alternated between fairly clear specificity and foggier ones. Christy Funsch’s desperate attempt to recapture the departed lover—racing and pointing at one dancer after another, knocking them down and popping them up again—was both comic and pathetic. Lowering herself repeatedly onto a supine Kupers, she looked obsessed by this one action. A Rashomon quality of shifting perspectives imbued a family crisis episode in which one member was locked in the bathroom and finally fed some pills. Depending on who recounted what, its enactors became cartoon characters, drama queens or affectingly real. Manfred Schaechtle recounted a one-night stand who yet turned out to be a lover for many years; whether in real life or as remembered, remained open.
Tiny physical gestures of dancers grabbing their hair or picking at their skin or clothes as if trying to capture or flick off the physical traces of a touch or an embrace, textured and enriched “You’s” vocabulary.
Kupers’ “Octagon” was a disappointment. Overly protracted, it tested this viewer’s patience. “Octagon’s” big asset was its score by Quadrangle, a quartet of musicians, placed in four corners of the theater. Their interactions and wild excursions into sonic outer space consistently intrigued. To listen to the bass saxophone’s wailing feedback to a live tenor sax on top was enough to make the piece (almost) worthwhile. Here memory and reality also intersected. Good as they were, the musical selections probably were too long, the dancing could not sustain the music. Some better collaboration between choreographer and composer was needed.
“Octagon” also featured in-time painting by Nancy Ostrovsky who might play an enlarged role should“ Octagon” get reworked. Placed in a circle of light, her simple karate poses suggested that she can not only paint but move.
Kupers and composer Patrick Cressy structured “Octagon” along the qualities of the Hindu chakras. Some of these connections were fairly clear, others considerably seemed more obscure. The opening image showed an octagon created by a stack of books. Dancer Jen Arnoth, a compact power house performer, flipped between one volume and another until Kajiyama toppled them to create a scene of physical chaos. (Some audience members thought this hilarious). It’s probably safe to assume that this duet referred to the Crown Chakra, associated with higher levels of consciousness and the brain. Another duet (Heart chakra?) featured Kajiyama and Jezebel Kuono ‘ono Lee chasing and catching each other in a circle to the point of exhaustion. The combativeness of Kupers and Arnoth’s improv, primarily via their torso (Abdominal Chakra?), had a visceral and violent but also extremely gutsy quality to it. If it just had been shaped more—energy alone cannot be sustained on stage. A hand holding trio for Kupers, April and Kajiyama, in which they climbed, folded, dove and lifted each other had moments of real interest but it soon became repetitive and wore out whatever the point it was trying to make. The second half of Dandelion’s evening at ODC was given over to what they called “Coital Canvass II”, a mass improvisation for dancers and audience members in addition to the “Octagon” performers. I didn’t stay. I had seen enough though I would have loved to have listened some more.