[Ed. note: Brian Howe, a widely ranging culture critic and reporter, writes frequently for the Independent Weekly and other publications. He joins us today as a guest blogger, and responds to the current mainstage offerings of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Trisha Brown Dance Company.]
Thursday night’s eclectic showcase, which continues tonight and Saturday, June 14, peaked early for me, with Alwin Nikolais’ incredible Crucible, performed admirably by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company of Salt Lake City. The dancers stood behind a waist-high, mirrored plane that slanted down toward the audience, so that every visible movement was paralleled by a quivering reflection. The lighting spilled from red to blue to stripes, always tight on the dancers, so they appeared to be hovering holograms in a dark field. Along with the lighting, the fantastic sound design (which featured all the texture and rupture of a Nico Muhly composition) impressed different auras on the spectacle: kaleidoscopic, aquatic, insectile.
The piece began with just arms arcing over the mirrored plane, cast in blood-red light and twinned in the mirror, so they described a series of helices rippling across the stage. As the dancers revealed more of themselves, engaging in more elegant and elaborate contortions, a contradiction emerged: the piece was densely corporeal, yet the bodies were denatured; pure form, color, and shape, symmetrically bound to the horizontal axis of the mirror’s top edge.
Nikolais’ art is both audacious and inviting—there’s nothing coy about it; it clearly aims to wow, and does. The Nikolais piece that closed the night, Tensile Involvement, was very brief, but just as marvelous as Crucible. Dancers in yellow spandex held long, stretchy ribbons of fabric, which were attached to the ceiling at the corners of the stage, creating a complex web. It looked rather like a Maypole game gone horribly awry. Tensile Involvement was another take on the vivisection of space, as the previously wide-open stage was carved into vectors, acute angles, boxes in boxes, great belling curves, lines of force and velocity. The beautiful thing about dance is how it can, at least temporarily, transform our perception of the human body, revealing the grace underlying the awkwardness we perceive in ourselves and others every day. But Nikolais’ transformation goes beyond the physical—space itself is revealed as pure potential.
I mention Nikolais’ lack of coyness to set up a contrast, as two of the three pieces presented by the Trisha Brown Dance Company were coy in the extreme. The solo piece Accumulation featured a series of very simple, repetitive movements set to a Grateful Dead song. Spanish Dance featured five female dancers dressed all in white, in a leftward facing, mug shot-ish line, gradually sneaking up on one another in a kind of clinical dry hump, until they all formed one stiffly squirming mass and—punchline/spoiler alert—ran into the wall. Honestly, these two pieces left me cold, especially in the context of Nikolais’ generosity. They were essentially choreographed one-liners for dance insiders, one of which I am decidedly not. There was nothing beautiful or transcendent about these dances, they were clever, referential, ironic: dancing about dancing. Some people in the audience did laugh heartily, although I couldn’t tell whether it was genuine laughter, or the laughter of in-the-know people wanting to announce their status (you know this laughter, it’s always a little brittle, a little too hearty to connect meaningfully to its subject). I don’t mean to sound overly hostile to these pieces: They were cute. But after the splendor of Crucible, cute seemed insufficient.
The third piece by Trisha Brown’s company, however, proved that they’ve much more than ironic nudges up their billowy sleeves: the lovely, contemplative Present Tense featured five dancers in red and gold, before a painted backdrop that simultaneously evoked Japanese brushwork, Pop Art, and a child’s crayon drawing. John Cage’s prepared piano set a perfectly tentative tone as the dancers engaged in slow, controlled tumbles, like underwater acrobats. The piece was fairly long, and the physical prowess of the dancers was literally incredible: they moved effortlessly between dominance and submission; a tidal shift of power and control flowed between them. Bodies touched tenderly, yet treated each other as objects: stairs, tunnels, balances, fulcrums, axes, levers, pulleys. Bodies as soft machines, articulating algorithms with virtuosic fluidity.
As Page Auditorium’s gothic spires fell away into the night behind me, I thought about the two different kinds of dance I’d seen: Crucible, Tensile Involvement, and Present Tense were dances for everybody—generous and gorgeous and conceptual in a way that all art-lovers, not just dance insiders, can enjoy. Accumulation and Spanish Dance were less inclusive, and that’s fine—but there’s a big difference between art that pleases us by revealing the extraordinary, and art that flatters us by reaffirming what we already know. —Brian Howe
Alwin Nikolais’ Crucible & Tensile Involvement
by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company
Accumulation, Present Tense & Spanish Dance
Trisha Brown Dance Company