Just one week after Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company launched its 2010/2011 season with Configurations at the Jeané Wagner Theater, another season-opener took place in the same location – H2O, by Repertory Dance Theater. The show, which consisted entirely of pieces treating the theme of water in it various states and phases, was performed on three nights, September 30 – October 2. Attendance and enthusiasm levels were especially high, and boded well for a successful year of modern dance.
From the outset of the program, one could not help but remark the clear difference between Salt Lake City’s two principle dance companies. The distinction manifests itself immediately, beginning with the titles of their respective shows. Ririe-Woodbury, which strives to remain entirely cutting-edge, generally features brand-new compositions, many debuting for the very first time anywhere on the Jeané Wagner stage. Their shows for the last several performances have names taken from the austere, mechanical language of design and analysis – Interiors, Configurations, Equilibrium. The Ririe-Woodbury body, as evinced by the company’s dancers, is ultra-lean, a maximally-efficient technical apparatus used to perform kinetic experiments in the actualization of potential energies, the generation of possible effects.
Ririe-Woodbury performances, appropriately, make frequent use of stage equipment sufficient complexity and scale to exceed the category of mere stage properties, and to cross over into the hyper-sophisticated dues-ex-machina technology of the neo-baroque or post-modernist stage. Here, the dancers seem not to employ or explore any individual objects which might enhance basic human expressivity so much as they veritably inhabit bodily networks and inorganic assemblages without which there would be no dance at all. To speak in broad terms, it is the larger apparatus which dances, while the members of the Ririe-Woodbury company merely function as its incidental operators.
Repertory Dance Theater, to its great credit, takes a strikingly different approach to dance. Avowedly less driven by any program of technical innovation, RDT stands confident in the continuing power and relevance of strict modernism. Instead of turning to the vocabulary of structural analysis, RDT rather seeks inspiration from the realm of nature and the organic. Hence, the title of last weekend’s show, H2O. Rather than any hydraulic neo-ballet of the sort Ririe-Woodbury might stage, RDT eschews all connections between plumbing and human action, and presents water rather as a vital substance whose surges and stases communicate the movements of the soul. This entirely distinct orientation toward dance requires a fundamentally different physique, as can be seen in the more fleshy and, frankly, mortal bodies of RDT’s company.
While the performance of H2O did make key use of props, lighting and actual splashing water, these accessories never took center stage or in anyway eclipsed the fundamental humanity of the various choreographed works. Take, for instance, the opening number, Dorris Humphries’ “Water Study” (1928). This piece is choreographed without lead dancers, but rather with a chorus whose combined movements produce a sequence of wave and ripple effects. Even here, however, the focus was always on the vicissitudes of human emotion. The shifting bodies evoked patterns of water, sensuous surfaces which reflect psychological states and occasion introspection. Performed entirely without music, “Water Study,” as the title might suggest, functioned as a modern-dance equivalent to impressionist artworks, say, Claude Monet’s water lilies, each dancer’s body acting as an individual point of color, or unit of sensation, within an overall composition whose purpose is to create in the viewer compelling states of attention through painterly means.
In seeing “Water Study” performed, one can’t help but wonder why the music of Claude Debussy was not joined to it. But the lack of any sort of joining is precisely what makes Humphries’ choreography so persuasive and decidedly modern. Indeed the super- or sub-imposition of music, even Debussy’s, would have destroyed the purity and simplicity of the dance, exchanging its delicate superficiality for the sodden profundity of Richard Wagner’s opera. In the same way impressionist painting had to reject historical narrative in order to direct the viewer to an ever-clearer awareness of the actual nature of vision, so high-modernist dances such as “Water Study,” though they aspire to the effects of painting and music, must nevertheless restrict themselves to their own inner capacities. The opening number of H2O, then, struck me as one of the clearest and most striking examples of modern dance, as truly modern and purely dance, that I have even seen in many years. That this result was achieved so effectively by a chorus of dancers who were quite visibly of high school age, should be recognized as an appreciable achievement on the part of both the performers and director.
The next piece of the evening, Ford Evan’s “Watermark” (1995), had much of the flavor of “Water Study”. Here, however, the deliberate restraint which was so essential to the earlier piece was deliberately abandoned in the pursuit of more intense effects. “Watermark,” by interrupting the smooth surface of the chorus and foregrounding discrete pairs and dancers, creates a feeling of water’s more dynamic possibilities. Rather than as a rolling and pitching continuum, here, water, by means of a variety of spins and leaps and catches, is represented as breaking into peaks and capped waves, or whirling through rapids, sluicing through channels and plunging over cataracts. The intent of this commissioned piece was to offer a tribute to the wide variety of aqueous formation to be found in Utah. As such, it gives the view not only an alternative perspective on one of the driest states in the union, but it also reflect RDT’s clear commitment to raising the level of awareness regarding non-artist issues amongst its audience members.
