The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland: September 13, 2013
This year at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the San Francisco-based Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (“MJDC”), a repeat visitor, premiered “Times Bones,” which celebrates the company’s 40th anniversary and pays homage to the 75 dances Jenkins has created over the years. I’ve seen the company enough to have a favorite work (“A Slipping Glimpse” performed with dancers from the MJDC and from India’s Tanusree Shankar Dance Company) and a favorite dancer (Heidi Schweiker, who, to my disappointment, did not appear in “Times Bones”). Jenkins is the dictionary definition of “collaborator,” and she’s forged some very special relationships. In “Times Bones,” she once again made use of longtime collaborators poet Michael Palmer (with whom she has worked since her company’s inception), composer Paul Dresher (with whom she has worked since 1985), and set designer Alexander V. Nichols (with whom she has worked since 1986).
It seems unfair, perhaps, to expect something entirely new in a piece that’s inspired by, and even composed in part of, works from the past. Thus, when viewing “Times Bones” I felt, understandably, as if I was seeing things very much like things I’d seen before, and I’m assuming that was quite purposeful. Yet a dance is never really the same twice anyway. What seemed to animate this work wasn’t ghosts of past dances and dancers, but connections and memories.
Notably, “A Slipping Glimpse,” which I reviewed in 2007, began outdoors at the University of Maryland, with dancers in a terraced courtyard. The dancers then moved with the audience into the theater. Somewhat similarly, “Times Bones” began with a special prelude in the Center’s Grand Pavilion, also outside of the theater. Again, the dancers led the audience into the theater after this first section. This time, rather than being seated on the stage and all around it as in “A Slipping Glimpse,” the audience for “Times Bones” sat in the traditional formation in front of the stage. However, the stage grew beyond its usual bounds. There were variously elevated platforms between the audience and the stage itself onto which the dancers moved. They began on these wood-covered platforms, and then throughout the work the dancers seamlessly moved from the stage to the platforms and back again, not an abundantly simple task given the gaps between them. The dancers fearlessly leapt and climbed on these giant stepping stones, and seeing them so near the audience was a thrill.
I recall having a strong sense of a travel in “A Slipping Glimpse,” and in “Times Bones,” as well, I felt like I had taken a trip. Only in this instance, the journey was not between continents and cultures but between the past and present. The seven dancers (Jenkins refers to them as collaborators, too) frequently stood on each other’s backs and lifted each other up and forward, looking to me as if they were on their way toward some significant destination, not looking behind themselves, even if they were appreciating where they’d been. I could imagine them at the helm of a ship, with a periscope, looking over the ocean for the next thing to discover. What a lovely way to examine past inspiration – the bones of Jenkins’ choreography – and to simultaneously move in the direction of the future.
The costumes by David F. Draper consisted of sleeveless burlap-looking draped tops and pants in earthy shades, lighter creamy pale browns on top and richer browns on the bottom. It seemed a sort of universal uniform that appropriately could fit into any time period. In addition to the wide platforms at the front of the stage, Nichols provided tall narrow wheeled towers that reminded me of Japanese shoji screens. Some of the square panes were empty, giving a view of the dancers behind them, if there were any there. Other squares were light in color, such that video of past performances could be projected onto them. These towers were skillfully moved about as the piece changed mood and focus. At the back of the stage was another type of screen filled with squares, but these were dark and reflective. They mirrored movement sometimes, and other times colored lights shone through them. This screen also hid the scaffolding that supported the musicians of the Paul Dresher Ensemble who played live above.
You could sometimes hear the cry of birds, and in the accompanying poetry, as well, birds were mentioned. The image was of flight, and, in my head, at least, the birds represented the passage of time. The dancers smoothly went from one part of the work to the next, from fast to slow, from ensemble to solos. I liked the meditative quality that came through the movement and the music, and I liked when the dancers remained in close contact with each other, propelling themselves as a unit. The dancers seemed awfully distant, however, even as they crawled on top of each other. When one dancer smiled, I wondered if it had been a mistake, so serious and composed were their expressions otherwise. I did wish the dancers glanced at each other more often and displayed a tad more individuality and passion. Kelly Del Rosario’s amazing move where he threw himself from standing to hovering millimeters from the ground and then instantly pushed himself up again seemed to be something only he could do, and I loved seeing him convey his uniqueness.
I’d guess that people who know the work of Jenkins well would get the most enjoyment out of “Times Bones,” as they would be knowledgeable about some of the links being made, but I’d also guess that the work was meant to stand on its own, and I think it does.