Emergence Dance Theatre, Joel Hall Dancers, and Loop Troop
at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 26 and November 17 and 27
By Terry Brennan
Telling stories in dance can be tricky. Many dances can be summarized, but we often feel the story as much as we understand it consciously. And different people often see different stories in the same dance. Sometimes choreographers try to tell several stories in the same dance, or viewers see a different story than the choreographer intends to tell.
Take the excerpt from Joel Hall’s Nuts & Bolts on this Dance Chicago ’96 program. On the surface the story is simple: in a lighthearted parody of ballet, the snooty classical form loses out to jazz dancing, the people’s choice. A ballerina dressed in white comes onstage as if she were coming in from the street, dumps her bag on the floor, and pulls out her toe shoes. A ballerina dressed in hot pink comes in, sits down next to her, and begins fussing with her hair. The white ballerina offers the hot pink ballerina some gum, then gets up to leave. Both dance on pointe to funk music, but the ballerina in white dances it straight while the other not only dances better but keeps vamping it up and letting jazz steps seep into the classical forms. Then a group of five jazz dancers comes onstage and alternates with the ballerinas. The jazz and ballet dancers try to interact, mainly without success, but eventually they find common ground in a raucous swing dance.
If you focus on the fact that the ballerina in white is a thin, blond white woman, however, and the one in hot pink is a solidly built black woman, the dance becomes a racial statement. In that case, ballet is not just a quaint dance form but a symbol of white privilege that the hot pink ballerina is driven to prove she can master even if she doesn’t like it. After the first pointe sequence, a handsome black man comes onstage and, ignoring the protesting hot pink ballerina, heads for the white ballerina. They dance, but their dance is only a single spectacular lift held so long it becomes dull. It seems that black men want to dance with white ballerinas but that the two aren’t well matched. Only the multiracial group of five jazz dancers seems to work together without racial tension.
Hall’s dance seems to say that ballet is an inherently racist form that glorifies Caucasian beauty. Yet jazz dance isn’t the mirror image of ballet–it doesn’t glorify African beauty, but it’s a common ground where black and white can meet as equals. In the last section, an Asian man persuades the white ballerina to dance where the black man failed; the black man reappears as the partner of the hot pink ballerina. The racist lessons of this section are that black men belong with black women and that Asians are honorary whites. I doubt that Hall would agree that this is the story, but once he introduces the racial equation it’s hard not to follow it through to its logical conclusion. Hall is telling a story, but it may not be the story he consciously intends.
Many choreographers seem to believe their dances have clear stories, but viewers often can’t figure them out. Three of four dances by Emergence Dance Theatre have this problem. De Temporum (Out of Time) is set to a savage, bloodthirsty composition by Carl Orff, full of drums and cymbals crashing and a male chorus chanting ominously. Dancers in costumes hung with thin ropes move in front of a floor-to-ceiling screen on which slides of forest floors and cave interiors are projected. I think the story here might be a confrontation with a gnome king, but since I don’t speak German I couldn’t understand the music’s text. What Birds Plunge Through tries to solve the problem of unintelligible text, a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, by publishing it in the program and having the dancers recite it in unison. But unfortunately the dancers couldn’t be heard clearly, and the poem itself is beautiful but rather opaque. I could tell that the solo Thracian Threads is about the Thracian witches because of the dancer’s mimed sewing motions and black dress, but I couldn’t tell what was happening.
Joel Hall’s work in progress The Great White Cheddak belongs in the same category as these works. Four strange and possibly marvelous creatures with names like the Mancer and Precious interact: a man with a silver-painted face in a silver leotard with large holes in it threatens a woman in a green bodysuit wearing a kind of jester’s hat. But the things that happen don’t make enough sense to become a story.
A rule of thumb is that a dance made to a story told easily in words is probably going to be difficult to understand, because the choreographer has to solve the problem of translating words into movement. And stories told literally, in mime, are often flat and uninteresting. Dances that are based in movement, however, are often clear even if the story is difficult to cast in words.
Emergence usually employs spectacle, but its fourth piece, Diagenesis, also creates a stunning storytelling effect. Dancers in white bodysuits and hard white masks hold white sheets of wood about a yard square, which they often hide behind. A film of the same dancers projected onto the screen behind them is multiply exposed, showing several images of each dancer. The mesmerizing effect is to create the illusion of a deep stage area filled with people; the sheer number of images and the dancers’ rapid, abrupt movement give the impression of an insect colony or a madly overcrowded city. Near the end the dancers form a wall with their shields and hide behind it. Then, lifting their shields to form tiny cracks, they peek through at the audience. Suddenly a story comes to life–shy, fearful creatures peer out of their shells. Emergence creates a fascinating world first, and the story arises naturally from that world.
The underwater world that Loop Troop creates in Submerged is framed by Gavin Bryars’s music–excerpts from his Sinking of the Titanic sound like faraway explosions heard through water. Choreographer Anthony Gongora uses a wavelike alternation between movement and stillness to create an underwater world and to give it an autumnal feeling. As in Diagenesis, a story emerges only at the end: a woman refuses to join the group as they leave this world and is left floating in the void, manipulated by the other dancers.
Of course, an alternative to creating a story is to create a purely formal dance, as Loop Troop’s Rebecca Rossen and Mark Schulze do in Long Flat White. The “story” starts with four dancers, one in each corner of the stage, performing bouncy, nervous movement and ends with a single dancer in slow-motion contractions. It’s a clear story, but it doesn’t have much emotional impact because it doesn’t create a world for the audience.
The best storytelling dance here is Thin Wash Familiar Bones, by Carrie Hanson of Loop Troop. This male-female duet is set to three Bach preludes for solo cello, played onstage by Diana Parmeter. During the first prelude the quick-moving, seemingly happy couple keeps coming together, but the woman suddenly turns away as if cold and sickened. In the slower second prelude the two dance in unison, in longer lines and less inventive movement. They sit side by side with their arms behind them as if chained. They separate, and she kneels while he stares away from her. It’s suddenly clear that he’s a playful man but she’s tortured for some reason. The third prelude repeats much of the movement of the first, but the woman doesn’t turn aside, instead joining the man in a gratifying way. Thin Wash Familiar Bones has a form–movement from the first section returns in the last–but unlike Schulze and Rossen in Long Flat White, Hanson uses the form to tell a story.
In general the most successful storytelling dances, like good novels, create a world filled with beings we come to care about. The stories arise naturally out of these well-imagined worlds.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Loop Troop photo by William Frederking.