James Roose-Evans once wrote that the essence of classical modern dance is that motion flows from emotion. It’s the hallmark of Martha Graham’s work, certainly, who referred to dance as “a graph of the heart.”
Graham was of course creating her work at a much different time. Her world felt very immediate threats of extinction, either from Nazis and Imperial Japan or from nuclear destruction or jackbooted capitalism, so emotion was socially important. One could hardly desire emotionally unstable humans in charge of The Bomb, or anything else that might burn human life from the face of the earth.
The difficulty with continuing that modern dance vocabulary in contemporary America is that Americans are loath to deal with emotion as a social matter at all.
In the text-based theater, for instance, one can read comment after comment about how expressing heightened emotion is associated with over-acting. Note, especially, how WASPy actors and critics discuss Latin American approaches to theater and film. It isn’t just a latent racism at work here. It’s a massive gap in cultural values. These tossed-off comments reveal in American culture a deep suspicion of basic human feelings, and accept an injunction against talking about such things in polite company.
And yet, against this cultural background, Karin Stevens continues to pursue emotion in her dance. Her allegiance to the vocabulary and the goals of classical modern dance are not nostalgic. I highly doubt she would ever want to return to the past. Rather she is deeply interested in peeling away the various masks of individuality with which so much contemporary dance is obsessed, and revealing a fundamental unity to it all.
In this pursuit, Ms. Stevens’ latest dance work, reMOVE: Back Toward Again the reTURN Facing, is her most ambitious work yet, not only as a choreographer but as a dancer. Based as it is on repetitions of five against four, it is highly structural. Yet that structure serves as a springboard for emotional exploration just as much as it serves as a railing to steer it.
The overall shape of the evening comes from the music. There are three different pieces composed for string quartet: Wayne Horvitz’ These Hills of Glory, Michael Owcharuk’s The Upward Spiral, and Nate Omdal’s A Day in the Life.
I’m still sorting through the first movement. It’s intricate, even for Ms. Stevens, whose work has incorporated movement inspired by everything from particle physics and Islamic architecture, to cancer cells and vulcanology, to the flows of seasons and the essence of Christ. I understand the premise behind this movement, with each dancer representing one aspect of the Chinese cosmology Wu Xing, the Five Elements (or, more accurately, Five Movements): wood, fire, earth, metal, water. In fact, each dancer is dressed up in one of the respective colors: green, red, yellow, white, black.
The elements here, however, rarely join. Contact between dancers is rare. Instead each process dances along its merry way, sometimes transferring its movements to another process, which then transfers its movements to another process and so on. The whole movement evokes a world of imbalance, if not chaos.
The second movement is rather shocking in its violence. It’s quite unlike anything of Karin’s I’ve seen. Her work often tends to be introspective and lyrical. Here it is anything but. It is screaming with explosive movements based on various violations of the human and particularly female body. Again, the vocabulary is rarefied but this accentuates the emotion rather than ameliorating it. At various points Ms. Stevens throws her body around the stage, torturing herself with extreme gestures evoking sexual violence, rape, and the violation of all things feminine. It’s highly unpleasant–and highly effective.
After that bit of tempestuousness, the dance grows quiet as Michael Owcharuk’s quartet, The Upward Spiral, begins to play. The dancer representing Fire lays out of this one, as does the clarinet that provides the fifth voice of the quartet. The other four dancers don new costumes that conceal their elemental nature and begin to move toward each other in an elongated rite of joining. The Presto movement especially is beautiful and unambiguous in its images of affirmation in which the dancers take joy in uniting with each other in complex shapes and lines as the energy moves from slow and steady to swift and effusive over the course of the quartet. It is, I think, the single most beautiful section of the work and of Ms. Stevens’ dance work in general.
After intermission, the Horvitz quartet continues its final two movements. At the same time, the Fire dancer and the clarinet instrument rejoin the clan. Throughout the joyous balance of The Upward Spiral, the remaining four dancers enacted a kind of ritual of separation and togetherness. The dancers here begin once again to drift apart toward separation, with very little physical contact between them.
But something begins to change in the final movement of the piece. Without ever becoming symmetrical, the piece begins to move toward real balance. At the end of movement six, the dancers form two clear lines, one static at the rear of the stage, the other forward and in motion. And then both lines begin to move laterally, each playing against the other. Then they begin to move into each other’s spaces. At virtually all times movements are being passed from dancer to dancer and transformed. Sometimes there is unison in pairs. Sometimes there is trio work. Then it decays, ending the movement is something like disunity.
As Nate Omdal’s music starts up, that disunity quickly pulls together. The dancers physically draw together, each in contact with the other, in a shape that looks something like a Tree of Life. The music changes from dissonant and unresolved to a bright major key filled with lyricism. From there each of the elemental processes moves around in a kind of representation of the Wu Xing chart. They are apart but clearly together nonetheless. The music establishes a steady pulse behind it all. Each dancer reprises movements from the very beginning of the piece, slightly transformed and then join each other first in a group, then in a line, each dancing along with the other. Fitting for a display of such harmony, the music and the dance both end quietly.
Given the variety on display, and the pure power of Ms. Stevens’ dancers to express things alternately beautiful and broken, I can safely conclude that the classical modern dance vocabulary has a lot more it can say yet. And that should come as no surprise. The noted atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg once surprised his students by saying there was still a lot of great music to be written in the key of C major. Just so: there is also a lot of great dance to be made with a type of transformed classicism. The music runs from the eerie, almost microtonal music of Wayne Horvitz to the rhythmic propulsiveness of Michael Owcharuk, to the crisp and delicate tones of Nate Omdal. I’m sure none of them wondered about whether or not they were old-fashioned.
The dancers are fantastic in both their expressive qualities and their commitment to the work. It’s no secret I admire Ms. Stevens’ dancing, but here she is truly a level above any other. I’ve never seen her dance with such extraordinary passion, particularly in her solo. I’m also a great admirer of Philippa Myler, who is exceptional here as well, and Naphtali Beyleveld of course, who can seemingly do anything in any situation. But I was truly impressed with Taylor Augustine this time around. I’ve not seen Ms. Augustine dance nearly enough. I will have to rectify that. Here she is delightful, with her earthy approach and lithe movements. Too, Anja Kellner-Rogers adds lovely fire to the dance with her contribution. Her combination of restraint and jagged motion that folds back into itself fluidly is marvelous to behold in this piece especially.
The presence of the live musicians adds, I think, to the urgency of the piece but also gives it a discipline, too, as it forces the dancers to listen, rather than create their movements in a vacuum and simply dial in. And what fine musicians! The quartet of Paris Hurley, Alex Guy, Heather Bentley, and Maria Scherer Wilson is the same as on the recording of Mr. Owcharuk’s quintet. Mr. Owcharuk himself even joins the group for the closing section during Nate Omdal’s piece, with the composer on bass and drummer Isaac Boyle. And Beth Fleenor as the voice of improvisation for the Horvitz piece is perfect, as usual, reminding the audience why she’s one of the finest voices in local music.
Throughout her work Ms. Stevens’s great interest seems to be: explore a seemingly chaotic world and probe it for order — emotional, logical, and spiritual order. In a time when emotion, logic, and spirit are all very much under fire or at least in great disuse, this may seem quaint. Or, alternately, it may seem brave, and if human beings are to survive this particular gear of The Great Turning, humanity will need such bravery time and time again. reMOVE is a great success in that direction, and I hope to see Ms. Stevens and her company grow even more brave with their next work.