At the end of the show, two lush red ribbons demarcated the circular performance space or “Room” of the Deborah Hay piece performed here by Tahni Holt (Monster Squad) and Linda Austin (Performanceworks Northwest). One rested on the laps of the front row audience members, drawn up from the floor in one movement at the direction of Tahni Holt at the opening of her solo. One was knotted and twisted at their feet (with a little red sports car at one end) dropped there by Linda Austin as she unraveled it from a giant ball of ribbon that she towed around with her like a little dog.
Room is a solo choreographed by Deborah Hay. This evening featured two “adaptations” (Hay’s words) of the solo performed here one after the other by two of Portland’s most interesting choreographers/movers. It became a game for me to imagine the movement instructions that made up the score of the piece…instructions that led the dancers to fake tap dancing, little hopeful singing, snapping, and at one point, collapse. Seeing it the second time through (Austin’s piece), watching the pieces intersect, overlap, and diverge became as important as the performance (but I guess this makes me an inattentive audience member). At the base of it, Holt’s performance was more muscular and intense, requiring attention from the audience, while Austin’s performance was sly, subtle, drawing attention from the audience.
One interesting takeaway was thinking about ways of evaluating non-narrative dance that is not meant to make beautiful forms to please the audience, not meant to tell a story. One question I asked is, what makes movement compelling? In a series of movements performed by a dancer, what is it that draws us in, allows us to make a connection with the mover, or simply makes us sit up and take notice? What can the dancer do that will engrave itself on me and stay with me after I leave the theater?
Admittedly it’s a question too large to answer fully, but here are some thoughts based on these movements and these dancers. On a tactical level, repetition (building and breaking familiarity), instances of sound in a largely silent performance, direct contact with the audience, contrast in speed and intensity of movements were elements that, in some kind of chart of the energy of the performance, dancerly movement played off non-dancerly would show up as spikes.
At the level of the performer, here, the two dancers’ personal styles were compelling for very different reasons, Holt because of the intensity of her gaze, this direct contact with the audience daring them to watch–as well as the intensity of her movement. Even when her movements were more relaxed, you could always feel the coiled nature of her spine that supported even the lazily moving arm. In contrast, Austin is all quiet center, but not in any kind of priestess-like way, more that she makes you trust her movement. She can then play that trust off of the precariousness she likes to explore in her work. Her gaze says, “Well, here goes,” or “Let’s see,” or to the audience, “Well, what do you think?” This makes us collaborators in her performance.
With regard to the piece, the work in the round, the title of “Room,” the line both women sang, “You are the only one,” the repeated marking of the space, were among the elements that drew the work toward cohesion, giving the audience plenty of material with which to weave multiple interpretations. On the contrary, there were certain odd notes that like the faux French or cabaret singing that didn’t want to hang together.
So this is how I evaluate this kind of work, did it hang together? Besides my immediate experience that can be (if the performance is compelling) exciting, disturbing, even fun, did it give me enough to work with for later when I go away and think about it? Is there more there than movement? By this definition, for example, Vivarium Studios piece is brilliant, the multiple elements (video, performance, narrative and non-) hang together perfectly, while ultimately giving the audience plenty of room to do part of the heavy lifting of building their own takeaway. The same can be done on a more abstract level with a body on an empty stage. For me, Room, as a piece, became much more rich when I learned of the primary instruction she gave the dancers for the piece…but that’s the story of the Chat.