Spring Dance Festival
Program in Dance, Lewis Center for the Arts
Featured Works By: Merce Cunningham (staged by Silas Riener ’06), Mark Morris (staged by Tina Fehlandt), Karole Armitage (staged by Leonidas Arpon), Zvi Gotheiner, Laura Peterson, Raja Kelly
Berlind Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center
On Sunday afternoon I went to Berlind Theater to check out the Program in Dance’s 2013 Spring Dance Festival, an event that it seems both townies and students and faculty of Princeton attend en mass every year.
I bought my ticket at the box office 10 minutes before the show but as luck would have it I got a seat in the front row, where I could see every facial expression and minor turn of a calf, even hear the dancers breathing as they pounded and flew across the stage. That is, I could have perceived all of this had I the God-like ability to focus my attention on all that warranted it. But the dances were so complex, and so many striking elements were calling out for attention at any given moment, that I often had to concentrate on one item at a time. This performance tickled my aural and visual senses, but it challenged my creative intellect far more. There was simply a lot going on.
The first piece, an excerpt from “Lapse” (2002) choreographed by Zvi Gotheiner, began with a tall male dancer running backwards in a wide circle about the stage against a backdrop of intense red footlights. Gradually other dancers joined in. The music was not so much music as a simple, elongated soundscape that drifted into different sceneries, providing an environment within which action and emotions–the dance–played out. In the dance, individuals seemed to fight with their emotional impulses and search for self-expression within the group, running, breathing, jumping and stretching while the basic structure of circular, synchronized running persisted subconsciously underneath them as a motif representing, I will venture to say, the “ritual” that the piece claims to reflect on. The lights shifted into white and blue, costumes were soft and simple pastels, and the dancers were barefoot. The last image, something that often clinches the impact of a piece on the viewer by its uncanny ability to glow on our retinas in the dark of the theater when the lights go out, was of the same initial running man, now tearing with life and speed around the stage and leaping out into the darkness offstage with energy and release. I reflected in the applause that the Dance department had just brought spring early to Princeton.
The following pieces, “Connoisseurs of Chaos” (2008) excerpts by Karole Armitage, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth by Raja Kelly in collaboration with the dancers, “traceroute” by Laura Peterson with the dancers, “Marble Halls” (1985) by Mark Morris and the show’s pivot piece, “MinEvent for Princeton” choreographed by Merce Cunningham and staged by Silas Reiner ’06, were as diverse and intriguing as their titles. The pastel, floaty movements that blushed in the first piece never returned. “Connoisseurs of Chaos” featured Star Trek–esque leotards and serious, pointedly awkward configurations. Sudden crooked arms, pigeon-toes and cocked heads are some of the most delightful moments in dance pieces like this that incorporate the grace of ballet with the frankness of modern dance. Another striking element was the textural aspect of “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” True to its name, the piece was apocalyptic, featuring dancers scratching the ground frantically, a slow- developing but none too soon overwhelming mass of paper and plastic trash blowing across the stage (picture a tissue paper and crushed plastic Dixie cup curling themselves around a girl’s head as she lies on the ground) and at the end a herd of awkwardly bent dancers moving like great wooly mammoths going extinct.
I also particularly enjoyed the playfulness of “traceroute,” which featured a movable arrangement of single par can lights that the dancers re-positioned throughout the piece to get different shadow effects on the white backdrop and highlight dancers’ solo moments. The dangling ties on the female dancers’ sleeves, the warm, dim light and the rich music made the experience quite sexy. The dancers themselves helped choreograph it, and their satisfaction was visible on their shining, smiling faces at the end. Marble Halls was a more traditional-seeming piece choreographed to Bach but with costumes of orange and red striped tops with purple stretch pants. The audience audibly appreciated the humor.
The only piece I had some trepidation about was MinEvent, staged by Silas Reiner. The concept is that the set designers, the musicians and the dancers both create and rehearse completely separate from each other and perform for the first time for the audience. The choreography for this showing was Merce Cunningham’s, but the score was a development by PLOrk and the set was new. I appreciated how this concept emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of performance by letting each art grow on its own, but I was naturally slightly worried about their final cohesiveness. Of course, that was the whole fun of it. When I saw it the piece had already been performed twice so I may have witnessed the result of a couple days of subconscious cohesion between the pieces, but from what I could see the piece began disjointed and slowly morphed into a fascinating conversation. My remaining point of wonder is whether that effect is not further evidence of the amazing associative power of the human brain. It surely is evidence of the amazing creative power of the late Merce Cunningham, a pioneer of the avant-garde in America.
There is nothing I can say was wrong with the Sunday showing of the Spring Dance Festival. The pieces were interdisciplinary and exploratory by nature but they were projected onto a foundation of precise and demanding movement, well-rehearsed execution and, what was most delightful, an atmosphere of celebration. The audience arrived lively and left lively, and I learned that campus celebrity and economics professor Elizabeth Bogan always likes to check out what the Dance Program has to offer. Also, as has been usual for her, President Shirley Tilghman attended this great feature of the Princeton Arts as well. I will make the annual Dance Festival a must-see in my remaining years at Princeton.