Not Just Dance

Moving Into New Forms at the Performing Arts Center

Sydney Dance Company

Cross-disciplinary is the focus this fall in dance presentations at UT's Performing Arts Center. It doesn't seem quite right to call them just "dance" -- without the other artistic elements with which they're fused, they wouldn't, pardon the pun, have a leg to stand on. The shows -- Free Radicals, presented last week by Sydney Dance Company; Les Enfants Terribles, by Philip Glass and Susan Marshall, coming up Tuesday, November 4; and Geography, by Ralph Lemon, set for November 21 and 22 -- all interweave dance with opera, theatre, and live music. The importance of the other forms is not secondary to the movement; it's essential. Percussionists dance, movers act, singers move. To create Free Radicals, a group of Australian dancers and musicians entered the studio with nothing. Together, they forged their own movement vocabulary and score, often changing them with each rehearsal. The result, a series of movement snippets and sketches, is a piece that thrives on rhythm, and not the usual eight counts familiar to dancers. The dancers performing it stomp, snap, and chant complex sequences too difficult for me to follow. Three percussionists onstage with the dancers drum and tap on oversized metal salad bowls or hit a frying pan and slowly dip it into the water within a giant fishbowl. Once the pan comes in contact with the water, its vibrations produce a sultry Australian drawl.

The percussionists freely interact with the dancers and the dancers frequently accompany the score. Both do the other quite well. There is a nice mesh of mediums in two simultaneous pairings of male dancers with female musicians. Each faces the other and pulsates complicated rhythms from the other's bodies. They slap backs, push down knees, and beat music off each other's chests. In the end, the two women rhythmically wrestle their men to the floor. They toast with a congratulatory period: a high five.

Free Radicals celebrates the individual strengths and idiosyncrasies of the Sydney Dance Company's 15 members, all of whom are beautiful in body and line. Sydney's movement is ballet-based and shape-oriented, although it allows for free use of the upper torso and twists and curves of the spine. Artistic Director Graeme Murphy relies mostly on traditional choreographic male/female relationships with lots of lifting. This suits the company fine; they have plenty of big men and small women.

This aesthetic is beautifully illustrated in a lush duet between a man and a woman (no names are given for the dances) where she stands on his feet, the way a father and daughter dance their first duet. The two are constantly connected. Her feet never touch the floor, but they often change their relationship to his, sometimes facing him, sometimes both feet on one of his. Sometimes he just holds her, her legs and feet dangling, or she slides around his back. The dance concludes with her precariously perched on the soles of his feet, which are high in the air over his head. He is balancing on the top of his back and she is staring at a light shining above her. This odd shape concludes a symbiotic movement exploration in which the dancers delicately soak up and offset each other's energy, together effectively forming a new one.

On the whole, Sydney presented a casual, enjoyable show. Its fusion of live music and movement was not new, but it was wittily fashioned and tenaciously executed by both parties.

For Philip Glass, the interlacing of movement with music took a more complex form, one in which the different forms contributed equally to the development of complex characters and a full dramatic narrative.

Les Enfants Terribles (Children of the Game) is the final installment in Glass' trilogy of operas based on the works of French writer and artist Jean Cocteau. Glass began with Orphee, creating a score supplemented with projected text. But for each of the two subsequent operas, Glass added new theatrical elements. With La Belle et la Bete, Glass synchronized the score to Cocteau's film. For Les Enfants Terribles, he envisioned an operatic experience in which dancers and singers shared center stage. "We're looking at an opera staged in a way you've never seen an opera staged before," says Glass. "The fluidity of the elements, the way they flow from music to dance and dance to singing and singing to dancing; how they co-exist. That's something quite new."

Philip Glass

Inspired by her work, Glass asked New York choreographer Susan Marshall to choreograph and direct the project. She found the task of juggling movers, singers, musicians, and projections to be challenging. "I did not want to direct a conventional opera in which dance would play its traditional role of divertissement, secondary to the main action. Nor did I want to create choreography that would `enact' the story in a literal fashion, for the power of dance lies in its mystery.... Much of the process of creating this piece has been about finding balances: between singers and dancers, simplicity and density, humor and tragedy, melodrama and drama."

The version coming to the Bass Concert Hall features seven dancers and four singers accompanied by three visible keyboardists, one of them Glass. They play out the story of Paul and Liz, a brother and sister who live in a dream world of their own until Paul falls in love with someone other than Liz and his sister can't handle it.

The texture of Marshall's choreography is very thick, with a sort of moving-through-honey feel that exaggerates the almost incestuous relationship between the main characters. At times, Marshall has her dancers sweep across the stage with a simple running action that nicely mirrors Glass's minimalistic score. When the dancers and singers are both onstage, they come in heavy contact with each other, rolling around on the sparse set of two rolling beds and some chairs.

Glass finds growth inside collaboration. "There are artistic visions that are hopefully not competitive but complementary, and they should fit together. But there's also a lot of tugging and pulling going on. This is the process."

For Ralph Lemon, crossing disciplines is a way to explore racial and cultural identity and social/political issues, as well as spin him into new areas of movement investigation. Geography is the first piece in a projected series of works that Lemon will develop over the next six years. It marks his first notable collaboration with a visual artist and an established writer, and his first major work since refocusing his company two years ago.

For the past 10 years, Lemon's choreography focused on release work, that is, free and loose movements where the body's energy is released out into space or down into the ground. His version, which he called "essential dancing," was very fluid and lyrical with lots of juicy contact, like slow tumbling. Not until the performance will we see exactly how his work has been affected or changed by his new focus, but given Lemon's interests in the past, we can expect to see some deliberate exploration of the use and carriage of the body, musicality, movement intention, and movement invention.

Geography focuses on the conflicts and commonalities of the black experience, especially that of the African-American separated from the African culture by many generations. The work evolved out of Lemon's own experiences while traveling to Africa in search of performers. Lemon was referred to as a white man, especially by Ghanaians. When he asked why, the reply was, "Because you are not from Africa."

Ralph Lemon

The piece includes nine dancers, actors, and percussionists, all men of African descent from Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, and the United States. Four dancers and percussionists are from Groupe Ki-Yi M'Bock in Abidjan, and two dancers are from Ensemble Koteba in Abidjan. Carlos Funn, dancer and drummer for Ezibu Muntu African Dance Company of Richmond, Virginia, and Moussa Diabate, master percussionist and dancer from Guinea, will also be performing. Rounding out the collaboration with Lemon are visual artist Nari Ward, poet Tracie Morris, and composers Francisco Lopez of Madrid and Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid).

Throughout the history of modern dance, which has only been around for 100 years, there has been a pendulum that has swung back and forth between two trends: movement for movement's sake and more lofty, esoteric dances. I'm not sure if the pendulum these days is swinging farther and farther out each time it reaches the esoteric end, if choreographers today have outgrown the pendulum, or if they're just bored with it. Possibly artists of all idioms feel they can create fuller performance experiences -- ones which illustrate and communicate more of what they want to say -- by fusing their work with those other artistic elements. Certainly there will always be companies that can express themselves clearly with one straight genre, but all of the aforementioned shows that the PAC has chosen to present this fall move past the line of traditional collaboration into the creation of new performance forms. There are new hybrids of dance out there, and we'll just have to wait and see whether they represent the future of modern dance or just another extreme swing before the pendulum comes back around.

Les Enfants Terribles (The Children of the Game) will be presented Nov 4, Tue, 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall, UT campus. Geography will be presented Nov 21 & 22, Fri & Sat, 8pm, at the McCullough Theatre, UT campus. Call 471-1444 for info.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle