Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; 17 June 2014

Carmel Morgan

Dance Performance Group

Next Reflex Dance Collective

MOVEIUS Contemporary Ballet

Remember the government shutdown last fall?  If you don’t live in Washington, DC, and you’re not a federal employee, then your memory of that event may have already faded.  But since I was out of work for a rather lengthy period during this congressional standoff in the nation’s capital, I remember it well.  I also remember the impact of not being able to enjoy the Smithsonian museums and the Library of Congress during this time.  How awful to be barred from your job and simultaneously unable to visit these truly wonderful venues despite the extra free time.  I missed at least one Asian film I’d wanted to see at the Freer Gallery of Art, and I also missed a concert by the fabulous Audra McDonald at the Library of Congress.  I was extremely disappointed.

Thankfully, some events were rescheduled once the shutdown ended.  I did get to have my night with Audra McDonald in February, and it was worth the wait.  And on a Tuesday evening in June, well after the shutdown, I got to see a site specific dance performance that had been another shutdown casualty.  “Clean Sweep,” a collaboration by three local dance companies (Dance Performance Group – Artistic Director Nancy Havlik, Next Reflex Dance Collective – Artistic Directors Roxann Morgan Rowley and Erika Schonemann Surma, and MOVEIUS Contemporary Ballet – Artistic Director Diana Movius), was originally scheduled to appear at the Kogod Courtyard, which joins the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, as part of DC’s annual fall dance festival, Velocity DC.  Unfortunately, in light of the government shutdown, the Kogod Courtyard performance had to be cancelled.

Conde Naste Traveler named the Kogod Courtyard as one of seven architectural wonders.  The courtyard is covered in undulating glass and steel, so it’s protected from the elements, and yet you can see the sky, whatever weather it brings.  Light spills in from above.  Smooth water flows in two long, narrow rectangles on the slate gray hard surface of the courtyard, while huge marble planters serve as seating and a home to lush green vegetation.  Red umbrellas and and a small cafe occupy one corner.  Small metal tables are strewn about.  It’s a great place to meet friends, chat, relax.  The acoustics are amazing as well.

As it turns out, late spring may have been a better time for “Clean Sweep.”  I think splashing in water is more inviting in June than October, given the warmer temperatures.  Although the Kogod Courtyard has no rules against walking through its shallow patches of flowing water, most museum patrons avoid it.  Occasionally, children frolic there.  During “Clean Sweep,” the dancers frolicked in the water (they all wore some kind of shoe).  I can’t say that was a surprise.

In the beginning, the three collaborating groups walked together through the water, moving gently as they propelled forward.  Members of each group wore a different color – Dance Performance Group in jade green, Next Reflex Dance Collective in crimson red, and MOVEIUS Contemporary Ballet in a pretty pool blue.  As I admit I hoped would happen, the first group to take their solo turn, the contact improvisation-inspired Dance Performance Group, rolled in, slid across, and smacked the wet surface, showing what fun adults at play can have.  All of the dance groups, in fact, used the water as their stage, although the dancers from MOVEIUS Contemporary Ballet may have come out slightly less wet than the rest.

The three dance companies brought unique movement styles to the space, in addition to their unique colors.  Dance Performance Group and violinist David Shulman conjured a pleasing atmosphere of discovery and abandon.  The music and movement melded in a such a way that the performance felt natural.  The dancers reached, arched, and tumbled like particles in a slow boil.  The two dancers from the Next Reflect Dance Collective, Tina Fratello and Chris Richardson, presented a more tightly choreographed work.  In their duet, accompanied my musicians Nate Masters and John White, they sometimes grabbed wrists and pulled, and other times they were separated by the mini gulf of water between them.  Throughout this section, one felt a palpable dramatic tension.  Only the dancers from MOVEIUS Contemporary Ballet danced to recorded music.  I’d have preferred live music, since the courtyard’s acoustics are so divine, and I’d have preferred anything other than Arvo Part, simply because it seems everyone is dancing to Arvo Part lately.  Nonetheless, the music and movement paired well together, even if the water didn’t feel quite as integral to the dancing as it did during the performances of the other groups.

One of the things I like best about free dance performances in public spaces is watching audience reactions.  Sure, there are always dance fans clustered around, and friends and family, but a free dance performance in a public space usually also attracts random curious folks who just happen upon the event.  That was definitely the case on this Tuesday evening at 5:30 pm.  People mingled, talked quietly, even walked about to get different views.  When the dancing began, once rowdy kids sat still, enrapt.  The more casual atmosphere made the dancing particularly welcoming for people who may not have ever seen contemporary dance up close and personal. It seemed that everyone present was intrigued.  I loved looking up and spying people staring down into the courtyard from one of the museum’s long windows, amazed by the treat of seeing dance take place beneath them.

Maybe the most striking thing to me, other than audience reactions, was noting how the ballet dancers stood out.  Their thin bodies struck gorgeous poses and created lovely lines, but there was something robotic about their stiff spines and their manner of execution.  In my eyes, at least, the dancers of Dance Performance Group and Next Reflex Dance Collective moved with less hesitation and greater sensitivity.  Their movement appeared more continuous and connected, while the ballerinas looked more halting.  On the one hand, I appreciate the beautiful technique of ballet dancers, but on the other hand, I also appreciate the freedom and raw emotion that dancers from other backgrounds more typically display.  The collaboration was an interesting one, full of rich contrasts.  I’m betting the audience learned a lot about their own tastes in dance by watching.