co.da’s Cause a Decision

The new crop of co•da dancers this season at Sugar Space are the tightest batch yet. In “Cause a Decision” they seemed determined to show off technical prowess and cohesiveness as a company. They succeed at that and took some notable risks along the way. In particular, they merit applause for making use of that tiny studio in some new ways. (The experience was only slightly marred by allowing a photographer on the frontmost of only four rows to clack away his shutter for the entirety of the show. Sure, Sugar Space needs press photos, but isn’t that what dress rehearsals are for?)

“Hips, Quakes & Stones” was the true company number. It arrives in the program notes with a quote from Courtney Love. “I’m not a woman. I’m a force of nature.” Choreographer Monica Remes should consider conducting workshops for people interested in excavating their psychologic relationship to Joan Jett, Love and Pat Benatar through strutting, air guitar, rocking out and vocalization. The action–– from a series of madcap dashes across the space to the ultimate image of the cast climbing the ballet barre stage right–– leaves the audience unsure if the dancers are crazed fans, fantasies of specific rock personae or eight bodies enthusiastically trading identities in competition for the highest quotient of glam. Remes’ was the best and most courageous use of the space. “Hips” confronted all of Sugar Space’s physical limitations while avoiding the traffic jams that plagued other works.

Fiona Nelson’s “Sum Continuum”, was set to excerpts from David Eagleman’s text “Sum”, which offers a depiction of afterlife with obvious choreographic opportunities. (The dead linger in a great waiting room till the last time they are remembered by the living, at which time they’re “called” to a more final threshold. In the meantime, they also relive their mortal experiences, but reordered so as to stack up mundane tasks into continuous years of sleeping, months of showering etc.) The problem is that the dance too tightly illustrates the text, leaving the audience with little tension, wondering why all these dead people are so young, perky and enthused about their ambiguous new existence. Still, the opening is truly striking. The choreographer sits in the dark, lit by her laptop, informing us of the three ways each of us is consigned to die. She types the list, hesitates, makes a change, and like the one of the Fates, continues.

Joshua Mora’s “Second Rate?” could easily have been the fiercest work in the show had it not been compromised by the weight of it’s score. Particularly in the context of the text heavy work that had preceded it, it suffered from the series of TED talk clichés about a living well that comprised Shane Koyczan’s lyrics. The heart of this work wasn’t to be found in these tired  platitudes, but in the very particular camaraderie of Brooklyn Draper and Monica Remes. The pair draw out of each other a sense of ecstatic play that is absent in the rest of the show (and in much of the dance field in general).

Guest choreographer Eric Handman offered the most surprises, perhaps because his work was framed with the most expectation. “Phantom Limb” bore the marks of so many of his dances. His fascination with the self-estranged human hand has calcified into a morse code of distorted wrists. Periodically, flat, pale paws cut in front of the face and eyes of another dancer, seeming to want nothing, save the clean execution of the gesture itself. Another perennial obsession is partnering. The entanglement of bodies in “Phantom Limb” is lovely, quiet and deft. They might be seven characters from a Harold Pinter play that can’t help but interrupt and offend each other, eventually destroying the coherence of the conversation, but accelerating its crooked centrifuge. Everyone ends up on the floor in an unimaginable pile. Then they get back up, dust themselves off and look around. Jane Jackson is stoic, Brooklyn Draper is almost curious. Soon its back into the fray, there’s nothing else for it. As usual, the void of the stage is metaphor for larger, darker emptinesses.

There’s nothing in terms of steps that hasn’t been glimpsed in Handman’s earlier work. What sets “Phantom Limb” apart, is restraint, in the departments of music, performance and casting. Michael Wall’s score places itself expertly in the background–– unlike many of the film scores Handman has used before–– it doesn’t tell us how to feel about the dancers-as-characters. Instead it folds and directs the experience of time. “Phantom Limb” is a lucid dream, but one spare in signs and symbols. Finally, Handman is working without any men, without any discernable bravado, machismo, balletic maleness or plausible avatar for himself. These tools have their place, but their absence here makes Handman’s detail-obsessed pure-dance voice more legible, though still mysterious, like neon in the dark.

This cold but luminous place is where Handman’s been headed for quite a while, since he started to shed his earlier voice like a snakeskin. Gone is the Eric Handman who made dances on playful, boastful improvisors akin to himself, men like Josh Anderson or women like Jess Humphrey. Five or ten years ago, he almost might have been caught in Mora’s dance, romping with Draper and Remes. One place isn’t better than the other, just different, and it’s nice to see them side by side.

Samuel Hanson contributes regularly to loveDANCEmore and SLUG magazine.

coda’s starter kit at Sugar Space

If you become a member of coda, Sugar Space’s new professional dance company, you’ll find yourself in a situation much like Repertory Dance Theatre is said to have been in its early days. You and your comrades make dances on each other and you pool your knowledge to provide each other classes and choose a guest artist. Every few months, there’s a new audition and the process repeats.

