Equal Footing/Earing

at Link’s Hall, January 8-10 and 15-17

By Terry Brennan

Heartbreak Loadout/Sunset Loop, choreographed and composed by Sheldon B. Smith, starts in a rollicking way. Seated in a corner of the stage with an electric guitar on his lap, surrounded by electronic equipment, Smith reaches over to a boom box and starts a tape of a country-western song. Four women in yellow dresses and pigtails tied with yarn tumble out from the sides of the stage and begin a series of big skips and do-si-dos, then return to the sidelines 30 seconds later. Smith reaches over, rewinds the tape, and restarts the song. The four women tumble out again, exactly as they had the first time, and go through the same movements with the same inflections–it’s as if the tape contained their dancing bodies as well as the twanging voice. This segment is repeated a third time, as if Smith were trying to learn the melody. He then picks up the guitar and starts to play the lick, recording it onto a tape loop. A single dancer (Selene Carter) appears. And at this point the dance shifts.

Carter goes through the same movements as before until she seems to realize that no one else is dancing. Her movements become dispirited and halfhearted, and finally she slows to a stop. She isn’t exactly still, yet she doesn’t seem to be waiting or listening. Instead, she’s frozen. She gazes at a rear corner; her gaze is blank rather than pensive. The other three women bounce out from the sides and sweep her up in their activity; each of the four dancers touches the others constantly, as they quickly form and reform tiny tableaux. Frequently one falls and is caught by another dancer, who puts her into a different shape. In the midst of this activity, Carter slips away; again, she stares blankly at a corner. The other three women again sweep her up, but after a short time she slips away once more.

This fragment of the dance seems to tell a simple story about grief. Carter’s first reaction to loss is a blank, glacial stare. Her friends seem a reassuring, gossipy bunch who come to the funeral and the wake and later try to cheer her up by taking her out for lunch every week. But Carter keeps slipping back into blankness, the essential expression of her grief. I don’t think any of us really wants to know what she’s seeing in that glacial stare. But as in the rest of the dance, this weighty story is performed breezily, tossed off: throughout, powerful vignettes of heartbreak are camouflaged as parodies of corny country-western tunes, carrying the viewer effortlessly. Periodically Smith rises from his chair and reads parodies of country-western lyrics in a halting, twangy voice: “Ah’m chokin’ back a cup of tears, drinkin’ a lukewarm beer, sittin’ on my front porch, and mah dawg is pissed at me ‘cuz there’s no food.” After the dance fragment described, Smith comments, “Ah wouldn’t worry about them being too lonesome and sad. Happiness has a way of creeping up and biting you when you least expect it. Leastwise, somethin’ is bitin’ me.”

Smith isn’t the first person to be drawn to the extreme states of mind in country-western music, nor the first to be put off by its indomitable corniness. And he’s not the first to resolve this contradiction through parody. But he’s the first I’ve seen who honors the form’s extremes without condescension, achieving an intricate balance between awareness of loss and a humorous defense against that awareness.

Smith is the curator, with David Pavkovic, of “Equal Footing/Earing,” a new series at Link’s Hall that seeks to give musicians and choreographers equal weight. Most of the six works on two programs were performed to live music, and most had new music and choreography. Some of the artists crossed the border between music and dance–Smith, for example, in Heartbreak Loadout/Sunset Loop. In Vanishing Point, choreographed by Marianne Kim, composer Joshua Abrams is also one of the performers. Here the dancers play bells; in one particularly lovely moment, Kim stands in a pile of leaves with her arms above her head in a V, temple bells hanging from her wrists. In a quick series of angular movements, she brings her elbows in and crouches–also ringing the bells in a precise sequence. It’s a perfect fusion of dance and music.

Pavkovic decided to take the lead in his collaboration with choreographer Jan Bartoszek, Autumn/Familiarity. Pavkovic, who frequently composes for dance, said in an after-show discussion that the dance is often completed before he starts the score. Wanting to reverse that pattern, he first composed the music, “Familiarity,” in 11 sections, exploring how much chords had to differ before an audience perceived the differences. He then gave the score to Bartoszek, telling her to choreograph the simplest dance she’d ever made. She and dancer Joan Pangilinan-Taylor made a series of solos on autumnal themes, quickly developing 11 images, each corresponding to a different section of the music, based on Pangilinan-Taylor’s recent experience of butoh. For the performance, Pavkovic and Jason Adasiewicz played vibraphones on opposite sides of the stage, effectively framing the dancer; her preternaturally blank face coupled with tiny spasmodic movements of the hands and body created a stunning, archetypal peasant character.

A Crack in the Ladder, a piece by composer Charles Kim and choreographer Michelle Kranicke, is not as close a collaboration, nor is it as successful. When Kranicke told Kim that she wanted to make three solos for different women, he decided to write three movements, the first about innocence, the second disappointment, and the third resolution. This must have been too much structure for Kranicke, because she seems to have ignored it, working instead with pure movement. Nonetheless, the dance and music fit well together, and Kim’s lovely, gentle composition defies categorization (after the performance, Kim said that he’d been listening to tango, folk music, Bartok, and Stravinsky as well as jazz and rock). Kranicke’s three solos have the same basic movement material, embellished by the dancers’ idiosyncratic gestures: Emily Stein is languid and bored, Kelly Hayes nervous and fidgety, and Kranicke herself high-strung and rather angry. Placed side by side, the dance and music are both good, but nothing lifts them to a higher level the way the butoh movement does in Autumn/Familiarity.

Two of the composers did not end up producing music for their choreographers because of other commitments. Rebecca Rossen was able to overcome the problem better than Carrie Hanson because she was able to persuade another composer, Jeff Parker, to come up with original music for TanzMusik. But Rossen’s choreography is strange, with a blank affect and emphasis on distortion. The best bit is a solo by Rossen that starts with her standing, then bending at the waist. She places her left hand on the ground, palm down, while the right arm goes above her head in a shape that seems to radiate a single message: Pain! Rossen then takes this shape into a deep plie, compounding the message of pain. This solo reminded me of an insect; later I scribbled “cyborg” in my notes. Rossen never quite takes a human shape, and she seldom moves with her whole body, instead isolating body parts. The overall effect is a kind of existential nausea.

Hanson began collaborating with Nikki Mitchell only a week before the performance, and Mitchell’s preexisting jazz piece “Troot” doesn’t fit well with Hanson’s solo, Swerve. Hanson makes an interesting choice by putting the musicians in the middle of the stage, then moving among them, maintaining eye contact. But in the after-show discussion, she noted that the musicians were probably more visually interesting than she was.

Perhaps inadvertently, this series reveals that successful collaboration between composers and choreographers is difficult. Both sides have to hold up their end of the bargain and meet each other midway. Curiously, in the most successful work the composer’s and choreographer’s roles overlapped. But despite some flaws and false starts, it was a pleasure to hear live music and to see composers and choreographers collaborate in such an intimate space.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marianne Kim photo by Marianne Kim.