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A flurry of provocative dance engages both eyes and minds

A trio of dancers from Zoe/Juniper's "A Crack in Everything." Credit: Christopher Duggan

Watching last weekend’s dance performances — the Dec. 2 Mark Morris Dance Group at the Moore Theater, and the next night’s performance of Zoe/Juniper at On the Boards — brought to mind some of the dances I’ve seen of the Aboriginal people of northeastern Australia. This is not to say that the contemporary dance works last weekend looked at all like Aboriginal dance, but rather that each had deeper metaphorical and interpretive qualities than immediately met the eye.

Aboriginal dance is profoundly invested with human connection to the natural world — animals, spirits, celestial forces, water, fire, and the physical environment. All are alive. The dances are meant to evoke and strengthen these relations, and to make real that which cannot be easily seen. They, and their accompanying music and body painting, may seem quite simple to those unfamiliar with the culture.

What you or I might see as the dance of a man imitating a kangaroo can have multiple layers of meanings — especially when viewed within the broader matrix of Aboriginal sacred and social life: How to properly hunt; the virtuous qualities the kangaroo possesses; implications for how humans should behave; the connection a kangaroo has to a constellation of spiritual powers that inhabit the land; or the totemic meaning of this animal for specific clans or moieties.

Even young Aboriginal people, through inexperience and lack of information, might see these dances on the most elementary level, but as they grow older they will learn more about the dance’s sophistication.

Because we are missing these shared experiences, we can’t observe contemporary dance with the same comprehension and appreciation that a fully initiated Aboriginal man or woman might view their own performance traditions. There is no common lexicon that we all share and understand about these dances, and we are not likely to have learned or performed them at one time or another.

Further, contemporary dance emphasizes the individualized look of each choreographer’s work, and embraces an enormous variety of aesthetic approaches and cultural influences. Last week at Meany Hall, for instance, I saw a dance by an African American modern ballet choreographer with a score composed by an Indian American tabla virtuoso, whose music was inspired by a Russian composer and that included Central Asian throat singing. The dance’s theme was a modern read on a Persian/Arabic legend.

Contemporary dances often have conceptual underpinnings that ask we understand what the choreographer is trying to say through the unique expression of his or her work, sometimes helped along by a choreographer’s statement in the program notes. In an interview on KUOW that he gave while here for the Moore shows, Mark Morris said he never reads these notes before a show, suggesting that all he wants to know about a dance will be revealed in its performance.

That may explain why, of the two choreographers last weekend, Mr. Morris’ work had the more universal appeal. Of course, part of it is simply his fame. Whatever he might do, he has the stamp of critical and popular acceptance that makes it easier for an audience to support his work, even that which might look “different” from what they usually see.

Still, in addition to his reknown, he more often than not creates dances that are near pitch-perfect partners to the classical or contemporary music that accompanies them, therefore comfortable for audiences used to seeing dance structured this way.

The first work on the program at the Moore, “Festival Dance,” was a classic of this genre. Premiered earlier this year, it had a lovely score by Johann Nepomuk Hummel — a contemporary of Beethoven, played beautifully live by a trio of Joanna Frankel, Andrew Janss, and Colin Fowler.

Morris’ musical knowledge and sophistication was evident throughout the piece, a sunny idyll for six young couples. A series of easeful duets was performed wonderfully by the company, interwoven with lines of dancers that echoed the choreographer’s intimate knowledge of folk forms. The lyrical movement had an appealing restraint; it could easily have been performed more assertively, but wisely was not.

A choreographer of complexity and range, Morris is sometimes a bit precious, as with one dancer “bouncing” another, and often too slavish to the beat or line of music he obviously adores. “Festival Dance” holds these tendencies, if not fully in check, then certainly in no way damaging to the flow of this charming work.

