The White Rectangle–Modern Dance as . . . Modern:
 A Review of Ririe-Woodbury Dance 
Company’s Configurations

Posted September 29, 2010 in

"Key" by Charlotte Boye-Christensen Photo: Fred Hayes

Just last week Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company got its 2010/2011 season off to an energetic start with a presentation of Configurations. This show included pieces by four different choreographers, working on either the regional or international level. Though the audience could have been larger on Thursday, the enthusiasm of the crowd—for Ririe-Woodbury specifically, and modern dance in generally—was unmistakable, and it’s hard not to catch the same spirit.

The show began with “Bittersweet Chocolate,” created by David Rousseve, in 1997. This piece is a meditation on the powerfully ambiguous feeling of being in love. This is played on in a variety of contrasting partnerings and movements, alternating between fluid and abrupt. This feeling of ambiguity is brought out most forcefully, however, through the radical juxtaposition between two pieces of music which could not be more different—a highly rhythmic, rap-like monologue told in African-American vernacular, and the radically unbounded emotional surging and swelling of Richard Wagner’s overture to Tristan and Isolde. The passages from Wagner form the center of the piece, presenting passion as it feels from within the love’s crucible. The monologue, on the other hand, frames the dance’s central section, presenting love recollected, as it is felt from an objectifying remove.

The next number was one I was most eager to see, “Duet,” by celebrated New York choreographer Bill T. Jones. In the researching a commissioned work by Jones on the life of Abraham Lincoln (“Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray”), I was struck by his very confident assertion that he considers himself a formalist. This caught my attention because so often artists tend to be poor communicators, fleeing rather than embrace labels. Jones, however, is one of the most well-spoken artists I have encountered, and one who is perfectly willing to ally himself to a particular artistic orientation, something which is especially striking considering the fact that ‘formalism,’ for decades, has been used as a term of abuse. Clarity and self-confidence are not only typical of Jones’s speech, but they make up the very essence of his choreography.


Self-confidence here, however, does not manifest itself as the bold assertion of private feelings or personal identity. Rather, Jones’s formalist dance takes its cues for the formalist theory of plastic art and literature, which argues that art is not about the expression of emotion and personality so much as the overcoming of them in the drive toward abstraction. Consequently, “Duet,” though an undeniably beautiful dance, was nevertheless an unusually austere dance. Mapped out onto a coordinate grid system which was clearly visible on the stage, the two performers in the piece concentrated on their own bodies far less as vehicles of individual emotion than as elements which found 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. Not that most modern dances fail to do precisely this, but what makes Jone’s choreography unique and compelling is his determination to foreground the work of abstraction—so much so that to view “Duet” feels oddly akin to the experience of taking the time properly to view a canvas by Piet Mondrian.

To look for and concentrate on figures contained in the painting is to miss its entire point, which is to the eye moving through a flat latticework which, almost magically, opens up a constantly shifting network of illusory space. To view Mondrian properly is not simply to see lines and planes applied to a flat canvas, nor is it to discover what the canvas represents. Neither, finally, is it to recognize the illusion created by means of the flat canvas. To properly see a Mondrian is to perceive as a flickering field of constant reversals, to see it as an object virtually in motion. This is something of which Jones is well aware, and it’s this fundamental understanding of certain modernist paintings as a distinctly mobile virtually entities which he tries to translate into “Duet.” Brown, like the modernist painters who inspire him, makes ample use of African music – in the case of “Duet,” the music of Madagascar. For each, the prevalence in African art and music, of repetition and surface pattern, as opposed to contour and depth, allows the artist to overcome the immediate sumptuousness of the object, which for modernists and formalists, has to be overcome in order for the work to become art at all.

After a brief intermission, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company continued its show with a presentation of Susan Marshall’s “Cloudless,” a suite of miniatures built around a variety of dance styles, moods, and musical genres, raging from avant-garde classical, to electronic, and rock and roll. This piece, which was performed last season, was clearly brought back because it was such a crowd pleasure when initially staged. “Cloudless” did not fail to deliver again in 2010. A delighted audience was treated to small choreographic bursts of passion, humor, perversity, anxiety or glee. I enjoyed the piece as well, though I found it hard to be entirely enthusiastic when sitting for the second time through a series of vignettes which, for their impact, so clearly depend on surprise and novelty. In contrast with the superb work of Bill T. Jones, it’s hard not to see “Cloudless” as mere entertainment, though perhaps entertainment of a high order.

