at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

June 23-25

Often what’s fascinating about a purist are the impurities that encroach despite every effort. Nuns aren’t very interesting; a spoiled nun is. Sarah Brumgart, who dances her Silent White Dances solo in a white costume with no set and to no music, is a purist who actually approaches the pure. She not only strips away the usual dance accoutrements, but nearly eradicates from her work any trace of humor, drama, suspense, or emotional connotation.

Her dances remind me of experiments in which almost all the variables have been eliminated, or of a musician’s exercises or an artist’s doodles. Over the last two or three years, Brumgart has created a whole series of Silent White Dances; at MoMing she danced Silent White Dance XVII and Silent White Dance XVIII (a premiere) as well as excerpts from Silent White Dances I and XV. It was obvious, even without the lengthy question-and-answer period that followed the performance, that in each Brumgart had set herself a certain task or tasks; a program note let us know that, although each piece had a basic choreographic structure, the specific movements were improvised during each performance.

In XVIII, the first dance she performed, Brumgart moved from an upstage standing position to a position facing the audience only a few feet away, and back to her original upstage position. She achieved the movement by propelling herself through a series of balances, her arms and legs moving slowly and continuously, almost machinelike. The excerpt from XV was a series of turns: stiff-legged turns without arms, turns with one arm raised, turns with two arms raised, turns with curved arms, turns with arms held high, until her moves became quite elaborate. In the excerpt from I, Brumgart began flat on her back on the floor and ended flat on her back. In between she experimented with different ways in which her body could make solid, sustained contact with the floor but still be raised above it–as if she were building a human bridge. In XVII, subtitled “99,” Brumgart did a series of quirky movements that sometimes showed the influence of ballet or jazz, but they were so isolated and out of context that each was more like a letter of the alphabet than like a word, much less a sentence. Each of these improvised phrases was numbered, and Brumgart spoke the number of each phrase aloud before she did it, until she reached 99.

This, at least in part, is what I saw. In the later discussion, Brumgart described her inspirations and intentions. In the first dance, for example, she said she had relied on her training in yoga and her knowledge of Eastern religion: this dance was meant to emulate a Buddhist meditation walk, which a friend had seen performed by a woman who had taken half an hour to walk up and down the length of a dock. Brumgart had also wanted to explore yogic balances on one leg, and in the process discovered how these forced her to center herself.

What I observed during Silent White Dance XVIII was considerably more prosaic. I saw a fly circling in the spotlight and heard a truck outside changing gears. I watched Brumgart’s downcast eyes and was horrified, when she finally and briefly raised them, to see how glassy and blank they were. I observed the sweat break out on her body, first on her neck and chest, then on her face and back. I saw what a lovely body it was, both rounded and slim, and under perfect control. I felt the strain in her fingers as they quivered into precise, elaborate poses. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that she was finally about to return to her original position.

Clearly Brumgart aims for a deeply religious feeling during her performances, which are less like dances than like moving meditations. Everything about them shows the impulse of meditation–the impulse to erase, to strip away. In the discussion afterward, Brumgart talked about her dancing in the paradoxical terms often used to describe religious experiences: in performing, she must lose her will–she must trust that some power will flow through her. And she must also employ her will–must make a sustained, almost superhuman effort.

But the intense boredom I experienced, although it may be a heightened state of consciousness all its own, can’t be what Brumgart intends. What role is the audience supposed to have in this meditation, this experiment in movement? One audience member actually asked this question, wondering whether there might not be some conflict between movement for movement’s sake and movement intended to present a visual image to an audience. Brumgart’s responses were telling: she first said there was no conflict, and then that there was–but that she tried to balance the two motives. It occurs to me that the impurity in this purist is the maniacal search for purity itself. Brumgart is willfully blind to the fact that, in the context in which she presents it, dance is not pure–it’s theatrical, egotistical, and even exhibitionistic.

Come on, I felt like saying, let down your hair. And she did, a little bit, in Silent White Dance XVII and in the indispensable discussion, when she established the human contact her dances lacked and showed herself to be a charming, humorous, articulate woman. In her final dance, the very act of counting, however abstract and meaningless in itself, created a bond with the audience: she spoke, and to us. She and the audience had shared expectations, if only of the number that was coming next. We sat in some suspense, too, anticipating the end (99, of course) and wondering what it would bring. When it did arrive, Brumgart exploited our wish for completion, for consummation, if only by thwarting it, and that was funny–what a relief it was to break the reverent silence with a laugh.

So I know she can do it, can abandon the pristine stratosphere of pure movement. She can stop making the body an end in itself, instead of a means to something else. Brumgart reminds me a little of another puritan: Emily Dickinson. Brumgart has Dickinson’s spareness, her religious feeling, and most of all her American iconoclasm, which disclaims the influence of tradition and stands on its own. But Brumgart has not developed the qualities that made Dickinson great–a sense for the surprising, for the ironic twist that will show a depth of feeling or suggest a paradoxical insight. Dickinsons poems might have been written on the backs of envelopes and stuffed in drawers, but it is obvious they were intended to be seen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert O’Brien.