It would be comforting to believe that the DanceWest competition at Cal State L.A. over the weekend represented a conscious attempt at an end-of-century retrospective: a summing up of the creative styles and strategies that had led modern dance to become marginal, if not invisible, in Western culture. The evidence certainly suggested as much during the performances by six companies at the Luckman Theatre on Friday and Saturday.
Did the judges for the French festival of contemporary choreography this May--called the Seventh Rencontres Choregraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis--deliberately go looking for blind alleys and dead ends? If not, it must have been coincidence that most of the entrants on view from Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles misused intriguing themes and dedicated dancers to define their status as auteurs, as if their individual voices communicated anything as compelling as the resources they had squandered.
Take the excerpt from Hae Kyung Lee's "Silent Flight" on Saturday, which put five dancers suspended by their ankles (a la Sankai Juku) behind translucent panels, visible only as shadows. In turning a powerful physical action into a mere trick of the light--a shadow play accompanying Steve Moshier's intense score--Lee painted herself into a corner.
Why ask fine dancers to be gymnasts when she could have filmed professional gymnasts and projected their images onto the panels? If Moshier's Liquid Skin Ensemble was going to function as the central live experience of "Silent Flight," why not put it on the stage and Lee's shadow panels off in a corner somewhere?
Music also proved dominant in Saturday's excerpt from Rosanna Gamson's "Lovesickness," a Jungian treatment of obsession previously reviewed in these pages. Sound collages likewise sustained interest in the uneven offerings of two companies from Seattle making their local debuts.
Both Maureen Whiting's "And It Was" (Friday) and KT Niehoff's "Attracted to Accidents" (Saturday) masked five skillful dancers in the deceptively offhand, garage-band manner that has come to be known as Seattle style. And each nearly drowned in discontinuities--taken very seriously by Whiting but enriched with arresting spatial gambits (Alia Swersky's slow crawl juxtaposed with the static vertical isolation of the others, for instance), and softened into a string of whimsical non sequiturs by Niehoff.
In "Accidents," talk about gravity led to graphic demonstrations of its power, with challenging lifts and other gymnastic feats putting to rest the illusion that Niehoff's dancers were merely sent out to be energetically likable. In contrast, the dancers in "As It Was" always remained prisoners of Whiting's weighty, meticulously planned randomness, but their concentration kept the audience focused on the piece's small, continual shifts in motion and accompaniment.
Cinching DanceWest's agenda as a music event in disguise: Brenda Way's "Investigating Grace" for ODC/San Francisco (Friday), which not only gave itself the challenge of matching the formal magnificence of Bach's 30-part "Goldberg" Variations, but the idiosyncratic brilliance of the great Glenn Gould recording of 1955.
Fielding a highly accomplished ensemble, Way tried everything: wiggly nonchalance, formulaic structuralism, hard-sell gymnastic display, gestural character comedy, perky same-sex relationships, troubled hetero romance, death and transfiguration, you name it. But the result looked like the variations had been assigned piecemeal to an undergraduate choreography class; it lacked a binding unity or authority to stand alongside Bach's and Gould's. Do we really want one of the masterworks of Western music reduced to divertissement fodder?
Completing the event: the previously reviewed "Trajectoire" for Jacques Heim's Diavolo Dance Theatre (Friday), which used an enormous, round-bottomed platform to make an ever-shifting, precarious footing the environmental norm. Definitely a metaphor for the dance world itself.