By Julia Clausen
Last Friday, the Barclay hosted a performance by local Orange County contemporary ballet company, Backhausdance, for the third year in a row, and it demonstrated both the failings and the promise of the evolving style of contemporary dance.
The small, 14-year-old company debuted not just one, but four entirely new works of contemporary dance – two by founder and artistic director Jennifer Backhaus, and two by guest choreographers, Yin Yue of China and Ido Tadmor of Israel.
Such an ambitious feat, however, came with consequences, and unfortunately, the audience could tell the works were only recently completed.
In particular, during the concluding piece “Hive” by Jennifer Backhaus the dancers rarely stopped to relish in the present movement, but were always visibly rushing into the next. Their faces strained with the effort of remembering the nearly half-hour piece.
“Live Life Backwards,” the short opening piece, tried to paint a satirical picture of something, but it was too vague to comprehend and ultimately uninteresting.
“Breach,” a piece by guest choreographer Yin Yue, felt like a copy of a copy, imitating all the stylistic conventions of contemporary dance without any of the substance.
The stand-out performance of the evening was “Black Morning” by choreographer Ido Tadmor. The piece began in silence – six women in black dresses slowly stepping forward and stretching their limbs in unmistakable grief. They appeared to be muttering something. Their mouths formed words, but no sounds came out, and the audience felt the loss of voices.
The staged was stripped of all its furnishings – backdrop, colored lights, wings to hide the lights on either side of the stage. The setting had no warm light or flowing fabric, giving the entire ballet a barren and bleak aesthetic.
The movement of the six mourners continued to build until a dirge-like song began to play, and four men in cargo pants and colored t-shirts entered the stage. A harsh and repetitive drum beat layered itself over the top of the lyrical music, and the male dancers formed a box, marching to the drum. They were soldiers, and the audience knew they were going to die.
Perhaps it is a grand generalization to assume that every choreographic work by an Israeli is about war, but “Black Morning” certainly was.
What made the piece impressive was that it wasn’t afraid of stillness. In the midst of all the eerie chaos of “Live Life Backwards” and the almost constant ebb and flow of “Breach” and “Hive,” “Black Morning” was patient enough to pause on a single moment like a living photograph, giving the audience enough time to grasp its weight.
Two such images stood out. First, as the scene transitioned from the women’s heavy lament to the men’s marching, two women remained behind. One rolled along the floor heavily, and one took slow, painful steps. They took several minutes to leave the stage, and all the while, the men were marching, marching in their box to the beat of the drum. As the two women passed by, they missed the soldiers by inches, and it was agonizing.
Second, in one of the final moments of the piece, the women repeated the movement from the opening scene, but this time to music. The audience has now watched the soldiers fall away in an abstract sort of battle, almost as a flashback or time jump, and returned to the scene of mourning.
The scene continued to build until all the women were lying on their backs in diagonal lines. There was a sharp, collective intake of breath and then voices. All the silent mutterings became words, and soon the women were each shouting unintelligible words of their own grief into the air. The women stayed this way, shouting but not moving, for nearly a minute.
Both of these moments felt present in themselves. They did not hurry on to next big trick, but instead they seemed to exist independently of the rest of the choreography. They felt purposeful, and their stillness gave them their power.
The contemporary genre is unique in its capacity for non-movement. While every style, from classical ballet to hip hop, has its conventions, contemporary dance exists to continuously create and break its own rules. A piece of this kind can purposefully stop moving to create space between the phrases and add its own meaning. Stillness can express a whole range of emotions which, often times, motion cannot.
Thus, the other three new works looked particularly anxious and uncertain in contrast to the quiet confidence of “Black Morning,” and it was for that reason, primarily, that the show generally fell short of its potential.