Inclined Dance Project
Martha Graham Studios
New York, New York

November 11, 2017
Session One, Bristle, Untitled, How to Beat The Blahs

— by Jerry Hochman

So what do you do when things start feeling the same; when you can’t quite get the energy up to do anything; when you’ve got the blahs. Well, if you’re a choreographer, you create a dance about it. That’s what Artistic Director Kristen Klein and her fellow Inclined Dance Project dancers did in the featured piece on the company’s program at the Martha Graham Studios last weekend, which I saw at its Saturday performance. It’s not a complete success, but it has moments. I’ll get to it later in the review. The performance included another dance choreographed by Klein, as well as two dances exclusively created and performed by two other IDP dancers.

What was most unusual about this program was the visible change in Klein’s choreography (again, enhanced by contributions from other IDP dancers). Klein had heretofore been known for frenzied, albeit controlled, angularity, augmented by moments of either quirkiness or fluidity. Based on the two IDP dances on this program, the angularity has been toned down significantly. Whether this marks a developmental evolution or simply an adaptation to different thematic and musical material is not something I can yet know.

The most successful dance of the evening was the first one, Session One. The program doesn’t indicate any meaning attributed to the piece’s title – I suppose it could be the product of some “first session” of rehearsals of something that got left on the dance room floor and then was resuscitated as this piece. But to me it’s the dance equivalent of a jam “session” – dancers getting together and moving to some prerecorded music, with the movement maybe initially improvised, but subsequently becoming fixed. This theory also fits with the score used here -unidentified music by Four Tet (the stage name of Kieran Hebden, a British born musician whose work has been described as “post-rock” and “electronic,” and also as incorporating samplings of jazz, folk, pop, and hip hop, among other genres and sub-genres). The composition used here itself sounds like a jazz/pop electronic jam session, and its genre changes are unusual but not unpleasant. The result of Klein and her dancers’ choreography to it is a curious agglomeration of movement – including running, crawling, slinky, and pulsing to the beat (when there is one), but that’s primarily jazzy … sort of.

The choreography is unfocused, but of a piece, just like the music is, with movement segments that suddenly slow and stop, or that just evolve to slow motion, but which come across as stylized rather than artificial. And although I don’t generally like a dance that just stops, here it works because it’s abstract movement that isn’t trying to say anything beyond creating interesting movement to interesting music. And it ended just when it needed to – before it became repetitious.

And repetition, or the sensation of it, is the most significant problem with How to Beat The Blahs, which closed the program. It just seemed to go longer than it needed to. Any other problematic issues might have evaporated had the dance been more tightly controlled.

The other more generalized concern is perhaps of my own making. In publicity materials, the dance is described as being “… about those days when it is difficult to get out of bed – when you can’t seem to get motivated or do anything productive. Or when you are so overloaded with tasks, or stimuli, or emotions that you just get stuck in a funk.” While such statements don’t define the dance (the program note is much more clear as to Klein’s intent), from that, and from the piece’s title, I had expected a dance that in whole or in part was humorous, which, to my knowledge, would have been Klein’s first.

As presented, however, there’s nothing comic about How to Beat The Blahs. On the contrary, the dance is a serious attempt to explore “the physical effects of boredom, sorrow, joy, excitement, age, stress, indifference, annoyance, and everything in between,” and how to conquer these emotions and function day to day. In other words, the dance is “about” nothing less than overcoming the full panoply of human emotions that might cause ineffective (or nonexistent) functioning: the “blahs.” Klein’s immediate prior piece, Phyla, was about the creation and evolution of life as we know it – so an illustrative cosmic emotional panoply, I suppose, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

But where Phyla, somehow, was concise notwithstanding its cosmic content, How to Beat The Blahs isn’t. Although it’s not uninteresting, it’s ponderous because, to a large extent, it appears that Klein has attempted to choreograph examples of each and every type of emotional “blah” described in the program note, either via individual solos, small groups, or the ensemble as a whole (or at times one leading into another), with distinctions between the emotions that aren’t always clear. And the score, compiled from a variety of sources, might be part of the sense that it all goes on too long. Aside from a sampling of spoken words derived from a 1940s Public Service Broadcast (the 40s equivalent of ‘emotions for dummies’), the sounds, with rare exception, come across as too similar – like some sonic miasma propelling the psychological miasma on stage. Lastly, the ultimate remedy for the blahs that Klein presents, while not necessarily wrong, seems simplistic, a cure-all that would fit most anything that emotionally ails you.

Initially, I again observed the different direction of Klein’s choreography. Like Session One, but without the sense of a jam session, the movement quality here has moments of angularity, but the overall quality is smoother, generally less frenetic, and more measured, than in her early pieces. And in context, the more moderated movement – except where the particular emotional “blah” requires otherwise – makes considerable sense.

