at the Dance Center of Columbia College, October 28-30

Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer: their names make them sound like an old vaudeville duo. And this husband-and-wife team from New York do have a strangely romantic aura about them, like the old show-biz teams that played the circuit 60 years ago. They’ve been dancing together so long–15 years–that they know each other’s performance styles intimately. They know each other’s bodies intimately. Even more delightful, they know how to share that intimacy with their audience.

The Bare-Bones Circus, Bridgman and Packer’s evening-length work presented at the Dance Center, lends itself nicely to the vaudeville notion. (But a short new piece for local performers that preceded it, The Crowd–the result of a two-week residency–felt tacked on, possibly in fulfillment of a grant requirement.) In their circus, Bridgman and Packer subtly play with fantasy and reality. They put on a show that’s somehow more charming and fascinating than real life. But like many old circus and vaudeville acts, the charm is paper-thin–the real drama lies below the surface. Certainly The Bare-Bones Circus has the spirit and style of a circus, with clowns and ringmasters, tightrope walkers and balancing acts. But it’s far more than that: the circus grows into a metaphor for the dancers’ ever-changing sexual relationship.

That notion is evident from the beginning. As old-fashioned circus music plays, a voice introduces the show in the traditional “Ladies and Gentlemen!” manner, and Bridgman and Packer roll energetically downstage, arms around each other like lovers. Each time one rolls on top, the name of a character in the circus is called out. “Rosa!” Packer is on top. “Bill!” Bridgman is on top. “Felicia!” Roll. “John!” Roll. The not-so-subtle idea is that this man and woman assume these characters at various points in their lovemaking. The voice continues. “The Ringmaster!” Packer on top. “The Clown!” Bridgman on top. These roles are then played out to varying degrees during the show.

The Bare-Bones Circus features smooth transitions from one act to the next and the seamless incorporation of highly theatrical elements with more abstract dance. Set and costume designer Frank Viner creates a one-ring circus using a large rope and some clown noses, and Jonathan Belcher provides lush yet crisp lighting effects. The performance is a constant flow of communication–between Bridgman and Packer, and between them and the audience. They talk to each other constantly, and they also talk to us. But what really holds the show together is the way their bodies communicate–they seem to be carrying on a constant, intimate conversation. Their movement is not just movement for movement’s sake (as it is for Trisha Brown and other postmodern choreographers), it’s movement for the sake of communication. Few dancers are able to achieve that constant flow of honest, open communication. But in their years of dancing and living together, Bridgman and Packer have developed a casual intimacy, a grace born of trust and deep knowledge of each other’s physical being. Their partnering is strong but delicate. And their language is full of humor and a sweet sadness.

In many ways The Bare-Bones Circus is an exploration of desire in all its shapes and forms. The circus opens with Packer as a lone tightrope walker, dancing nimbly but carefully on a beam of light shining across the floor. A hand from backstage gives her an umbrella to help her balance. Then a man wearing a horse head enters. He waltzes with her, her groin balancing on his thigh as they spin around. She grins ecstatically. When he leaves, she stretches upward, then falls to the floor.

Later, they roll over each other again, reciting the words “the greatest, the best, the biggest, the toughest”–words to describe the circus acts but also possibly words they might use to describe each other. She then lies supine as the man in the horse’s head takes a microphone and runs it across her body, up her neck, and over her chin. It’s a subtly sexual image, not too strident, and a bit amusing. The Bare-Bones Circus is refreshing in part because Bridgman and Packer never hit their audience over the head with their message. They allow it to come out slowly, leaving us to draw our own connections and conclusions.

Some scenes are difficult to figure out, such as a funny little number in which a dozen small, self-propelled balls roll around the ring, doing their own thang, bumping into each other, bouncing off the rope until a white hooked cane reaches out from the wings and reels them in. Other scenes tenderly offer insights into the most private emotions. The most poignant to me was a small episode in which Packer stood alone onstage. “Touch my face,” she whispers imploringly. Then, using her left hand, she moves her right arm as if it were a machine. She lifts her elbow, turns her hand, and places it on her face as if it were not her own hand, as if–hopefully–it were his hand touching her in the way she so wants to be touched.

The image of desire works on a number of levels. The circus is clearly a metaphor for Bridgman and Packer’s romance, but in certain scenes their romance becomes a metaphor for the performers’ relationship with the audience. Bridgman speaks directly with us several times. The first time, he sticks a clown nose on his face and quietly asks, “What do you want? Do you want me to be tough?” Then he breaks into a quick solo in which he isolates and rolls various parts of his body. “Do you want me to be . . . ?” He suggests another quality and breaks into another solo. The movements are different, but they’re imbued with the same nondescript energy, as if they were a blackboard and the audience could write any emotional quality they want on it. His questions seem honest and straightforward, as if he really wants an answer, but the audience–feeling somewhat surprised by his directness–doesn’t know whether to respond or not. When they don’t, he gets angry. Just as Packer gets angry in a later scene when Bridgman sits mute in response to her confession that she loves the way he touches her in rehearsal, and would he like to go away with her for a few days?

This is an emotionally, intellectually, and visually rich piece of dance theater. At the same time it’s immediately accessible and entertaining. Bridgman and Packer communicate their complicated ideas with a pure eloquence, allowing different ideas to form and fade as if in a dream that presents the audience with tender, genuinely delightful images resonant with meaning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Brazil.