Last season RDT officially and publically announced these commitments in its presentation of Green Map, an ongoing project in which the company allows the public to choreograph their movements in a piece of dance whose elements are determined by an analysis or consumer trends across the valley. It should be recognized that in this project RDT sets aside its strict commitment to aesthetic purism, and enters the arena of overt politics. This is not only because RDT here combines art with non-artistic concerns and topics, but also because of “Green Map”’s overtly pedagogical thrust. Such an incursion of the values teaching into the space of dance does not necessarily remove RDT from the world of modernism. But it does take the company in the direction of a very different kind of modernism – not that of Pablo Picasso’s Paris avant-garde so much as that of Soviet Constructivism and El Lissitzky’s Agit-Prop. The significance of Constructivism, both aesthetically and politically should not be underrated, nor is there any reason automatically to this change in RDT’s course dimly. Constructivism achieved its most striking results when explicitly and fearlessly sacrificing all bourgeois sentimentalism in pursuit of a bold novel art adequate to the New Soviet Man. In light of this it seems fair to argue that the ultimate success of RDT’s “Green Map” project, perhaps on more fronts than one, will be determined by its ability to refrain from lapsing into the Romantic myth of Mother Nature or the Victorian ideology of human perfectibility through a culture of Sweetness and Light.
The next piece of the evening was an encore performance of one of last season’s most breathtaking moments, Francie Lloyd’s “The Lady of The Lake” (2004). The piece, entailing nothing more than a transparent tank of water and a single female figure clad in a minimal nude leotard, could not fail to provoke and arouse the audience, which manifested its discomfort through a variety of standard defense mechanisms, most notably inappropriate laughter and embarrassingly enthusiastic applause. That much admitted, it would be hard for anyone not to be hugely impressed by the intense artistry, athleticism and raw self-confidence of solo performer M. Colleen Hoelscher. For “The Lady of The Lake,” whether parents bringing their young daughters to see RDT want to admit it or not, resembles nothing so much as a strip tease which substitutes a tank of water for a stripper pole.
This open acknowledgement of the highly artificial, indeed vulgar cultural material from which “The Lady of The Lake” takes its cues, in no way seeks to disparage either the dance or its performance. On the contrary, this piece, in a variety of ways which were remarkably effective, reenacted the powerful drama of the human form which discovers itself to be detached from nature. Here, water loses its sense of being an immediately intelligible element. It confronts the human form as radically other, aggressively impassive, at once both threatening and seductive. In recognition of this, the dance quickly introduces a series of kicks and strikes which violently agitate the surface of the contained water and can only be read as unrestrained attacks, existential gestures of the kind one finds in the novels of Albert Camus. The prevailing erotic aggression of the piece is mitigated only by intermittent of moments of narcissism, when the object-oriented libido of the dancer is directed back toward the self, as if to consolidate an ego independent of the elements from which the body first emerged. Though powerfully visceral, one can’t deny the profound intellectual component of this piece. Indeed, the enduring and aesthetic satisfaction it provides, one which last far longer than its initial power to titillate, resides in its insistence that mental struggle is perfectly coincident with bodily struggle, that mind and body are in fact two aspects of the same primordial entity. Here, RDT exits the arena of politics and returns to realm it dwells in best, the phenomenology of the body.
After the obligatory intermission, RDT concluded H20 with a performance of Zvi Gotheiner’s “Glacier” (1999). Most immediately the title of the piece refers to massive formations of frozen water, and appropriately enough the lights go up on a single stream of water dropping from the ceiling into a ice-like lucite bucket on the stage. From out of a receding line formed by the members of the company, which can only be read as successive generations of the human species, a single dancer, representing an archaic precursor figure, approaches the water with a kind of reverential awe. The dancer’s engagements with the water suggest a kind of spontaneous ritual emerging out of a primordial encounter with one the most elemental wonders of nature. Here, as an alternative to standard view of primitive religion as taking the form of pyrolatry and the quest for fire, “Glacier insteads presents an archaic hyrdolatrous cult in which the devotee does not seek water so much as strive to grasp, both physically and mentally, its flowing, protean body. Nothing could be further from the hydraulic physics which one might expect from, say, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.
For obvious reasons, “Glacier” cannot help but recall “The Lady of the Lake.” However, this is not a problematic association, because rather them simply repeating early themes, this next piece recapitulates them on a collective level. The intense personal encounter with the otherness of water, here, is viewed now on the collective level, and in terms of a greater temporary scale. For in the various sections, or phases, of “Glacier,” the name is revealed to make reference not only to a geological formation, but also to a geological time scale. Over the course of the dance the members of the company depict the evolution of human society as intimately, indeed dialectically related water, starting from a state of abundance and collective consciousness, and degenerating into economies of scarcity and competition, private property and individual consciousness, and secondary, or pathological narcissism. This narcissistic phase is depicted, appropriately enough, through the strategic use of mirrors, which not only allow lead dancers to interact with their own image, but also confront the audience with powerful images of fragmentation, displacement and otherwise-altered states. If “The Lady of The Lake” argues persuasively for the identity of mind and body, “Glacier” depicts the confusion and strife, which result when that identity is shattered.
All in all, H20 provided a greatly satisfying evening of dance. Though not entirely consistent, the overall show was clearly informed by a unifying logic, and it gave its audience much to appreciate and contemplate. In particular, H2O was effective in those brilliant moments in which it invited the audience not to decipher or identify great themes, but simply to regard the spectacle of the body, engaging tactilely with the element of which it predominantly consists, and reflecting on the infinite complex feeling with derive from the body’s difficult love of its external identity, its alienated essence.