The last dance of the evening was “Key,” a new piece by Ririe-Woodbury’s artistic director Charlotte Boye-Christensen. This piece is based on a composite work of cinema, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which was first released in the late 1990s. Glenn Gould, for the sake of the uninformed, was a famous and highly controversial Canadian piano virtuoso. Gould, while still relatively young and destined for superstardom, withdrew from the world of public performance, in large measure because of his disgust with classical-music audiences. Gould found the wild and automatic applause, which invariably followed each of his performances to be hopelessly vulgar and hostile to the genuine appreciation of music. Subsequently, Gould, like the Beatles, withdrew from public performance and concentrated for the rest of his life, which ended in 1982, at the age of fifty, on producing increasingly meticulous studio recordings. 

Boye-Christensen’s tribute to Gould begins with five dancers decked out in black suits over casual white tee shirts, this obviously meant to invoke the disheveled shabby-genteel style of the young Gould. The rapid swarming and scattering of bodies decked in black and white quickly transformed, however, into an analogue of the ebony and ivory of the piano’s keys as Gould tears through a performance of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The shifting of moods within the different sections of the piece evokes not only the various effects which are available within the idiom of baroque of prelude and fugue, but also all the phases of manic depression from which Gould suffered throughout his life. This theme of the fugal and the fugitive appears to be one dear to Boye-Christensen, because it is one she also explored a few seasons ago in a piece named, with deliberate irony, “Interiors.”

The weaving and surging of the dancers in this piece was quite impressive. So were key slower moments in which individual dancers would press through a living gate created from the adjacent bodies of other dancers. Most impressive to me, however, was a component of the dance which may well have appeared to the audience to have be an accident, if it was even noticed at all. This was the tight clustering of shadow figures projected onto the stage’s far scrim though the interaction of the dancers and the footlights. This created a haunting company of phantom figures, the sort of illusion or nagging presence, which might torment a mad pianist. It also created a painterly effect, a muted evocation of the canvases of Washington School artist Morris Louis. In this regard, Boye-Christensen’s piece communicates with Jones’s “Duet”, with this difference, however: whereas “Duet” uses the concepts learned from painting to structure a dance, “Key”—a title which can refer to both a triggering mechanism and a kind of gaffers light—uses techniques of optical projection to meditate not only on plastic visual art, but also on the art of cinema.

Consequently, it seems to me that the most appropriate and rewarding way to watch Boye-Christensen’s “Key” is not to focus on the dancers, but rather on the shadows they throw onto the white scrim behind them—an essential element of the total dance, which we can only perceive as a movie screen. Clearly, it may not have occurred to most audience members that the real dance, the actual work of art they paid to see, was taking place not on the stage, but rather on the screen. It may not have occurred to the audience that the movements of the dancers were not a free end unto themselves but merely a means toward an external end that the dancers were being played as literal keys. Nevertheless, this seems indeed to be case in Boye-Christensen’s work. Again, anyone who concentrated too closely on the physical dancers in “Keys” quite honestly missed “Keys” itself. Which is not so different from saying that anyone who concentrates more on the technical apparatus of the piano, or the immediate virtuosity of the player, than the actual arrangement of notes – and we know these people! – is fundamentally missing the music. They may as well be deaf.

This reading of “Keys” may perhaps sound as though it contains a measure of contempt to the audience, and that it believed such contempt might perhaps originate in Boye-Christensen’s choreography. This may well be the case. But it does not have to be. We might just as easily read the open secret presented by Boye-Christensen’s choreography as a manifestation of her basic trust of her audience. Knowing full well that the majority of persons will fail understand her dance, and continue, ignorantly, to stare at all the pretty bodies frisking on the stage, Boye-Christensen’s, in “Keys”, may well be writing for a select “audience within the audience.” She may be writing for that silent inner circle of concertgoers who truly get it, who are able to recognize “Keys” as a sophisticated form of cinematography, a gift not for the many but the few. And if this were true, what would to upshot? It would put Boye-Christensen in the company of a very famous, but largely misunderstood classical musician—Glenn Gould.