THE ‘ITNESS’ IS WHAT IT IS

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A commonly-voiced reaction to contemporary dance, heard often from new viewers to the form, is, “I didn’t get it.” Implicit in this statement is a disappointing personal failure to glean whatever it was the director intended the viewer to get. This statement also implies that the choreographer had intended to communicate some sort of content through the artwork, something to be interpreted more deeply than just noticing the features of the work on a surface level. This “itness,” or “aboutness,” can be explained as the why of the dance that occurs as a result of the what. While some artists proport to reject the idea that dance must necessarily be “about” something, many audience members persist in attempting to view dance through this lens by reading into the work, hoping, seeking and searching for something, anything, to “get” out of it. This aboutness may have been the creator’s intended message, or may merely be one viewer’s subjective interpretation. But, when found, this something can transform the viewing of a piece from a distanced observation into the vivid spark of understanding of a greater truth, meaning, eureka, or aha! moment. The desire to hit upon and engage with those satisfying moments motivates my search for them as an active viewer, and also changes a dance piece into a work of art. I want to be able to make a connection with the work, to be able to see relationships within the dance to some sort of pattern or context that transcends the dance moves, costuming, musical choices, or any other present element. But, when the itness cannot be found, I leave the theater with the sense that something was missing.

The Bridge Project, Summer Edition, performed at Velocity’s Founders Theater on August 25, featured three works by emerging choreographers created in a residency lasting only three weeks. These are works in progress, we were reminded at the beginning of the show. A mere three weeks, I thought to myself, is a short period for a choreographer to coax an elusive “itness” into being.

Photo by Photon Factory

Cameo Lethem’s Effecting Galatea opened the evening. Four dancers, completely caked in white body paint that covered even their hair and clothing, assumed a statuesque pose and held it, motionless. Haunting, operatic chorale music by Latvian Radio Choir further referenced a museum setting. The work’s Greek mythological title, coupled with operatic music and the suggestion of dancers being sculpted into statues, connoted classical High Art. Nearly imperceptibly, the dancers slowly began to move, changing their interconnected formation and sharing weight. Gradually, the dancers evolved from creating shapes low to the ground up to medium level, as the tempo increased in conjunction. Slow, smooth motions were suddenly interspersed with quick, sharp accents and body part isolations. This peppering of punctuation gave the illusion of the statues cracking, perhaps coming more to life or breaking down.  The troubling events of Charlottesville rising from my subconscious–could this be a reference to white fragility? Finally, the dancers stood up and performed a fully-bodied dance phrase in unison on a strong, powerful diagonal, and then the work concluded. By the end of Effecting Galatea, I was completely immersed in the world Lethem had created, fully ready to witness the events that could have transpired there. I hope that Lethem will find the opportunity to go on with this work to fully realize its potential.

Axiom Luminous, by Ethan Rome, featured eight female-bodied dancers alike in their youth and appearance. The costuming by Kate O’Day of leggings and geometrically-patterned t-shirts further reinforced this uniform look, as if to erase any physical difference or human feature the performers might have had as individuals. The dancers stood in a parallel stance that was neither wide nor narrow and stared at the audience for several long minutes. The dancers’ faces were blank but not zombie-like, devoid of expression but seemingly not intentionally so. As yet, the aboutness of the work eluded me. One dancer did a phrase, then two more dancers, then one dancer again. The dancers repeated this phrase in an identical fashion for some time, until that section of the work was over. They then performed another, larger moving and traveling phrase that included some tricky and painful-looking floorwork on the knees. The dancers performed this phrase too with the same kind of blank intention, looking like they were concentrating with all their might on performing the steps correctly. Identicality superseded performative evocation. Utilizing a structure that prioritized phrasework over suggestions of context or content, Rome revealed his interest in dance moves over meaning. Sometimes, the form is the function.

Following two pieces in which the identity of individual performers had been subjugated for the overall aesthetic of the work, Anna Krupp’s Twenty-Two Tries, struck me with its blazing humanness. Costumes from a palette of peach and earth tones helped to expose and highlight each dancer’s uniqueness as a strength. When one dancer performed a gesture phrase, her eyes showed a humor and liveliness that drew in the audience. As the other dancers joined her, the structure of the piece logically developed its ideas, transitioning smoothly rather than arbitrarily. Krupp’s movement vocabulary was varied, eccentric, fresh, and did not suffer from dazing repetitions. Her dancers performed with self-possession, maturity, and mastery of the movement phrases. At first a soundtrack of voices whispering, later, glorious classical music filled the theater and the dancers began to reference balletic movements. Then one dancer walked haughtily away, as if to state just how done she was with that mode of expression. Another dancer began tearing up the dance floor, revealing the bright wooden boards underneath the grey marley. Soon, all of the dancers were deconstructing the space, allowing the natural color of the brick walls to pierce through the blankness of the white curtains. The initial shock of these transgressive acts quickly modulated into pleasure and delight at seeing the sterile environment begin to unravel. Let’s pull down the walls, the work seemed to say, and get at the rich, colorful humanity underneath.

For more on Velocity Dance Center’s The Bridge Project, please visit HERE.