Most interestingly, the dance is a text on the facility Morris displays as a superb dancemaker. Extended phrases flow easily one into another and nothing appears forced. Motifs are repeated and expanded upon with a depth that appears deceivingly elementary: A lovely arbor of arms, which couples run through, dissolves only to later reappear, and lines of dancers arrange and rearrange in those “folky” segments. The audience is delighted by these devices, intuiting perhaps that what appears so simple really is not. It is Morris at his most broadly appealing, with his movement devices choreographically masterful.

When he took a bow at the end of the evening, both with his company and then alone, I realized anew that he was not the young sprite that I still remember — the slightly pudgy and devilish faun of his youth. Here was a greying man in his mid-50’s, decades older than his dancers. “Festival Dance,” for all its sweetness, was a bit elegiac in retrospect, with Morris — the now-mature artist — celebrating the dancer’s youth. No lament, just perhaps an acknowledgment on his part.

The second dance of the evening, also seen for the first time in Seattle, was “Violet Cavern.” Choreographed in 2004, it is set to an atonal, sporadic and often loud score by The Bad Plus, a trio crossing the lines of jazz, rock, and new music featuring piano, bass, and percussion. I’ve seen a number of works by Morris over the years, but have not had the opportunity to see him extend his reach through to this genre. Suspended above the stage was a series of rectangular forms, covered with sprays of black lines that were ingeniously lit at different times with a range of colors.

The marriage of the music and the movement seemed to be a struggle for the choreographer. Perhaps it is the improvisational nature of jazz, or the alternations of bombast with silence. It was not distinctive music and not easily danceable. Morris has worked from time to time with newly created scores, but likely nothing quite like this.

The dancers also seemed to struggle at times, especially in the beginning. Most troubling seemed the movements that were rapid and muscular with big, off-kilter leaps and turns, quick spins and fast stage crossings. Some of the newer dancers in the company seemed to be trying to figure out how it all worked, though as the dance progressed they appeared to find their ways.

There are seven sections to “Violet Cavern.” Some were lovely, containing moments such as a spectacular exit off-stage, with all the dancers spinning like tops; at one point a standing dancer crossed the stage, accompanied by two dancers on their backs on the ground, pushing themselves along with their feet. At another, pairs of dancers traveled across the stage, one insouciantly slapping the back of the hand of the other.

Still, the piece in its entirety was too long, and some sections went nowhere, as when the dancers lay on the ground for a very long time doing rolls, leg lifts and splits, as if in a yoga or stretch class. It seemed as if Morris was exploring what fit with the music, not quite settling on comfortable material.

The beautifully-lit set pieces suspended above the stage reminded me of mid-century fiberglass lampshades, with the same luminescence and black free-form lines that sat upon a variety of kitschy lamps with hula girls or oddball shapes. Along with the identifiably “jazzier” sections of the music, the dance made me think of Jerome Robbins’ 1950s experiments, such as “New York Export: Opus Jazz,“ or “Moves,” a ballet performed in silence. Robbins was seeking new and expressive ways to look at the relationship of sound (or lack of it) and movement. Perhaps Morris, like Robbins with his own catholic taste in music, was seeking the same with this score.

The edgy and visceral “Violet Cavern” allowed viewers to engage differently than with “Festival Dance.” It is not as easy on the eye and the ear, and therefore on the mind. We are asked not to sit back and watch enjoyably, but to actively meet what we see and bring our own sense of meaning to it, however abstract or mysterious that might be. 

In that same KUOW interview, Morris was asked if he had ever choreographed a piece with no accompanying musical score. Yes, he said, he has, in 1990 while working in Belgium. It is called “Behemoth.” I hope that some time we can see this silent dance here in Seattle.

Morris’ work stressed the primacy of choreographed movement, and its relationship and partnership with music, all in real-time and marked by the measure of the score. The lighting, décor, and costuming acted to support these paired elements.

Zoe/Juniper’s work, “A Crack in Everything” took a much different approach, blending movement with an ambitious visual and stage design in service to “an experiment in permeability and containment, aggression and catharsis.” Rather than a single composer, we had a collage of music. At various moments of the work, video, lighting, costumes, and stage design assumed primacy over the dancing. The effect was total theater, with multiple levels of expression.

