As much as I ever have been, I was wowed by the six dancers who currently comprise Ririe Woodbury during the opening night of Iridescence (running through Saturday at the Rose). That’s saying something, given that I’ve been watching this group on and off since I was a little kid. Throughout, I found myself thinking a lot about how the company has shifted over the years and what has remained the same.
Iridescence opened with "Duet" by Bill T. Jones. It’s clearly a dance made not by the Tony award-winner we’re used to seeing on PBS, but a younger man, with different questions on his mind. Jones here is not dealing with anything overtly political as in much of his other work. At first the exploration seems very formal, the space is cut by masking tape that divides the floor into a grid. Jo Blake moves with a clear coolness I’ve never seem him employ. He’s isolating different body parts. But not with the fake, blank sense of “neutrality” some of us might associate with (a parody of) postmodern dance. Instead there’s a true sense of play, like he’s trying all the ways he knows to move each piece and as if for the first time. Tara McArthur walks in on the middle of all of this with a casualness that seems at once to complicate and explain everything Jo has done. There is a kind of accord with what at first glance might seem an arbitrary score. It set to “folk” songs from Madagascar, Iran and the Ivory Coast. This is coexistence, but not in the Cage/Cunningham sense. There’s an awareness of the otherness in this music within an American Modern Dance setting. In general, there’s a sense of felt space, real and metaphorical. There’s play between the steps and subtle humor as this man and woman feel each other while the choreography repeats itself, seeming to be rewritten on the spot to be more clever with each try. (Brad Beakes and Bashaun Williams will dance Duet on Friday. Elizabeth Kelly-Wilberg and Alex Bradshaw dance it Saturday.)
"Duet" was unique within the evening in that it showcased individuality in the performers. All of the dances that followed (with the exception of one) included the entire company. "West" and "Those in the Desert" by Artistic Director Charlotte Boye-Christensen, sought to evoke places: the American West and the Middle East respectively. Both works featured her trademark use of balletic lines breaking and remaking themselves in rapid succession, pulling the dancers through long limbed partnering that seems directed by some unseen masochistic order. "Those in the Desert" was set to instrumental music by Ibrahim Maalouf which allowed the formalities and rigor of the choreography to dominate, albeit flavored with Arabic harmonies. In "West" however, these taut machinations were performed to (among others) Johnny Cash, Tom Waits and Cat Power. The choreography re-postured itself slightly against the backdrop of each new song, relating to the emotional bravura of Power and Cash and the fast paced word-play in Waits. Sadly for me, this train never really slowed down enough in any of these places for me to see where we were going. What I really wanted was to stop off to look around at the landscape.
"It’s Gonna Get Loud," by Karole Armitage, was ironically one of the quieter pieces of the evening, both in actual volume and in scope. It was similar to "West" in pace, but in a straight-forward, playful way. This dance, set to a triple electric guitar score by seventies composer Rhys Chatham, was trying to be fun and sexy, but it didn’t try too hard, and I think that’s why it succeeded to the extent it did. I was reminded of popular NY choreographers of the nineties and early eighties like Doug Varone and David Dorfman, men who move big across the floor and enjoy themselves immensely. The company enjoyed themselves too and didn’t take it too seriously.
Perhaps the most ambitious piece of the evening was by Keith Johnson, a Californian with strong Utah ties. "Secret Dark World" was full of dance-theatre tropes looking for a home. Throughout, there was an expectation set up that we would view violence. Muted aggression was performed, but never explained or developed. The tone of the work seemed to want to be abrasive and European in the way we might like to imagine European dance as being cutting-edge, but it wasn’t. Deep down it was a very American piece and even a pretty Western piece, more so than Boye-Christensen’s "West." Men and women dance together in couples and then in their respective groups of three. There are chairs in which everyone sits and then slumps as though shot by imaginary bullets. Some of these images seem to find themselves and others don’t. I didn’t feel any catharsis with what I think might have been the central images of the piece. At times this really bothered me. Why was Bashaun Williams crawling, then walking, at the behest of a taunting voice that spoke to him like a dog? And why did the same crawl-walk get re-enacted by Brad Beakes, just one more time, while wearing a dog collar held by Tara McArthur. At other times I didn’t care about the why, though I still wondered. Why did Elizabeth Kelly-Wilberg do that gorgeous, precarious solo while the chairs closed in on her? Perhaps it was just a beautiful goodbye, she’s leaving the company after this season and will certainly be missed.
Sam Hanson choreographs and makes dance film in SLC. You can see his newest project on dancesmadetoorder.com