The other night I went to see a dress rehearsal of Modern Dance Primitive Light, the dance, music and solstice celebration Knoxville's CircleModern Dance puts on every year. The too short program consists of 9 individual dances choreographed by the members of Circle Modern and danced by professional, amateur, and first-time dancers. No matter what you think of dance, you don't want to miss this show. It's one of those rare works of art that is both honest and affirming.
I don't say this idly. Much of my life is filled with old tragedies. Many of them persist all around me. And while I realize this sounds silly, I am overly concerned with death and dying at the moment. I try and avoid the reality of thinking about this. And it might be nothing. And I continue as if it were nothing. But my heart rate is constantly elevated and irregular. When I exercise (dance, swim, fuck, run...) it races to 200 plus beats per minute and then drops to less than 30 beats a minute. Sometimes it just stops for seconds. So I do less and less. I move less and less. I am losing weight. I sleep too much and I am still tired. I feel weak and prone to infection. I think I have just developed pneumonia... Cheerful thoughts.
Maybe it's all moody bullshit and in a few days when I see some doctors they'll laugh at my symptoms and be like “Yeah, you got blah blah. Get some rest.” Or maybe not. Whatever.
My paternal grandfather died (in his son's arms) when he was just a couple of years older than me. He was a soldier and a gambler and a drinker. One afternoon in Mexico City his heart failed after he lost his family's life savings betting on jai alai.
I noticed my fucked-up heartbeat late this past summer one afternoon while swimming (and thinking about genocide and transformation). I didn't get it checked out, in part because I didn't really want to know. And also, because right around then my dad almost died. His body started wasting away after complications from surgery. He's out of the hospital now, dying much slower than he was. But we are still watching a terminal disease take movement away from him day by day. It's death in slow motion. And like all death, it's inevitable. The symptoms of his Parkinson's will get worse and worse. He will have more tremors, more rigidity, more pain, more complications. He will continue to lose cognitive function. And then he will die from it.
I mention all this right now because you would think that an evening of modern dance would have a hard time piercing this sort of moody veil. And for the most part you'd be right. Much of dance and song and art (and life) fails to resonate with me. And I've always been suspicious of sentimentality and false hope. My sister, as a kid, went on tour with this singing and dancing group called “Up With People.” I knew immediately, even at age ten, that this was bullshit, artistically. Even then I knew that this had no real relationship to life, that the big numbers, big smiles and sequined t-shirts were just another big lie. But this is exactly where Primitive Light succeeds, it is as full of earnestness, irony, sadness, triumph, failure and joy as real life. And in its best moments something indescribable flickers there as well.
The show starts and ends with ensemble dance numbers that are big, funny, ironic, and full of life. It's easy to let the opening number, set to a start and stop version of a Men without Hats song, fool you into thinking that what you are seeing is something superficial. But as soon as the individual pieces start, their smallness begins to pull in different directions and nuance the opening number's smiles, exuberance, and humor.
Morgan Fleming's brilliantly funny and dark Hammer Squash looks directly at the kind of circumstance so common in entertainment, where a showy smile hides something a little bit sinister. Three dancers in something akin to school girl uniforms come out, full of neurotic happiness, dancing to a snappy track by Stealing Orchestra. The choreography points to a kind of strange beauty pageant. The dancers come across like strained bratz dolls. The whole thing pushes towards magical realism. As I watched, I almost expected one of their heads (Amanda Sewell's specifically) to pop off and a stream of animated red felt to pour out of her neck. Had something like that happened, I am sure the other dancers would've smiled big, fake, eye-popping smiles through it all.
|Hammer Squash Photo: Sarah Shute|
This dark humor comes across as extra funny following the heartfelt, silent movements and spoken-word performance of Dr. Mary Alford's Rememebering the Day. The narrative elements of that piece, that hint at loss and change, are picked up by the shows most arresting work, Maria McGuire's Hearts in Apocalypse, which begins with a wrenching scene, in silence, of a dancer being kicked across the floor by another dancer. This little moment is a kind of brutal re-conceptualization of the myth of Sisyphus, wherein the stone we are doomed to roll up the hill, is a loved one we are harming. McGuire's piece goes on to show us a small bit of a too common story about the bloom and bust economies of love and loss.
This element of connection, loss, and reconnection appears throughout the show's other dances. Dancers lean on each other, support each other, turn away, and then pass a gesture or movement from one to another as in Laura Burgamy's Laughing Is, and Elizabeth Kirkwood's pas de deux with Nathan Barret, If You Would Only Say... .
|Laughing Is. Photo: Sarah Shute|
Often the choreography is simply beautiful to watch, sometimes with no discernible narrative image (tragedy) lingering in the background, like in Sarah Whitaker's Moonlight. Other times as with Kim Matibag's work i carry your heart, the spoken word and narrative come to the forefront.
And many of the dancers are mesmerizing in every piece they are in, irrespective of whatever else is going on. Amanda Sewell, Elizabeth Kirkwood, and Maria McGuire really stand out. I could watch them dance for hours. And there is beauty imaging that your limited body could learn to move like theirs. Or, that they move the way that they do for those bodies that can't, or can't anymore.
|Kirkwood in If You Would Only Say...|
Watching a body endeavor, succeed and fail honestly, is beautiful and inspiring on its face. This humanizes the formal and narrative concerns of the choreographers. This show succeeds because it allows us to see ourselves in the dancers, narratives, and structures in front of us. It allows us to imagine ourselves in a world (not just of movement) a tiny bit beyond our reach. This talks to us about empathy and connection and alienation. This suggests a discursive strategy in which we are not just talking at walls.
Most of the time we have to go through the world in a thoroughly rationalized and alienated way. Much of time and work and social life demand this. There are moments though, where (my, your) otherness disappears. I was learning to ballroom dance with a friend a few weeks ago. And most everyone in the class was awkward and anguished to some extent or another. But there was a moment where the fumbling steps of my partner and I came together with the music, and we both got lost for a second in synchronous movement. In this respect dance is like Eros or like mysticism. There is a moment in dancing, fucking, and praying where the anxieties of separate bodies vanish into a song, into each other, or into their god. And this kind of transcendence flickers in the background of Primitive Light, illuminating what's important in life and in art.
As the piece closed the other night I was reminded of my father. He has been many things in his life: a scientist, an alpinist, a father, a husband... He was also an excellent dancer and singer. He was also a bullfighter. He moved with grace and beauty. I doubt he will come. But I want to bring him to see the show. To remind his body, that is barely able to move the way it once could, that its limitations are beautiful too.
|Amanda Sewell in Moonlight Photo: Sarah Shute|
The Show opens on Thursday. Check it out.