Cipher @ Rose Wagner Theater

Posted December 20, 2010 in
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This last weekend The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company presented Cipher, a show choreographed entirely by artistic director Charlotte Boye-Christensen.  The first half of the evening was comprised of a suite of dances that Ririe-Woodbury had already performed in recent years.  But any initial disappointment I might have felt on discovering this was quickly dispelled.  These performances felt not like mere repetitions, but rather conscious revisions and reinterpretations of previous work.  This was due not only to the very high level of artistry displayed by the dancers, but also by the fact that the dances themselves appeared visibly stripped down, the dancers fewer in number and the sets simpler.   The effect, if not one of outright Minimalism, nevertheless made intelligent reference to that sensibility.  


The first of these numbers, “Turf,” originally appeared in the show Interiors.  This piece, which looked like a tougher and more modern adaptation of West Side Story, put a variety of dancers, male and female, into a number of provocative encounters which hovered ambiguously between acts of violent incorporation and expulsion.  It feels as if the dancers were hazing one another into some sort of gang, though the poles of insider/outsider, entering/exiting and attraction/repulsion were kept in a state of continuous reversal.


The next number, “Key,” debuted earlier this same season, in Configurations.  A tribute to the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, this piece was the most drastic revision of the evening, stripping the original down to its bare essentials.  The reduced number of dancers allowed the audience to concentrate less on choral movements and far more on individual bodies.  This new focus was sharpened by the way the current performance made less spectacular and thematic use of lighting.  The induced effect of cinema so brilliantly evoked in the piece’s debut (Boye-Christensen’s nod to the award-winning Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould), was sacrificed in order to concentrate on a different theme, the sensibility and pathos, which is to say passion, of the individual performer. 


Four memorable moments of the performance demonstrated this.  The first was the birthing gesture created as three dancers combined forces to reenact a newborn’s passage through the gates of life and into the strange state of exposure we call the ‘world’.  The second was a brief section of the dance, which included a recorded monologue of Gould discussing his preference for birds (in this case barnyard fowl) over humans.  He explained that it was his youthful intention to write an opera for chickens.  Here, one can only think of the life and preaching of St. Francis of Assissi, though now transposed into a secular-humorist as opposed to a spiritual key.  A third instance was a scene in which the dancers performed ritualized gestures of washing, alluding to Gould’s well-known compulsive behaviors.  So doing, they trope Gould’s signature piece, J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, transforming it into the Goldberg Ablutions.  The final example was a striking moment in which the members of the ensemble, seated onstage and struggling to maintain a posture poised between laying back and sitting up.  In this limbo, they each stretched forth a single finger.  Though the immediate reference is to Gould striking a single note at the keyboard, the posture and gesturing arm recalled the male figures depicted in the Creation of Adam of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Here, because of the unmistakable strain entailed in the pose, the acts of creation and reception, and indeed all performing, are staged as states of suffering.


Up next was “Gravity.”  In this piece the dancers kept close to the stage as they entered and exited a series of poses resembling yoga asanas.  The highly repetitive music of Steve Reich, famous for his use of standing and shifting phase patterns, created a trance-like feel.  Within this space the dancers executed a number of different movements—draping, billowing, swinging, sliding, collapsing, vaulting—each of which highlighted two existentially given poles of human bodily experience: subjection to gravity and the ecstasy of momentary liberation from it. 


The last number before intermission was “Bridge,” a piece whose intention seemed to span the abyss dividing the archaic and the modern, akin to the work of heroic modernist architect Le Corbusier.  In imagining antiquity, however, Boye-Christensen differs from Corbusier by turning to an antiquity other than that of the Greeks.   The cut of the ensemble’s attire immediately recalled that of dynastic Egypt, and their movements recalled the sidelong, hieratic, indeed hieroglyphic poses seen in pharaonic wall inscriptions.  What soon strikes the observer however is the way these rudimentary forms and movements seem closely to replicate the basic motions performed by the most elementary machines—plane, screw, level, axel, pulley, wedge.  According to this overtly anti-organicist, deliberately mechanical model, choreography does not function deductively or synthetically.  A choreographer does not intuit inner spiritual feeling and express it outwardly through the creation of symbolic forms.  Just the opposite, dance, here, is built from the ground up, literally engineered, not as a living form but rather as a product of industry, say, for instance, a bridge.


