Salt Lake City’s Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company opened it’s 2009/2010 season with Equilibrium, a collection of pieces which ran at the Jeanne Wagner Theater from September 24th – 26th.   If the rest of the season rises to the caliber of the performances I saw at the Saturday night performance, this will be an exciting season.

The first dance of the evening, “It’s Gonna Get Loud,” was choreographed by Karole Armitage, a New York choreographer recently regaled by Vanity Fair magazine with the title “punk ballerina,” and nominated for a 2009 Tony Award.   In a gesture akin to those associated with the minimalist sculpture of Tony Smith and Carl Andre, “Loud” began with an utterly bare dance space, the lack of set and scrim revealing stage as literal black cement box.  The sounding of a lone electric guitar, that of 80s No-Wave composer Rhys Chatham, occupied this vacancy.  But it did little to add anything by way of depth or texture.  Rather, the aluminoid drone of a Telecaster— for the length of the entire piece Chatham relentlessly played a single open string—served to reinforce a mood of cool impersonality, one which owed not a little to the indifferent attitude affected by Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground.

The entrance of dancers onto the stage served to reinforce this initial effect. Individual dancers, clad in professional black and gray, ran and spun energetically.  But all sense of expressivity was mediated and muted by the other members of the corps.  These bodies stood looking on from what on a conventionally dressed stage would have been the wings.  From that vantage, these watchers evinced a sense of detached subjective remove.  Through this simple means, the featured dancer— a role, or place, through which a series of highly skilled bodies passed— was objectified, converted into a kind of visual statistic, a quotient of vectors.  In a word, each dancer, like the individual worker which Karl Marx called an abstract unit of labor, became a quantifiable unit of dance.

This ironic fascination with alienated labor, to say nothing of the jerky motions Armitage had choreographed for the stage, could only recall the work of Chatham’s contemporary, artist Robert Longo.  In a famous series of monumental pencil drawings named “Men In The Cities,” Longo depicted an array of isolated figures captured in various states of radical disequilibrium.  Clad in what might have been either business-class or lounge-lizard attire, these bodies stood frozen, captured in a flash, in postures of intense ambiguity.   Were they dancing frantically or reeling from the impact of urban sniper fire?  It was hard to tell.  But this much was certain: these bodies, male and female, suspended in mid lurch, were simultaneously captured, or shot, by the camera’s indifferent eye.  Meaning suspended, the human body—in real life Longo had destabilized his models by jerking them abruptly with a wire—became a mere projectile in rationalized space.  Here was dance, not as expression but impulsion, compulsory metrosexuality, the capitalist imperative to Win!

This much now clear, it became possible to consider the stage design anew.  Black-box now signified not simply bare-bones production, but rather the new-brutalist landscape of New York: an inter-district zone poised between Soho and Wall Street.  What Armitage’s choreography captured and turned into a readable aesthetic, or perhaps anti-aesthetic, was not so much the spirit as the patterned energy of unregulated capitalism, a snyper-reality in which Adam Smith’s self-interested homo economicus has transformed into an abstraction devoid of all inner motives or feeling – just as the dynamic singularity of painterly action in Jackson Pollock eventually gave way to the compulsive repetitions churned out by Andy Warhol and Sol LeWitt.  Armitage, a designer or broker of human movement, has identified trends, not so much meaningful as simply interesting, emerging in the general rat race.  And these she had translated into postmodern choreography—dance against the clock, at the clang of the bell.  Vanity Fair be damned, this was post-punk marionette theater.

The next piece of the evening was by choreographer-in-residence Charlotte Boye-Christensen.  A native of Denmark and NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts, she has worked with Ririe-Woodbury since 2002 and won numerous prestigious awards.  Another artist who, like Armitage, appears to use repetition as a deliberate creative strategy, Boye-Christensen’s “Turf” continue to explore themes she employed in last seasons “Exteriors.”   However, whereas Armitage’s “Loud” focuses on a particular social class, or stratum, Boye-Christiansen instead takes an interest in the horizontal movement of populations: gangs, territories, migrations.  The piece first featured a male trio, each dancer in black trousers and stripped to the waist.  As the music began (The White Stripes’ version of the traditional folk ballad “Prickle-Eye Bush”) the dancers engaged in a series of aggressive confrontations, bursts of sexual bravura and mock violence.   These competitive encounters allowed Boye-Christensen to continue exploring the potential of male-male partnering.  Here, the male body, as it had in “Loud,” also became an object.  But rather than a cold bullet or a hard fact, here the body in “Turf,” as it passed through a highly biological series of bucking and crunching movements, retained its libidinal warmth, appeared always as the object of desire rather than simply drives.

