“One world is an old idea…”

World Dance Alliance Global Dance Event
Dance Theater Workshop – Bessie Schönberg Theater

Monday July 12, 2010 – Opening Night Concert

Review by Marcia B. Siegel (© 2010)

Photo Credit: Buglisi Dance Theatre performs “Sospiri” (1989) choreographed by Jacqulyn Buglisi (USA) Photo © Kristin Lodoen Linder

One World is an old idea, going back to the days of world wars and recoveries—the League of Nations, the UN, Ban the Bomb. Those schemes may sound quaint now, but they’ve worked. The world hasn’t self-destructed in the last hundred years, and we citizens seem to have arrived at a common culture, with the aid of television, iPods, and the Internet. Dancemakers have adopted a kind of physical Esperanto, if the opening concert of “In Time Together,” this year’s World Dance Alliance event, was any indication. Four of the six dances shared similar ideas about movement, compositional structure, design, and the reasons for making dances. The seven choreographers originated in four continents but almost nothing in their dances hinted at national or cultural differences.

I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Dance has always seemed an international language anyway, with differences of accent and content that could expand your sensibilities. Many dancemakers today think the audience needs to be reassured, to see itself reflected on the stage, and this often boils down to all-purpose action all the time. To engage this hypothetical viewer, there might be pretentious program notes to help him “read” the nonverbal and guarantee the choreographer’s higher aspirations. Destiny, silence, universal memory, togetherness and isolation were some of the overt and unspoken themes of Monday night’s offerings. It’s interesting to think about what cultural assumptions underlie any translation from concept to stage, and whether a pan-cultural audience can be expected to share them.

Music has always helped to convey the dance’s message, and in Beyond, by Keiko Kitano and Zihao Li, respectively a Japanese and a Chinese choreographer now based in Toronto, a lot of the message was carried by Bobby McFerrin’s recording “Without end,” a feminized adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer, overdubbed by McFerrin, singing with himself in luscious four-part harmony. Kitano and Li are an alienated couple, she thrusting and slashing on the floor, he standing to the side. She seems to be in the grip of some endless search-nightmare, and he tries, mostly ineffectually, to reach her. At moments he’s able to shadow her moves, and they dance briefly together, but as the prayer ends, she slowly leaves, and he picks up a lighted object and stares into it.

They’re surrounded by two other compelling elements: a projected design (by Don Sinclair) that seems to transform their images into pixels, then into Slinky-like shapes that slide around, losing their tails as they grow in new directions. After the first scene, four other dancers enter. Dressed in white, they gesture and walk in precise patterns, crossing the space but never directly interacting with the principals. It’s this group of guardians or spirits that leads Kitano off at the end. The program note tells of the flash at death in which we’re going to remember everything and regret nothing.

Michael Whaites’s Memorial – Version III worked in a similar way, with powerful ancillary material implanting significance into dancing that might otherwise be neutral. Twelve young women entered through the audience, self-consciously talking to the patrons with fragmented words I assumed had come from their own experience during the making of the dance: “giggling being silly,” said one; “jump relax,” said another. “Fear.” “Summer night.” These words were accompanied by gestures, not exactly literal but possibly appropriate to each girl’s mantra.

When they’ve all assembled in the dance space, they spread out and continue during their individual gesture sequences. Later they coalesce into duets and trios, but the movement doesn’t develop much further, and they still orient themselves to the audience, not to each other. All this is overshadowed by a montage of stage-size projections of historical events, wars, explosions, dictators and monarchs, sports stars. Like the endless bombardment of television “news,” we’re compelled to watch and think, only to have each provocation replaced by another before we can process anything.

ILINX TO, by the Brazilian choreographer Leda Muhana, began promisingly when two figures at the feet of the audience tangled together in a sensuous duet, literally getting into each other’s clothing. But after that I have no clear impression of what the nine dancers did, other than sort themselves into formal patterns of highly energized movements.

All three of these dances were made in a three-week Summer Dance Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which may partly account for the similarities among them. Excursion, by the Institute’s director and organizer of the 2010 Global Dance Event Jin-Wen Yu, was a succinct example of the formalist style, without audio-visual promptings about “meaning.” Three dancers formed and re-formed in different combinations, dancing an eclectic lexicon derived from everyday locomotion and gestures, modern dance expansions into space, and gymnastics. A post-minimal score by David Lang featured a piano intoning a single note and arpeggios, with accompanying violin phrases.
Jacqulyn Buglisi’s Sospiri, a 1989 duet in the style of Martha Graham, with whom Buglisi danced, seemed a throwback, both in subject matter and performance. Virginie Victoire Mécène and Kevin Predmore portrayed a 19th century couple engaged in a tortured love affair, to romantic music by Edward Elgar. I liked revisiting this expressive movement, so different from contemporary disaffectedness, as performed by two highly experienced professionals. The dance made me think about modern dance as a historical artifact that deserves respect and preservation, even if it represents the passions of an age we can hardly imagine. Buglisi’s dance belongs to a whole cadre of desperate love scenes, including Lester Horton’s The Beloved and José Limón’s The Exiles. They tell us not only how modern dancers danced but how they wanted their dance to expose the injustices and repressions of their time.

The Mexican dancer Ulises Martinez Martinez performed Instantes del desso, a piece of dance-theater that proved controversial. Martinez entered at the end of a rope fixed in the wings; was he tugging at it or holding on for dear life? At first I thought he might be grasping the spar of a sailboat caught in a storm. Then he staged many dramatic interludes—he did mime tricks with an invisible rope; he recited fragments of a Spanish text; he picked a woman out of the audience and used her as a model for a sketch I couldn’t see, then got her to play a game with him of patting water on each other’s face and pouring water on each other’s head. Finally he took off all his clothes and danced a frenzied monologue under a single hanging spotlight, cleverly hiding what he’d invited the audience to look for.

All these tropes seemed familiar from Tanztheater evenings past. On one level I thought the piece quite self-indulgent. But looking at it as a cosmic statement about Life and Death (is Tanztheater ever about anything else?), I decided his writhing naked body might have represented a fish or even a survivor of that initial shipwreck.