Jackie Radis

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

April 28, 29, and 30 and May 1

Our culture immerses us in language–we’re bombarded, if not by the words in books and magazines, then by the chatter of radios, televisions, our friends and acquaintances. But how much is communicated in conversation, for example, not by the words spoken but by a look, gesture, pause, or casual touch bestowed or withheld? The nuances of such nonverbal communication often defy words.

It’s rare to find a dance that not only relies on nonverbal communication but makes that its subject. Jackie Radis’s new evening-length piece Without Words–recently performed at MoMing–is such a work. Deceptively spare and simple, Without Words is so rich, so diverse, that we respond with a flood of thoughts and feelings–and yes, in my case, words.

It explores, among other things, the role played by a dancer’s character, temperament, and physical presence: as Yeats so succinctly put it, how can we know the dancer from the dance? Without Words opened with an exploration of each dancer’s individuality–in fact, a program note credited the dancers with helping to develop the work. Seated in a circle on the raised stage at the rear of the MoMing space were Radis and the five members of her pickup company –Michelle Banks, Lisa Howren, Timothy O’Slynne, Susan Richter-O’Connell, and Bryan Saner. Bathed in a pool of warm light, these six–laughing and drinking wine–were acting an informal gathering, yet as we overheard their low voices, we also sensed they were an informal gathering. These were not “dancers” playing abstract roles assigned them but people with histories that would inform what they did.

This impression was strengthened when Radis began to dance for the others–not for the audience (and at this point, as at several others, I felt excluded). In a stooping posture, with arms or hands frequently flapping, she resembled a large exotic bird. My first thought was: “She’s expressing a private memory or feeling, and the others–by convention–can’t see her.” Then: “They can see her, and they think she’s gone off the deep end–standing up and flapping her ‘wings.'” And finally: “She’s telling them an anecdote in dance.” The last impression was the truest, I think, and yet there was an element of truth in all three. After that, each dancer stood up, individually or in tandem, and performed a dance anecdote for the others.

After slipping one by one off the raised stage, the dancers reappeared one by one on the main floor, walking. This most stripped-down part of the dance emphasized direction: paths crossing, gazes lowered or raised, gazes intersecting. Out of such simple elements human personality and interaction are established. Once all six dancers were back onstage, interactions became more and more complex. Finally O’Slynne–the mischievous one–slipped off the dance floor and up the center aisle into the audience. Saner followed. Where had they gone? Why? Radis evidently wondered, too, as she peered into the back rows like a mother in search of wandering children. The other three women stood in a knot, grinning, speculating, glancing at each other, at Radis, and at the rear of the audience. Of course the two men soon reappeared onstage, but it had been a dramatic, suspenseful moment, partly because the audience was caught in the web of the dancers’ gazes.

“Stories Built-In” is the name given to this first section, performed partly in silence and partly to music by Richard Woodbury. In it, Radis elaborated on this metaphor of building by supplying each dancer with a two-by-four, each maybe three or four feet long. As gazes–directed, withdrawn, and redirected–constructed a web of relationship, so these more concrete movements and expressions of personality “built” a dance, an edifice we could see. Each dancer, seated on the floor, first tried to balance his or her board on end–and each did it differently. One held hers firmly at the bottom, trying to establish a base. Saner ignored the base and pushed gently and steadily at the top of his, testing limits. Banks–a diminutive, delicate woman–put hers between her legs, sheltering it. Leaping up, the other dancers sheltered her, placing their boards in an airy wigwam over her head.

Then they danced with the boards–and what life and beauty they gave those two-by-fours. The dancers tossed them or swung them to the floor in a stooping unison swoop. It’s amazing how a simple prop can enhance the line and flow of a dance. At times the dancers held the boards horizontally, so that they really resembled a building going up–the dancers upright, linked and opposed to each other by these struts. It was an image that suggested we build on our differences, antagonisms–and that the more we do so, the stronger the structure will be.

The next section explored interactions between women, the following interactions between men. “Women’s Stories” (to vocal music–like a bird whooping–by Meredith Monk) emphasized the hands, particularly in laving gestures, each of the four women performing in turn her solo for the others. Those delicate flutters, twists, and melancholy, smooth caresses received a comic fillip at the end, when the four women transformed themselves into a Motown girl group doing a lively hand jive. In “Men’s Stories,” Saner and O’Slynne both tried to look big, but in different ways. In the time it took Saner to perform a slow-motion, expansive tumble across the stage, O’Slynne leapt and twirled and swaggered his way across several times. The antic O’Slynne then tried desperately to capture the attention of the self-contained Saner, finally aping his “manly” pose, arms crossed over his chest, legs wide, a little pensive. Gradually they leaned into each other and melted to the floor.

“Dream Interlude,” a silent section for four dancers, offered a brief introduction to the dreamlike fifth section. “Interlude” ended strikingly with the four poised each on one leg, hovering in the fading light like birds on motionless wings.

“Your Story and the Storekeeper,” performed by Radis and Banks, was very painful, very difficult to watch. The music–“Biography,” another song by Meredith Monk–had a large share in that. Monk seemed to be singing the sound of crying–and later, maybe, of laughing. Radis appeared first, in a simple, flowing white dress that showed both how feminine and how strong she is. Her body mostly bowed, she looked introspective. Banks appeared at the edge of the stage and watched Radis for a while, as if compassionately–but when Banks came onstage, she oppressed her. The tiny, precise, delicate Banks towered over Radis, who groveled near the floor, legs spread in an awkward split, unable to sink, unable to get up, unable perhaps to give birth. The two danced together in dim light, Radis luminescent, Banks–with her dark skin, wearing a black top and tights–nearly fading into the dark atmosphere, a succubus. But after this time of anguish, Radis straightened and gathered Banks–her child, her despair–into her arms and cradled her. As Radis closed this section, once again alone onstage, she looked at the audience with an eerie sidelong glance, evoking again the impression I’d had when she’d first gotten up from the wine drinkers to dance: dance may well be outside the bounds of ordinary communication, may in fact be perceived as madness.

The final section recapitulates many of the earlier movements and motifs–even its title, “Restoration,” plays with the ideas of stories, stores–as in “provisions”–and building. This section had an informal playfulness and hilarity. As the dancers loped breathlessly across the stage or, paired, flung each other about in a wild square dance, one might put out a hand and touch another–to stop herself, to say “I’m here, I know you’re there,” to establish contact but also to keep her distance.

A dance like Without Words, which is so little about technique or form, must be built on the dancers themselves and on the links between them. In some ways, a dance like this explores the fine line between dancers playing themselves and dancers being themselves. At any rate, the performers’ different presences onstage are integral to such a work. Susan Richter-O’Connell, solid and Nordic, is both childish and strong, inside herself in a simple, natural way. She was often paired with Tim O’Slynne, who’s also childish but wild, an imp. Bryan Saner, with his huge, long arms and syncopated movements, is emotionally self-contained, yet somehow always exceeds his boundaries: he’s not quite contained by his skin, despite his solid physical presence. He was often paired with Michelle Banks, whose small, tight, delicate body manages to convey the warmth of a bonfire. Lisa Howren is cool and reserved, her presence nowhere near the surface of her skin. In some ways she was a good match for Radis, though they seem almost too much alike. (They nuzzled each other, however, in a recurrent gesture that was very evocative–like two companionable horses.) And Jackie Radis? Well, she made the dance, didn’t she?