Saturday, September 11, 2004

Expansively Tiny 

Mike Barber’s Ten Tiny Dances project, seen here in it’s seventh iteration, challenges the All-Stars of Portland dance to operate within externally imposed constraint—a 4’ by 4’ stage. In dance as in poem, the artist – having been progressively freed more and more from traditional formal constraint – may voluntarily return to constraint in order to force new explorations…by closing off the obvious, it forces the maker to forge new paths. The OuLiPo, (OUvroir de LIttérature Potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature), a group of writers and mathematicians. including Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and Italo Calvino made constraint-based (Perec’s entire novel written without the letter “e”) or systematically generated work. On a page about the OuLiPo, a fan posts this Igor Stravinsky quote:

"The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit... the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution."

This seeming impossibilty is played out, for example in Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, with its one hundred trillion (1014) poems. Mike Barber (having done aerial work for years, making arresting work while transcending the constraint of gravity) is just the dancer to invite others to make work constrained by spatial limitations.

Ten Tiny Dances began in bars and restaurants with room for no more than 4-feet-square of movement (Crush, for example). Taking dance into places it might not otherwise go, Barber’s six previous evenings of Ten Tiny Dances have taken place in Bluehour, clarklewis and Bernie’s Southern Bistro among others. This is its second year at PICA’s TBA Festival.

Higher Lights
Highlights of the eve included Randee Paufve’s stage/swan dive into the arms of the audience member (Barber) who rose just in time to catch her; Daniel Addy’s turn as the Wizard of Oz – hidden stage-turner, light magician – behind the scrim under his specially created stage while the duet he’d choreographed went on above; Linda Austin’s on-the-spot score generated by her manipulation of a little mic (stroked and mouthed), as her eight dancers performed. The Charlie Brown-grownup-talk meets Beaker (the Muppet) flirtation of Margretta Hansen in Barber’s Little Black Dress piece. The unattributed score (bass clarinets) of Paufve’s “No Time To Be Clever,” (not the only piece to reference 9/11 in the evening).

In what amounts to a group show of dance, there are a number of gambits employed: virtuosity of performance, prop-love, narrative, humor.

The cream, Daniel Addy’s “44 Sunsets” was compelling, conceptually-driven and visually arresting narrative. From within the scrim-draped understage amber lights uplighting the dancers on a slowly rotating stage. The piece ending with the dancers combing through 6” deep of dirt for brass door handles which they dropped to the ground one by one. Note: Math Matters. If use numbers in the piece, e.g. numerically titling the piece, then other numbers cannot be arbitrary and must make sense: number of feather pillows dropped over the side (ten by my count), door handles (indeterminate number), stage rotations.

I want to say something about trust. There are performers who possess a certain surety, who are so solid, so physically committed, with Intention etched onto every quadrant of their bodies, elbow fingertip toe, that I BELIEVE and will follow them to the far reaches of performance. (In contrast, we’ve all seen the performer who can’t or won’t commit, who wavers or whose face betrays.) And I don’t think it’s a product of experience. 13-year-old Maggie Brown has It. Kathleen Keogh and Dawn Joella Jackson have It. Cydney Wilkes and Mike Barber invented It.

Count on Wilkes and Barber
Cydney Wilkes and Mike Barber are Platinum. The collaborative partnership between Barber and Wilkes so intense, so fruitful (on display concurrently in Wilke’s yearlong site-specific “Penta”), resulting in such powerful work that the expectations for a piece are high. Time and again they deliver and this piece did so in spades.

Matched and/or balancing one another perfectly in so many ways, movement style, expression, and even size, Wilkes and Barber are two sides of a coin with a wickedly intense gaze and pull between them.

On either side of a chicken-wire fence, in Catholic school uniform they explored power, control, directive, limitation, imperative, can/can’t/must, routine and parameter. The best bit was each in turn trying to get comfortable with a single pink pillow – the equivalent of rotating thrice before settling down to sleep. Equal parts intensity and play, the piece was a conceptual parfait, ostensibly referencing dog, (stick-in-mouth and title: “Fetch”) and human systems and methods of control, but featuring the delicious subtext of the handing off of the choreographic baton back and forth between the two in their working partnership. Who sets the parameters, gives the instruction now as the fence is pushed first one way than the other.

More than any other piece, (and a few did it well), W & B used all 360 degrees fully, making every seat in the house the best for the best piece of the evening.

Unwilling to be constrained by a flat 4x4 (recall Wilkes and Barber upending the platform at last year’s TBA Ten Tiny), this years crop of choreographers got busy with the hammer and torch. There were four special stages constructed for the evening including Mann’s platform-enhanced stage, Phillip Kraft’s Membrane for Angelle Hebert and the grandaddy Matt Cartwright-constructed expansion of the 4x4 into three dimensions: a welded cube frame topped by an acrylic sand box (actually dirt) with rigging for two cantilevered dancers for Daniel Addy.

What You Missed
-- Anne Furfey bravely attacking the Moulin Rouge Roxanne Tango as a score, exploring balance and contrast between passionate sweeping movement and pedestrian gesture…all the while clad in a pastel tulle confection.
-- Martgretta Hansen’s maintaining composure (as com-poseur), with an extended exploration of her prop: a caramel shell skirt constructed of spaghetti-like wire.
-- And while my partner couldn’t get past the Matthew Barney-ness of Angelle Hebert’s "Membrane," her movement transcended the trappings of her prop. When the prop is introduced into such a stripped-down production, it had better Matter. Visually, Hebert’s prop mattered, but her movement was rivetting enough to do without.
-- Carla Mann’s shirt-and-tie duet inditing the pettiness of corporate power games when held up next to life-and-death events on her towered stage to a requiem-like score on the day before disaster.
-- Maggie Brown passing Megan Murphy’s tests, learning a sequence, mounting the chair/stairway, and calmly swaying on chair on table…sure she haphazardly draped the pink ruffled gown having held it at bay while doing the work of the piece, but her black Adidas and self-assured composure carried the day. No object, she.
-- Linda Austin’s choreography of eight dancers and non-dancers attaching and de- via multiple snaps on their overalls, ultimately extracting selves one-by-one (by shedding overall skins) from the “Scrum.”

In any evening when there is such a variety of work, there will be soft spots, conceptually or performatively. Friday night, there were few. Demonstrating the depth of talent in the Portland dance community, Ten Tiny Dances showed that great art can definitely come in small powerful packages.

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