Each spectacular half of the Repertory Dance Theatre’s (RDT) 54th season opener could have been a concert in itself. However, with the concert’s Inside Outside theme, part of what portends to be a fascinating season of Here and Now juxtapositions, the halves emphatically demonstrated that, in the desire to articulate a story, the language of the body is equal to that of the spoken word.
A captivating discovery in each half was the changing relationship between the choreography and the music that accompanied it. In the exquisite first half that truly produced numerous moments of haunting beauty, the dancer achieves creative parity with the composer and finds new interpretive ground for collaborative harmony. In the phenomenal energy of the second half, the dancers find complete freedom in their creative powers, where instead of conditions being imposed on either side of the relationship, the dancers take up the surrealistic responsibility for shaping the melody and structure of the musical accompaniment.
Opening the first half was Doris Humphrey’s Invention (1949), a trio for a male and two female dancers, featuring the originally commissioned music by Norman Lloyd, an American composer with whom the choreographer and her colleagues collaborated. This was a Utah premiere and Invention is the 12th Humphrey work that RDT includes in its repertoire. Lloyd’s music is straightforward and melodically clear but he also is resourceful for how he blends his melodic lines into the rhythms.
As mentioned in an earlier concert preview, Invention is a character study and arises from the male’s point of view and the unique experiences he has had with two women at different stages in his life and how those experiences are synthesized in his memory. Prior to the performance of each work in the concert, the audience viewed a short video interview with the choreographer. In this instance, as Humphrey has long since passed, it was Nina Watt, who restaged the work for RDT and toured nearly three decades with the Limón Dance Company.
Unquestionably, in each of the four instances for this concert, the dancers more than delivered on the artistic promises described in the respective video. Dan Higgins, Elle Johansen and Ursula Perry epitomized the distinguishing “steel and velvet” character of so much of Humphrey’s work, a phrase that John Martin, a New York Times critic, first used in the 1930s to describe the choreographer’s work.
The trio became living sculptures but they also were never contorted or strained. Higgins was pliant in the most effortless way, with his arms and hands stretched, a gesture Watt describes in the video as representing the dancer’s continuous search for clarity and understanding in the relationships. Johansen and Perry responded in a magnificent demonstration of the classic ‘reach and recovery’ aspects that signified Humphrey’s movement language.
Perhaps the simplest way to characterize the composition rounding out the first half – Lar Lubovitch’s Something About Night, a work the choreographer created last year to celebrate his company’s 50th anniversary – is ‘Wow!’ Featuring five dancers including a duet and solo as part of the four sections, Something About Night is set to four songs by Franz Schubert, as arranged for male chorus (in a recording conducted by the late Robert Shaw and sung by the Wiener Vokalisten).
There always is something about Schubert’s music that transcends to unforgettable moments in dance. A year and a half ago, RDT performed a marvelous piece by choreographer Francisco Gella, set to one of Schubert’s Impromptu pieces for piano. Schubert wrote more than 800 songs in his short life (he died in 1828 at the age of 31), including 100 partsongs.
Lubovitch selected four songs that Schubert set to text about the night – ethereal and sensuous and choreographed with the most transparent technical demands. He set the work incorporating fragments of dances he has created since he founded the company in 1968. Each of the four dance tableaux became living paintings that literally could have been produced at the time of the composer’s life in the 18th century but they also are timeless (kudos to the lighting design of Pilar I who followed the original as created by Clifton Taylor).
All five dancers (Tyler Orcutt, Lauren Curley, Dan Higgins, Jonathan Kim and Jaclyn Brown) appear in the first tableau, set to Die Nacht D. 983c, a song describing a starlit sky as viewed through the “meadows of heaven.” The dancers are elegantly twisted together at the opening and they slowly awaken and rise, following the melodic swells and flows of Schubert’s intricate and intimately pleasurable music.
