The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland
January 29, 2016
After digging out from a recent snow storm, the audience at ODC/Dance’s performance of boulders and bones at the University of Maryland was treated to scenes of more digging, this time in the form of film footage by RJ Muna of noted landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy and his crew hefting and carving stone to make Culvert Cairn, a 2013 private commission in Marin County, California. The roughly hour-long collaboration by choreographers Brenda Way and KT Nelson is full of ideas about the process of creation. In the beginning, a couple resting on their knees at the front of the stage, with the house lights up, stacks thin sticks. They do some solemnly, with great concentration. Behind them is quote from Goldsworthy on a scrim warning the audience that intense activity in a confined space will take place and promising high drama as well as silence. Those warnings and promises and more are fulfilled.
The little pile of sticks is soon unsurprisingly toppled and kicked aside to make way for greater structures and larger dances. The film that opens boulders and bones reveals stones being stacked and moved with machinery. There are men in hard hats, and there is copious dust. Eventually, dancers move from behind scrim. They mimic stones being carried. When the scrim is lifted there is a tunnel-like hole at the back of the stage where cellist Erin Wang, whose shoulders are bare, sits and plays a commissioned score by Zoe Keating. Surrounding Wang, a wall of projections continually changes the atmosphere (lighting/scenic/production design by Alexander V. Nichols). The costumes, too, change throughout the course of the piece, ranging from white ruffled sleeveless tops and dark pants with gathers on the sides, to more familiar looking white shirts with nude bottoms. One dancer, Josie G. Sadan, is given a special role. She stands out from the rest of the 10 dancers, both in her clothing and her solos. Her diaphanous sleeveless top, bra, and briefs shift in color over time, beginning in white and ending in vivid red.
Sadan is a mesmerizing dancer. She brings light and joy to boulders and bones, although the tone of the dancing remains rather serious throughout. I wondered, does Sadan’s role represent an artist or Nature or the object of creation or a muse? I couldn’t quite sort out who or what she was meant to be, but she captured my attention anyway. The entire group of dancers, in fact, was skilled and strong.
As for the dancing itself, in addition to the carrying motif, there are deep leans and a variety of weight sharing exercises between partners that evoke a sense of building tension. I especially enjoyed a section in which pairs of dancers face each other while seated on the floor, wrap around each other, and breathe in unison. They appear to be round rocks from the video, suddenly endowed with human vitality. Picturesque moments abound, and much of the movement has a pure clean quality, like fresh air.
In a moment of awe, from withing the dark hole in which the cellist sits comes a round metal archway and platform on wheels. Propelled across the stage with the assistance of two dancers, Wang comes to rest at a downstage corner of the stage, and the landscape morphs once again. Dust from the initial footage returns, also altering the landscape, as dancers extend limbs through puffs of particles. At one point, the dancers beat out the melody played by Wang with their bodies in a glorious echo. The dancers yield to Wang at another point, letting her music swell and become the focus as they bend over, bottoms in the air, and push rags across the floor, making smears that cast a florescent glow underneath blue lights.
Toward the end, there is a projection of fiery rain. Orange dashes run like water behind the dancers, who wear flowing costumes of see-through white, the women with undergarments of light blue and sea foam green beneath. The dancers themselves finally come through the dark hole at the back of the stage. Men swing the women widely. One female, grasped by her ankles, is swung around so that her hair sweeps the floor in a vast arc.
Visually, the performance hits many high notes, and Keating’s score has a pulse that keeps the work interesting. It’s debatable, however, how successfully the choreography pays tribute to Goldsworthy’s genius and the concepts of nature, art, and the manipulations of time. Nonetheless, boulders and bones is undisputedly beautiful to behold, and Sadan is a dancer who begs to be watched.