Friday, October 16, 2015

Encountering Moriah Evans at Danspace Project

(Photo courtesy of Moriah Evans)
My heart sank a little when I heard the words "You'll be sitting on cushions" as I waited in line to be admitted to Moriah Evans's new ensemble piece SOCIAL DANCE 9-12: ENCOUNTER last night at Danspace Project. But when my group's usher led the ten of us up stairs and around the St. Mark's balcony, I was thrilled to look down upon the sanctuary's light-filled space, the gleaming white floor covering and its sprinkling of dancers in black-and-white unitards, the rim of observers already perched on their spartan foam cushions.

For the moment, it was as exciting as entering the arena of an ice skating show or the stands of a stadium lit up for a night game. My mood brightened and brightened still more when our usher directed me and another woman to sit, not on one of the thin, little grey cushions, but on a sturdy riser. As a few more waves of people arrived, I noticed many smiles. The trip around the balcony might have worked a similar charm for them.

The practical matter of getting an audience neatly organized meshed with the dramatic aesthetics opened up by St. Mark's Church. My first personal encounter with Moriah Evans--I had read some interviews and watched a video of earlier work--made a good first impression.

At the same time, I realized that Evans had put all of us--the audience, including numerous members of the dance press, and her dancers--on the same level. Her dancers--Maggie Cloud, Lizzie Feidelson, Iréne Hultman, Rashaun Mitchell, Lydia Okrent and Benny Olk--sat or reclined on the floor or crawled into place, at times just inches away from the front row of watchers. The big volume of the sanctuary and its dazzling white contrasted with their stillness and the smallness of the way one or another might incline his or her head. You had to be up close to a dancer to catch the momentary distorting twist of a mouth. And you had to be willing to let go of that inexplicable moment as the dancer might summarily rise and wander off to a far corner.
With Social Dance 9-12: Encounter, choreographer Moriah Evans investigates a “possible core of the choreographic” where mind and muscles are at work together in search of a dance. In the process of looking and being looked at, acts of repetition and simulation get filled with life and exchange.
"The theatrical event moves towards the transmission and circulation of sentiment through the re-positioning of its participants. What may be social in origin becomes biological and physical in effect.” –Moriah Evans
          from promotional material for Social Dance 9-12: Encounter
Now and again, Evans--usually with a dancer in tow--would cross the side risers and position herself along one end or another. It looked as if she was carrying a paperback book and something else. A dancer might carry a CD player. Under the altar arch, members of Evans's team sat at tables with laptops. A rack of clothing stood to one side and, at the other, long packing tubes were propped against the wall; neither items were touched but the arrangement left the impression of being admitted backstage to a theatrical work in development. If you had come for something definitive, perhaps think again. We are all "in search of a dance."

Dancers showed me something elusive, too--a kind of impassive, remote-controlled behavior that felt odd to see but also oddly pleasant. A dancer would pivot his or her head and chin, or gently slip into positions and rest there, or make leisurely adjustments in stance or level. I could visualize Evans fixing her gaze at a dancer's body and thinking, "You know what? I'm going to rotate her shoulders inward and make her hold them that way as she slowly hunches forward and lowers her fingers to the floor, and I'm going to do that because nobody else asks her to use her body that way. Nobody. And why not?"

At times, the dancers' physical adjustments made them look like objects of clay stripped of human agency, and I questioned, or did not question, my enjoyment of this abstract claymation. At times, the adjustments made me think of time-lapse films of unfurling flowers or sprouting ferns, at least two different kinds of visible or invisible time simultaneously working through the body.

The day/night unitards distorted any sense of the true size and weight of the dancers' bodies. My eyes registered the black area as solid dancer; the white tended to merge with the surrounding floor. When the dancers moved, these illusions made their bodies look extra-melty, bendy, stretchy. In one moment, the lights quickly dimmed, engulfing the space and dancers before gradually recovering. How strange to realize that, despite the brevity of the dancers' absence from view, I had missed them.

David Watson's sound score shimmered in and out of awareness, light as breath. How often do you stop to notice the fact and the minute workings of your breathing?

How does the spacing of the dancers across the floor--fish in Evans's aquarium-- affect our relationship to them? Close up, you can notice minute shifts and eccentricities. To connect with a dancer further away, you must shift in some way; you project something of yourself into the space, and doesn't that feel strange and marvelous?

Ah...and isn't that how she catches us like more exotic fish for her tank?

There is a real way in which we are pulled in, plugged in and deeply implicated and impacted at a level of breath, nerves, mind. Although just one hour and 15 minutes in length, Social Dance 9-12: Encounter looks like an act of endurance and can leave even observers feeling spent.

With visual design by Strauss Bourque-La France and Moriah Evans, and lighting design by Kathy Kaufmann

SOCIAL DANCE 9-12: ENCOUNTER continues tonight and Saturday, October 17 with performances at 8pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Danspace Project
St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery
131 East 10th Street (at Second Avenue), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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