Why would you read about a dance performance you cannot attend? Why would I write about it? Can it serve us to spend our time in the reading or the writing? Does it better anyone’s life? Can criticism in any way save the world?
My erudite uncle, a professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University, loved reading the New York Times bridge column. To my knowledge, he never played the game. He read for the enjoyment of Alan Truscott’s writing, (equivalent to a music aficionado listening to Maria Callas sing the phone book).
I’m sorry. My writing will forever fall short of Alan Truscott. I cannot offer sheer pleasure to my readers at my turns of phrase.
So, for content? My insights also fall short of earth-shattering. To boot, my knowledge of dance is slim—based on a smattering of gym classes thirty or more years ago, and attending West African and Hawaiian dance performances by my “work wife.”
I’m going for the longest shot, that reading—or writing—criticism of an unavailable dance performance by a small Seattle company will save the world. In some way.
After dinner, sitting still and silent can get me drowsy. Regardless how noisy or active, some shows work as soporifics. I was never in danger of falling asleep during Record of the Anthropocene Movement.
This “meditation on the interaction of human behavior on the environment,” was a collaboration between photographer Omar Willey, whose perceptive images make a person think; composer Paul Rucker, whose repetitive music makes one admire the dancers profoundly for their powerful memories of faint choreographic cues; and Karin Stevens Dance, whose company makes an observer consider her situation.
Eight barefooted dancers wore tunics and leggings decorated with streaks and blotches of woodsy colors which gave them the look of poor guerrilla soldiers. The single male dancer’s garments, duplicate of the others, struck me as feminizing because the slight cinching at the waist caused the fabric to flap, skirt-like over the pelvis. I liked the resulting erasure of gender as an aspect of the performance. In ballet, in contrast, gender roles seldom flex. The male often provides support for flourishy movements by the females. Men may hold women aloft or even throw them. Karin Stevens’ eight dancers made all the same movements, often lock-step, none gender-specific.
The mid-March 2017, performance at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre lasted about an hour and a half. Two rows of folding chairs lined three sides of the proscenium dance space for the sell-out crowd. The front row obstructed the view for the second row of action on the floor—a fair amount of rolling and lying. A few audience members perched on the backs of their chairs, feet on the seats.
Omar Willey’s photos of landscapes, foliage, and water set a northwestern tone for the discrete dances. His slides showed between the dances like an economical—and ephemeral—stage set.
Paul Rucker’s music has not stuck with me. At the time it seemed a challenge to the dancers. With all its repetitiveness, where did they locate their cues? Most of the choreography involved synchronous movements from pairs, or triads, at the least, and sometimes by the entire company. The audience would have easily spotted missed cues.
The often snail-slow and balance-y movements of Karin Steven’s choreography reminded me of yoga mated to 1960s go-go or robot dancing. The company demonstrated impressive limberness and steadiness. A few times I watched minor wobbles, when a dancer stood on one leg or in a deep bow, in outsized discomfort. The physical difficulty of the choreography magnified these small problems. At the same time, the wobbles reminded me of the effort involved in humans creating anything, like noticing brushstrokes in a painting.
The dancers seemed to have learned how to move like each other. One dancer’s walking gait had a hitch. The hitch became a point of interest. By choreographic design, the other dancers incorporated the hitch into their gaits too. They traded such distinguishing features until they became a set, matched in motions, as they had become a set matched in genderlessness.
One dance was terrifying. The dancers walked slowly, directly toward my side of their space, their gazes dead. They swung their arms from the elbows in ratcheting circles as if their arms were part of some fierce machine. It was an advance of industrialization into a natural sanctuary. Yes, my mind went there. Yes, Karin Stevens spoke to us before the performance and planted the seed.
The performance investigated us and our surrounds, how we influence each other, Stevens said. Her choreography connected to the Chinese elements: water, metal, wood, fire, and earth, she said. In watching, I tried and failed to keep her whole preamble in mind. Only certain of her suggestions stuck: that humans be gentle with each other and their space, and the sense of her wanting to warn us of the danger we may create for ourselves if we forget a thoughtfulness in how we move in space. I saw the scary dance serving as this warning.
I stopped counting the dances. Were there five? One for each element? I don’t think I could tell you which was water and which was wood without a second viewing, and looking for reminders in Willey’s photographs. I get distracted by sensory immediacy. Had I known going in that I would write a piece later, I might have jotted notes. Forgive me.
The final dance ended in a warm playfulness. Company members flitted to the edge of their space and tended welcomes to audience members. As many as eight or ten audience members joined the dancing. Some held hands with the company. Some moved on their own. Some worked to mimic the movements they had been watching moments before. It was sweet. It brought us to unity.
In high school, after reading Lord of the Flies, we were shown the 1963 movie adaptation. The actors playing Ralph and Piggy impressed me as being perfect for their roles; they looked and behaved so much like the boys I had imagined. The biggest mistake of the adaptation came at the end and I felt it as a teenager and remember it all these decades later. In the book, all the boys break down. In the movie, a tear slides down Ralph’s cheek. Viewers miss the catharsis of thirty sobbing boys. I felt some of that kind of deprivation at the end of Anthropocene. The degree of sweetness of the final dance could not override the deeper horror of the robotic one.
I can believe this was Karin Stevens’ hope, that I might leave wanting more gentle movement and more unity, and maybe, create some of it myself. Had the dance entirely satisfied, I might not be thinking about its virtuous ambitions as much afterwards. Here is another imperfect offering to suggest forging out your door into our creative city to experience some of its teeming virtuous ambition.