The edge of Expressionism

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday September 23, 2014
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The dance world here is teeming with remarkable performers. Indeed, the level of training is so high, it's not in question that any show you see will be well-danced, even if the artists involved aren't famous and they're performing in a dive somewhere. In fact, if they're dancing in a dive, like Randee Paufve's guerilla series 8x8x8, which happens in nightclubs, odds are excellent it'll have a lot going for it. The real questions will be: what's the rationale, did it achieve its goals, and how much should you care?

Luminous Edge, which filled the theater at Yerba Buena Center show after show last weekend, a magnum opus from Garrett/Moulton Productions, rang every bell so far as I was concerned. The choreography is thrilling and exacting, and performances by the 24 dancers and eight live musicians reached a high level of professionalism. Beyond that, it's both accessible and awesome, and the audience got it and loved it.

The whole thing is like a sophisticated and profound Merrie Melodie. The curtain was already up when we arrived, the eight musicians were already grouped at the back of the stage, and the movement to come echoed the music without ever being slavishly illustrative. When the lights went down, lines of dark-clad dancers appeared at both sides of the space, then proceeded to the center and formed up like trees along a highway as the music began, whereupon a heterosexual pair of dancers appeared at the back of the allee and came toward us. The process then repeated twice: the two lines crossed through each other like shuttles in a loom, another couple appeared and came toward us. One last time, the lines recrossed, and a third pair appeared, this time with her folded up, carried in his arms. This same image re-appeared at the very end.

Tegan Schwab and Dudley Flores in Garrett + Moulton Productions' premiere of The Luminous Edge at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. Photo: RJ Muna

Then began a dance that was about the brevity of life, its many absorbing moods, to contemporary classical music with many different tones and rhythms, some of them rhythmically intoxicating, punctuated along the way by songs from Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), which gave an emotional structure to the music and to the entire spectacle.

Janice Garrett's brilliantly crisp work has gained in emotional resonance since she began working with Charles Moulton some 15 years ago, and so has his. Moulton's fascinating experiments in group-mind operation have always been entertaining, and his 1,000-person dance that the Wachowski Bros. embedded in the Warner Bros. movie Matrix Reloaded (2001) echoed some of the fabulous chaos that Cecil B. DeMille incorporated into his "Parting of the Red Sea" in The Ten Commandments. His weeping movement choirs in this piece, with their wringing arm gestures, are a lot more like a Greek tragedy's chorus than were the adorable players in 9 Person Precision Ball Passing, with which he first made his name as a choreographer.

Like most postmodern work, Luminous Edge blurs many edges, yet many things were exact. There were 32 performers, a quarter of them musicians; of the 24 dancers, two-thirds were corps de ballet, 6 soloists; of the soloists, half were male, in drab, dark clothes, half were female, in Chinese-red-lacquer satin cocktail dresses. The dance style is half classical ballet, half "old modern dance."

Since program notes merely identified the players, you were forced to make something out of it yourself. Probably every member of the audience followed a different through-line, though the Mahler songs have such a powerful emotional logic built into their harmonic logic and their use of the sad tones of the oboe and the contralto voice, they pulled the harmonically trivial "contemporary classical" pieces assembled and conducted by director-clarinetist Jonathan Russell into an emotionally resonant whole.

If you already knew the Kindertotenlieder �" or as a balletomane, knew Dark Elegies, the great setting of that score from a half-century ago by Anthony Tudor, also in the style of central-European Expressionist dance �" it was impossible not to see the community responding to grief in this work, and to see an ecumenical response to all the great dance traditions, including infusions towards the end of Indian classical-dance styles, notably the dance of Shiva in Nol Simonse's dance at in the finale. This begins with a solo that adopts poses of Shiva, before the section in which he accepts the embrace of one dancer after another, who then collapse slowly and fall to the floor as if dead.

You can't say that this is about the death of children, it's more about the coming death of each of us. We're all equal, as ballet and modern dance are equal. The wringing arm-and-hand movement of Expressionism, the torqued, supremely expressive fourth arabesque of ballet, the tight fifth position on pointe, sous-sus, at the very end of Luminous Edge is a telling quotation from Balanchine's Symphony in C, a cadential phrase of tiny steps moving backwards on pointe that brings everything to an end, with the legs tight against each other like an exclamation point, before the dancer collapses into her partner's arms in the fetal position.

The whole thing feels like an echo chamber going all the way back to Greek tragedy, with even the most brilliant lives ending in tragedy, and the community looking on, commenting, noticing the glories along the way, and the inevitable ending. "Count no person happy til s/he pass through life free from pain."