at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

March 1-4

Think of someone you love. Think of eyes, the line of a cheek, the laugh and voice. Imagine that person dying. Now imagine yourself imagining for 45 minutes that that person is dying. That’s roughly the experience of watching Ralph Lemon’s Sleep, the second work of two performed last weekend at MoMing by the Ralph Lemon Company.

As Sleep drew to a close, I was silently begging for it to be over. We’re not equipped to contemplate death–really contemplate it–for that long. The mind turns away, it takes refuge in comfortable stereotypes: that we can die “nobly,” that we can help another person die “nobly,” that we can submit to God’s will and receive the comforts of religion. But these are evasions. It takes genius to make us look, and keep looking, at the painful fact of separation.

Part of what Lemon does is haul out the stereotypes and then ruthlessly–but not cruelly–undercut them. He defuses rather than infuses emotion–which, as we all know, is the only true way to break hearts. You could see the same technique in the first dance his company performed, Happy Trails, an antiseptically unsentimental but moving look at six denizens of a country-western bar.

Lemon has a real knack for the spare but eloquent set. In Happy Trails and Sleep, the wings have been pushed back to create one big, open space–no secrets, no illusions, no escape for the six dancers, who remain onstage throughout both works. In Happy Trails, Lemon sketches an environment with just a few objects: a cow’s skull hanging overhead, two bar stools, a saddle sprawled on the floor, a bench in shadow. The music is a collage of country-western tunes–mostly taped, one sung by a live performer–with frequent, long gaps between numbers. The contrast between dancing to music and dancing in silence is a major source of the texture in Lemon’s work.

The contrasts between the music and the dancers’ movements also provide texture. The first song in Happy Trails is “Moon River”; this liquid exercise in glissando is literally stamped out by one of the dancers. The rhythm is his own–it’s much quicker and more urgent than the music, but it doesn’t quite obliterate it. His angry inner music defies the romanticism of the song’s soothing lyrics and lullaby sound, but later in the dance stamping itself–and other cliched expressions of cowboy machismo–are themselves undercut.

Lemon takes all our romanticized ideas about the cowboy–about his idealism, his isolation, his self-sacrifice, his violence–and stands them on their heads. Riding off into the sunset–clearly, almost ludicrously, represented by the dancer leaning back and hopping on one leg, his arms extended and hands clutching imaginary reins–is nothing more than running away. When one dancer consistently retreats to his saddle and sits astride it, legs spread, one hand grasping the pommel desperately, eyes closed, it’s a clear image of masturbation. Dancers ride one another–use one another–their legs like calipers, their arms in slicing arcs. A kiss is followed by rejection or a fight. A fight is followed by a violent, collapsing hug. A man tucks in his shirt as a gesture of contempt and rejection–“There,” he seems to say, “that’s finished.”

Most horrifying of all are the cockfights: one dancer leaps at another, hurling her whole body at his head so that her belly smashes into his face or chest. The dancers’ impassive looks and the fact that they never raise or use their arms in any way give these fights a terrible impersonality–these are people acting out of instinct in a mating dance that would be too brutal for animals.

Happy Trails is affecting, and Sleep is a killer, but I don’t want to oversimplify these works. Their emotional impact is tremendous, but they’re also formally beautiful–in fact, these dances couldn’t have such impact without Lemon’s cool, speculative shaping. Certain movements derive from, comment on, recognizable gestures and images, but other sections are seamless dance–they derive from and comment on the music only. In the section of Happy Trails set to John Doe’s “Wreckin’ Ball,” the dancing has an inspired, wild callousness that’s gorgeous; the section ends in a symphony of winded breathing. Lemon, despite his critical eye, doesn’t let us forget the beauty of his subject.

Even more than Happy Trails, Sleep is a pointed exercise in flipping the rug out from under us. Set to selections from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem separated by silent lacunae, Sleep takes a set of recognizable images–in this case, from religion–and makes us see them fresh. Kneeling, crossing the hands on the chest, bowing the head, crawling abjectly on the hands and knees or belly, waving the arms, are movements that ap- pear throughout Sleep–but rarely straightforwardly. In one horrifying section, the dancers go through these gestures in a fixed sequence that’s repeated and added onto–go through them frantically, mechanically, as if forced to out of desperation.

Lemon experiments with other religious imagery: ladders and nakedness, for example–and false modesty. Sleep opens with a naked woman picking her way between the rungs of a ladder placed on the floor; a man greets her after her passage with a kiss and an embrace. Later, a man hurries to cover a “dead” woman’s exposed legs with her dress. It’s part of the complexity of Sleep that it contains so many different perspectives, earthly and unearthly, on death.

Lemon keeps surprising us in Sleep. People we think are “dead” get up and walk away or start dancing. A woman falls lyrically and then is hauled across the stage, feet clumping, by another dancer. A woman collapses, is carted and upended and mourned by the others. A man props her into a standing position and arranges her arms and hands in a prayerful attitude, then kisses her and raises her head–and with the others she starts again that dreadful fixed sequence of “religious” moves. Echoing these false deaths is Sleep’s false ending–an ending that’s repeated. It dares us to be uplifted, consoled, or entertained by this dance. Look unblinkingly, Lemon says. That’s all.

Even the stage setup encourages a steady gaze: six chairs are placed, three on a side, in the exposed “wings”–dancers “sitting out” do just that, in plain view, but they’re never removed from the action, never “off.” Instead they watch the others with a critical, consuming look. Occasionally lines of dancers form that witness in the same way.

In Sleep the dancers continually help and support each other. One woman might hold another up by rolling her head underneath the other’s back like a cat. When three dancers collapse on top of one another, it’s a delicate, gentle, weightless pile, and each is carefully retrieved by one of the three dancers watching. In fact Lemon often arranges his dancers in two groups of three: an active, “dancing” group and its three helpers, who watch and hover and make adjustments to their movements. These helpers might be earthly nurses, undertakers, or otherworldly types easing the passage to death–it doesn’t really matter, the effect is the same. Their help is often astringent, never expected. A dancer might be kissed and then unceremoniously dropped to the floor. But it’s hard not to be affected when the helpers cover the others’ eyes or ears or mouths: Are they teaching the dead to let their senses go? Or advising the living to turn away from the fact of death?

Lemon’s six performers–Wally Cardona, Hetty King, Ted Marks, Kelly McDonald, Michael Nolan, and Nancy Ohrenstein–literally throw themselves into their work. They present this difficult material without belaboring it but also without attempting to make it look easy. The paradox is that such concentrated physicality can produce so numinous a result.

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