Sometimes the questions are clear, in the end. This pair arrived at the end of the concert by Noche Flamenca, ostensibly the closing act of the American Dance Festival's 2006 season: What should the ratio of passion to intellect be? What happens when that correlation wanders out of balance?
Brief questions, but far from simple. Particularly when one realizes they can be applied to a single piece of choreography or a company's total output. An individual dancer's work or an entire art form. The oeuvre of a critic. A season at a festival devoted to new dance, or any--or all--human relationships.
At the end of the first act, we'd been all but catapulted out of Page Auditorium on the bravado and the daring of dancer Juan Oglalla's "Maria - Alegrias." His solo was equal parts psychodrama and dance, as it deceptively swayed from cool disregard to laser-like insistence.
We watched as he negotiated a polyrhythmic labyrinth and technical torture chamber of his own devising; a hellish gauntlet of 30-second and 32nd-note subdivisions within already subdivided syncopated beats. Call it dancing on a tightrope for one. But that would ignore guitarists Eugenio Iglesias and Luis Miguel Manzano, and the singing of cantaores Manuel Gago, Emilio Florido and Nieves Diaz who kept the melodic line taut--that is, when they didn't give it a good hard snap, every so often, just to ensure the continued interest of all parties.
By the end of Act 1, the audience was certain it had been petitioned, harangued, warned, pleaded with and advised by the cantaores, even though the overwhelming majority couldn't understand a word they'd said. The dancers' eyes didn't search the darkness before them; they studied it instead. Then their harsh, hoarse voices, rubbed raw with emotion, cried out again and again over what they saw and knew. Their hands that grasped, bent and broke off notes in mid-breath opened into outstretched palms that held the excavated facts of desolation.
We were being served notice: Love beckons loss. And as for the particulars? They're as meaningless as the tongue in which they're sung.
What kept all of this from veering into parody? What divides drama from melodrama?
Sincerity, perhaps. Or maybe it's a certain cautionary knowledge: Suffering is universal.
Perhaps that's why we didn't need a translator for this particular performance. On an innate level, we all recognize a cry of pain.
Our tutelage that night, for those who stayed, included an emphatic dance that fully acknowledged the extremity of passion and pain, that faced the darkness squarely with a ferocious--and, ultimately, finite--dignity.
Was this an obscure dance and musical form, rendered in a language even more obscure? No. It was a return to the very foundation of the drama instead--the classic form of tragedy.
Such open cries and stern remonstrance were a world removed from the futuristic chill greeting the few who darkened the doors of Shaefer Theater on a late Saturday afternoon in early July, for choreographer--and ADF M.F.A. candidate--Mark Haim's thesis presentation of Guide to Southern Trees.
Glow tape on the floor directed us carefully around the elevated perimeter of a darkened stage, near a rectangular white plastic mat perhaps 10 feet in length, carefully set on a diagonal, covering a part of the floor. The choreographer, barefoot, dressed in white, lay on his right side near the back of the surface, facing the rest of the mat and the audience.
The stage was lit by one source only--a video projector, focused from the catwalks overhead onto the stage below. The projector's faint illumination when no signal was being shown made the plastic mat just barely glow a neutral grayish white. The white light bounced off the shiny plastic, giving an eerie, cold illumination to the dancer.
As we watched, what appeared to be a computer animation program began to trace a single white line, perhaps 3 feet in length, parallel with the far left corner of the mat. A sound score of mechanical clicks and whirs accompanied the beginning, middle and end of the process.
The moment it concluded, the stage went dark--and the process started again. This time, the line doubled in length before coming to a digitized halt. More darkness before the process began again.
As the figure grew in length, it grew in complexity as well. The line took a series of sharp angles, curves and twists--always one apportioned segment at a time, before its "canvas," the stage, went dark and the program started over once more.
A design began to slowly fill the surface. It came to resemble an elaborate border, the type one might find at the edge of an illustration in a Victorian novel, or perhaps a print by Aubrey Beardsley.
