West by Charlotte Boye-Christensen. Photo: Fred Hayes
The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company opened its final show of the evening, Iridescence, on April 26, in the Jeanne Wagner Theater at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Though there was not a capacity crowd, the event was certainly well attended, and by an unusually vocal group of fans.
The scheduled events of the evening began with Bill T. Jones’s Duet (1995), which Ririe-Woodbury performed in last season’s Configurations, though this time the piece featured a male and a female dancer instead of two males. For decades, the term formalist has been slung as a term of abuse, one suggesting remoteness, lack of feeling and distance from real life. In Jones’ choreography, however, a conscious adoption of formalism yields not aloofness so much as a sense of unperturbed self-confidence, a quality of artistry which feels no need to pander to popular trends or audience expectations. From this position of autonomy and repose, Jones is able, off stage, to turn himself calmly and deliberately to his various political commitments.
Self-confidence in Jones’ choreography does not manifest itself as the bold assertion of private feelings or personal identity. Consequently, “Duet,” though an undeniably beautiful dance, is nevertheless a relatively austere one. The two bodies, positioning themselves within a coordinate grid function as elements which find their value within a larger total structure—like lines in a painting, whose value is only determined by the way they are integrated into the larger composition. Emotive interaction between the two figures is kept to a bare minimum.
Another key feature of Jones’s decidedly modernist approach to dance is his use of the individual body as a kind of painterly canvas, one in which he seeks to create an “all-over” or “field” effect. If modernist painting strives to challenge the traditional opposition of figure and ground and instead seeks to disperse the painting’s focus over the entire canvas, Jones’s choreography, in a similar manner, not merely extends the familiar gestures of arms and legs to more expressive extremes, but rather strives to distribute motion equally over the entire anatomy, liberating the body from its familiar function as a vehicle of the individual ego.
The next number was a world premier of Charlotte Boye-Christensen’s West. Previously, Ririe-Woodbury had presented various sections of this piece under the title “Preliminary Sketches,” and the finished product did indeed show evidence of substantial revisions. West begins with facing rows of chairs in which the members of the company are seated. Through the use of the country-and-western music of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, West explores the body as a site of vital activity. This vitality manifests itself in the form of the restless and ungovernable tics or lurches which the wild body exhibits when harnessed within institutional restraints. This state of semi-constraint is invoked through the use of familiar stamped-steel folding chairs and business-casual attire. Most action, here, is strictly limited to what can be performed while seated, which amounts to a remarkably lively and entertaining species of jitterbugging, though this basic form was at times punctuated by dancers’ surging leaps onto an opposing chair.
After this, the use of music by singer Tom Waits took the dance in a more humorous direction. A deadpan monologue about domestic felicity and arson, from the album Rain Dogs, drew laughter from the audience, though not so hearty as was heard when this piece appeared in last season’s Prisms. The final section of the dance returns the company to the seated position. A group of dancers circle a central figure and actively observe all movements. Here, West seems to run through a variety of possible reactions and attitudes shared by audience and performer, a gamut which includes attention and oblivion, seriousness and hilarity, solitude and solidarity.
The next dance was It’s Gonna Get Loud (2009), by New York choreographer Karole Armitage. This piece was also performed last season, in Ririe-Woodbury’s Equilibrium. “Loud” began with an utterly bare dance space, the stage as a literal black cement box. The sounding of a lone electric guitar, that of ’80s No-Wave composer Rhys Chathtam, occupied this vacancy. The aluminoid drone of a Telecaster—for the length of the entire piece Chattham relentlessly played a single open string—served to reinforce a mood of cold impersonality. Rather than Wall Street suits and ties, which was the attire in the last performance of this number, the dancers wore black and gray tights evoking rehearsal—and perhaps evoking the notion of dance as profession. A few simple modifications such as this, and less emphasis on conflict and collision, produced remarkable results. Rather than the intense sense of capitalist competition, which predominated in the earlier performance, Armitage’s choreographry yielded a far greater ensemble feel. As in Jones’s Duet, interaction between dancers was limited. But now the setting of individual bodies into perpetual motion—everywhere pistons and pendulums—created a sense of bio-mechanical morphing rather than human heat. The overall effect was highly energetic and entirely captivating.
After a brief intermission, the evening continued with another premier performance, Charlotte Boye-Christensen’s Those In The Desert. This piece seemed to be a meditation and commentary on Bill T. Jones’s Duet. Boye-Christensen seemed to pick up the detached formalism of the earlier piece and transpose it from the register of the formal sovereignty into that of the “cool,” as Miles Davis did when first combining jazz and classical music. The result in this piece is a hypnotic series of tight groupings, in which most interaction demurs direct contact in favor of salutations and signs, though these are frequently punctuated by sudden fluttering dispersions. The dance, like the score by Ibrahim Maalouf, seems anchored in terms of strict cadences as it does structured around a point of central disequilibrium, so that the dance unwinds in the form of an ongoing syncope.
The final piece of the night was a debut performance of Keith Johnson’s Secret Dark World. Whereas the earlier pieces by Jones and Boye-Christensen either eschewed all narrative and character, or employed it with great discretion, Johnson’s piece did just the opposite, relinquishing such restraint and crossing over into the domain of the theatrical. The dancers, dressed in calico dresses and flannel trousers evocative of the early 20th-century, performed a series of vignettes which figured as an extended meditation of childhood sexuality and aggressiveness. From the opening scene, which showed an individual’s first attempts at assume upright posture, through subsequent representations of schoolhouse cruelty, to later transpositions of these actions into the register of adult sexual pathologies, the entire piece relied heavily on story and character and begged for symbolic and psychological interpretation. In this respect, Dark Secret World, despite certain unexpected moments reminiscent of shock films such as Harmony Korine’s Gummo or Trash Humpers, felt not entirely different from traditional literature as most people imagine it to be presented and studied in junior colleges. The piece’s most aesthetically satisfying moments were, in fact, those which did not rely on “literary” content for their interest but instead boldly staged and restaged the primordial struggle of the body to stand erect, making the givenness of upright posture suddenly strange and troubling, a standing question rather than a pat answer. One can only hope for more of such phenomenological investigations in Johnson’s future choreography.
Lastly, it is perhaps worth mentioning the amount of cheering, whistling, whooping and shouting which proceded from the crowd, the sort of live-audience antics witnessed on American Idol. Perhaps it is not incorrect to consider such boisterousness to be pre-applause, a foretaste of the clamorous burst which inevitably surged forth at the end of each piece. While the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, which was in especially good form, fully deserved recognition for their superb abilities and many fine achievements, knee-jerk ovations might not be the highest or most appropriate form of praise. But enough.
The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company performed Iridescence from the 26 through the 28 of April. The 2012/2013 season begins this coming September, but the company can be seen before then at the Utah Arts Festival, on June 22 at 6:30 p.m.