writers on dancing


Deceptively Casual

David Dorfman Dance
Eugene & Elinor Friend Center for the Arts
Jewish Community Center
San Francisco, California
December 10, 2005

by Rita Felciano
copyright ©2005 by Rita Felciano 

At the end, left alone in David Dorfman’s haunting “Lightbulb Theory,” Jennifer Nugent’s formerly energetic flailings and “hep” calls sputtered like a car running out of gas. And I couldn’t sure whether her “hep” had muted into “help” or “hope.” That’s the kind of ambiguity that Dorfman has thrown around for twenty years. The more astounding it is that it took his David Dorfman Dance company two decades to make its Bay Area debut.

Dorfman’s deceptively casual choreography looks as if it had been thrown together by a bunch of hyperactive kids. But this adrenaline-charged physicality is but the cover to lure us into looking at issues of moral complexity that never quite rise to the surface but whose bubbling presence give his work its solid underpinning. The two pieces at this premiere concert, “See Level” in addition to “Lightbulb,” felt like looking at gorgeous facades whose windows hide as much they reveal.

Just to make sure that we do look beyond the sheer attractiveness of his dancers’ joyous cavorting, Dorfman spelled out the metaphors which underlay these works. In “See Level,” a Dorfman figure (Paul Mattheson) verbally instructs his dancers to imagine their bodies as being adjoining nations. In “Lightbulb” the question is raised whether it’s better for a light to flicker and then die or simply to go out. In some ways, I felt that Dorfman could have trusted us to figure out these pieces without his hints. At the same time the images elicited admiration for his ability to draw so much resonance from the mundane.

Infusing the dancing with verbal banter also undercut the idea of performance as a formalized event, creating the illusion—already present in the movement—that these dances were not controlled but social get togethers or rehearsals for something that might or might not happen sometime in the future. Among many other things, the work is also a humorous take on dance making.

“See Level” opens with the four dancers (Mattheson, Heather McArdle,  Nugent and Joseph Poulson) in Naoko Nagata’s white jump suits barely visible behind a frumpy piece of plastic that hung from the top of stage frame. Torn down it becomes an engulfing. Trying to follow “choreographer” Mattheson’s instructions result in hefty and at times raucous encounters that has the dancers tumble and trip but also in voluptuous rolls and cantilevered lifts. Much of the choreography probably derived initially from contact improvisation.

At one point Nugent, hopping up and down like a kid nagging for a chocolate, challenges Mattheson to imagine her inside him. The slightly dumbstruck Mattheson tries to oblige, first by coming up with rather knobbly phrases and then, to flatter her, with precisely placed gestures and luxuriously long stretches. At that point Nugent already had lost interest and was trying to get underneath his skin.

Drawing the dancers out of their self-absorption was Samuael Topiary’s excellent video design. At  first it consisted of shimmering blue squares on that awkward looking frontispiece of plastic. In addition to projecting mirror images of continents rubbing against each, Topiary created a series of ocean derived videos, sometimes literal sea shores with lapping waves but also dark sea walls full of  mysterious movement, and a sense of  underwater life. Every once in a while the dancers were magnetically drawn to these ominous water images, only to go back to their games of attraction and repulsion. Chris Peck’s excellent score of  scratchy sounds and revving motors had a similarly threatening ebb and flow to it. Beautifully danced by this quartet of highly individualistic yet excellently coalescing performers, “See Level” owes much of its effectiveness to its collaborating artists.

For “Lightbulb” the dancers appeared in casual orange/brown outfits (McArdle and Adele Twig), looking like college kids with too much time on their hands. After Dorfman’s ecstatically whirling prologue which yanked his back to the floor even as his fluttering fingers and embracing arms pulled him upward, the casualness of the quartet’s opening kick line came almost as a shock. Part folk dance, part cheerleading, its performers seemed aware of their giddy silliness but also unwilling to stop. When Mattheson first tripped, you didn’t quite know whether it was an accident or a forewarning of things to come.

The choreography is full of these seemingly accidental encounters in which dancers tumble over each other or get hoisted aloft by a hip and roll over a back because it happens to be there. They yell and holler, challenging each other with Mattheson the odd man out, unable to quite to keep up with all that hollering and yelling frivolity. Most intriguing were the duets in which no matter who hopped, shook or twisted with whom, the dancers partnered solicitously and yet remained themselves. Dorfman’s are exceptionally attractive performers.

Michael Wall’s delicately sparkling piano strums and plucks for “Lightbulb” sounded like an outside observer’s comment; his rendering of “Moon River” seemed like a gift to gently push Nugent into her final solo. Josh Epstein’s set of vertically tied together light bulbs shone with brilliant simplicity. After Dorfman’s yearning arms had reached for them for the last time, someone backstage pulled a string,  and the bulbs flew off into space like dancing, escaping souls.

First: The company in "Lightbulb theory."
Second: Paul Matteson and company in "See Level." Video still by Star Reese.

Volume 3, No. 46
December 12, 2005

copyright ©2005 Rita Felciano



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last updated on December 12, 2005