The piece opens with, and subsequent individual segments are loosely “framed” by, wing-to-wing walks up, down and across the stage by an individual dancer or by steady steams of them, presumably representing the everyday passage through life. Occasionally a dancer will stop dead in the course of walking, as if stricken by one of the maladies subsumed under the dance’s title. The individual solos and group dances that form the bulk of the dance presumably are intended to illustrate a particular individual malady, but although there are differences between the individualized segments, the differences appear insufficiently specific (at least to my eye) to discern exactly what malady was on display. More often, they all looked like similar expressions with somewhat different choreography, the result being a sense that we’ve seen all this before. What was clear, however, is that the dancers were unable to escape the blahs on their own – they were, almost literally, often portrayed as being stuck (a meaningful set of images that works very well).

Although the action is relatively evenly divided among the six members of the company, certain images and performances stood out. Generally, whatever Leighann Curd danced seemed more compelling and believable than being just a collection of steps representing an emotion. Whatever particular “blah” was affecting her was transmitted as something all-consuming (and maybe more “blah”-like than a more specific emotional challenge). Amy Campbell was quite remarkable for her consistent displays of physical energy – she always seemed to be able to dance harder than one would expect her (or most anyone) to be able to do. And the choreography executed by Klein herself was particularly expressive – and the decision to display her plastered against the rear wall for much of the last quarter of the dance, like a person too disabled by her emotional infirmity to move, was brilliant. Indeed, seeing the continuing image of her frozen and “hanging” sideways, her face and body stuck to the stage wall like some strange example of roadkill, was the most dramatic image in the dance.

Images of dancers physically supporting each other dominates the last few minutes of the dance, and clearly is intended to indicate that leaning on others, and others’ offering of support, is how one beats the blahs. And although I could hear the song “Lean On Me” in my head as I watched these images (alternating with “You’ve Got a Friend”), it took much too long, and too much seriousness, to get there. In addition to those mentioned, Shannon McGee, Elisabeth Wolf, and Jillian Pajer completed the ensemble for both IDP dances.

The remaining two pieces on the program seemed more like works in progress. Bristle, performed by Campbell (who has her own company, called Crooked Mouth), is a strange dance that seems to have been more of an academic study in choreographing an emotion: here, fear – what makes hair or fur “bristle.” [In the context of defining “bristle,” the program note references a synonym I’d never heard of – “horripilate” – which is a fabulously apt word.]

Clearly, in the dance Campbell is expressing some sort of fear/terror/horror. But the reason for it, if I’m seeing it correctly, is almost too obvious. She crawls wearily onto the stage blanketed in something “furry” (at first I thought a blanket or carpet), which eventually is seen as a fur-like coat, which in the course of frenetic, fearful movement is soon removed, leaving her body (clothed) with a transparent covering, like one of those plastic travelers’ raincoats. While she seemed terrified before she threw off her fur coat, she’s now more suspicious (but still terrified) – she looks around from side to side warily, jumps a lot, and moves acrobatically. Eventually, the lights (which had been dimmed) come up, Campbell grabs the fur coat that had been strewn on the floor, and retreats upstage, cowering in fear.

What naturally comes to mind is that Campbell is visually describing the fear of an animal (as in minks or chinchilla or other fur-bearing animal) threatened with the loss of its fur (and its life), so the fur can be used as fashionable clothing – and by “turning on the lights” Campbell is exposing the horrified animal that people don’t usually see. If that’s the case (and I can’t think of anything else that Campbell might have been doing here), fair enough – solos have been crafted around the depiction of a human emotion, so why not the presumed emotion of an animal. But the plastic covering? Maybe it’s meant to depict the animal’s bare skin… or to simulate a transparent look into a skinned animal. But more depth and layering needs to be infused into the dance to create a “character,” and to engender an emotional response in an audience.

Lastly, Untitled is the title (actual or a place-holder) of a piece by Pajer, the company’s newest member. A pas de deux for herself and Robert Lewis to music by Max Richter & Loscil, the dance doesn’t go anywhere (the pair come together, separate, come together…), and the choreography is dominated by pulls, awkward-looking lifts, and dynamite – but overused – leg swings. But the movement quality is interesting – there’s a dark, contemporary lyricism to it (abetted by the atmospheric but not particularly meaningful music) – and shows considerable promise. Both by its title and the way the dance evolves and suddenly ends, it appears to me that it’s still a work in progress, so I won’t comment further until I know that it’s in final form.

All in all, it proved to be an interesting program. But I still think a little levity might have helped beat the blahs.