A Zen Koan for the Body, by the Body
Those arms and legs have a mind of their own. And when they came together, well, the possibilities were limitless. The last night of the two-week-long DC 10th International Improv Festival brought a collection of distinctive ingredients together with the kind of impulsive alchemy that prompted Archimedes to shout “Eureka in a bathtub!”
The musical combo—a motley crue comprised of a classically trained pianist turned electronic sound engineer (Alvin Hill Jr.), a jazz accompanist (Jonathan Matis), a synthesizer and recorder experimentalist (Tom Bickley) and the wonderful percussionist Toshi Makihara—began with dissonant, Eastern-perfumed overture, gently folding their spontaneous melodies into a full (if not entirely harmonious), elliptical construct.
Dancers waited in the wings for the inspiration to take, and followed the music center stage; the looks of commitment, intensive listening, and even a little fear, found themselves tightly knotted above their brows.
A pair of women circled each other and embraced at the waist, then, holding hands, fluidly flapped their arms in slowly reciprocating tandem. More dancers joined in, some bent over in an A-line, others twisted together in a web of linked arms and crooked legs, like a Dali painting personified.
This pensive, convoluted imagery was abruptly cut short by the “acting contingent” of the program. A man and woman portraying a brother and sister at their mother’s funeral made for a distracting, unnecessary bit of improv akin to what one may have seen on old episodes of the television show “Who’s Line is it, Anyway?” He had difficulty determining his sexuality and ethnicity (he went from a “sister” to a “sista” over the course), and she played catch-up most of the time.
A disarming pas de trios between a flute, a clarinet and the long-stemmed Claire Elizabeth Barrat provided a seductively alienating effect: they played onstage, pacing back and forth, while she channeled Ann Reinking, slinking in place with legs arching and arms rolling out. It was an unqualified success; our attention moved through the veils of the music, onto the Salome-esque pantomimes.
Another actorly piece with Matthew Gottlieb and Daniel Burkholder was intermittently funny and acrobatic. Gesticulations resembling ring-around-the-rosy and mock-wrestling morphed into skips and tongue in cheek balletic vocabularies. “It was like God,” one of them said. “But it’s not,” replied the other. Almost precious, the segment was bouncy enough to serve itself as the ham that it was.
The most interesting part of the evening was a piece devoted to obsession. Mr Gottblieb portrayed a Hickey Hickman-like proprietor of some kind of mood-altering product that turns an entire household against each other, then dependent on one another. Mr. Hill left his post at the synthesizer board and became a husband just waking up and meeting his wife in the kitchen for some orange juice. The scene unfurled with smoothness but still remained alluringly abstract. Watching performers play off, and with the others, at certain moments demonstrated the graceful symbiosis found in a Balanchine ballet or a Louis Malle movie. They were incandescent together.
The Improv Festival left the audience rapt—some were coaxed into joining in the chemistry. Minds and bodies were at work, at play, and frequently to blissful ends. Mr. Burkholder and his merry men (and women) made simple an art that is as natural but complicated as any in the theatre: they made up the work, on the spot, no less, but didn’t show us the work it took to get there.
Photo: Daniel Burkholder & Sharon Mansur
2, No. 47