I went to Sugar Space this friday night to see Now: The Show. The performance was the culmination of Now Practices, an improvisation and performance workshop for dancers directed by Graham Brown and Brandin Steffensen. Brown, who will move to Maryland later this year for graduate study, directed and co-founded the local improvisation troupe Movement Forum, which will perform at Sugar Space in July. Steffensen is a freelancer in New York, who grew up in Salt Lake and danced for Ririe-Woodbury.
Sitting in the round, the audience watched nine dancers enter the space to stretch, bounce and generally warm up. If the tactic here was to disarm us with their lack of performative guile, they did not succeed, though one did get the sense that they were enjoying each other’s presence. Soon the dancers (who looked like they had been asked to dress “casual professional”) were breaking out of their stretching, pilates and plies into concentrated clusters around suddenly elevated lifts and long suspended falls. This presumably demonstrated trust, physical listening and attenuated awareness. I followed the action on a printed program that looked like an homage to one of John Cage’s musical scores. Time could be traversed down the page against a lateral axis of four columns: THIS, WHAT, ACCOMPANIMENT, and BY. The first few sections (Come As You Are, Audience Arrives…Pentamodal Duet, Ill Spoil) were full of energy, a lot of very earnest dancing and not a lot of focus.
In short, the show was slow to start. It was bogged down by an indirectness of process and mind that has a place in the contact improv jam but that makes a live show drag. Maybe it’s just that I’ve already seen all the walls of formality come down a hundred times and seeing them taken apart brick by brick just gets tiresome. I am willing to admit that the parts that bored me might have served as a good introduction for people less familiar with improvisation.
Things picked up when Repo (a local performer and poet, I later learned) came up next to me and stole my program notes to use as a reference for Steffensen’s solo which was about to ensue. THIS: Solo, WHAT: Brandin happens. But clearly this was something that he had been working on long before the workshop. Steffensen tried, and mostly failed, to balance a water bottle on his head while commenting that he had no trouble with this task earlier that day in rehearsal. The workshop students standing supportively out of his way confirmed this verbally. It’s in my neck… he whispered at least once or twice to himself. As his balancing act devolved into an absurd series of bodily tasks involving the water bottle, I felt like I was intruding on a very private struggle. He suckled the water, lent it to audience members and took it away, and held it with difficulty as he put himself through a painful series of arm balances. There was something very surprising, sad and funny about Repo’s textual and sung interjections, which became a cryptic conversation with what Steffensen had mumbled during the doomed balancing act. She sang a brief and haunting quote from the famous Police song, “I’ll be watching you…” He thrashed, like the virtuoso version of some angry kid’s hotel bed dance, and then we learned cathartically that Steffensen had suffered an injury to his neck from a chiropractor at age 16 (but so what?, the dance seemed to say). The sparse facts of the case hung in the air as he walked off. There was a surprising eloquence to it that I can’t quite tell why I felt.
Another great moment came at the end of an athletic trio by Steffensen, Brown and Sean Keil. Steffensen’s cool-headed body perched with a previously unseen docility on various ledges offered by the assertive, committed Keil. Brown interrupted with his characteristic bombastic tackling and acrobatics, trying to chase Steffensen in a way that seemed to echo moments of vulnerability in the solo. Then, with superb comic timing, one of the women (I wish I knew her by name) walked out and declared, “Boys aren’t even supposed to dance anyway.” Maybe it sounds trite in recapitulation, but there was something funny and very real about the lagging sheepish exit with which the three boys seemed to agree with their colleague’s statement. Sometime after that, a tender duet evolved between Brad T Garner, a boyish charmer from Oregon, and Jordan Wonnacott, a contact dancer, performer and actor from Salt Lake. Wonnacott, a talented U of U dance refugee, cut through Garner’s exuberance with steeliness and a sense of when to be still that was lacking during the rest of the evening.
The evening ended on a hokey note, concluding with a modern dance hoe-down, replete with flocking to the four corners of the stage to Sean Hayes’s folk number “Alabama Chicken.” After the show, Steffensen confided in me that he plans to do the whole project (workshop, show, and Underscore practice, which happened here on Saturday) again in NYC. The evening here in Salt Lake was a reminder of our dance community’s demographic homogeneity (which is much greater than that of the city at large), and I wondered if doing the project with a more diverse group of performers (and/or the act of seeking such a group out) might challenge or add depth to the structures Brown and Steffensen imposed.
That said, all of the performers were engaged in the pursuit of improvisation as a performance practice, which is always a pleasure to see, even when it doesn’t yield the best choreography. And it is encouraging to see risk happening, especially in a city where that value is often so anemic.