Internal and External: modus operandi‘s modi operandi

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Michele Miller and Alana O’Farrell Rogers seem an unlikely pair. One creates work that tends to erupt into visceral activity; the other is almost classical at times in her sense of line. And yet, the two have paired up to create a completely unified evening from an unusual split bill in modus operandi.

Michele Miller’s three pieces of the evening all play with interpersonal relationships. Threshold seems to be based upon the difference between restraint and control and very much an outgrowth of Ms. Miller’s interest in the internal arts of Wudang chuan, of which the well-known tai chi chuan is a branch. In the vein of that particular martial art, every movement here folds itself into another movement. There is no stasis, only flux. The two dancers, the explosive Becca Blackwell and the pliant Rebecca Greenfield, play out a drama in which flight meets restraint and turning away becomes turning toward.

While it ends in an elegant unison, I get the sense in this piece that this unity comes from a negation of individual will rather than a particular type of accord of two wills. I’m not sure that’s what Ms. Miller is going for, but the dancers find the aggression in the piece much more readily than they find the softness. The dancers’ faces in particular convey this. They lack a quality of tenderness or joy that might lead me to think this is a “positive” piece. As I watched I thought of Maya Deren’s film Meditation on Violence, another piece based on Wudang chuan–the practice of the sword, in particular. But in that piece Ms. Deren’s duet is between a camera and a sword dancer and time is symmetrical; the second half of the film is the first played in reverse. Threshold is not quite so symmetrical. It builds toward a kind of triumph…but whose triumph, I wonder.

Ms. Miller’s martial arts training is also obvious in the trio piece, What We Have. Here the subject is not meant to be intimate as such. Instead it is an exploration of combinations, and intimate duet is only one of them. With three dancers, there are seven possible combinations, of course, but it isn’t the number of combinations at issue here so much as the type: support, redirection, reflection, partner, competitor, antagonist, unity, disparity, group, individual. Ms. Miller obviously relishes these possibilities. In a relatively short time, she runs through them all, and where a certain lack of tenderness in the duet piece left me a bit cold, here it is perfect. This is not Wudang, this is Shaolin. Not internal arts, but rather external; not Taoism, but Buddhism; not elemental control of form from the waist, but animalian leaps and explosive contact–the big flood, as we used to call it in the dojo (my training was in Japanese martial arts).

As this is not a piece about restraint, the dancers can afford to be more expressive and they are. The beautiful Becca Blackwell features in this piece as well but here her stern, aggressive style matches perfectly. She is joined by the dynamic Danica Bito and sangfroid Jana Kincl–a perfect combination of personalities and styles for Ms. Miller’s explorations. I found the piece strong and delightful.

The grand finale of the evening was Ms. Miller’s I AM the Bully. I’ve seen this piece in three different versions now. This is by far the strongest and overcomes some of the weaknesses I found in the first two viewings. The fluid energy in this version is overwhelming. At any time, for any reason, any relationship on the stage may change. Oppressors become oppressed become bystanders become oppressors again. The entire piece is harsh and vicious, but more importantly to me it is crystalline. Crystal clear, in that all of the lines and images have coalesced, and that Ms. Miller has finally solved the ending of the piece so that its meaning, and its refusal to answer, is much more clear. But it is also crystalline in the sense that the roles onstage portray a fragile psychology and sociology of bullying roles. Where I originally found the piece too internal, I think that problem has largely disappeared.

Some will doubtless find the piece uncomfortable–as it should be. One of the things that handicapped the initial production of the work was a urge toward salvation. The images of the piece were brutal and I am guessing that as a naturally humane response Ms. Miller made the mistake of writing them off just a bit too neatly. Here she allows things to be just as brutal–moreso, even–but more importantly she allows them to be inconclusive, implying no particular answers. As bullying isn’t going away from our culture anytime soon, I think that is a much stronger decision. There is great brutality in this piece as it now stands but there is also a real humanity in it, and a deep compassion that does not always come through quite so strongly in her work.

[media-credit name=”Tim Summers” align=”alignleft” width=”200″]10366007_906936642654537_1991483468052819035_n[/media-credit]Alana O Rogers’ two dances work with a completely different vocabulary but the themes are curiously similar to Ms. Miller’s. Both choreographers explore conflicts between internal and external. Where, however, for Ms. Miller the dialogue of internal and external occurs on a physical level, for Ms. Rogers this dialogue is psychological. Not so much a matter of internal and external form, but rather internal and external reality.

