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Dances for the Deep Field

Hedwig Dances Performance Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, June 13-15

By Laura Molzahn

I don’t know why, but our culture seems headed into an era of spirituality, sometimes denigrated as gimmicky and New Age, sometimes celebrated as blessedly free of dogma. I wonder sometimes whether dance will play a part in this spiritual rebirth: just as dance is always sexual by nature, so it always reveals the soul, even when it isn’t intended to. At a bare minimum dance reveals the choreographer’s spirit, and often the performer’s. And sometimes chore-ographers are able to address more universal spiritual matters, the way Ralph Lemon confronted death in Sleep and Jan Erkert grappled with injury and illness in Whole Fragments.

The impulses behind Jan Bartoszek’s new work for her Hedwig Dances Performance Company, Falling Into the Sky, are also universal. Filled with a sense of the unity of all things, Bartoszek wants to connect grandmother and grandchild, science and art, things of the body and the soul. She knows that a child squirming in your lap or pulling at your hair and asking impossible questions–“Is there blood in space?” is one of several good ones in Alice George’s imaginative text for the piece–connects you with the past and the future.

But while I honor the impetus behind Falling Into the Sky, I don’t find Bartoszek’s approach very congenial or illuminating. Somehow a literal interpretation of things so very unliteral is bound to go awry. Bartoszek uses a great deal of mime in the interactions between the grandmother and child and in the grandmother’s death (she staggers and almost faints while at a dance). And when the other three characters remove their masks, which make their skin wrinkled and foreheads high, they’re literally doffing their bodies to enter the spiritual realm. The stars and moons that decorate the slide projections, though attractive, also overstate the obvious.

At the same time Bartoszek does a marvelous job of capturing the ebb and flow of movement between a child and a loved elder. She’s carefully observed the minutiae of a child’s motions, such as the unself-conscious way a girl clasps her rib cage in excitement and the way an elderly woman settles slowly into her seat, sinking in steps as she shifts from side to side. In fact the interactions between grandparent and grandchild are some of the most delicious movements here–more emotionally and kinetically involving than Bartoszek’s abstract choreography for the corps (Amy Alt, Julie Hopkins, and Todd Michael Kiech). I could almost feel the heavy, live weight of the child churning in my own lap, partly because Suet May Ho as the girl and Ann Boyd as the grandmother are so convincing.

They’re both aided and sabotaged by the masks they wear. Yet another realistic touch, the masks enhance our sense of the age difference between the girl and the old woman but also set their countenances in stone (or plastic). The child’s gleeful smile is unwavering, as is the grandmother’s indulgent grimace. The masks make the characters cold and inhuman, almost Disney-fied–though Disney cartoons are considerably more expressive. By the same token a doll that looks exactly like the grandmother (designed, like the masks, by Lynda White) is too literal a representation of the old woman’s soul.

A new dance by Hedwig artistic associate Sheldon B. Smith is at times even more literal than Bartoszek’s, but the mimed portions work better because they so clearly belong to the quotidian world–or a dream version thereof. In fact it’s a little hard to tell where Schubert Dances takes place, but it seems to be the land of the twentysomethings, where all the world’s a dormitory and all the men and women roommates. This is an absurd but often cozy world, filled with such everyday actions as searching the fridge for a late-night snack, microwaving a cup of tea or milk, dancing to music on headphones, and punching a time clock. The four dancers (Alt, Hopkins, Mark Schulze, and Smith) sleep in a congenial puppylike pile. But occasionally the denizens of this world swing a lariat or try to take a bite out of another person’s arm.

Juxtaposed with the contemporary, often humorous feeling of Schubert Dances are its rich, dreamy Schubert songs. To one very serious-sounding contralto number a woman accidentally wakes a member of the sleeping pile, who then wakes another irritably and on purpose. To a Teutonic tune, the dancers “work” by swinging one person like a battering ram; when Schulze separates himself from the group and stops to smell the flowers, the others work even harder, digging, stirring, chopping, and driving machinery. (If you see a cliche in Smith’s work, rest assured he’s making a joke.) Smith’s astringency plays off the sweet, sentimental music, amplifying both.

If Bartoszek wears her heart on her sleeve, however, Smith plays things a little too close to the vest. Schubert Dances holds one’s attention, but it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. I have the feeling it’s filled with private jokes; certainly the principle behind the order of the sections is indecipherable. Granted, this is not the way the dance was meant to be seen–Smith made it as a quintet, and when Christine Bornarth became ill just before opening night he must have scrambled to fill in the holes (as did Bartoszek for Falling Into the Sky). But Bornarth’s absence alone can’t account for the work’s disorganized feeling: with the exception of a surreal, cartoonish love affair between Smith and Hopkins, the dancers don’t really establish characters or relationships. Nor is there much in the way of a theme, or even of motifs–unless eating counts.

Though the program says “Dances for the Deep Field” is “an evening…created to probe the depths of the human soul,” Smith’s investigation of dreams doesn’t quite fill the bill. Strangely, Conversations II does. A rather academic work choreographed by Bartoszek and Hema Rajagopalan, it differentiates and then pulls together two very different idioms, modern dance and the ancient Indian form bharata natyam. But its deep respect, even reverence, for both gives the dance a spiritual dimension the other two sometimes lack.

At first the two forms are opposed, echoing the call-and-response pattern of the Indian music used: the two dancers who come out first may hold similar poses, but they give their movements a completely different feeling and weight–Hopkins’s are light and free, Krithika Rajagopalan’s deep and low. The details are different too: where Hopkins points her foot in a kick, Rajagopalan flexes hers. Never has modern dance looked so much like ballet to me as in this conscious contrast with Eastern dance. Later Jennifer Savarirayan, who’s well trained in both forms, eerily unites the two, as do Hopkins and Rajagopalan when they join her. It’s an even trade: bharata natyam gives modern dance a feeling of lush ceremony and display, while modern dance gives the Eastern idiom a more relaxed torso and variable relation with the floor.

Noodling over the Hedwig program, I thought about the way the words of the Episcopal liturgy affect me: like a collection of stones, they’re at once ordinary and unique. Thirty years after I rejected them I turn them over in my mouth with a sense of all they have to give me. The motions of Conversations II are like those well-polished words: familiar, abstract, but filled with meaning because they’re treated with reverence. It’s very hard to approach spiritual matters anew the way Smith and Bartoszek are doing. Where to start? What vocabulary to use? One choreographer ends up with a welter of images, the other with images too well organized by received ideas. The conundrum of modern dance is that it’s not ritual, it’s not liturgy; it’s by definition new. But perhaps if choreographers were more oblique in their approach to the spiritual, they’d more easily attain mystery.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of unidentified dancer by William Frederking.