I just came home from watching the first iteration of this cycle. My initial takeaway is that it read like a real ensemble evening. Diverse interests were explored, but it didn’t feel like a grab bag where a half a dozen people had been chosen from a pool of random, opportunity starved dance artists applying by mail. Care had been taken in putting a show together, in a more than idiomatic sense.

Molly Heller’s work, which was split into three, provided a narrative scaffold for the rest of the evening. In these “acts”, placed between other dances, Heller explicated her relationship with husband Brad Heller. Each vignette was also a performance of (and to) Rod Stewart’s monster(ous) hit “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” [Rod’s spelling, not mine]. In part one, Heller (in golden stretch pants and a flouncy green top) gave her husband (purple tights, peasant ruffles up top) what might have been post modern prelude to a lap dance, while matter-of-factly telling him to periodically adjust the volume. Act II saw Brad and Molly coyly singing the song to each other while Molly slid herself across Brad’s passive form. She crept slowly, giving choice attention to certain curves, arriving in unison next to Brad just in time for the second or third chorus of “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy/ Come on honey tell me so/ If you really need me just reach out and touch me/Come on Molly let me know”. “No. It should be sugar.” Singing this line lying face down next to each other earned a healthy laugh from a crowd that had been gently giggling the whole time. The final number was a giddy romp through the space for Ms. Heller and non-dancer Brad. The song was finally playing at full blast, which was quite satisfying, when all of a sudden the dancing devolved into a slide show of Googled images of Rod himself on the back wall. The piece ended as choreographer, husband and technical director struggled in turns to disactivate of the projector and diminish the specter of Rod.

As light, fun and self-effacingly hip as this all sounds it did leave me with a few lingering questions. How was I supposed to feel about the relationship between “trained” wife and “untrained” husband? Was this just a big joke or is this really “their song” in some serious, if sentimental, way? If I am being invited into an inner joke space of their relationship, why and how? And if not, what was the aim of making it seem so?

Nancy Carter’s Hold me tight if I love you left me with many similar questions about form and content. The work was a modern dance trio, mostly, thought it began with each dancer choosing one audience member with whom to slow dance. They did this a few times at the very beginning, with a tender awkwardness that left me wishing they would make everyone in the audience dance at least once and then that would be that. What ensued instead was an exploration of formal themes such as how a trio  functions, how Shira Fagan could stay in unison with Jane Jackson with Anne Marie Robson Smock attached to her body etc. The varied musics, notably a spoken word piece about hearts “bruising but not breaking” provided an unexpected modicum of contrast.

I am pretty sure that the it in Everything is Nothing Without It was dance itself. Jane Jackson’s ensemble piece was a melange of fast paced dialogue and introspective group dancing. The six women fought over a cupcake (“That’s not really dancer food!”), went to a “showing” within the dance, and argued about the primacy of the left vs. the right brain in dance making. There was some serious unison dancing, and then we returned to the image the dance started with, the heart of the dance really, choreographer Jane Jackson trying to decide how to start dancing. Standing there twitching with indecision, is something everyone who makes dances (and probably everyone else as well) can identify with.

Particularly in Everything is Nothing, but in everything else I’ve discussed as well, I noticed one recurring issue. Though each was an excellent first draft, all of these pieces seemed to be looking for a kind of high drama, something surreal, possibly even operatic. And yet none couldn’t quite get there because they were held back by a commitment to a certain idea of dance-theater “realism”.  There’s nothing “actorly” or “real” about the way most dancers talk and emote on stage- and that’s fine- we’re not actors, at least not in the same sense. What would it look like if we embraced that and became the strange, unique creatures that we are? In doing so maybe we could learn a little bit more about ourselves than the fact that we’re afraid of food and that we don’t know our left from our right.

Guest artist Shannon Mockli demonstrated commitment to a ballsy idea in her solo A Space Between. A slow, contemplative solo, almost too dramatic, happens in front of a video where slipping focus is an obvious metaphor for the areas between states of consciousness, life and death. There’s a recorded text of Mockli discussing an ambiguous experience of “being between” that caused her to reflect on mortality and the life of the body, as it is and as it is imagined. In other hands, it could have been a tragic failure of a piece, yet Mockli is so committed to doing things because she feels them, that we feel them too. She transcends trend and conceit, working in a format that is reminiscent of a great essayist. She lays out several co-existent threads that can only be tied together by holding them inside ourselves all of them at the same time. Her dancing is so strong it can’t be overpowered by other the other media- and that’s rare.

Mockli’s group piece Vital Rein did similar things for each of its performers. Annie Robson Smock in particular danced in a way that I’ve never seen before, her length bridled and released with a sense of timing I didn’t know she was capable of. Mockli and dancers never lost interest in the realness of the task, nor in the responsibility of holding each moment’s metaphoric capacity.

Samuel Hanson writes in this blog often, makes dances, makes coffees and makes videos.