Ms. Rogers’ voice is clearly much younger than Ms. Miller’s as well. Charles Mingus once told Jackie McLean “Jackie, you’ve got your own style. Now go find your own ideas.” And that is, I think, Ms. Rogers’ next task. As a rather young choreographer, Ms. Rogers undoubtedly has people telling her how important it is to be “innovative” with her style. The truth is, however, that we live in a changing and permissive society. There is no canonic, “default” style. There is very little interest either in being traditional or indeed in tradition itself. “Question everything; anything goes.” We’ve all heard the trope. But when anything goes it is impossible to be avant-garde. There is no garde of which to be avant.

I’m much more interested in whether or not she finds her voice and does good work. It does not concern me in the least that it be so-called innovative. From the work of hers I have seen so far, Ms. Rogers is at her finest when her work is personal, and set with distinct limits. The less she tries to do, the better she does it.

Her opening piece for the evening, SIGHT, had distinct limits. I enjoyed SIGHT, though I wonder about its implications. The arrangement of the dancers space into a grid strikes me as a powerful image, where each movement becomes a way of reaching and thinking “outside the box” quite literally, yet also portrays each dancer as very much in her own “silo.” Ms. Rogers explores that duality thoroughly in the piece. Beginning in blindness, dancers control their own space until they encounter another. They then must decide on the other’s identity. They touch, they move, and they look–and then they don’t. They recede. As it all plays out, the dancers find themselves much more self-involved than other-involved. They can, after all, at any moment simply put their blindfolds back on.

There is a major conceptual irony here. The piece is structured to be about a world “free from the biases of vision.” But it is a dance, and the dance is visual by definition. That an audience must see it to receive a message about a world beyond vision strikes me as a dimension of the work with which Ms. Rogers has not dealt fully. Furthermore, that blindness within the piece is selective leads me to interpret that, on final balance, the dancers (and the people for whom they are a synecdoche) prefer their private, internal lives so strongly that they will always retreat to them rather than form partnerships.

The thought is unpleasant. I find this emphasis on “self” rather uninteresting in my street life, and on stage not much better. It’s all quite beautiful, of course, and it is fantastic to see the lovely Natascha Greenwalt and divine Marissa Quimby share a stage with the wonderful Anne Motl, Erin McIntire, and Cheryl Delostrinos. I only wish they shared more. The emphasis on individuality recurs often in Ms. Rogers’ work. It is present in ID, for instance, where the grid structure also exists, though there it is a grid of rectangular light shapes. Obviously it is something she has to work through. I’m hoping she does, and soon.

[media-credit name=”Danny Boulet” align=”alignleft” width=”300″]rewind1-1024x682[/media-credit]Ms. Rogers’ final piece, REWIND, strikes me as much, much stronger. Like SIGHT, it has distinct limits. Unlike SIGHT, however, it comes across as explicitly personal and it is from this it gains its power.

It gains, too, from its restraint. In evoking the internal life of a woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s, Ms. Rogers uses the entire floor space with three distinct corners–a bedroom, a kitchen and an office with a chalkboard and typewriter–in which a woman (Karena Birk) lives her life in reverse. Between this asymmetrical area are the tightly coordinated dancers (Sylvain Boulet, Jana Kincl, Victoria McConnell, Mariko Nagashima, and Marissa Quimby) whose movements form her memories. Proving the old Lakota adage that the life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, time runs backward as she regains her youth at a rather high price.

The emotion that is latent in SIGHT is naked here. SIGHT, too, dealt with the similar theme of a completely internal world, where a person is shut off from others. But here the “blindfold” is not donned by choice. It is a struggle, and that drama and its all-too-human inevitability of defeat that gives this piece the power it has. The presence of a male dancer, too, in an evening of all-female dancers adds a level of tension that is uniquely potent, not quite romantic but something akin to it. It’s an exceptional piece, and I would love to see Ms. Rogers continue to combine the personal and the formal in her work to such fine effect.

Two choreographers. Two contrasting approaches. One modus operandi.

Categories Dance

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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