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Chris' "Sap" rising 

A local choreographer's professional debut on Martha's Vineyard

It's a vision out of a fairy tale, or a certain film from 1939--a tree that has somehow bloomed all over in Tootsie Pops. It stands alone at the right edge of the stage in the Patricia Nanon Theater, a rustic, barn-like structure that's been converted into an intimate theater in the rural community of Chilmark, on the island of Martha's Vineyard.

The amber lights that bathe its branches suggest either the beginning or the end of a day in autumn: harvest time for the strange fruit it bears. But even though a trio of sylphs slumbering beneath its branches completes a scenario Maxfield Parrish could have authored, all is not exactly sweetness and light here.

The tree stands alone, its skeletal limbs devoid of leaves, bare except for unwrapped candy. No birds call from its branches; no living thing makes its home there. Small wonder that a half-clothed man carefully examines one colorful treat for several moments, before tentatively touching it with the tip of his tongue.

He pauses after tasting it. The lights fade to black.

The first scene from choreographer Melissa Chris' poetic new work, Sap, situates us in a metaphorical place of first encounters, where a man who may have been a healer in his culture comes upon a natural world and a people who function under different rules than the ones with which he's familiar. The familiar nostrums that may have aided the man's community soon prove anathema to the ones he meets.

Before its conclusion, Sap explores a constellation of notions regarding injury, healing, self-awareness--and about the mistakes both healers and the injured make in search of succor. In this dance of diagnosis, self-inventory and speculative treatment, Sap raises a series of questions. What makes the candies medicine or poison? Are they ultimately neither, or both? More significantly, who assumes what when they take on the role of healer, or when they categorically reject the role of injured?

Powerful questions all, and Chris' exploration of them shows why she was selected for a Bessie Schonberg Residency at The Yard, Patricia Nanon's historic artist's colony just off the coast of Massachusetts. The program gives four emerging professional choreographers from across the United States four weeks with a company of young professional dancers from New York.

The choreographers participate in the audition process, and then work with the dancers over three short weeks to develop a new dance piece. The company performs the work during the fourth week of the residency.

Calling the residency "the centerpiece of our program," The Yard's artistic director Lois Welk notes that in addition to uninterrupted creative time with "an ad-hoc dance company," the program provides professional mentoring, critique and opportunities to choreographers embarking on a professional career. "They leave The Yard with a new completed piece of choreography for their repertory, professional photos, a professional critique."

Participants also leave Martha's Vineyard with something of increasing importance: a professional videotape of their work. Welk notes that space and funds-granting organizations increasingly rely on video documentation to assess an artist's work. "It's not just an archival piece. It's a tool you need in your toolbox if you're going to apply for work," she says.

Welk notes that Chris was the only non-New Yorker in this year's group of choreographers, in a program traditionally dominated by the New York dance scene. When we talk on the afternoon after Sap's world premiere, she speaks with approval of both choreography and choreographer.

"I think [Sap] has a wonderful, idiocentric look to it," Welk says. "It has a 'pared-downness' which I associate with a kind of maturity in a choreographer. The choreographer isn't trying to put every single move they've ever done in a dance class. And I love its relationship to the music."

Chris "works in a very interesting way," she continues. "She made some very good use of the feedback she got from both myself and other choreographers and dancers who were watching. She strengthened some of the main ideas and eliminated some things that were distracting from her core ideas."

Welk adds, "It comes across to me like a poem. She explores this idea of injury, succor, solace and why do we suck on things to make ourselves feel better. But then adding the tree gives us a poetic metaphor that opens up a few more doors for us: the tree of life, the tree of knowledge. The image resonates with several shades of meaning."

Tzveta Kassabova, Ivy Baldwin, Erin Owen and Lawrence Cassella all ultimately look for where it hurts. Baldwin and Owen physically define the sourness of inappropriate medicine, Kassabova's radical energy explores her character's collapses, and Cassella's character proves he may have been the one most in need of healing. Chris' dramatic violin and piano selections underscore the trauma found at times in even the best-intended situations of intercultural triage.

In all, an auspicious professional debut for a choreographer with real promise.

Nor was it the only one we saw. Audiences appropriately squirmed as Ivy Baldwin's theatrical Portrait of the Family by Turquoise Sea gave a chilling account of a story behind an old family photograph. Netta Yerushalmy's Crater in Us, to John Cage's Credo in Us, cloaked a game with the audience (or a joke on them) in the choreographer's kinetic abstract impressionism.

Before visiting The Yard, I stopped in briefly at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. The festival sits on a mountain in the Berkshires, on the site of dancer/choreographer Ted Shawn's original countryside home in the early 20th century. Here as well, a series of barns and farm structures serve as the studios, theaters and exhibition spaces to the festival, which opened June 14 and closes next week.

A number of contrasts between The Pillow and ADF strike the first-time viewer.

The rural, mountainside vistas of a converted farm strike a different tone than Durham's urban campus. Educationally, The Pillow's school is smaller and broader: five three-week intensives in contemporary and cultural dance--and ballet, jazz and choreography. Competitive auditions focus solely on emerging professional dancers. The student body for each numbers around 27. This summer's faculty put works by Pina Bausch, Maguy Marin and Ballet Preljocaj on them.

The Pillow's mainstage performances this year have featured the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Maria Pages Flamenco Republic, Rennie Harris hip-hop influenced Puremovement--and Merce Cunningham, Doug Varone and Twyla Tharp.

"I think that people have given up trying to characterize the festival, which I like," says director Ella Baff. "It used to be known as a modern dance festival, although the evidence actually points to the contrary."

When asked about the artistic vision informing mainstage selections, Baff says, "I am trying to bring a broader point of view about dance to the public. I do that by having a wide range of work in the festival."

Baff travels the globe in search of new artists--like Croatian choreographer Irma Omerzo, whose work impressed during my brief visit.

Baff calls such a search "essential." Without it, she says, "the field will fold in on itself. You create this sort of sinkhole if you don't keep looking."

"Most of the presenters across the U.S. are down to about five companies that they feel they can present," Baff adds. "That's not being critical. I'm very sympathetic: I understand the anxiety about trying to make budget and trying to be responsive to your community.

"But you can't always give people what they already know. You have to give them things they don't know, or they never grow. You have to develop an audience willing to venture out. There's only one way to do it: be the one who makes the invitation."

It's a fascinating vision of new dance across a broad range of forms. My brief first experience at Jacob's Pillow will not be my last.EndBlock

  • A local choreographer's professional debut on Martha's Vineyard


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