Painter Robert Longo, motion picture special effects designer John Gaeta, UNC defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, martial arts choreographer 袁和平 (Yuán Hépíng) and cyberpunk novelist William Gibson got thrown out of a tec bar the other night...
In its past, even among its most refined practitioners, hip hop choreography has been a signifier set that frequently has pointed back to little more than itself. Stipulate that such is an inevitable stage in the evolution of any human behavior that emerges from pastime to trick to technique to style to substance as an art form: in this case, dance moves and gestures capable of disclosing or speaking to something other than themselves.
As a result, at times a sense of more than merely physical exhaustion has haunted even the bravura of Compagnie Käfig, Rubberbandance and Rennie Harris over the years.
Enter the 605 Collective, a hive of dancemakers from Vancouver. To be certain, AUDIBLE, their percussive evening-length American Dance Festival debut, was physically exhausting to enact (and even watch, to some degree).
Still, there was a clear sense that it had exhausted neither its subject nor the range of artistic possibilities by the end of its hour on stage. Even more importantly, in these choreographers’ ability to find, analyze and fuse a diverse range of cultural influences into a meta-commentary on technology, sport, surveillance and the hazards of increasingly mediated isolation and community, we read what seems more of an opening statement than remarks knotted into the end of someone's artistic rope.Where dancemakers once aspired to anthropomorphize such aspects of the natural world as the afternoon of a faun or a bevy of swans next to a body of water, these artists have devoted substantial time and technique to recreating digital video editing artifacts and glitches—electronic stutter/stagger steps, microloops and other gestural hangs—on the human form instead. It makes 605 Collective the second dance company in the same week (Shen Wei's Near the Terrace was the first) to present audiences with convincing real-time versions of digitized images, movements and effects first seen on video or in film.
As mentioned in our previous Critical Remix, Shen Wei regularly revises earlier works. Less regularly, however, does he change their titles while keeping much of their content the same.
That gives us pause about the putative world premiere of COLLECTIVE MEASURES. By my reckoning, at least half of its contents were viewed, more or less verbatim, in a lengthier world premiere at the 2011 ADF called Limited States.
Shen references the work in the playbill. No doubt he should. Sequences in which dyads made exaggerated fingertip selections while facing each other; a seven-minute game of zone transversing and adjustments measured out in a spotlit square; projected footage, above the stage, in which three shifting trios inflict pain and comfort gestures on a dancer in the middle; a contact section suggesting theatrical improv machine-building games; weightless women lifts and a sinuous centipedal sequence—all of these echoed the work we saw two years ago.But don't take my word for it. Compare for yourself our exclusive video preview for Collective Measures, above, with the video preview we produced for Limited States, in 2002, here at left.
It is less clear, however, if the reappearances of these themes here represent refinements of earlier work, or mere reiteration.
Beginning with sequences referencing early motion-picture motion studies of the human form, Limited States focused largely on measurements of bodies in increasingly close proximity to one another. Among its varied, fascinating technological views of the human form (generated by video artists at New York’s Fake Love), Shen seemed to be asking how large groups in finite space limit the autonomy and range of individual expression. When inquiring into the rules that might permit compact co-existence in a crowded cube, the choreographer nearly seemed in pursuit of one particularly alarming endgame that global overcrowding may well present.
Collective Measures appears to add little to that inquiry. In fact, it may well be subtracting something from it.
Parts of the work represent a retreat into the human sculpture garden we’ve seen previously, in works including 2004’s Connect Transfer. Comparisons with Merce Cunningham seem inevitable here, but while both have mapped out impressive landscapes in the realm of the possible involving human movement and placement in space, Shen’s work still seems by far the colder of the two.
We were taken with Cecily Campbell’s and Alex Speedie’s mid-work solos, both brisk, daunting, crisp and lyrical excavations of personal space. Though Cynthia Koppe and Janice Lancaster Larsen briefly threaded through them, certain energetic group sequences still seemed to plateau, overlong and without a developing point.
Though brief gesture quotes from a number of Shen’s previous works are identifiable here, it’s not clear whether their presence suggests a grand integration, or a lack of other options.
At the time, Connect Transfer clearly suggested a gesamtkuntswerk fusion of all we had seen up to then in Shen’s work. By comparison, I’m afraid that Collective Measures suggests decidedly Limited progress.
NEAR THE TERRACE
SHEN WEI DANCE ARTS
AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL
DURHAM PERFORMING ARTS CENTER
By now, we’ve come to expect choreographer Shen Wei to revise earlier works when he restages them, as the prerogative of an artistic intellect that is never still. Those changes have ranged from the subliminal tweaks we’ve witnessed in versions of Folding to the overt makeover which suggested that, in the first section of his famous trilogy, the incomplete title Re— actually stood for rewriting. (Or, possibly, redaction, when the shattered floor-length mandala which clearly symbolized the Tibetan Buddhist diaspora in the first version of that work was muddied beyond recognition in at least one iteration that followed, before its later reinstatement in recent years.)