In its early iterations, the man simply traced along the contours of the line, with fingers and other body parts. But as the design took up more and more space, an originally supine dancer had to sit and then stand to avoid contact with the light. As the pattern made its inexorable path across the stage, Haim's movements became an exercise in skilled evasion, one so fluid and so graceful that we were almost able to ignore the subtext of coercion.
Ultimately, Haim chose first to lie, then to stand, in a corner of the mat that the pattern did not occupy--until another iteration filled that space and "forced" him off the mat completely.
This preceded a section where the on-stage orientation--and the projected patterns--changed. Rows of lines of varying thicknesses suggested partial frames, or page borders in old books. Haim swiftly reoriented his body, again and again, in a number of poses on a series of angles, apparently trying to fit in with the new designs. Significantly, in this sequence there was never rest: Since the patterns continued to change, all accommodations to them proved temporary at best.
Still, the only change in Haim's neutral emotional affect came toward the end of the second of back-to-back performances of the work. As the original design began filling in again, Haim softly sang from Cole Porter's "Night and Day," while placing a series of miniature, whimsical white flags at a series of different iterations' endpoints on the design. Ultimately, Haim knocked them over, one by one.
Despite Haim's title, the speed by which the projected opening design overruns the Shaefer Theater floor suggests the daily progress of our beloved kudzu plant much more than any tree indigenous to the South.
Still, we somehow sense that the choreographer has something beside local horticulture on his mind.
Authors including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ray Bradbury and Don DeLillo have observed that the patterns of a life only gradually reveal themselves--insidiously in some instances, joyously in others.
In a place that's white and quiet, a similarly garbed figure stands and looks as a drawing fills in around him. At first it seems a pathway, perhaps the pathway of a life, before its complexities suggest an ornate frame, from an illustration perhaps a century or more ago.
If it is a frame, though, what of its picture, which never is revealed?
Could Haim's body be the elusive center of this illustration? If so, why does the border repeatedly encroach upon its subject--forcing it from rest to motion until it shoves it off the page completely?
If Haim's character in this dance is the subject, he's in trouble: routed by arabesques, boxed in by filigree, ultimately expelled by a frame gone metastatic. It's telling that the man remains always at the proverbial end of the line. Particularly given its serpentine animation on the Shaefer stage, Haim's character more than once seems at the end of a fuse. We also note the degree of exertion it takes for him to remain there.
Still, visuals like these can constitute a Rorschach for the audience. Instead of stalking Haim's character, perhaps the moving line represents a negative space with more positive connotations--the true path home, say, in the larger, invisible maze of a life. We note, again, the calmness with which Haim's character looks at the expanding pattern, no matter what it represents, as he adjusts to its jags and its baffles.
But on another level, Haim's work may constitute an artist's reflection--or a critique--on the nature of dance itself.
Though in wide practice dance is seen as such by most, is it really just a decoration? More an obsession than a lifestyle, which inevitably grows to fill all available space? Does it have a preoccupation with beauty--or surfaces and fussy ornamentation--that is pushing the central, the human out of the frame?
Are other elements beside passion and intellect out of balance here?
No shortage of second and third thoughts accompanied other showings through the season. In retrospect, Emanuel Gat's K626 fairly ached to be misinterpreted, strewing the path with cherry-bombed red herrings. It also could have achieved its goals in significantly less than 65 minutes. Still, I'm grateful for the degree to which it exposed what all dancers have to go through in their work: an endless cascade of gender and social roles, none of which may actually fit. Up to now, a professional career has frequently involved wrestling these assumptions on--and kicking them off at the first possibility. Can ADF's new dancers change an often odious dynamic?
One last query for Emanuel Gat: If K626 was devoted to the changing notion of women dancing, why were there no bios for the women in his company--and a generous one for him, alone--in his playbill at ADF? His was the only program this year that gave no room to acknowledge his artists' identities. Just curious--particularly since the dance seemed to make the point that this kind of thing was wrong.
Our final thoughts on ADF 2006 will appear in next week's issue of the Independent.
Correction (Sept. 6, 2006): This article, and a subsequent reference to it on Aug. 9, should have credited Mark Haim and Amy Yoes as co-creators.