On paper choreographer Alex Ketley and Carol Snow’s “Syntax…a reading, danced” sounded intriguing enough. But would it translate to the stage? The idea behind the forty minute work was to have Snow, a poet, read a collaged text made from fragments of her own writings and those of other poets ranging from Yeats, Shakespeare, Homer and Apollinaire to Gertrude Stein, Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum. Ketley, a ballet dancer and co-artistic director of The Foundry, was to choreograph Snow’s selections in terms of the text’s grammatical structure. Metaphor, meaning, resonance was to give way to the bones of language where each part of speech has its own basic function. This sounded like looking into a living organism and only focusing on the skeletal structure that held it together.
Ketley devised an elaborate dance vocabulary analogous to verbal language in which each move had its syntactical correspondence. To make it easier for the audience, the printed program provided a code that spelled out the relationship between the moves and their linguistic counterparts: possessive-self touch; noun—starting position; intransitive verb—travel, trailing off; transitive verb—travel to position; apostrophe/address—facing movement; “to be”—shift weight. Most of Ketley’s choices made sense. “Bend back or to side” for an adverb, “lift” for an infinitive are physical expressions of a word’s function within a sentence. Others seemed more random. Why did a negative demand “touching the ground” or a question “unison movement”?
The process sounds synthetic but since “travel” and “lift” can take many forms, there was enough wiggle room to allow for variations. Still appropriate to the age of the cybernet, “Syntax” came to be based on an elaborate theoretical scheme—a web of connections—that was arbitrary but also had a basis in reality. I couldn’t help but think that the co-creators involved themselves in an esoteric glass bead game trying to make sense of our perceptions.
The loosely structured “Syntax”—appropriate to Snow’s assemblage of poetry—was beautifully performed by two ODC dancers, the gorgeous Andrea Flores and Justin Flores (yes, they are partners in life as well). It proved to be an engrossing, eminently playful experience. Not that one always could catch the concordance between language and movement though when one did, it was fun. “Syntax” worked because it handled its premise for the most part deftly and with the lightest of touches. You witnessed the mind at play, bodies at play. The piece skimmed over the top of its elaborate substructure like a dragonfly over a sun speckled pond.
Readings on language and grammar—mostly by Stein—kept the mind focused on the work’s premise and provided transitions between various strophes. They also allowed the dancers to catch their breath from the demands of the fast paced and strenuous choreography. Ketley’s sophisticated use of space—with large scale trajectories complementing piled on formations in which details just about tumbled over each other—nicely contrasted with Snow’s more evenly animated in-place reading. One of the work’s major pleasures also came from witnessing close up two superb dancers working with such commitment and competence on physically and intellectually challenging tasks. And tasks they were. Additionally, “Syntax” illuminated intrinsic differences between language and movement. Snow had created the text from fragments of poems, nonsense rhymes, famous first sentences (“it was a dark and stormy night”), questions (“to be, or not to be”) and well known phrases (“I can not tell a lie”), imposing her own cadences and context—her own syntax-- on this “found” material. Inevitably, this material developed a resonance of its own. Much of it felt like a densely layered tapestry from which you could pick recognizable motives and colors. There was a sense of history and breadth about the language which Ketley’s dance language simply didn’t develop. It lacked the richness of associations. He could vary three ronds de jambe (for three successive nouns) or the quality of traveling moves (verbs) but emotionally the dance functioned within a much more restricted spectrum than the text. Ultimately much of the dancing began to look alike. Most obviously this became an issue in the finale where Snow—after talking about it to the audience—recited Yeats’ “Among School Children”. That’s where the premise broke down. To dance a poem like that in terms of its syntax is counter productive. Restrictions can be quite wonderful but dance here shortchanged itself because, no matter what Yeats says, you can tell “the dancer from the dance.”
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