Winifred Haun’s Promise was a three-year pact she kept with herself, the result of research, circumstances, and interruptions that allowed the large scale project of a novelistic adaptation to merge with the experimentation of creating new dances, slowly marinating in the parallel realities of family life and the waxing and waning phases of a dance company. Premiering in 2009, the work, based on John Steinbeck’s sprawling novel East of Eden, translates the dust and grit of the Salinas Valley to the cavernous space of a bare theater, with no more to adorn it than a set of aerial straps anchored above the point flecked with a tiny tape mark on the floor at the center of the stage. The long straps seem to bisect the space, echoing the neat binaries that dominate Steinbeck’s story, itself an elaboration on the biblical narrative of Cain and Abel—before and after, here and there, good and evil, if and then—reaching up to an unseen point high above and dangling down to the ground: a serpent, a menace, a gallows, a road.
Yet rather than succumb to the terms of the set, which indicate that the only fates that can be entertained lie up high or down below, Promise begins with dancers crossing the stage on the long diagonal, walking forward and back to cut the stage in an alternate direction, slotting into the spaces between each other and never colliding, backs straight and proud, arms sweeping in the emphatic arc that Martha Graham used to highlight the intention of the body walking forward. Dancers in their 20s may play the roles of those bent by experience in the trope of the theater, but here Haun chooses a spectrum of ages, including her own children, former dancers of the company, and others from the community, to not only represent but be a world that encompasses a surplus of possibilities. The women wear white, flowing dresses, the men, white shirts and brown pants—the effect is a sense of anonymity and timelessness that floats between specificity and abstraction.
Adam (Zada Cheeks) is first to address the straps directly, at first childishly running and swinging before stamping his feet down, then reaching to pull his body up, suspending himself with gymnastic ease and balance, tangling himself in their lengths, collapsing against their bonds. Watching Cheeks on the straps is something of a wonder. Lean and wiry, he tells a fable of resistance and strength, even as he illustrates the inevitability of gravity and the limits of the thin ropes in the play between lofty facility and disorder, his command of the medium juxtaposed with the mortal tendency to disintegration. His fate seems decided when Cathy (Ariel Dorsey) enters the stage, not walking but tossing a scarlet silk cloth ahead of her and slithering in on her side, the iconic Graham witch: evil, seductive, doomed, and determined to raise hell everywhere and drag down everyone, here outlined in the silk that she uses as a web and lure.
The coarseness of the straps and the weightlessness of the fabric are everywhere in Promise. The straps provide a focal point and a challenge, sending those who engage them on suspended arcs above the stage or in tight spins just above the floor, allowing bodies to test the middle space between the perpendicular angles of upright and prone. The fabric remains bound to the human level: the swoop of the costumes brings each body a freedom and a grandeur that exceeds its boundaries, the undulation and entangling of Cathy’s cloth hints at ways we try to trap each other in expectations—and of the our desire to be seduced by such a trap.
Though Steinbeck’s book focuses on a lineage of men—first Cyrus and his sons Adam and Charles, followed by Adam’s progeny, the twins Cal and Aron (Timothy Bowser and Jessie Housington)—Haun subtly shifts the emphasis to the women of the story, Cathy and Liza (April Falcon), in a duet that begins the piece. The two begin in unison on opposite sides of the straps, mirroring each other’s movements, pausing sculpturally in extensions and rotating in opposing directions in promenades, breaking into solos that momentarily express the furious energy of “evil” Cathy, the maternal warmth of “good” Liza, before they are swept up again in the relentless streams of walking bodies. This motif of temporary individuation and reabsorption into a whirling whole recurs frequently in Promise, a story about a story about a story, telescoping in on human dramas in solos and duets before panning out to the cosmic and geometric, reminding us both of the moral of free will that dominates East of Eden and of our comparative inconsequentiality as we stride along the paths before us.