All of which speaks to another cautionary hallmark we’ve come to associate with Mr. Shen: Second thoughts, that sometimes necessitate a third, or fourth.NEAR THE TERRACE, the choreographer’s tribute to Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux, and the first work of the first evening in the American Dance Festival’s 80th season, Jun. 13 in Durham. The world premiere of this evanescent composition (with a then-student cast including current company members Sara Procopio and Jessica Harris) announced the arrival of a formidable new choreographer in the dance world here in 2000.
Then a revised edition in 2001 dialed that announcement back, just a bit. A second section Shen added to the work that year (including a filibuster-length solo danced by the choreographer himself) ultimately gave the composition the feel of overworked dough, doubling the length—but not the charm—of his original achievement. It's been years since Terrace’s part two was jettisoned; it wasn’t on the playbill last week.
What was, however, included an enigmatic new opening to what by now has become a cherished classic in modern dance.
Exclusive video footage from the world premiere of choreographer Shen Wei's Collective Measures at the 2013 American Dance Festival. The company performs at the Durham Performing Arts Center, Thursday, June 13 and Friday, June 14, 2013.
Video preview produced by Byron Woods.
Some rites are seasonal. It's a fact those who've spent any part of their lives in close contact with the land know, intimately. Plant tomatoes in the spring under the sign of Scorpio; set potatoes in the dark of a Cancer moon. Feed a pig generously—until the last week of its life. Then, at the first hard frost, gather family members or neighbors. Shoot it in the head, hang it by its heels and slit its throat.
But, as many have observed, our culture has largely determined to estrange itself from nature, as well as estrange ourselves from one another. In doing so, it has created something not entirely predicted. Call it an epidemic of rites.
They have no season. The rite of need, for example: enacted each time an inadequately compensated laborer draws his wages and is forced to choose which necessity his family must do without. The infinite rites of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The rite of alcoholism. The rite of post-traumatic stress. The rites of domestic violence and rape.
Over and over, they occur. Months or weeks from graduation, the overconfident teenager edges a car he’s not that experienced with just over the borderline. A man, far more fragile than he imagined, is confronted with one last indignity, one last unbearable change, and looks at the pistol, the rifle, the semiautomatic weapon in its case.
And somewhere in northern North Carolina, a reactionary board of education provides its students with all the tools they need to thrive—in a culture and economy that winked out of existence some 40 years before. It is the Spring. More than one family is thankful that the military is willing to offer their children a ticket out of the dead mill town.
Later, the officer, in immaculate dress blues or the crisp taut gray of the Highway Patrol, walks across the yard to the front door of the house. She hesitates, then knocks. Again. And then again.
And thus we arrive at the title of choreographers Bill T. Jones, Janet Wong and director Anne Bogart’s new work whose world premiere took place last weekend at UNC’s Memorial Hall.
Also, not much happens. The first half of the program consists of the solo from Monk’s 1972 Education of the Girlchild. For perspective: Ms. magazine began publication in 1972. Title IX, ensuring equality in sports education for girls, passed in 1972. Women were not admitted as Harvard undergraduates until the following year. So when you watch the slow, constricted life-memory unfold, keeps those things in mind. Monk was 30 when she made this piece, imagining herself an old woman time-travelling, remembering and honoring the stages of her life.
Girlchild is meditative, not active; distant, not passionate. It may frustrate, anger or bore, and it will certainly demand your patient close attention. The movement language is not all that interesting—but the way in which the movements are carried out can be. At the very least, the piece has value has an historical marker. For me, the voice work overrides all other considerations. Even nearing 70, Monk’s voice thrills. Her range extends from unusually deep to high and light, and she makes many instruments sound from her throat and mouth.
The program’s second half, Shards, features sections from two 1971 projects, and three songs from Girlchild, performed by Monk and three other women. There is some dance, but these pieces are primarily musical, with much in common with Philip Glass. Both the electric organ and the voices (sounds, with words or phrases sometimes swimming to the surface) advance and repeat, repeat and advance, almost to the point of making you crazy before they come to a surprisingly well-resolved halt. Again, the voice work is far more compelling (from today’s perspective) than the staging or the movement.
The younger women’s voices and performances are fantastic, and they sound as Monk must have decades ago. Her voice, though, is the essential one, full of wisdom, full of joy. I’m glad I saw the Education of the Girlchild solo again, but the Shards make me happy. Inexplicably, wordlessly happy.
Meredith Monk performs the program again tonight at 8. Visit the Duke Performances website for information and tickets.