As the program notes further relate, “The installation and performance are meditations on moments that divide people’s lives into these non-linear experiences of time and how our memory creates its own separate physical life, space, and time.” While not exactly a road map for viewers, those who read this beforehand might very well have been looking for tangible representations of these ideas to bring coherency to a piece with a range of stage elements and concepts at work.

Zoe Scofield, choreographer, and her husband and creative partner, the video/sculptor/photographer and performance artist, Juniper Shuey, ask us to see what they see, but in a manner that allowed much latitude for our own interpretation. We are free to make our own stories, to just let it flow over us, to accept some parts and ignore others. Or to try and sort it out at a later time, as some images remain with us and others are discarded.

In February of this year, I saw an abridged version of this work as part of the A.W.A.R.D. Show, also at On the Boards. It did not cohere as a complete statement, but I was struck by several aspects: ghost-like video projections of dancers, a long red string connected to a performer’s mouth leading off-stage, and a dancer, Scofield I believe, against the back wall of the theater, drawing outlines of herself with a marker, which when she moved away, remained for us to see — an after-image of her real being.

As we enter On the Boards, there are several feet of a shiny white stage floor, almost like water, and behind it a downstage scrim acting as a screen, on which is projected what appears to be an ivy-covered wall, perhaps shimmering in a bit of wind. It is a placid scene, yet portentous, as we wait for the action to begin.

We first see two dancers, who are soon mated with their video doppelgangers, setting the stage for the work’s major premise —  the illusion of our reality, juxtaposed with that which exists in other dimensions, filtered through our own memories. There are five dancers, all excellent, but especially interesting are the lanky Rajah Kelly, the only man, often portraying a menacing or controlling figure, and the shortest of the quintet, the very direct and clear Anna Schon.

The woman with the red string coming out her mouth enters early and re-occurs as a motif. Information at the On the Board’s website said this image represented to Scofield both capture and journey, as well as pain, and was derived from a back injury so severe that she thought of pulling her spine out her mouth.

The visuals in this dreamscape are perhaps the strongest element: A run of bright lights at the back of the stage occasionally setting off a blinding glare perhaps to signal a new reality; or those projections of the dancers, used too judiciously. I would have liked to have seen more of them. The costumes, by Erik Andor, are light-colored body suits, covered at times in tunics, the dancers wearing golden half-face masks, as if from a Greek or Roman play. That strange menacing force, played by Kelly, is at first dressed in what reminded me of the giant lobster costume from the movie “Matinee,” at another time a Tuareg tribesman in face-wrapped mufti.

Perhaps the most powerful and enduring segment is one that has been expanded from their performance last February. A dancer, Scofield, spends a great deal of time doing that sketchy outlining of herself, this time all the way across the stage on that front clear plastic scrim. The images she leaves are very evocative, looking less like complete people as she goes along and more like received memories, arms more pronounced here, legs there, sometimes even one or two looking more animal than human. At one point the clear plastic is separated from its white background and flown above the stage, remaining there for the rest of the show — an elevated Proustian remembrance of things past.

While the performers are very fine dancers, the choreography itself is not always the strongest link. Many segments seem to go on for too long, the idea played out before the dancing ends, though I liked Scofield’s strong and sinewy approach to movement. Most striking was a quiet trio stage right towards the end of the 70-minute work, where the upright dancers stayed together in simple steps, occasionally seeming as if they were leaving the stage (at least one briefly does disappear), but then changing course and moving back on.

Full of metaphors, and mysterious moments, “A Crack in Everything” is an accumulation of images. It is not conventional in the way of “Festival Dance” or even “Violet Cavern.” Viewers are left to experience, but also to interpret from their own experiences. Some will see a profound commentary on reality, some a reflection of their own personal searching. Some will create a linear narrative, others might be frustrated in trying to make sense of something that the creators are telling us, but we just don’t get.

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