The work of choreography is a negotiation between dancer and choreographer, to use a body as a conversation between minds. There are some choreographers whose voices are so strong that whole populations have learned to embody them. Watching the Graham Company is to watch a dozen Marthas take the stage, to see her body still live in the bodies of those who have trained to reproduce her instincts as reflex. Yet others rely on the ability of dancers to improvise, to reflect the eclectic training that they have received, to bring themselves to the work rather than impose a work upon them. Risa Jaroslaw and Peiling Kao, in a shared evening of work at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center May 30-June 1, both overtly reflect upon the relationship of choreographer to choreography in the pieces they presented.
Peiling Kao moves with cut-glass precision, etching movement into space without adornment, a quality that I was glad to witness in last year’s Year of the Snake. In her new work, Ludic Numerologies, Kao fractures and mosaics portions of a solo, setting the result onto three women, Deanna Bangs, Erica Pinigis, and Sarah Shouse. Conceptually the piece recalls experiments by Merce Cunningham involving unrevealed mathematics to generate and loop phrases. This strategy results in astonishing visual effects that appear and disappear with the cool impersonality of happenstance, producing unexpected patterns and striking moments of unison on bodies that, despite their differences, move with the same clean execution that does not strive to express more than its own existence, as if they were mere atoms or iron filings achieving order. Such is also suggested by the soundtrack that included Daphne Oram’s cryptic but compelling Hydrogen Tones, which alternates her clinical description of frequencies of spectroscopic images of hydrogen with hollow, metallic sounds of seemingly random duration, generated by physics yet taking the form of music. In terms of the movement selected, this meant falls to the ground with no more noise or impact than a stone dropping the same distance, bodies suspended from the depth of their grounding, hands that reached to smear or salute the air.
Jaroslaw’s What’s the Upshot? seemed to use narrative the way Kao’s Numerologies used abstraction. Jaroslaw herself began the piece, announcing, “I’d like to start by sharing something I’ve been thinking,” before launching into a movement phrase that emphasized shape without clinging to lines of movement or implying emotion where there was none. Her dance was interrupted by the entrance of Sophie Stanley, whose movements began with the simple action of walking and sitting, before itself undergoing an interruption by the entrance of Patrick Barnes and Jordan Stout, who enact a duet of conflict and control, chasing each other and attempting to direct the drift of each others’ limbs. The piece repeatedly plays on the imbalance of relations between Stanley, Barnes, and Stout, an oddity of numbers and genders, of demands for attention and concessions to acknowledgement. It’s unclear whether one enters under person’s space in order to displace or engage them, whether interacting with a partner is a collaboration, a competition, or an anxiety-driven effort to bend another to one’s will. Jaroslaw re-enters and repeats her introduction, and she is countered by suggestions and critiques of her dancers to be same but not the same, to try restrictions such as repeating the same movement with the backs of her hands stuck to her body, to do the dance again, as she wanted it, but “not as you were doing it originally.” It is a note on choreography and how it is made, how it is sometimes cruel in its productivity, even as it insists that what is made is a more faithful, more original self. The dance finished with the three others repeating Jaroslaw’s solo gestures—as herself or themselves?