After a brief intermission, the Ririe-Woodbury Company commenced with the final dance of the evening, the world-premier performance of Touching Fire.  This piece was a collaborative project which included written text by David Kranes and set design by Nathan Webster.  Kranes, a former University of Utah faculty member, is a respected writer who has published seven novels and numerous short stories.  Over forty of his plays have appeared on stage.  Webster is an award-winning local architect whose accomplishments include a new building design for the Tracy Aviary. 


In contrast to the strict objectivity of “Gravity” (body as dancing machine), “Touching Fire” figured as a veritable phenomenology, a relentlessly reflective and confessional first-person-singular investigation of private experience, an exploration of impossibly contradictory subjective states which, by their very nature, can only be experienced in the form of dreams, fantasies and private myths.  The piece opened with a single female dancer, clad in what appeared to be Victorian wool stockings and a long chemise—eroticized undergarments of the sort seen in the paintings of Balthus or the eerily sexualized mannequins photographed by Hans Bellmer.   Evoking feelings of desire, curiosity and confusion associated with nascent sexuality, the dance unfolded in a series of inversions and rolls which suggested auto-erotic self-exploration.  My own confession: I may be reading too much into Touching Fire.  However, I cannot recall, for all the dance performances I have attended, one in which seeing up a dancer’s dress so completely counted for seeing up a dancer’s dress.


A later movement in the piece brilliantly employed partially and totally transparent windows/mirrors.  Dancers positioned between these surfaces enact highly ambiguous scenes from domestic life in which breaking up and making up become all but indistinguishable.  The mirrors multiplied the dancers’ images to infinity, making them seem strangely disembodied.  Partially erased in this way, the dancers figure as mere quotations, caught up in a network of utterances whose larger syntax ultimately determines their place and value.  This use of windows/mirrors, a technique first pioneered in the 1970s in work of conceptual and media artist Dan Graham, confounds not only image and reality, but also sculpture and architecture as well as public and private space.  It becomes hard to tell whether the dancers in Touching Fire are meant to be understood as inhabiting domestic, retail or televised reality.  What is all too certain however is the feeling of discomfort created in the audience as it suddenly perceives its own image captured within the set’s visual apparatus.  Through an elegant but powerful shift of conventional coordinates, the audience sees itself on stage, sees itself seeing, as if from the dancers’ perspective.  Here the audience is forced to confront its—generally unacknowledged—voyeuristic investment in modern dance. We are made to recognize that the spectator of any stage performance is caught up, and indeed created, by a visual apparatus, a closed circuit of gazes.


This inverted power relationship between human and mechanism was illustrated with compelling simplicity in an even later movement of the dance.  Here, a suspended electric fan—shiny and mindlessly driven, like a housefly trapped behind window glass—descended from above the stage and wanders as its tether will permit.  Beneath the buzzing machine, a solitary dancer sways gently in response.  The human form takes its lead from a brainless, but graceful machine. 


Above these scenes of soft violence by surveillance and air conditioning, Kranes’s disembodied voice issued an ongoing inner monologue.   The solitary voice, in a series of pronouncements reminiscent of philosophical antinomies, spoke of its longing simultaneously to enjoy contrary states: to be firmly grounded and yet suspended in air, to be wholly engulfed by another and yet utterly alone, to experience perfect familiarity and yet abide with a total stranger.  These impossible yearnings would seem to represent an inaccessible but powerfully felt reality which lies beyond the staged world of representations.  In the words of the 14th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart, to access such a reality would be to dwell in fire and not be burned.   In Touching, multimedia performance, a mode of artistic production which increasingly smacks of everyday digital life, becomes a meditation on a fundamental spiritual proposition: that we will never have access to our innermost selves without first annihilating our egos, which exist most powerfully and persistently in the form of bodily images.


Cipher ran from December 16th – 18th in the Leona Wagner Black Box Theater of the Rose Wagner Performing Art Center.