As a trio of female dancers entered the stage, the music shifted continents.  Highland fling was replaced with the Gotan Project’s eclectic merger of electronica and tango Argentino.  This new scene brought to mind a gender-reversed telling of the Judgment of Paris, the Greek myth in which a beautiful young male is asked to decide which of three goddesses (Hera, Athena or Aphrodite) is the fairest.   In an instant, all the alpha-male authority and defiance was swiftly subordinated to a matriarchal gaze.  The arrogance and strength of these female figures was exhibited through a series gestures and movements appropriated from both tango and flamenco.  The heat rose steadily within the piece until it released in a final energetic burst.  In the ultimate passage of “Turf,” one male figure, assisted by two alter egos, jets grandly, explosively through the air, then vanishes, in mid flight, the lights precipitously killed.  Rather, than a freeze-frame or a snapshot, Boye-Christensen leaves her audience with a blackout.

It would be hard to imagine anything more impressive could follow these first two pieces.  However, Carolyn Carlson’s choreographic work of 2004, “Down By The River,” which followed the intermission, quite frankly stole the show.  Carlson, also a recipient of numerous honors for her work in dance, studied in the 1960s at the University of Utah, though she now lives and works in France.  “River” opens by revealing a with a set occupied by white paper pillars running from the floor almost to the ceiling.  The soft blue lighting and projected clouds, and the pale outfits of the dancers, evoked reveries of ancient idylls akin to those depicted in the fresco-like canvasses of French Symbolist painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.  If not to Ionian Greece, Carlson’s “River” at least transported its audience to the neo-neo-classical world of the great Martha Graham.  Rather than the pipes and timbrels of John Keats’ famous Grecian urn, Carlson selected instead the sounds of bossa nova or calypso, soft melodies sung in French by Rene Aubrey, a vocalist who sounded not unlike Serge Gainsbourg.  Over the course of the piece, the papers pillars were pulled from of their moors and allowed to cascade to the floor.  Crumpled beneath the feet of the company, the dancers used them to hide their feet as they shimmied slowly sideways, producing the effect of a conveyor belt, or of bodies drifting gently atop a cloud.

Later into “River,” the mood shifted and the sounds of island music became more expressly nautical.  Echoing honks and chirps recalled submarines and whales, and eventually combined to evoke Laurie Anderson’s haunting “Blue Lagoon” and her stage adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.  The movement of the dancers became more agitated and spastic, their bodies tossed on water and gasping for air.  In quieter moments, the human body seemed eerily becalmed, barely rocking and bending to the sound creaking boats.  Or, held off the floor by a dancer who served as axis, one body swung back and forth, mute clapper of a bell.  These maritime scenes were interrupted by interludes of circle dancing and other folk forms, these accompanied by the sounds of a resonating stringed instrument—banjo or bouzouki, I could not decide.  The milieu conjured might have been the shores of the Aegean or the banks of the Mississippi.

In the most striking moment of the night, the three male dancers of the company stood facing away from the audience and pulled their shirts over their heads.  Lit from above by a directional spotlight, every cut and curve of bone and sinew shone forth in dramatic deep relief.   Freed of its head, the body underwent an uncanny metamorphosis, a polar reversal in which the back assumed the role played by the face.  Rippling skin bespoke hidden depths of will, as eddies in a river signal dangers hidden undeneath the water’s tranquil skin.  This effect was powerful enough to elicit an audible reaction from the audience, and to linger in my mind long after the show had finished.  Carlson’s “Down By The River” brought Ririe-Woodbury’s season-opening show to an enthralling conclusion.

Also featured that night was a quartet of miniature works by four local choreographers: Kay Andersen (Southern Utah University), Eric Handman (University of Utah), Erik Stern (Weber State University) and Doris Hudson de Trujillo (Utah Valley University).  These works, which competed for an audience-choice award, were marked by moments of poignancy, athleticism and humor.  Too frequently, however, formal aesthetic emotion was sacrificed for the sake of the crowd-winning coyness and sentimentality—shrugs, winks and pouts.  Unless the artist is a genuine Thomas Pynchon, its vast and perilous expanse separates the Argo and the Pequod from the Good Ship Lollipop.  Admittedly though, it would have been difficult for any choreographer to attain to the very lofty standard set by the night’s headlining artists.   All told, Ririe-Woodbury launched its 2009/2010 season with remarkable aplomb.  This bodes well for future performances.  Be sure to catch the company’s production of Gravity, which runs December 17–19 in the Leona Wagner Black Box Theater at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.