MoMing Dance & Arts Center

June 10 and 11

The purpose of the annual “Making Dances,” according to MoMing’s artistic director Jackie Radis, is to “educate audiences” about modern dance, which she says the general public sees as aloof, incomprehensible, and elitist. The argument is that artists and audience members need to be put into dialogue. But discussions about their art by artists can often be limiting, as the artists explain away much of the mystery and intrigue of their work. And unfortunately, despite their professed efforts to the contrary, the two choreographers showcased this year–Mary Ward and Timothy O’Slynne–tended to fall into exactly that trap, one more and the other less.

The evening began in a promisingly unassuming way. Mary Ward walked onstage with a tape player, plunked it down on the floor, turned it on, and began performing a mysteriously joyous dance to Cameo’s “Word Up.” After about 30 seconds, she stopped and said, “Maybe I’d better try some different music.” She returned to her tape box and put on some innocuous new-age music, performing the same kinds of gestures to this entirely different accompaniment. Her dance was supple and yet perky, as she isolated particular parts of her body in a kind of energized languor. A hip would begin to rotate, as if being pulled by some unseen string. Her physical adroitness was stunning; her body appeared to be pushed and pulled by unseen forces. Add the amazed expression on her face–she looked surprised by what she was doing–and Ward seemed to be enchanted by some mystical, imaginary world.

Unfortunately, in the middle of this beguiling solo, she stopped, turned off her music, and began to explain the underpinnings of her work. Her dance was entitled Champagne (she handed out glasses of the real stuff during her lecture, much to everyone’s delight), and she had intended to “capture the essence of effervescence.” Ward went on to delineate the formal qualities of champagne pouring–first the bottle as “pure potential,” then the pouring, then the foaming over. Had she stopped here, merely alluding to qualities of effervescence, her discussion would have been charmingly suggestive. But she went on to delineate all the bubblelike qualities of her solo–the perky movements, the circular themes. After describing her piece–or, to my mind, unintentionally oversimplifying it–she joined two other dancers to perform a trio from Champagne. While the trio was filled with the same kind of tantalizing movement as her solo, the dance had for me become a one-dimensional illustration of life in a champagne glass, and that turned out to be disappointingly flat.

As the three dancers–Ward, Beth Bradley, and Brian Jeffery–weaved back and forth in tight patterns, tracing endlessly varied zigzags across the floor, all I could see were bubbles. The dancers were either catching bubbles or watching bubbles or floating on bubbles or avoiding bubbles. Ward’s discussion had reduced Champagne to a single literal element, putting my imagination on hold; the dance was in a sense impossible to see. Certainly I could recognize an intelligent configuration of bodies twisting through space, although twisting at a rate that lacked something in subtlety and variation. And the three dancers connected well with one another, although Jeffery didn’t have the suppleness that Ward and Bradley so effortlessly displayed. But watching the dance was enormously frustrating. Ward, instead of opening my mind to the possibilities of her dance through discussion, had fatally decoded her work, and the dance became a literal translation rather than an enticing evocation.

O’Slynne proved more successful as an explicator of his own work. In talking about Sudden Summer, he centered on the structure of the piece rather than its iconography. He gave us a framework in which to view the dance–talking for example about his counterpoint of dense, complicated rhythm with slow movement–while doing his best to avoid explaining how we were supposed to react to that framework. While at times he became needlessly didactic, even showing us a section in which his body was to spell out “sexual frenzy,” O’Slynne talked more about Sudden Summer’s constituent elements than their implications, which allowed the piece a greater resonance in performance.

Sudden Summer turned out to be a masterful work. Built around images of sexual repression in the Victorian era, Sudden Summer explored moments of hesitant, anticipatory eroticism as two men and a woman languidly purred their way through a richly textured tapestry of unstable love triangles. The piece began as the three dancers–O’Slynne, Bradley, and Jeffery–stood in white Victorian garb, chuckling nervously, looking at a peach suspended on a wire from the ceiling. Each of the men tried unsuccessfully to bite the peach off the wire. Finally the woman just grabbed the peach, yanked it free, and took a long, sensuous bite. As her teeth sank into the fruit, all three dancers suddenly buckled at the knees and then slowly spun around as the lights faded.

The next three sections put the three figures into a fantasy romp. In the first section, the three lounged placidly together, rolling heads or touching hands, moving as if filmed in slow motion. In between the first and second sections, Paul Solberg’s original music, with its clean, geometrical sounds, began to build in intensity. The second section was characterized by frantic, crazed energy held just beneath the surface of this leisurely trio. In one beautiful moment, the three dancers sensually rolled their heads in unison while the men’s hands nervously fluttered at their sides. This second section seemed to bring things to a boil. The third section unleashed their heretofore suppressed sexual desires. The dancers appeared onstage sopping wet, the men without their shirts. Bradley, the stereotypical Victorian woman, immediately fainted, and the two men dragged her across the floor along a cleanly lit diagonal. This hypersensual dance was as erotic as any dance I’ve seen, especially when the back lighting caught the spray from the men’s bodies in glittering detail.

After this eruption of eros, the dance’s brief coda returned us to the original scene, the three dancers around the peach. As they spun back to face the audience, in effect completing the turn that had ended the opening movement, the woman triumphantly pulled the peach from her mouth and chewed, while the men looked on exhausted. Given the work’s dreamlike atmosphere, the entire fantasy could well have transpired during the instant of that bite. Suddenly J. Alfred Prufrock’s query–“Do I dare to eat a peach?”–had new meaning for me.

O’Slynne is quite a craftsman, both in terms of the specific choreography and of the dance’s overall structure; he established an initial image and then explored it. Sudden Summer first invited the audience into its fantasy world with its opening game of grab-the-peach, which created a specific context and clear triangular relationships between the performers. Then the audience was sent on a remarkable journey, and finally returned to their starting point, a point that had lost its innocent candor to darker sexual undertones. His dance, by slowly degenerating from composed titillation to debauched frenzy, following its own consistent illogic, brought the audience along with it rather than arrogantly challenging us to decode it. In this, Sudden Summer provided all the “education” necessary.

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