There are a lot of different kinds of dance out there, but two performances recently at the Kitchen made me think about dance that seems intended to make you think. I don't want to get all journalistic-pompous here, and proclaim a new trend. Any dance -- any thing -- can make you trhink, and one aspect of the choreographer's art has always been to construct layers of meaning and allusions to other artworks or prisate fantasies in a more or less communicable way.
Still, Robbinschilds's "Sonya and Layla Go Camping" and Sarah Michelson's "Dover Beach" seem emblematic of a kind of post-modern dance that deliberately contains multiple, sometimes mysterious allusions way beyond purely abstract movement. These are not exactly dance theater; they're more like dance philosophy.
I should mention that Robbinschilds consists of Sonya Robbins and Layla Childs. I know Layla through Sonya, and I know Sonya because she's the daughter of good friends of mine from California. I ran into the two dancers most recently at the Movement Reseach Gala at the Judson Church, which is itself always beautiful and full of downtown dance history ghosts. The gala was a llvely affair, honoring Molly Davies and Steve Paxton, but I'm not going to write about that here.
"Sonya and Layla Go Camping" involved the juxtasposition of movement, dialogue, music and video, a constant in their work. In this case the video, elegantly shot, replicated in French a conversation previously rendered live in English in the theater. The French allusions were born of a homage to Jacques Rivette's three-hour semi-surrealist film "Celene and Julie Go Boating," which I haven't seen in 35 years, if ever.
Like so much of this kind of dance, this one could be enjoyed on a moment-by-moment level, for the calm ingenuity of the movement, for the wit of the dialogue and conceits (a naked male God with big white puffy comforting hands), for the beauty of the shots of Paris and of pastoral nature. Whether you found it resonant or opaque or intermittently both depended on you. I liked it a lot, without pretending to understand it.
"Dover Beach" was even more complex or more opaque, depending. It was certainly more disturbing than Robbinsvhilds's genial outing. Michelson, whom I have never met, seems like the kind of person who likes to put up her dukes and dare you to understand her. Or even like her, maybe.
For "Dover Beach," she and her longtime designer Parker Lutz divided the stage with an ornate grate the formed a cage for the dancers on audience right. Those of us on the left had a hard time seeing what was going on over/in there, but it seemed to be mostly two handsome women doing virtuosic moves, many involving long and punishing leg extensions. They looked impassively seductive, but they were hidden in a cage, so who knows?
Over on the left all kinds of strange things occured. There was a set piece consisting for two rings with light fixtures that revolved, noisily. There were two young girls in stylish, backless jockey costumes. There was a horse (actually, a human with a horse's head). There was a mature man in aristocratic horsy garb and a very young, coldly impassive girl in a black leotard. Other girl-children wandered in and out. There was a neon portait of a woman (Michelson?), later replicated. There were surf sounds and a recorded recitation of Matthew Arnold's despairing, romantic poem.
I don't know what it all meant, and I suspect that Michelson's multiple meanings rather stumbled over one another. Still, the mood of sllghtly creepy, ominous sexuality was palpable and potent, and the sometimes complex demands on the dancers were impressively realized. A talent, all right, and one who makes you think. I just wonder, sometimes, with this kind of dance, when complexity and intensely personal meaning tip too far into the obscure.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.
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