writers on dancing


Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants

"Dance Inspired By Dance"
Daniel Burkholder / The Playground
Millennium Stage North
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
Thursday, September 1, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson

There was commonality and contrast. Both of the Daniel Burkholder pieces that comprised this program referred to the choreographic canon, yet they were refreshingly different. "Horizon Light: an appalachian spring" was, visually, about bodies and the sculptural and dramatic movement they can generate. This work came first and, of course, had the Martha Graham / Aaron Copland / Isamu Noguchi classic in mind. The second piece, "together / apart (we go each our way)" alluded to Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs" which is well on its way to becoming iconic, especially in the videotaped version with Tharp herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov. In this latter Burkholder dance, Chris Dalen's costumes—broad horizontal stripes, loose contours and unisex cuts—negated the bodies that wore them so that the choreographer's emphasis on dynamics and pacing emerged almost as incorporeal energy. Dalen's costumes for the opener were also unisex, but being tighter revealed more about the dancers—including Mr. Burkholder's gain of weight.  

One couldn't help looking for Graham quotes in "Horizon Light" because the music by David Durst and Susan Oetgen often echoed Copland's score for "Appalachian Spring". Near quotes could be found: a bouncy dance passage like that Graham gives her Revivalist's acolytes and, also, something akin to her duet for the Bride and Groom. Burkholder's solo for himself might have been meant both as analog to the Groom's assertive solo and as converse of the Revivalist's demonic one. This solo ended up with Burkholder laughing to himself, at himself. However, he wasn't retelling the Graham story in detail but, rather, seemed interested in conveying America's expansion westward and doing so panoramically with a cast of just 5 dancers. Bodies traveled over bodies. A square dance erupted, one that started in the manner of Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo" more than anything Graham made, but then turned heavy, European peasant heavy. A sequence with marching steps recalled the cross-continental parade of Eugene Loring's "Billy the Kid". Eventually, in Burkholder's saga, America's open spaces disappeared and crowding threatened, so "Horizon Light" wasn't just a school boy's patriotic pageant. The piece did not conclude pessimistically. Burkholder restated some of the earlier movement themes and they, unresolved, in isolation, became questions for what the future will bring.   

Without imitating Graham technique, the movement vocabulary of "Horizon Light" suggested some of that method's plasticity and strength. Burkholder was particularly interesting when he had dancers move into the negative spaces of another dancer's body. Two or three such figures exploring each others contours simultaneously resulted in intriguingly intricate vector groupings. There were also doses of artful dodging with efficient footwork and no-nonsense torso shifts and twists, although the accompanying arm motions sometimes seemed inorganic. The musical score was performed live by two string players (Jodi Beder and Rachel Crane), a pianist (composer Durst) plus a singer (composer Susan Oetgen, who also performed as a dancer). Stefanie Quinones Bass, Andrea Burkholder and Kathleen Coons were the three additional dancers. A spoken text based on William Carlos Williams's "In the American Grain" wasn't always comprehensible despite amplification.

For the Tharp-inspired piece, Burkholder relied less on set choreography and more on improvisation. There were five performers—Stephen Clapp, Kelly Mayfield, Jennifer Clark Stone, Quinones Bass and Burkholder, who credited himself as director rather than choreographer. They moved mostly as pairs or trios responding "spontaneously" to contact. Often the initial contact points were the dancers' heads, then the places that touched traveled down the body until, sometimes, the dancers tumbled. Pivoted partnering occurred too, and these lifts, holds and supports could be thought of as Tharpian by a stretch of the imagination. While some of the actual moves in the encounters may have been improvised, the variations in speed, space used, participant number and choreographic purpose were undoubtedly predetermined.

What emerged in "together / apart" was rather abstract dynamics, with no attempt to paraphrase Tharp's stylishness, irony, nostalgia or gender politics. The Audrey Chen music, which I'd call a sound score, bore little resemblance to Sinatra. If his songs were played, as the printed program implied, then it was in an unrecognizably processed rendition. No one, I suspect, would have associated this Burkholder piece with  Tharp and Sinatra without reading the program notes, whereas the relationship of "Horizon Light" to Graham and Copland was imbedded in its movement and music.

Burkholder's program was the first of this year's three DC dance commissions by the Kennedy Center.

Volume 3, No. 33
September 12, 2005

copyright ©2005 George Jackson



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last updated on August 29, 2005