at Link’s Hall

December 9

Sentience’s A Little Personality offers a lighthearted, personable, positively painless introduction to dance. If you sought a performance filled with finely finished and meticulously crafted work, you probably would have been disappointed by the barely structured dances and marginally successful improvisations on the program. But if you wanted to learn how people “read” or “get” a dance, or if you simply wanted to learn more about how people move, you would have found the program satisfying, edifying, and entertaining.

More a lecture-demonstration than a performance, A Little Personality presents the basic analytical tools of Rudolf Laban, the century’s leading dance theoretician and metaphysician, in an immediately accessible, physical form. Sentience’s director Joan Majewska talks about an idea–one of Laban’s four motion factors of weight, space, time, and flow–and then the performers demonstrate that idea. It’s infinitely easier for us to see the difference between bound movement and free movement, for example, by watching the dancers in front of us than by reading pages of drawings and descriptions; the presentation makes visceral sense.

Before the show, Majewska wanders through the audience introducing herself, chatting with friends and strangers alike. She stops to invite questions, and people actually feel free to speak. She mentions Laban’s work in connection with industrial efficiency, personnel management, and physical education, but talks mostly about the relevance of his ideas to diagnosis and treatment in movement therapy, their relevance to our everyday lives.

In Melodrama, George Azoo, Majewska, and someone named simply Travis use different postures and gestures to create very different characters with each repetition of a simple, stripped dialogue (“You must pay the rent.” “I can’t pay the rent.” “You must pay the rent.” “I can’t pay the rent.” “I will pay the rent.” “My hero.” “Curses! Foiled again.”). When Majewska asks “Would you buy a used car from this Hamlet?” after Travis’s soliloquy in The Sagittal, Vertical and Horizontal Personalities, you know you wouldn’t. Pieces like these draw our attention to just how much we depend on processing nonverbal communication, how frequently, accurately, and intuitively we unknowingly perform complicated feats of movement analysis and judgment.

A Little Personality offers moments of real insight. While Majewska’s double entendre about Elizabeth Taylor’s “many weights and shapes” gets a laugh from the audience, the accuracy with which she creates Taylor’s persona, her upright stance and forward focus, is astonishing: we don’t see the warm blond Majewska, only the fiery brunette. Her Leona Helmsley is nearly as apt. But the most intriguing part of this “medicine show” is unquestionably Majewska’s improvisation with a young (six-ish) audience member, an “osmosis,” a spontaneous exploration of the girl’s qualities and energy of movement.

They stand side by side, facing the audience: two blonds–one nervous, one reassuring–their chins slightly tucked, shoulders up, fingers entwined just below the waist, legs together. Majewska gives her partner small suggestions: “Step toward me. Back up. Turn this way.” A little bit of magic occurs: we can no longer tell if one is leading and the other following; inhibitions drop as the range of movement gradually increases.

Afterward, Majewska talks about the girl’s movement in Laban’s terms: it is bound as opposed to free (flow), narrow instead of flexible (space); she might also have characterized it as quick instead of sustained (time). The analysis is interesting but unimportant compared to the immediate, obvious exchange of psychic energy between the two performers. It’s easy now to extrapolate that that kind of rapport can fuel movement therapy, or even create one of those rare performances where all the dancers are “on” and totally conscious of one another.

Osmosis, an improvisation for Jacqueline Farina, Jean Kind, Ruth Kraiman, Majewska, and Travis, isn’t nearly as evocative. The four women imitate Travis’s posture and poses more than embody his style of movement: the improvisation looks confused and out of focus. The performers seem simply unable to connect.

The four portraits interspersed throughout the program are apt, if lengthy, illustrations of the ways individuals favor some ways of moving over others. It’s difficult to conceive of combining “heavy” and “sustained” with “quick” and “direct” in the abstract; but in Farina’s portrait, Jacqueline, for instance, we see them coexist and sense that it’s precisely this combination of just those qualities that makes her the person–and the dancer–that she is. We get a sense of Majewska’s own style in her self-portrait Joan: she favors movements that focus and travel forward and back over ones that inhabit the horizontal or vertical dimensions; favors angular paths and shapes over curved and spiral ones. When she dances Popsicle, a portrait of a particularly weird and winning cat, her style is so very different that it almost seems that she is a different dancer, or that someone else choreographed the dance.

A Little Personality has more to do with the felt experience of the study of movement, a real visceral and kinesthetic awareness of movement, than with Laban’s movement analysis per se; Labanotation and Laban Movement Analysis are the province of various bureaus, institutes, and centers around the world. A Little Personality is light, lively, and approachable. Rudolf Laban–with his real interest in the way real people use real movement in the real world–would be pleased.