It takes a special experience to challenge what we know about movement. NOW-ID’s newest production, A Tonal Caress, challenged the audience to question their knowledge of movement and what role it plays in relationships, and, most importantly, the communicative potential that movement inherently possesses. Humans are physical communicators, and the act of communicating is an act of physicality: training the hand to perform specific movements that create shapes on a surface, forming the mouth in specific combinations while forcing air out of the lungs to create speech. For the movement practice of this show, the bodies of performers were constantly in an act of communication, with gestures for emphasis, “body language” providing hints to true meanings, and, in the case of Deaf poet Walter Kadiki, using the hands and face as the primary tool of communication.
A Tonal Caress was a massive collaborative undertaking, with choreography by artistic director Charlotte Boye-Christensen, an installation by Gary Vlasic, poetry both written and performed by Walter Kadiki, sound by Adam Day, lighting by Cole Adams, and video by Jan Andrews. Each element emphasized communication, opportunities for potentially missed contact, and a feeling of otherness when the communicative potential was not realized.
Upon entering the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, I was greeted by Vlasic’s “Installation of Men,” in the stairwell off the Great Hall. Seven men were dressed in suits, barefoot and expressionless, and staggered up and down the stairs. While seemingly unprovoked, the men moved in perfect unison with reaching arms, lifted eyes, and precise hands. A droning soundscape allowed the enclosed stairwell to envelop the movers, and myself as an observer. Though occasionally changing formations, the men remained serene in their flowing arm gestures. Most intriguing was the seeming lack of cues, yet the men knew exactly when and how to move. Clearly well-practiced, the installation offered calmness and assuredness. While not verbally communicating with each other, the men exhibited a movement language of their own.
Seating in the G.W. Anderson Family Great Hall was arranged in the round, with rows of chairs on three sides of a platform that featured a lone chair on which Kadiki sat, still and silent, as the audience filed in. Before director Nathan Webster made an announcement, the droning score that had previously filled the space ended and Kadiki and the audience were wrapped in silence. Knowing that A Tonal Caress featured collaboration with a Deaf artist, I truly appreciated this moment. The lack of sound brought a hyper-awareness of the rest of the space; the audience’s focus was directed toward the seated Kadiki, who continued to stare straight ahead. I focused on his feet fidgeting, noticed a silent swallow, and paid attention to my own initial discomfort at the complete lack of sound.
Throughout the show, one interpreter signed in American Sign Language and the other in Auslan (Australian Sign Language; Kadiki is Australian). This immediately signalled that verbal communication was not the dominant form of discourse. The performance as a whole was rooted in the physical body: through signing, through emotive expression, and through dance. Sign language itself can be viewed as a dance, bolstered in this case by collaborative choreography. Additionally, it made me aware of sign languages as codified movement languages. In order to successfully communicate through either sign language, studying and proficiency are obviously required, as maybe opposed to expressions and gestures inherent in spoken language.
A Tonal Caress raised a question for me: what defines emotion through physical form? Additionally, in examining movement and the body as forms of communication, what makes one movement emotive but another less so? Kadiki’s relationship to the dancers pointed to this question: he stayed on a platform for the entire show, only occasionally rising to stand and never taking a step down onto the floor, yet Kadiki’s was still the story being told.
Jo Blake, Liz Ivkovich, and Sydney Petitt were all powerhouse performers, and danced for close to the entirety of the near hour-long production. All three shared unique relationships with Kadiki while also with each other. Through their constant reflection of, reference to, and direct eye contact with Kadiki, they existed as thematic and physical extensions of the poetry.
Blake’s relationship to Kadiki was best defined through his intense eye contact. He began the show with a water-like solo. Throughout the evening, he also became a partner and a leader of the “Installation of Men.” He provided a challenging gaze to the audience, but also to Kadiki. Every moment, every fluid, tossed spiral, was deliberate and subtly communicative. As I pondered what created emotion and meaning in movement, Blake created it through a physical manifestation of confidence that left no room to doubt his intentions.
Ivkovich’s movement choices, in contrast to Blake, provided a more direct relationship with Kadiki. Her entrance solo was one of the most memorable moments of the evening. The operatic score playing as she entered was blended so seamlessly it might have been missed if not for Ivkovich’s movement. She existed in actual conversation with Kadiki as Boye-Christensen’s choreography focused so much on the face and the mouth, even as she deliberately covered both. Ivkovich’s mouth and expressions moved in direct relationship to the arpeggiated score and were animated to the point of feeling just right, and not like a caricature. Kadiki directly communicated with Ivkovich through repeated gestures, initially in a matter-of-fact, physical tone but eventually with more vigor and frustration.
Petitt was a hard performer to pin down. She was so physical in her movement, with beautiful lines and immense control, but also attacked each movement with a desperation, in the most positive sense of the word. Toward the end of the piece, all three dancers were on stage together, Petitt with a pleading, breathy quality, ignored by the other two except for some physical pushes and lifts. Petitt and Blake had another memorable partnering moment, in which they started with a more traditionally balletic lift but then kept going, as Petitt seemed to roll and melt up Blake’s body. However, Petitt seemed to have the least direct relationship with Kadiki. During a trio, she ultimately became a physical extension of Kadiki’s desperate reach, but it was only possible because of the other two continuing to push, pull, and elongate her. She provided a truly emotional connection to Kadiki’s poetry as interpreted through her body.
As Kadiki shared his final poem, “Butterfly Hands,” Blake and Petitt performed the most classical and fluid partnering of the show, which provided a romantic reading of their relationship. But, as they left Kadiki and his butterfly hands alone on the stage, I was left with a sense of resilience. Kadiki experienced an extremely exhaustive, emotional act of communication as he shared, at times, his frustration, a lack of being understood, and a lack of being heard. But his parting happiness, butterfly hands flying light in the air, expressed a continued desire for communication - for what joy is there in being human if not the ability to share with and learn about others?
Natalie Gotter is a performer, choreographer, instructor, filmmaker, and researcher. She recently completed an MFA in modern dance at the University of Utah and is a faculty member at Utah Valley University, Westminster College, and Salt Lake Community College.