DD Dorvillier draws fragments from past works, strips them down, and re-situates them.
On the wooden floor of St. Mark’s Church close to the 10th Street end of the space, a man and a woman sit close together, facing each other (right leg bent in front, left leg bent behind), They’re both wearing plain gray tee-shirts and shorts. It’s noon on the first Wednesday of DD Dorvillier’s reframed retrospective of selections from works she made between 1990 and 2004. Between now and 3 P.M., spectators will come and go, sit on the now chairless carpeted risers, maybe move to another spot, perhaps walk up to the altar platform to gather an informational sheet of paper from the piles placed there. Dance as installation. Almost.
The two people we’re watching—Oren Barnoy and Nibia Pastrana Santiago —lean very slowly toward each other until their lips touch. This is a passionless sort of kiss: they don’t incline their heads; from where I’m sitting, they don’t appear to close their eyes; their arms stay out of the action. After a few seconds, they pull back to their original upright position—swiftly but not sharply, with an emotionless, well-that’s-over dynamic, like putting a glass down after drinking.
After they’ve repeated this several times, Katerina Andreou replaces Pastrana Santiago, and she and Barnoy duplicate the sequence, sitting in the middle of the space. Just once. Then further still from the entrance door, the two women re-enact the “kiss” four times.
None of the couples varies this little sequence deliberately; deviations are infinitesimal. For A Catalogue of Steps—St. Mark’s Collection 2014, Dorvillier has combed through videos of works she made during the fourteen-year period, choosing 40 fragments for the three dancers to learn from the videos and attempt to replicate exactly. Every Wednesday, in addition to the last evening of her Danspace Project performances on June 14, they perform a selection of these.
There is “décor” of a sort. In neat overhead rows hang thirteen handsome flags designed by Olivier Vadrot, each representing a particular Dorvillier dance. However, there’s no lighting “design,” fancy costumes, props, or media, so the extracts emerge with a certain formal purity, strangely charged with their histories and the ghosts of their original performers. They may elicit speculation in the spectator who is embedded in the present. What was the whole like, and what did this sequence convey within it? It comes trailing ghosts, which we are free to disregard.
In a fine program essay, Andreou likens the performer’s experience to that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice as she stepped through the looking glass: “Appropriation requires a movement toward another world; understand the other’s body, its sensibility, quality, its tonicity, and its imaginary stimulations. Doing this, I am already a step away from my own body.” However, she also remarks that “The challenge is to dance the fragments in the present, and not let them get stuck in the past. To emancipate choreography from history.”
Dorvillier’s handouts provide a taxonomy for the ambitious endeavor. It lists movement sources, types, influences, spatial strategies, influences, and other factors (interesting to consider, not easy to fathom). She also notifies those of us watching Day 1, Hearts that today’s twelve fragments were chosen because of certain common characteristics: i.e. material created intuitively (rather than from a score) and/or “material which was generated relying on sensation or a certain interiority.” Also, possibly material that “contends with or carries traces of the choreographer’s desire or sexuality.”
A lot of words support and surround this venture, but the present reality is three performers diligently and committedly dancing these re-framed fragments, while Dorvillier sits on the sidelines watching. The formal theme of the day seems to be repetition, although it may variously approached. For instance, one phrase begins with the three dancers spaced apart from one another and facing different directions. As they progress from sitting bent over through kneeling to standing, there’s something animalistic about their behavior, especially when, on all fours, they jiggle forward and back like a cat preparing to spring.
They perform this sequence three times, moving into a different spatial configuration with each repeat. Your eyes latch onto small differences in timing, in emphasis. Pastrana Santiago, for instance executes that wiggle with a little more up-and-down motion than the other two, with their level back-and forth (remember, this is not necessarily her choice, but that of the dancer she is embodying).
As the afternoon unfolds, the revived “fragments” become more complex in terms of movement and more adventurous in moving through space. One of them hints at a style embedded in Dorvillier’s dance DNA; Andreou, beginning alone, adjusts her feet and arms into ballet’s first position before she crumples and hits the floor. We get to see this demanding piece of dancing—with its jumps, thudding drops to all fours, jacknifing back falls, side-steps, and internal repetition—eight times in all (by my count), with the same or similar spacing orientations. We see Barnoy with Andreou, all three, Barnoy alone, Barnoy and Pastrana Santiago, all three, Pastrana Santiago, Andreou and Pastrana Santiago, all three. And each time, they begin in a ballet class’s fundamental stance.
I watch their amazing accuracy, their synchrony. I play around with counting the moves; then try keeping track of the seconds (maybe 36 per repeat?). I note their increasingly challenged breathing, the damp marks that appear on this one or that one’s shirt. I sense an underlying rhythm and try saying it silently.
When it’s over, the three strip off their black kneepads, and Pastrana Santiago, facing front, embarks on a very different passage of movement that begins with her lifting one bent leg and walking forward, undulating her arms in a subtle way (what is she doing with that right shoulder?) that hints at Baroque dance style. Her hands do a little “talking” (flapping, forming possible gestures). Her body moves freely—almost lyrically— when she turns. She has execvuted the phrase three times before Barnoy takes over for another three repeats. He (or the earlier dancer he’s channeling) looks quite different: there’s less going on in his body; he’s borderline abrupt at times. Andreou is softer in her renditions.
It’s now around 1P.M., and the three have been dancing on and off for an hour. The next fragment gives them a slight rest. Andreou and Barnoy sit close together, side by side, fairly close to the entry end of the space and facing the altar platform. Spectators, who may be spaced out on any of the church’s four sides, obviously have different views. I’m near the doors, so as they slowly lie down to begin a floor dance starring their legs, I view their heads as the anchors (whereas anyone sitting near the altar has a headless crotch view). The interplay between lifting a leg or legs, bending and straightening them, stretching one over the other culminates when both dancers spread their legs wide, allowing them to overlap in a pristine, basketwork design.
I could go on watching this for a long time, and the afternoon performance isn’t quite half over. I can see from Yi-Chun’s photos that the performers eventually intersected and regret missing that. However, I’ve bollixed up my schedule and have to leave Dorvillier’s work for another one some distance up town and across aesthetic decades. I think about repetition on the subway, though—what it engenders and what it endangers. And this first installment of A Catalogue of Steps is still bumping around in my mind while I’m watching American Ballet Theatre perform George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.
Repetition—whether Balanchine is using it in tandem with Tchaikovsky to affirm a happy consistency or Dorvillier is using it to invite our eyes to notice change— can reassure you simply because it’s possible. You did it before; you can do it again. It’s calming; you get to know it; it won’t bite. It invites you to notice small-scale differences. The downside? In this age of speed, multi-tasking, and high contrast, it can seem staid; it can bore you. But when the phrase of movement that you’re watching is imaginatively made, with its own surprises and interior variety, and if you discern in it echoes of human behavior and feelings, you’re happy to watch it over and over. It doesn’t change; it does change. So do you, whatever you may think.
(For more information about A Catalogue of Steps: http://danspaceproject.org/calendarandtickets/detail.php?id=287)