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You Got To Move It
Lionel Popkin at Alverno, Danceworks' "Intersect."

The clothes make the dance in Lionel Popkin’s Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymorewhich Alverno Presents brought to the Pitman Theatre last Saturday. That's not to say there aren’t a lot of other ideas floating around. The “Ruth” of the title is Ruth St. Denis, who eventually became half of The Denishawn Company and School, which represented one of the earliest American impulses to break “serious” dance away from the traditions of ballet. As such, the group embraced other international dance forms and styles, taught them and performed them.

As an American dancer of mixed Indian and Jewish heritage, Popkin is interested in the idea St. Denis “trying on” the trappings of Indian costume and movement. St. Denis became known for her dances “imported” from other cultures. And Popkin is particularly fascinated with how St. Denis packaged and sold instruction kits (called “Dance in a Box”) to those who wanted to learn her “oriental” dances at home.

It’s understandable if this seems like theater as dry, doctoral dissertation (I confess I had that thought after reading the description of the program). But RTLHA it’s not a bit didactic or pedantic. Partly because Popkin is an engaging and sweet-natured lecturer—he tells stories, shares some history, and even thanks his mom for donating some of the saris that are part of the stage design. He doesn’t condemn St. Denis for “stealing” the authentic dances of a different tradition. But he does want us to wonder what it means to be “authentic.”

So RDLHA is rife with gentle tensions between things and descriptions of things. There is Ruth St. Denis herself—represented in ghostly images of her performing in one of her most famous dances, “Incense.” And the strange history of her name, which she changed several times during her career. There are the texts of St. Denis’s “kits”—movement-by-movement directions—projected at the back of the stage. And there is the movement itself, which does and doesn’t echo the descriptions.

And there are the clothes and fabrics—trunkfuls that are emptied onto the stage, thrown in the air, danced through and over, tried on, taken off and even tossed around by a leaf blower. This, of course, is the central question of the dance—what happens when we “try on” the trappings of another culture. Both the choreography and the music capture that polarity. The captivating and distinctive original music by accordionist Guy Kluvasek—played live by Kluvasek and violinist Todd Reynolds—floats in a kind of musical buffer zone: Indian ragas, gypsy-ish dance tunes, continental tango figures are all mixed in ways that no one style becomes prominent.

And Popkin’s choreography, set on himself, Emily Beattie and Carolyn Hall, explores that tension while offering the visceral charge one gets from fresh and dynamic movement. Popkin does a solo in which he is wrapped in a sari, then sloughs it off with jerky, antic gyrations. Hall does a swooping solo of leaps and twirls that is said to be choreographed by the skirt she wore, which she picked up for seven dollars at a thrift shop. Some of the gestural vocabulary is clearly drawn from traditional Indian dance, but it’s refracted through both St. Denis’s and Popkin’s sensibility.

Watching from the main floor of the Pitman Theatre, I wished I could look down on the stage, and see the abstractions created by the scattered pools of patterned silk and decorative skeins of rope. But I was glad to see the dancers from this angle, who spend a lot of time on the floor.

Rolling on the floor, even. Early on, the trio of dancers lie flat on the floor with their bare feet facing us, and they roll like kids tumbling down a grassy hill—colliding, over-and-under—a little horizontal pas de trois (representing the clash of cultures in St. Denis’s work?). In the piece’s climax, a marvelously energized trio, the three move across the stage on their bottoms in a streamlined and post-modernized vision of yogic “flying.”

A mystical note to end the piece, but it’s magnified still more by the last idea, delivered as the lights dimmed. “The thing about talking to dead people, is that sometimes they talk back.” 

* * * 

For the last few years, one of the most interesting local incubators for new work has been the “Art to Art” concert series at Danceworks. Knowing a good thing when they see it, the Danceworks Performance Company—the resident dance ensemble at Danceworks—decided to build a season around similar kinds of collaborations. The first installment, called Intersect, opened this weekend.

As with past Danceworks repertory programs, the work ran the stylistic gamut. It may be just the luck of the draw, but I also think the work generally leaned toward more serious themes along with the stylistic innovation.

The purest collaboration of the evening was an improvisation called “An Inherent Presence,” developed by choreographer Laura Murphy. Two onstage musicians—tenor saxophonist David Collins and Steve Schlei, playing the TC-11, a programmable synthesizer app on an iPad. The music was composed by Amanda Schoofs, though like the movement it was likely a structure that the musicians interpret in different ways for each performance. A quartet of dancers started out clustered in the back corner of the stage, and the music spurred them into different energy levels. Christal Wagner seemed to initiate different sections of the piece by articulating a gesture or motif, which was then expanded by the other three. And they all ran with it—with a kind of controlled, technically assured abandon that was thrilling to watch.

Christina Briggs Winslow and Edward Winslow collaborated on “A Product of Distance,” the most theatrical piece of the show. A parachute-like canopy was suspended over half of the stage, and through Edward’s projections, it became both streetscape and womb. The evocative opening image has Kim Johnson-Rockafellow running in place on one side of the stage, while neighborhood houses whizzed by on the screen. She’s eventually joined by others, an ensemble which continues to suggest the driven, frenetic mood of her running. The canopy eventually becomes the center of the action, its surface a play of shadows, abstract projections of water and fabric, and eventually a silhouette of a dancer in utero. It’s not as literal as it sounds, but the piece as a whole is evocative and beautifully imagined slice of existence.

Christal Wagner’s “Um, ok…Now Let’s Move On” started playfully with a children’s counting game between Wagner, dancer Melissa Anderson and cellist Alicia Storin. And it breaks out into its first section with springtime romp of a duet that was notable for its crack precision. In another section, after the cellist declares, “now lets move on,” the music and dance turns jitterbug jazzy-sexy, with Anderson needing to be reined in by her partner. The final sections suggest a more somber fading of the light, and a kind of rebirthed return to the spring skip of the beginning.

Gina Laurenzi is new to Danceworks, and her solo “Beneath” showed her to be a welcome addition. Set against panoramic projections of jellyfish and sea anemone, her movement was mostly floorwork that showed powerful control and an inventive imagination.

And a more playful imagination was apparent in Dani Kuepper’s “Laws and Logic,” which showed a faux clueless ensemble dancing to directions supplied by a mysterious hand delivering notes from backstage. Eventually, the hand is revealed to be the choreographer herself, who mock apologies for the chaos, as she tries to collect her thoughts by sticking post-it notes on her dancers as they look on, puzzled.

Art isn’t easy, to be sure. But it takes a talented choreographer like Kuepper to show that the universal problem of creative insecurity is apt fodder for a danced satire. 

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