Saturday, October 16, 2010

Gallim Dance: The sharp, the hot and the smeary

By Barry Johnson

Gallim Dance's Blush took me by surprise Friday night -- fast-moving, sharp angles and edges, emotionally charged which is to say alternately sad and angry, sweaty and smeary from the chalk on the floor, a general sense of isolation and loss even when the dancers were moving in unison.

Somehow choreographer Andrea Miller's description of the dance at the symposium on American women choreographers last weekend had slipped past me (and so had what she said in this interview). She was so warm, engaging and vulnerable onstage that when she brought up Blush's connection to S&M, it didn't achieve any traction in my brain, nor did her allusion to Blush's key source, Ryu Murakami's Tokyo Decadence, which works the theme of S&M and personal loss to great effect.

Marty Hughley's review in The Oregonian connects the dance to butoh (maybe it's the chalk and the expressiveness), praises Miller's creation of a "distinct world," identifies the varied musical palette (from classical to electro-punk) and the aggressive lighting and spare design (a large white taped square, lighting that sometimes obscures as much as it reveals), and suggests Blush's eroticism without really defining it. He also points out that the dance is "theatrical" without telling a specific story.

I would add that the dance is episodic (like a movie, maybe) with blackouts between scenes. Each scene works some of the same movement ground -- collapsed and rolling shoulders, for example, abdominal crunches, speedy collapses to the floor and a general inclination toward painful positions of various sorts. And the occasional topless appearances of the female dancers isn't at all erotic, implying fragility more than anything. The opening solo, a beautiful soft emergence from the half-light, is a case in point.

Occasionally, the dancers (three men, three women) encounter each other, and mostly it's for a bit of rough-and-tumble, some wrestling, especially by the men. A long duet by two men toward the end of the dance alternates between a fight for dominance and a search for support, beginning and ending with a swift circling of the square as the dancers grapple and hug. Eventually, one is sent off the stage by the centrifugal force and the dancer left onstage looks after him, alone and, we suspect, forlorn.

It feels right to attach adjectives such as "forlorn" to Blush. It doesn't run from its emotions, from its expressiveness.  This isn't dance for dance's sake; it's dance with a different purpose in mind, to reveal emotional states, to connect to us directly not abstractly.

A quarter of the way through the dance, the small voice of a three-year-old girl behind me (I'm guessing at the age) asked her mother in a stage whisper, "Why aren't they talking?" Her mother answered that this was a dance not a play, but the little girl had an important follow-up question: "Are they pretend?"

I nearly plunged down the rabbit hole after that question. Yes, they are pretend, I almost replied, but once they weren't. They are trying to tell you about that time when it was real and painful and they moved about frenetically without making any headway, without satisfaction.  Which doesn't describe Lucinda Childs's Dance, which we saw last week. Then, the skip of dancers across the stage isn't intended to represent anything but the skip of dancers across the stage. That it ends up having a flutter of "meanings" is very interesting, but Childs isn't attempting to control that meaning-making, impose her memory on ours.

And this, perhaps, is the root of the difference between post-modern dance, the style that came out of the Judson Dance Theater with whom Childs came of age as a dancer and choreographer,  and the current generation, emboldened maybe by Mark Morris. At least that was the thought-train I was exploring, especially after seeing the film clips assembled by Norton Owen of Jacob's Pillow for the American women choreographers panel. Those clips showed Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Helen Tamiris and other first generation modern dancemakers, and their movements were angular physically and aspired to deep emotion.

As if to mock me, though, Blush almost instantly invoked a couple of post-modern tropes. First, they danced with no music at all (something Childs did before running into Philip Glass), and then, they spoke. One man was on the back of another covering the carrier's eyes, and hollered out instructions: "Left," "Right," Left"...  Apparently, Miller knows her post-modern as well as her modern, which perhaps isn't surprising at all for someone who has already danced with Ohad Naharin's Batsheva Ensemble, Cedar Lake and Limon Dance Company in her short career.

So, I'm not going to construct any further historical schematics. They disappear in the intensity of those young Gallim dancers onstage at Lincoln Performance Hall in any case. Dear little girl, That intensity? That's not pretend. That's dancers dancing hard. And well.

Gallim's last appearance this trip to Portland is at 8 p.m. Saturday, Lincoln Performance Hall, PSU.

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