Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Girls Want to Be With the Metaphorically-Antlered Girls, or, My Second Shy Date with Modern Dance

After last month's soul-searching experience with Dancemakers, I was curious about tonight's performance by Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers. I was especially curious when Brent Lott -- WCD's artistic director -- candidly stated that it wouldn't be the sort of program that people make fun of when they think of contemporary dance.

As much as I enjoyed the show, I beg to differ. Honestly, realistically, it WAS the sort of program that people (me?) make fun of. I'm thinking mainly of the piece called "In Silence," which had all the sorts of thrashing, reaching, rolling, hair-in-the-face, shouting, and Standard Drag Queen acting-out of old timey poetry (including fingers-down-cheeks for "tears" and pointing-at-audience for "thee," and I really mean "thee"). Plus more reaching.

I'm not mocking "In Silence." Okay, I admit it, I AM mocking "In Silence," because it reminded me of a version of The Go! Team without the fun. Watch this video and imagine that, instead of saying "We came here to rock the microphone," they're saying "In secret we met / in silence I grieve / that thy heart could forget / thy spirit deceive."

Before I tell you what I LOVED about the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers, let me tell you one reason why I think modern dance sometimes comes across as more-pretentious-even-than-Lord-bloody-Byron. Perhaps through no fault of its own, contemporary dance seems (to me, in my limited experience) to be best suited to extreme emotions: unrequited love unto death, crushing agony unto death, the joy of REQUITED love unto joyous eventual off-stage death.

Maybe a primarily nonverbal, physical representation of a theme must forsake the lesser, everyday experiences and simply dive into the furthest swings of the emotional pendulum. Maybe choreographers and dancers find it more suitable to tackle "the agony of the claw-rent soul" than "the long day at work followed by an unsatisfying meal and the broken water heater...again."

This, perhaps, is where contemporary dance tends to leave me cold...I prefer more emotional subtlety to my experiences. When I start to read a Lord Byron poem, my eyes start at the top line and then suddenly hit the last line, without anything between making any sort of impression. I don't like a strong diet of extreme emotion.

Tonight's show was a pretty strong diet: pure love, pure lust, pure joy, pure anguish. Eyes by turns enraptured-wide and agony-squinted. The slow, burning glance over the shoulder. The yearning, the yearning, the yearning.

I loved the premiere of "First Walk to Available Sky," which I would subtitle "Sex-Bombs of the Pantomime Horse." I was even more in love with "Between the Sycamore," which exuded such a palpable energy and simple joy that it transcended everything: the space, the audience, the dancers...it was absolutely, beautifully superb.

All four dancers were in unbelievable sync, seemingly without need of any cues or external stimulus. Grace and strength, clearly-telegraphed emotion, flawless in every way. If there had been a "Music From Sex-Bombs of the Pantomime Horse and Other Pieces" for sale in the lobby, I would have bought it in a second: the music, particularly in the first half of the show, was striking and perfectly suited to the performances.

But oh, the yearning, the reaching! "Reaching-out-but-not-grasping" does seem to be a ubiquitous element of modern dance, one akin to the villain-with-the-black-moustache in silent pictures: perhaps an effective (even essential) storytelling technique, but everytime I see it I go "Oh, yearning, villain, black moustache."

Remember, I'm the endless rationalizer, the constant analyzer. Other people can lose themselves in moments that I simply cannot. Maybe this is why I'm such a cold fish in relationships, because when I need to express "yearning" I simply do not, for fear of committing a fiendish cliche.

Even so, I DID enjoy the performance. I'm sure that it's expected, in a repertory selection, that you'll sometimes say "Huh," sometimes say "Bah," and sometimes scream "LOVE!" I said all three things during the show and I say now unto the world: tonight I saw some of the most wonderful dance I've ever seen.


The fourth piece -- "Mouvement" -- featured dancer Kristin Haight doing a great deal of running and thrashing. At first the point escaped me, but gradually I formed the image of a Doberman Pinscher being euthanized at the vet's office. I am not being facetious, this was actually a very powerful impression of a creature in pain...but somehow a dog. Being put down. By a veterinarian.

When the piece was over and the lights came up I felt a little guilty, thinking surely that was not the impression that the choreographer wanted to make.

Then the woman in front of me turned to her friends and said "Did you hear about that dog, that wild dog, that was running around?"

"Ooooh," said her friends.

"They caught it and they TAZED it," said the woman with some satisfaction, and they all stared intently at each other.

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