A duet featuring Higgins and Curley is accompanied by what is clearly the most ethereal of the songs selected for this work, Der Entferten, D. 331, which Schubert wrote when he was only 19. Both dancers created a profoundly delicate scene, evoking the sense of floating around and surrounding each other with whispers. It is a miniature masterpiece of dance, as Higgins and Curley gave it full artistic justice.
Orcutt’s solo, accompanied by Die Nachthelle, D. 892, was just as brilliantly evocative. Like the poet’s powerful and sublime imagery, Orcutt parallels the song’s flow from the stratospheric range of the male voices to the contrasting movement from hushed shimmers to a glorious crescendo and then a return to the gentle satisfaction found in nocturnal serenity. The piece closes on an equally compelling translation of Schubert’s night landscapes with all five dancers.
The dramatic shift in the second half opener was propelled by a restaging of Filament by Andy Noble, a piece that RDT premiered in 2016. As it opens with a crisp techno music beat, Filament, with lighting media design provided by David J. Deveau, becomes a visual feast of stimuli with video, props and thrilling athletically-inspired dance. Noble incorporates surfaces (4’ x 8’ Styrofoam boards) on stage upon which images of the dancers’ various movements were projected while the performers react, respond and interact in a mesmerizing pace.
The dancers convey effectively the dynamics from which Filament springs, as Noble considers the puzzling paradox Marshall McLuhan, media theorist, posed in his seminal work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964): “the medium is the message.”
Dance becomes the elucidating medium. It reminds us of the shortcomings of focusing on the obvious environment around us and reinforces the value of understanding the unanticipated consequences of our interactions with technology. After the exhilarating feel of Filament’s opening, the dancers (Brown, Curley, Daniel Do, Higgins, Kim, Orcutt, Perry and Johansen) switch gears. From the music, the dancers pinpoint how these processes work quietly (or subconsciously) to influence our interactions with each other and the less obvious connections we experience in a group or community. The concluding section with music by Nils Frahm starts out quietly and then builds in volume and structure throughout this section.
The interpersonal dynamics the audience experienced with the works of Humphrey and Lubovitch in the first half are transformed in the second. Dance reverses the course. Normally, the spoken text and the music take our senses to the outside world. Movement language extends the realm of the extensions of ourselves that McLuhan imagined. Dance becomes a potent alert tool of communication, as we struggle about how to characterize and identify all of the innovative technology that has overwhelmed us during the first two decades of the 21st century. As Noble incorporates technology and its props into his work, he signals to dancers and choreographers a path to influence the evolution of its uses so that its most constraining or detrimental effects do not dilute and wash away honest and authentic communication.
Taking the cue of emancipating creativity yet further came in the Utah premiere of Outdoors, the first half of a 2018 work Shutdown choreographed by Noa Zuk and Ohad Fishof. The work, which arises from the Gaga movement language that has been a driving creative force in their choreography, is based on Fishof’s 15-second rhythmic sentence that repeats and evolves 60 times throughout Outdoors. Joining the company as guest dancers were Severin Sargent-Catterton and Laura Baumeister.
Here, the dancers, who’ve grown quite comfortable in recent years about using the tools of the Gaga movement language, essentially create their own community ritual. They leverage Fishof’s basic rhythmic statement into a full-blown and dense choreographed melodic interpretation. Their movement – frenetic, personable, humorous, incisive, jagged, unrepentant and confident – fills out the musical possibilities of a hypnotic pulsating foundation. Physically demanding, Outdoors supplements Noble’s choreographic statement with the recognition that we can focus and communicate through our eyes and our body movement as effectively as with any other medium.
RDT continues the season next month with Sounds Familiar (Nov. 21-23), as local choreographers create short works using familiar classical music. Choreographers include Sara Pickett, Stephen Koester, Sharee Lane, Luc Vanier, Natosha Washington, Molly Heller, Nathan Shaw, Marilyn Berrett, Nancy Carter (aerialist, and winner of Regalia 2019), Dan Higgins and Nick Cendese.