Speaking of Dance

Kathy Dunn Hamrick's response to reviews of dance is 'Say what?'

Jen Walters and Chris Bergeron
Jen Walters and Chris Bergeron

Kathy Dunn Hamrick was reading a dance review when a phrase caught her eye: "multiple cuppings of dipped heads." Huh? She had seen the show, too, but the reviewer's description left her baffled. What was a cupping? How many cuppings were there? And did she somehow miss them all? She stood up in her office and began dancing out whatever came to mind -- "funny, bizarre images" -- trying to re-enact the vivid and peculiar phrase. She dipped her head. She cupped her hands. She cupped and dipped again and again.

And then, she got an idea.

This idea was to make an entire program out of phrases from dance reviews. The show would pay tribute to the creativity of dance reviews at the same time that it poked fun at the difficulty of describing modern dance. Its title: "Say What?"

So Hamrick began researching -- she read reviews in the local papers and The New York Times, as well as reviews from dancers' portfolios -- and compiled a list of 25 phrases, which became the blueprint for an ingenious 30-minute dance piece. Verbs like "bobbles and wobbles," "ebbs and flows." Adjectives like "soporific" or "jarring." Descriptions like "hunched shoulders and dangling arms," "zippity cannons," and, of course, "multiple cuppings of dipped heads." With audience members given a list of the words, the dance becomes a kind of choreographic word hunt. Why are people bicycling? (Ah, ha! That's "in tandem.") And what's up with the jar? (Oh, I see. It's "jarring."). After the show's warm reception at a fundraiser this past March, Hamrick incorporated the piece into a three-part program called Monumental Baggage, which runs April 26 and 27 at the State Theater.

Critics have long been a target for satire. In Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett famously used "critic" as the ultimate insult -- worse than calling someone a cretin, a moron, an abortion. But for us critics, it's not just our, uh, criticism that annoys, it's the style in which we write. The food critics love their hyperbole, comparing a slice of pie to "a piece of heaven," heralding a piece of meat as "to die for" or "orgasmic." Rock reviewers use adjectives as if music left bruises: snarling, blaring, crunching, gritty. And dance writers, for their part, seem to give every move its own special personality. A leap is not merely a leap; it's a "joyful leap." A twirl is "expressive" or "dramatic" or "soulful." A collision is "angry" or, perhaps, "gentle." And a space is never small, it's "intimate." These are the ways we struggle to translate a visceral experience onto the page. But the additional challenge for the dance reviewer comes from describing an art form that is relatively esoteric.

"We just don't have the vocabulary for modern dance," says Hamrick. Not only is the general public unfamiliar with modern dance, but the form itself -- founded on innovation and rule-breaking -- means that sometimes, no vocabulary yet exists.

And that's probably how critics come up with phrases like "multiple cuppings of dipped heads" -- a stretch, perhaps, but an earnest attempt to describe movement whose technical components might be too complex, might not even have names. Many critics, even good ones (in this case, the venerable Michael Barnes), are guilty of a little fanciful overwriting at the hands of modern art. As a fledgling dance reviewer, I have perpetrated the following descriptions of dance moves on defenseless readers: "a mad swirl of limbs," "a face-off of footwork," "a sexual roundelay of sorts."

I mean, say what?

Kathy Dunn Hamrick is a spry, friendly woman with a slight Southern accent. When I ask at what age she started dancing, she tries to think back and then quits.

Kathy Dunn Hamrick
Kathy Dunn Hamrick

"I don't know," she says. "I've just always danced."

She studied modern dance at UT-Austin, went to New York, and then to Florida State University, where she earned her M.F.A. In 1988, she returned to Austin with her husband and began performing around town. A decade later she formed the Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company. "The truth is that it was already a company," she says. "I just liked performing with the same people."

On a Monday night, the six women in Kathy's company -- and they are all women -- are rehearsing at Cafe Dance, a small (I mean intimate!) dance studio in a strip mall on Hancock Drive. The women range in age and size. As they move to the music, each wraps her arms around another's waist, their arms lift in a diagonal, then fall to the floor. Whenever Hamrick gets a move wrong, she squeals and shakes her head. The company laughs.

