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November 2015
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Performance Preview: Dance
Making Sense
The serious comedy of Claire Porter, at Repertory Dance Theatre

The Washington Post once described choreographer Claire Porter as “more reminiscent of Lily Tomlin than any extreme avant-garde type.” Her recent solo concert at the Rose Wagner and her rehearsal process with Repertory Dance Theatre in August made it clear that this brand of accessibility is something the company is after. But it’s equally clear that the points of entry into Porter’s work are much more expansive.

Porter’s “Begging the Question” premieres this month in RDT’s Revel on November 19-21, one of three new works commissioned by RDT for their 50th Anniversary Season. The dance draws segments of movement material from a work for students at SUNY Purchase. Porter says she prefers to work through material over time, unpacking contents to develop various potentials. She often creates group works, ultimately distilling them into the solo forms she’s known for.

Porter was in Salt Lake City this summer to set the piece on the company and performed a handful of solos in the Black Box Theatre. “Green Dress Circle” opened the show, verbally reminding the audience that theatrical conventions are really quite obvious: “if you need to exit the theater, please stand up and turn to your left or to your right, then walk down the stairs and turn to your left or your right.” The text goes on to extend the space by grounding us in near and distant landmarks — “if you get in your car in the parking lot...if you turn on 500 South then you will come to Interstate 15...if you head north you’ll get to Ogden....or you’ll get someplace”. “Green Dress Circle” is particularly humorous for theatergoers as it refines the absurdity of performance: a very small and often idealized moment inside of much greater and complex contexts.  

Other solos on the program got laughs for taking on the awkwardness inside social situations. “Interview,” has Porter looking for a job and sharing a propensity for spelling aloud. As she describes her accolades and mocks the vacancy of acronyms, the audience begins to feel badly about the real plight of the character. She reveals herself to be isolated and desperate to define herself in ways just beyond physical reach.

Another work tackling the individual within the collective was Porter’s newest solo “Diorama.” She takes the role of a tour leader, showing an imagined diorama common in natural history museum field trips. The piece projects outwardly about what historical moments might mean, whether men are running toward an attack or away, for example. But like its predecessors the piece also turns inward — near the end, the guide looks closer and closer into the diorama, eventually describing herself in her own striped blazer. When asked about the dance Porter remarked,”I think it’s another philosophical piece — our being part of history and a wee small part to boot. And it is also the reverse of ‘Green Dress Circle,’” in that it formally retreats rather than extends.  

That formal response is part of why my writing here doesn’t evoke the complete amusement of the concert, and of Porter’s work. Each piece is so formally constructed and succinct that through all its bumbling, side commentary and physical humor, real subjects come into unforgettable relief.

After the concert, University of Utah Professor Ellen Bromberg remarked to me that the show was so incredible it seemed Claire could’ve made it in traditional comedy networks. Porter’s response? “I did perform in the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. I came after the bubble man. People thought I was from Mars...”

While her comment disputes the idea she could make it in mainstream comedy, Porter is aware that commissions of her work by companies or universities are frequently meant to lighten a program.  When asked about whether she purposefully meets these implicit mandates she confesses that she makes what she’s going to make and yes, it typically includes comedic aspects. She goes on to acknowledge the development of humor didn’t begin purposefully:  “...maybe it started in high school when I didn’t know what I was doing. But later, I was just playing with theme and variation. When the audience responded I thought oh, I understand, this is funny.”

Like most choreographers, Porter wrestles with the feeling of creating the same dance on repeat. She suggests that a solution might be to invent a problem, “that things can really change when the only action you can make is problem solving.”

In the work for RDT it seems that circling unanswerable questions bounces between structure, theme, and material. Along the lines of choreographic thinking, she draws an arc on her rehearsal script, labeling three components she feels make up a dance:  

“Content, then structure, then theme. The content is the movement material, the music, costumes, the whole thing, the whole shebang. Structure is, of course, how it’s organized. And theme; the theme is ‘well, what is this?’”

Thinking aloud about how to continue to reinvent the process, she encourages that an artist might consider to “ask the theme what the structure is.”

As I stepped into an afternoon rehearsal this August, Porter was rotating out two dancers to observe rather than perform. Her value of dancer feedback is unique and she says “makes them more responsible for the piece. They get to see the piece and it changes dramatically.” For someone who has a short period of time to work — in this case two weeks — a high level of accountability and trust is vital.

As Tyler Orcutt and Justin Bass sat beside me, the full piece remained a mystery but several aspects were clear. The dancers would each work through vignettes of movement and text surrounding the nature of questions while other dancers periodically framed the action. As an ensemble, they traveled like a ragtag band of acrobats who just can’t find success. The elements of Porter’s humor were there — physicalized awkwardness and absurdity of tasks — but the network of events was more complicated.

Before the dancers began, Porter gave an urgent reminder about locating distinctions: “exaggerate big and small! It’s too middle, it’s too middle! Remember, it’s not about slow and quick. Instead be thinking, sustain and quick, sustain and quick.” Afterward there was discussion between Porter and rehearsal director Lynne Larson about whether the location of these differences is found in the body or instead, as external, spatial touchstones. I tend toward the latter camp, and later told Porter, who I found believable in less controlled moments. She had a gentleness in knowing who she believed and what she was drawn to: the soft tone of Lacie Scott’s voice or the earnest spinning of Lauren Curley that peppers the middle of the dance.  

