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.