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Weathering

Necessary Weather / Baryshnikov Art Center: Jerome Robbins Theater, NYC / October 27-29, 2011

Light–silent and impalpable–is almost essential to theatrical dance. Jennifer Tipton has been its master for over four decades, creating atmospheric marvels for drama and opera as well. In 1994 she dared to ask herself, What if light were not just a significant accompanying element but a star player in the show? The answer became Necessary Weather, in which she collaborated with two distinguished postmodern dancers, Dana Reitz and Sara Rudner, for an hour-long piece presented at the Kitchen. In a quiet way it became legendary and was finally revived last year at the Baryshnikov Art Center. This year it has been incorporated into Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.

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Sara Rudner (l.) and Dana Reitz (r.) in their and lighting artist Jennifer Tipton’s Necessary Weather

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Note: All photos show the present production.

I skipped last year’s revival because I couldn’t imagine anything as beautiful and moving as the original production. Finally, last night, I succumbed and showed up at BAC’s sleek Jerome Robbins Theater–and now regret the move. Why? Because 17 years later, everything has changed considerably: I’ve aged; so have the dancers. All three of us are surely aware of what the Beatles considered old in their charming song “When I’m Sixty-Four.” What’s more, the culture has shifted enormously. Innocence, wonder, and vision have lost yet another chunk of the popularity they enjoyed in the Sixties.

Here’s what I said about Necessary Weather in New York magazine back in ’94:

Downtown at the Kitchen, a distinguished trio comprising the dancer-choreographers Dana Reitz and Sara Rudner and the lighting designer Jennifer Tipton presented a haunting hour-long work called Necessary Weather. An evocation of subtle atmospheres, the piece was an equal collaboration of the three (early in her theatrical life, Tipton was a serious dance student). Still, their specialties were evident: Rudner’s and Reitz’s sharp, delicate articulation and sensuous fluency; Tipton’s ability to make illumination create a world of wonders.

The raw materials were rigorously simple: rough charcoal walls and smooth slate-gray floor, light almost exclusively untinted, the two performers dressed in oversize translucent white shirts and loose white trousers, no aural accompaniment beyond ambient sound. The light spilled–from overhead, from the sides at various heights, from half-hidden sources at the edges of the floor–in soft, wide washes, in tight columns ending in sharply defined circular spots; now dim, gentle, and mysterious, now glowing with ever-increasing brightness as if to reveal bare-bones truth. Each luminous landscape, anchored by the motion of the women–who themselves began to seem impalpable–was like a different potent dream.

At one point, the two figures skirted the perimeter of a large disk of light, cautious but intrigued, like members of a tribe approaching the sacred arena of their ritual. Then Rudner moved into the bright space and suddenly, shedding its ominous aura and acquiring gaiety, it changed into a circus ring. There she seemed to enter a private world of release and delight, though Reitz was duplicating her moves in the near-darkness just an arm’s length away. For me, passages like this recalled childhood episodes in which my mood was profoundly affected–and my imagination activated–by the light conditions at different times of day and night, in different seasons and weather. As this singular work proves, theatrical artifice can be the means of recapturing primal experience.

Here are a few of the thoughts I had about the current production:

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Rudner (l.) and Reitz (r.) illuminated by Tipton in Necessary Weather

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Sara Rudner, surely the silkiest dancer of her generation, was for many years, as a colleague of mine recently called her, Twyla Tharp’s muse. Miraculously, she’s retained a good bit of her earlier fluency, but now you see some of the effort involved, especially when she moves from the softness and calm that pervade Necessary Weather into a spate of the crazily swift, complex dancing she did for Tharp.

Tipton’s encyclopedia of light effects constitute a telling tour de force on their own. They really do demonstrate how lighting evokes mood in the theater, just as it does in nature. Even more amazing is the fact that she works almost exclusively with black and white (light and dark) and all the many grays in between. Technicolor effects don’t enter the picture. A little peach, a little gold–that’s all you really notice. Meanwhile, the shifting intensity of brightness and dusk leaves you breathless and conjures up memories of events in your own life that occurred under just such states of illumination.

The choreography itself is not very interesting. Its vocabulary isn’t large, and too much attention is given to the arms (wafting airily) and hands (overactive, as if they were trying to defect from the arms to which they’re attached). The torso has little to say. The legs and feet are vastly under-challenged. Both Rudner and Reitz pace the floor sensitively (they’ve perfected the cat’s-paw tread and the rhythms of walking), but anything in the hop, skip, jump department has been avoided.

Tipton is acutely aware of how light falls on dancers, not just in terms of how it makes the audience see them and interpret their action, but what it “tells” the dancers themselves. Professional dancers learn from performance how to accept its embrace or hide from it–or in it. From Paul Taylor in the modern wing and Irina Kolpakova on classical ballet’s turf, I’ve heard detailed, impassioned advice to dancers about being aware of how the light strikes the cheekbone.

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Rudner (l.), Reitz (r.), and Tipton’s collaboration, as seen in Necessary Weather

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Rudner and Reitz wear the all-white costumes I recall from the original Necessary Weather: sheer, loose tunic-length shirts over a torso-hugging singlet and easygoing trousers. Their feet are bare. In one segment of the dance Tipton’s lighting turns them into pale, barely visible wraiths, moving around restively, like the ghosts that frighten your four-year-old at night, just after you’ve fallen asleep. As I write this, I realize that the piece hasn’t completely lost its enchantment for me. And I hope that others may have the experience the choreographer Christopher Caines described to me today: “I was the rehearsal-process light-board operator for the original production of Necessary Weather, a life-changing experience. I have never had the same eyes since.”

© 2011 Tobi Tobias

Comments

  1. Robert Johnson says:

    Tobi, I must tell you that I was absolutely blown away by this piece–by your description of the original performance, by your account of its revival, and most of all by your honest dignity in acknowledging the effects of time passing. I never saw the original, only the lackluster revival at BAC, but now I can appreciate and mourn what WAS once great about this piece. Thank you so much.

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    “Lackluster revival” . . . we see so damned many of them, it makes me much more accepting of the disbanding of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which I saw give two programs in Seattle last weekend, than I otherwise might be. I might add that without the clear, beautifully written descriptions of dances, by Tobi, by Deborah, and many others, we who purport to be dance historians would be up the creek without a paddle or a pen. In the name of Clio as well as Terpsichore, I salute you one and all.

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