These nuanced perceptions translated into some of the other feedback that afternoon. At one point Porter suggested to Efren Corado that when he circled his head it “looks like a swish and not a fffphewwum.” Although typed this is silly, in the moment and with gentle gesture, it made perfect sense. Her feedback is at times more precise and she finds her study of Laban Movement Analysis “valuable for giving feedback. [Within Laban] there are lots of ways to work: there is phrasing, weight, space…” She tells the dancers clear changes to the script, notes on patterning, and listens to their concerns about potential collisions, ultimately noting that “I like the almost bumped into [moments].”  

At the end of the week Porter continued to work with the cast on “how to perform it — how to deliver lines, and especially how to mean what you say (do). It’s a skill often ignored in dance training. We also worked on our voices in the theater….working spatially...They all did great.”

Performance Preview: Dance
A Multi-Faceted Ballet
Ballet West's Iconic Classics explores the many faces of 20th-century ballet

Ballet West’s 52nd season opens with Iconic Classics, a triple bill addressing milestones in 20th-century ballet, from its shifts towards two opposing directions — musical theatre and modern dance — to its classical apotheosis in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.“

Opening with Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free,” the company explores not only narrative fare which typically interests a broad public but also the resurgence of ballet crossing over into musical theater. With New York City Ballet dancers Robert and Megan Fairchild (who, by the way, are Utah natives) taking on Broadway roles, the resurgence of Robbins’ work seems relevant on a local and national scale.

Known most widely for choreographing “West Side Story,” Robbins had a knack for choreographing theatrical scenarios with clarity: dancers move deftly and musically between complex phrase-work and simply walking across the stage. In solos exploring male bravado, Chase O’Connell in particular demonstrates a unique blend of character and precision, his long limbs at times held in perfect control and, at others, sent across the space with abandon.

After a recent performance in Minnesota, one blogger raised questions about the relevance of “Fancy Free’s” story-telling. She saw the premise of the piece as problematic, that three sailors on 24 hour leave in the 40s would not successfully vie for a woman’s attention by stealing her handbag. Although it’s true that some of the content seems out of sync with current sociopolitical conversations, it’s undeniable that Robbins had a gift for choreographing a narrative, if not supplying it.

Ji?í Kylián’s “Overgrown Path,” is a significant shift in tone. Premiering in 1980, the choreography is based on a piano cycle by Czech composer Leos Janá?ek that considers the loss of his daughter. A series of lush vignettes spill out of the score and Jenna Rae Herrera and Arolyn Williams capture the combination of strain and frailty that the narrative suggests, with its titles like “A blown away leaf,” “Unutterable anguish,” and “In tears.” Throughout, mournful women clutch skirts to their chest, contract their bodies and fall back into the arms of their male partners.

The structure of “Overgrown Path” is unquestionably ballet, beginning with an ensemble, meandering through small groups and returning to an ensemble. But Kylián’s moving material calls to mind many women of modern dance. In a program of icons who all happen to be male choreographers, this reminder of works by Helen Tamiris or Martha Graham seem as topical as the work’s original dedication to Anthony Tudor.

Kylián’s work served as a touchstone into idioms popular in contemporary ballet, but the program concludes with Balanchine’s “Symphony in C,” a crown jewel of classical ballet. Ballet West has previously performed excerpts but this concert shows the full work and utilizes so many dancers that advanced students are also included to round out the corps de ballet.

Opening night featured a few technical missteps, but if anything, this highlighted the soloists commitment to Balanchine’s aesthetic of fully moving off the leg and manipulating their torso to elongate the body. The women, in white tutus and tiaras, are the embodiment of the ballerina in the jewelry box if her spring was loosened a bit. Unfortunately no such metaphor exists for the men so that the musicality and depth of performances by Adrian Fry and Rex Tilton lack appropriate description.

Fresh Formats
Dance performances popping up in unlikely places

With local dance companies rolling through their 50th Anniversaries there is a good chance that most Utahns have had access to concert dance. Some audiences might not be as familiar with a thriving scene of younger artists working in unconventional spaces. With less infrastructure and financial networks these shows have less coverage (and notice) than their formal counterparts, but the trade-off can be fresh ideas and formats that engage those disinterested in (or unable to afford) traditional concerts.

Two recent shows in this vein are Breeanne Saxton & Eliza Tappan at the Warehouse and Alexandra Bradshaw with Jon Yerby at Art 270 Gallery.  Both bridge the divide between two production styles, featuring company dancers (and guests) from Ririe Woodbury but with new collaborators and intimate venues. For something similar, consider visiting Orem’s Woodbury Gallery on November 30th. The gallery hosts another iteration of On Site, a mobile dance series in Utah County produced in part by loveDANCEmore. will be held at Woodbury Gallery and features new works by six Salt Lake and Orem based artists.

April Fossen as Vivenne Avery in Salt Lake Acting Company’s Blackberry Winter, with S.A. Rogers and Kalika Rose.

Alexandra Bradshaw and Jon Yerby perform at Art 270 Gallery Friday, October 30.

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