Hamrick's sense of humor is one of her trademarks as a dancemaker. Her pieces are often playful, even funny. In her 2001 production Royal Pair, Hamrick showed a video clip of herself trying to train her Labrador. In last year's The Big Push (which won an Austin Critics Table Award for Outstanding Dance Show, Small to Medium), Hamrick choreographed the bustle of modern city living. "I don't really get into that heavy angst," she says.

Which doesn't mean her choreography isn't personal. Also in Monumental Baggage is "Brief Histories in Four Acts," a series of character sketches inspired by people in Hamrick's life. Her dancers contributed their own sketches as well -- what Hamrick likens to "haikus, trying to capture the essence of the person."

At other times, her choreography eschews narrative. In "The Natural History of the Ordinary Bean Plant," the third part of Monumental Baggage, Hamrick creates a more abstract piece -- what she calls "a dancer's dance" -- with an original score by composer Darren Castello (who also contributed music to The Big Push).

"It has nothing to do with a bean plant," Hamrick confesses. Instead, the bean plant is a metaphor for the way Hamrick develops ideas.

Watching the rehearsal, I felt the encroaching challenge of describing the experience. If, as Frank Zappa said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then what is writing about dancing like? Singing about buildings? It was all too confusing. The next morning, I sat down with Kathy Dunn Hamrick for a short dance lesson. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Austin Chronicle: How would you describe the way your dancers move?

Kathy Dunn Hamrick: We move from the spine. That was the beginning of modern dance, using the breath and the spine, but I think it's gotten lost.

AC: What does that mean, "move from the spine"?

Gaye Greever, left, and Renee Nunez
Gaye Greever, left, and Renee Nunez

KDH: Most of my movement originates in the rib cage. People will often say after a dance, "Oh, your arms were so interesting." And I have to say, "Well, it's not the arms, it's the spine." [Holding out one arm, Hamrick moves her torso in a circle, creating a kind of swooping motion.]

AC: How would you describe what you just did? A swoop?

KDH: Yes, but it's almost 3-D, 360 degrees. Very circular. I initiate that movement in my rib cage, and my arms are trailing that.

AC: I noticed a lot of sharp exhales during the dance.

KDH: Again, using the breath goes back to the beginning of modern dance. It's not just inhaling and exhaling, you suspend the breath. You push it out quickly. We use breath for rhythm. That's how we can dance without counts, without music. Someone said what she liked about watching us perform was connecting with the breath of the dancers. She could hear us breathing, and it made the dancing feel more natural.

AC: What else?

KDH: We use weight a lot. Heavy and light. [Her arm slumps to the ground, as if carrying a weight. Then it lifts overhead.] And, again, all of this is from the beginning of modern dance. Because modern dance has incorporated so many other styles -- you know, modern can be anything -- sometimes we forget about the basic foundation, which is the spine, the breath, and the weight.

AC: And so do your shows have some kind of trademark quality?

KDH: Humor, usually. Most people comment that they didn't know modern dance could be funny.

AC: When I ask people why they don't see modern dance, they often say, "Well, I don't really understand it." There's an insecurity. They fear they won't get it.

KDH: But sometimes there's nothing to get. You can go in and watch it just for the beauty of moving through space and not even try to get anything. I try to layer things so that if there are 50 people in the audience, there are 50 responses.

AC: You mentioned that when you read all those dance reviews, some of the critics wrote more about the music or the costumes than the dancing.

KDH: These are things we understand. The dress was red. It was made out of velvet. It's hard to write about dance. Even I find it difficult. I wrote a newsletter for the company, and my editor sent it back, saying, "Are you going to mention the dancing?" end story

Monumental Baggage will be performed April 26-27, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm, at the State Theater, 719 Congress. For more information, call 891-7703.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 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

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

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