at the Dance Center of Columbia College

April 8, 9, 15, and 16

Nothing’s achieved without labor–yet anything labored will fail. Yeats in “Adam’s Curse” reflects on the difficulty of the poet’s craft: “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” Recently at the Dance Center of Columbia College, the paradoxes of laboring to be beautiful and laboring to love were reflected on by Akasha and Company, sometimes consciously and sometimes inadvertently.

Quartet: A Formal Offering, a premiere by Los Angeles-based choreographer Mary Jane Eisenberg, shows us the work of human existence, what the Bible calls the “labor of love.” The commissioned score by Bruce Fowler is anxious and modern percussion is provided at some points by what sounds like a knife hitting a tin can–but also dramatic and emotional, driving toward resolution. The costumes have a timeless simplicity: the women wear calf-length dresses with camisole tops; the man, pants and a loose shirt.

As the lights come up, we see four dancers (Anne Kuite, Oliver Ramsey, Margaret Rojek, and Marilyn Tracz) entering from different corners of the stage. They converge in the middle and turn to face the audience, looking at us briefly before beginning the dance. It’s as if Eisenberg were saying, “This is something created, an offering to you. And now the work begins.” The four dance together, then each dances separately–Ramsey and Tracz also perform a duet–and finally all four dance together again, this time in unison.

Many of the gestures seem to express anguish. One move resembles crucifixion: the dancers face the audience with arms stretched wide and heads thrown all the way back. Another recurrent gesture is a torso violently contracted and arms flung forward, as if the dancer had been socked in the stomach and the body had curved like a shell around the pain. The progress of the dance is toward simplicity: Rojek’s solo, the first of the four, is big and flinging, filled with dramatic swoops. In Kuite’s solo, the last, the movements have become truncated, simpler, more isolated from each other. She cups her hands, not quite over her ears but a bit away from her head, not the embodiment but the abstraction of a person blotting out sound.

So why did I think this dance was about love? In large part, it was the way that the dancers worked together and related to each other, not only despite their troubles but because of them. It’s not pleasure that brings people together, as a good Victorian like George Eliot realized, but pain. A real community is not a community of hedonists but of sufferers, and part of what they suffer–as well as glorify–is work. In Quartet, the dancers sometimes worked separately, but I never had the sense they were isolated from each other. They were frequently paired, though unpredictably. Their gestures implied a desire to help each other or, more subtly, to restrain each other, perhaps from harm or excess. And all four dancers, although they kept a rein on their emotions, danced with feeling. The whole effort was greater than the sum of the individual parts, and there was a nice fellow feeling between these people, an unforced companionability.

If Quartet celebrated work–not physical but psychic labor–Passenger was just plain work. Choreographed by Nora Reynolds, this solo featuring Akasha’s artistic director, Laura Wade, was tough going for choreographer, dancer, and audience alike.

The stage is dark, we’re waiting, when suddenly we hear a mechanical whir. When the lights come up, we don’t focus on the dancer–she’s on her back with limbs aloft like a baby–but on the contraption she’s lying on: a revolving (what we heard was the motor) circular platform perhaps four feet in diameter.

This device rotates the dancer at a very slow speed–in fact, the whole dance proceeds at a snail’s pace. Wade gets up, she gets down, she twists this way and that, and every once in a while, a foot or calf might brush the ground. The platform is like a pedestal and the dancer is like a statue–a barely living statue. The only tension the dance creates is a fear that the engine might break down or the device tip over. Would the dancer then stand up, apologize, and walk off? Or continue the dance on terra firma? The pedestal imposes so many limitations and yet is so central to the dance, it’s hard to imagine how such tiny twists and stretches in themselves could be made interesting. Despite Wade’s strong, lithe body and the work she puts into the dance, trying to give it some drama, it ends up a mere display, an anatomy lesson set to music.

The third premiere, Breaking Ground, was choreographed by Hubbard Street dancer Ginger Farley. If in Passenger we saw dancer and choreographer laboring under the burden of an unworkable idea, here were no ideas, and consequently no work at all.

Danced by Akasha’s four female members–Kuite, Rojek, Tracz, and Wade–Breaking Ground has to have been titled ironically. Not that it isn’t a pleasant, entertaining dance–it is. But it’s also bland, monochromatic, and gracefully unsurprising. There’s a facile correspondence between the upbeat music (by Mark Isham) and the choreography. Many of the moves are straight from the jazz lexicon, but they’re done slowly, as if to invest them with a lyricism that–at least in this context–doesn’t work. The dancers do manage to look like they’re having fun–Kuite especially has a light-filled presence–but it’s not the kind of fun that spreads to the audience. No fire in the dancers sets off sparks. The only real contrast to the music and the choreography are the costumes, designed by J. Morgan Puett. They look like medieval peasants’ garb, rough cloth fashioned into a baggy fit, but the reason for this contrast is never apparent. Finally the dance just slips by.

In God’s creation, what doesn’t labor? The natural world, of course, and that’s what we see in Vastus Sylva (“great forest”), the most impressive of the three nonpremieres. In this affectionate, humorous look at flora and fauna choreographed by Austin Hartel of Pilobolus, the four dancers mimic monkeys, seals, insects, even plants. First performed in 1986, Vastus Sylva here features three men–Rob Lane, Dan Prindle, and Ramsey–and one woman, Wade. But it’s worth noting that, despite the dancers’ skintight unitards (of a chameleonic fabric that picked up whatever color shone on it), the sexes are barely distinguishable. When the dancers at the end of each vignette collapse in a heap, when we might expect the suggestion of something carnal, we see only friendly bumblers, the animal-world equivalent of Keystone Kops.

Perhaps the most interesting questions raised by this piece are whether nature is human, and whether humankind is natural. In the natural world, does natural law–survival of the fittest–reign? At one point a dancer topples onto his back like a helpless bug and is abandoned by the others. Or do animals have an innate altruism? Witness Wade’s nudging another dancer back on his feet with her nose. Ultimately however, to a generation made cynical by Disney’s anthropomorphism, Vastus Sylva is merely clever, and its marriage of the cute (barking seals, for example) with the abstract (the trademark Pilobolus “fungi” look) is un successful. Only when the dancers pile themselves into a very symmetrical, formal heap and raise their eyes to the audience to gaze back at us does the dance come alive. Only then does it escape the insouciant luxury it borrows from the natural world and set the human mind and heart to work.

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