Monday, January 27, 2014

Dance Performance, “Calling to You”

I recently saw a dance performance by the Deborah Abel Dance Company last Sunday. I wrote about it directly. There's a degree to which I haven't really witnessed a performance or event unless I write about it. At least in part, I write to process the experience. Anyway, my blog awaits anything that interests me, and this performance certainly did.

Alas, I swung and missed. I tried to capture the narrative flow of the event, of everything that went into the concert. That can't be done in one sitting, maybe not in several sittings. Furthermore, I found my ignorance about modern dance hindered my writing. I cannot speak in the dance idiom, which essentially is what I tried to do. I can, however, speak in the art idiom. I am myself an artist and have been moved, confused, challenged, and inspired by the arts for all of my life. It is from this standpoint that I should write about the performance.

I have banished my first attempt from public view. With Take 2 here, I shall go light on technical matters. Plenty moved and excited me, music and dance.

The performance, or concert, is called “Calling to You”. Deborah Abel choreographed it. Lee Perlman wrote the music. Lee also played guitar and sang; Deborah also danced. They are married, which fact is apt because “Calling to You” touches on matters of collaboration, of engagement together.

The concert took place in a cozy theatre at Boston University. The musicians gathered in the pit at the left side of the stage. I could not see them well. Of course attention should be placed on the dancers but I was curious about what the musicians were doing. I think this is quite proper. They are part of the collaboration. It's not just the dancers who make the performance, it is the musicians, the person at the sound board, the person working the lights, the people changing the set. In theatre, we see the process and collaboration of creation that we do not see in movies or television.

After an opening invocation sung in Sanskrit, the curtain rose. A dark and sparely set stage greeted us. Two white rectangles hung on either side of the stage to suggest windows, ones that Nijinsky could never jump through. To the left a simple table and chair. Stage right a bed, more like a pallet. Two dancers set themselves at the table. The notes referred to them as Contemporary Male and Contemporary Female. He wore a sleeveless t-shirt and khakis, she a short red dress. He sat on the chair and she on the table. They were turned back to back. The tableau looked grim. Cue the music.

The music was essentially a set of songs, albeit richly arranged. Some were in English, some in Sanskrit, but either way I didn't really attend to the words. Taking in the spectacle of dance and music proves challenging enough on first viewing.

I found Perlman's music bore similarities to that of Dead Can Dance. Dead Can Dance is a musical group with a unique and eclectic sound. I don't mean to suggest similarities in any linear way. I mean more in the sense of passion, evocation, and mesmeric invitation. Percussion plays an important role in both examples, adding mood as well as beat.

The music of Dead Can Dance seems to have a strong Middle Eastern influence whereas Perlman's music seems tempered by that of India, at least here. I haven't mentioned yet that India provides the setting for much of this piece.

The instrumentation consisted of electric bass, tabla, flute, assorted other percussion, acoustic guitar, and violin. I mention the instrumentation because a rich and varied sound arose from the ensemble. I'm not quite sure how this collection of instruments produced those sounds.

The dancing in this first scene became an almost frenzied miscommunication between the two characters. They gallop towards each other, they swing away. They crawl on the floor, they roll over each other. The characters reveal anger and sadness, and even hope, but mostly look lost. All this in the difficult service of love. I think this scene ends with Contemporary Female curled face to the wall on the bed. Contemporary Male sits glumly at the table. Sadly opposed.

Between scenes the curtain remained raised but the stage was dark. A drone of some sort played. That made an effective maintenance of mood and connection to the next scene while the set changed. The audience clapped after each scene, which disturbed me. I guess it is what's done but it jolted me to return to “normal” after having been drawn into the meditative circumstance of the dance and music. The drone helped soften that jolt for me.

Narration accompanied the next scene. The story briefly, a boy and girl in ancient India become friends. Though they are young, their love reveals a knowing depth. Unfortunately, their families must move away and the children must part.

The contemporary set remains at the front of the stage, with Contemporary Male still seated at the table. He has his head on the table, dozing or just despairing. Ancient India is suggested in back by a few colourful elements plus the costumes of the dancers. Time is fluid; past and future are present now. The music here was upbeat and generative. The dancing was fluid, young, and happy.

The narrator speaks words in Sanskrit as the children part. The words are by Jnaneshwar Maharaj and are translated in the notes thus:

“Out of love for each other they merge and part for the joy of being two.” Read these words a few times, they are more of a riddle than you might at first think.

A quick web search discovers that Jnaneshwar Maharj was a revered poet who lived but 22 years at the end of the 13th Century. A little further on in the piece whence came the above quote, one finds these lines:

Two lutes, one note

Two lamps, one light

Two eyes, one sight

Two lips, one word

Two hearts, one love

This human intersection in which boundaries fall proves a central theme to the piece. The contentious pas de deux that began the concert showed the difficulties of separation, of boundaries.

Anyway, the girl Prema becomes a priestess and the boy Viveka wanders the world. Time and space separate them.

If memory serves, and it may not, the next scene featured Sadhus and priestesses. We see them on cushions, meditating perhaps. They are covered by veils. As the scene develops, they slowly flower by uncovering from their veils to dance. We see an interplay among them. The sadhus and priestesses then return to their cushions and one of them gracefully covers each, and then himself. The characters here seem timeless, unbound in that way. Perhaps here we begin to see them as tutelary spirits or guardians. As the concert goes on, the Ancient Ones show more interest in the Contemporary Ones, and the Contemporary Ones feel more the presence of the Ancient Ones.

Adult Viveka wanders into the woods, where he meets Tiger Spirits. The Tiger Spirits attack him. He puts up a good fight but they beat him down. I believe at this point Contemporary Male is gone and Contemporary Female lies curled on the bed.

Prema discovers Viveka, brings him to the temple and helps heal him. They reunite. Finally, the space-time intersection becomes complete: the Ancient Ones join the Contemporary Pair. At first male to male and female to female, the Ancient Ones lead and encourage the Contemporary Pair. Then male to female, female to male. Finally the Contemporary Pair feel free to dance together. Their contentions have broken down and their dance thrives with reborn energy and insight. Yin and Yang completion.

I found it easy to enter the “space” of this concert. The music made a rich landscape and the expression of the dance had a recognizable emotional touch. The dancing looked energetic and effortless.

It should be noted that Lee Perlman teaches philosophy at MIT, specifically a course on The Philosophy of Love. Obviously there's a grounding in ancient texts in this work. That grounding is organic and expressed gracefully in the dance, the music, and the words.

All in all, “Calling to You” displayed an organic collaborative quality and a skill to deliver its wisdom with poetic grace.