writers on dancing


Too much? Too little? What is the Question?

"the way to disappear"
Leslie Seiters
848 Community Space
November 7 2004

by Ann Murphy
copyright © 2004 by Ann Murphy

About a month ago, when a band of French presenters came to town, a couple of showcases were whipped together at ODC Theater, allowing a dozen or so companies to present themselves to the theater reps and diplomatic attaches. On its last day I met up with the group at the apartment of Keith Hennessey, when Hennessey, Jess Curtis (both formerly of Contraband) and Krissy Keefer (Dance Brigade) showed work via video. During a break a few presenters confided to me that they were taken aback by dance in San Francisco—that it was so, well, dancey. In France, they said, non-dance is the dance. The most exciting performance in the recent experience of one presenter was of a performer who came on stage and without moving expressed an array of emotion.

The mission, ostensibly aesthetic, was organized by the French government through the diplomatic corps to, as one diplomat present said, "build a bridge again with American dance." When I asked this diplomat if the underlying motive was political, she hesitated and said, no, for us it is aesthetic, but if the consul wants to make something political of it, that is up to him. In the face international fears of unchecked U.S. aggression abroad, and chilly relations between Presidents George Bush and Jacques Chirac, here were the French looking for a nongovernmental route into our nongovernmental psyche. They seemed disappointed not to find greater radicalism hidden here.

Curiously, Russian presenters happened to be passing through around the same time and attended John Jasperse's first Bay Area performance. Although intrigued by and even sympathetic to "California," these presenters nevertheless told Yerba Buena head Ken Foster: we could NEVER bring such dance to Russia-it has too little dance. Clearly, in their eyes, American modern dance is too radical.

There is no moral to the story, although the irony is wonderful. But I decided to use it as my lens as I viewed the work of Leslie Seiters a few weeks later. Did she present too little dance? Too much? (And what, precisely, do such questions even mean?)

In the last night of her run of "the way to disappear" at the alternative space Hennessey, Curtis and others founded called 848 (soon to move to Mission Street), Ms. Seiters used a modest movement vocabulary of what is almost a Bay Area argot of release technique and attenuated postmodernisms to deliver a quiet but beautiful wallop. It was a miniaturist world of intimacy and detachment, presence and non-presence. No doubt the tinyness of the jam-packed space where her show ran for two weekends had something to do with the evening's feel of a delicate miniature. But Ms. Seiters is a trained visual artist as well as a dancer, who works not only in movement but in visual media and conceptual art, and she used the space with ethereal, thoroughgoing sensitivity. There was little that felt decorative or extraneous, largely because she arrayed her material so that each element tightly refracted other parts until the whole shimmered lucidly (with help from lighting designer Sean Riley).

At the top of the stairs, blonde Ms. Seiters and brunette Rachel Shaw danced in a tiny "room" made of four hanging walls of green flowered wall paper. Wearing dresses of the same wallpaper, they performed what resembled a duet by two sonambulists engaged in a dream of appearing and disappearing, which they comically did by shoving one of the back walls over their torsos, letting their legs stick out. A viewer's head occasionally appeared from above, like the head of a puppeteer looking down at her puppets. In the theater itself three women stood eradicating with something chalky three female portraits segmented by rectangles, like the divisions of a mullioned window. In another "room," a stream of words about disappearing were projected onto white paper "walls," while inside a woman cut away the paper. On a far wall was an array of empty picture frames.

Windows, frames, self, hiding, appearing-these motifs began to accumulate thematically. Many pairs of wing-tipped shoes lay on the floor attached by thin strings looped through a pulley and tied to one wall. Christy Funsch took to a swing in an upstage doorway and throughout the evening swung with rhythmic constancy, illuminated by indirect melancholic light. This ceaseless motion had the feeling of memory running through the present.

While one could say that Seiter's vocabulary of lunges, side-bends and contact rolls added nothing new to the local argot, and that even her groupings were familiar from other's choreography, what was moving and original was her organization of these elements. Nuance bubbled up from a duet in which a closed arm fifth position en avant became simultaneously a lasso to hold another person and a vacancy suggesting an absence and void. A dancer pulled away, was yanked back, and sent a corresponding but unpredictable reaction through her partner. Ms. Seiters used empty picture frames with equal power, magically steering away from cliché through her rigorous and poignant entanglements. The terms of her investigation were clear: how does one disappear? What is intimacy and connection? And is it possible to leave/to not leave a trace? Given how resonant this production was, with moody music by Sean Feit, one would have to say: no, not possible.

What would the French and Russians have thought? If they were thinking "too much," "too little" they would have missed the point.

While the work's quiet power evolved over the course of the night, the true potency of the evening resided in how her imagery has endured: The movement, sound and sets, with their wry, melancholic but humane feeling tone remain etched in my skin. That has more substance than all the proclamations about how much or how little movement constitutes a relevant movement piece.

Underlying the idea of "too much" is a belief that dance's lexicon has become meaningless—that a jete, a Graham contraction or a Cunningham side bend have been eroded of significance and should be thrown out. But who would say that middle C or G minor have become worthless sounds? Not even John Cage thought that a particular note should be buried; he knew that what can become meaningless is the arrangement of sounds and perceived silence. Similiarly, what truly matters is how one uses and morphs the movement lexicon and stillness to communicate meaning, not whether the lexicon per se is worthwhile. Beneath the idea of "too little" is a 19th century idea of dance and narrative. But 19th century forms were upturned by the realities of the 20th, whether of engineering marvels that allowed buildings to reach into the clouds or of gas chambers and a-bombs. As contemporary composers know, the past and present are not mutually exclusive terrain, and geographical boundaries, for good and ill, are now almost thoroughly porous, allowing cultures to impinge on one another to an unprecedented degree. Too much? Too little? The real question is: does it hit you? Does its afterimage bury itself in you and take root? That, to me, is the real key to dance worth watching.

Volume 2, No. 45
November 29, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy


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last updated on November 29, 2004