at Link’s Hall

September 11-13

Dance is strangely well suited to explore certain philosophical issues, one of which is personal identity. Perhaps it’s because the body seems to offer a nice, clean way of establishing identity: the boundaries of my body define the country of me. But what happens when even those boundaries get fudged?

That’s the kind of question Rachael Milder asks in her solo Unravelling, the first dance of two by Milder performed at Link’s Hall. Danced to Robert Sherman’s keening music for string quartet, it opens with Milder standing motionless with her back to us, a flowing piece of cloth pinned to the back of her leotard and draped. Somehow the lighting, her stillness, and the drape give an impression of integrity and solidity, as if she were a painting or statue so entirely of a piece it’s impregnable and immutable. Slowly she begins to turn, her gaze directed back over her shoulder, her head following the rotating column of her body. In keeping with her stillness her eyes are unseeing, yet somehow she looks frightened.

It could be that self-containment itself is frightening: it can’t be maintained by living, moving beings. As if to confirm a sense of anxiety and insecurity, Milder begins a halting walk, and though her steps are big she seems hobbled; meanwhile one hand makes caressing circular motions toward her stomach, as if she were trying to comfort herself. Suddenly leaping, the drape ballooning out behind her like a sail, she opens her mouth in a silent scream, but her face turns so quickly impassive again that the scream seems almost a hallucination. Later, when she pushes her face through the fabric of the drape, the effect is again hallucinatory: by highlighting the bony structure of her face–the nose, the teeth–the drape transforms her head to a skull. When she pushes her fingers into the cloth, the bony tips straining outward are what we see. Ironically the drape, by concealing, reveals the body (and perhaps the person) in a new way. Still later Milder pulls the drape up around her like a bowl, and looking down into this big shape seems to dance with it: a new, larger version of herself.

Milder’s precise dancing adds immeasurably to this brief, careful, rather slow-moving work. Shapes often seem iconic, with details so carefully realized–Milder leans over, for instance, and holds the fingers of both hands stiff and straight and close together, just touching the floor with their tips–that you wonder exactly what they mean. It’s as if Milder were creating a precise bodily vocabulary for psychological events, almost in the manner of Martha Graham. In the meantime she has a paradoxical stage presence: both diffident and intense, serene and active, as if she’s gathered all her energy to a pinpoint at some deep place in her body, where it rests, ready to explode.

Milder shared this program with Julia Mayer McCarthy, whose solo Door also, I think, deals with issues of self-containment, even solipsism. A beautifully written quote from James Baldwin, distributed to the audience on small slips of paper just before the performance, speaks mysteriously but evocatively of locked and unlocked doors, people’s fears and hopes about love. A rectangle of light is projected onto the rear wall, and McCarthy’s shadow there seems somehow more substantial than she herself: perhaps this is the formidable reflection of oneself–the “impenetrable truth” in the “eyes of a stranger,” one’s lover–that fills Baldwin with so much fear.

McCarthy’s movements often show fear: she cowers, looking up; takes steps that rock forward, then pull back, as if she were afraid to really move; turns in a tight rotation like a corkscrew. Other times she touches herself obsessively, rubbing her eyes and mouth, stroking the sole of a foot, rubbing her hands together. It’s as if she must constantly and tactilely confirm her own existence–but that’s all she can do. The invisible cube she traces around herself at the end with her index fingers only confirms what we already know: this is a woman in a box.

The last work on this program, Milder’s Palatial Larks, is a lark indeed, a cartoonish allegory rendered by seven dancers and a six-piece world-beat band, Mnemio, playing onstage and occasionally dancing themselves. The story features a conflict between three godlike creatures in filmy togas (Terry Brennan, Karen Forss, and McCarthy) and three pushy little clownish birds (Krenly Guzman, Suet May Ho, and Marisa LeRette). A bird child (seven-year-old Christine Leung) arrives on the scene and effects a reconciliation between the two groups: in the great chain of being, the gods would be rational angels and the birds vital, intuitive animals, and of course their union produces the human, perhaps the artist.

But this description gives Palatial Larks a much greater dignity than I think Milder intends. Even the gods are often ridiculous, toppling over or gazing about dumbfounded like a cross between Monty Python’s upper-class twits and the character who intones “I need a new braaaain.” And the birds–all performed by tiny dancers–are outright ludicrous, costumed in gigantic slippers, clown ruffs, weedy wings, gloves with long pointy fingers. Each has a different movement persona: Guzman, a man, moves with a sinuous swish, Ho with a robotlike swagger, LeRette in a stiff-legged, vertiginous totter. Mnemio’s music, which is said to draw on Middle Eastern, Greek, African, and Chinese sources, often sounded to me like klezmer music, the perfect comically lugubrious accompaniment to these doings.

The music also provides a good part of the dramatic impetus and dramatic shifts in Palatial Larks–which is fine, except that it’s filling in for what should come from the choreography. True, the characters are intentionally shallow and static, but their movement is too much the same over time to keep our interest. It’s as if Milder told her dancers to improvise in character and then let them go on for too long and with too little direction. Many scenes degenerate into mush.

But not when that little girl’s onstage. Christine Leung’s solemn concentration is magnetic; however simple her movements, her intensity galvanizes our attention. Often she dances with Brennan (a Reader critic as well as a dancer), and his gentle strength offers a nice contrast with her bold powerlessness, while his slight air of vulnerability echoes hers. When they’re onstage together there’s a sudden urgency, a genuine relationship. In Leung we don’t see a character or persona–we see a person in all her integrity concentrating on the task at hand. When she races toward Brennan to be lifted high and briefly raises her eyes with an involuntary look of terror, glee, and resignation, it’s a revelation of who she is, at this time and in this place. Questions of identity are entirely beside the point.

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