The Peripatetic New Yorker
Perfect Counterpart

The Partita Project
Lisa Kraus
Meeting House Theatre
Community Education Center
May 21, 2006

by Nancy Dalva
copyright ©2006, Mary Cargill

Out the right-hand window of the Metroliner that connects New York to Philadelphia, there is a wonderful moment when the train crosses a bridge over the Schyukill River, and scullers come into view, looking just as Thomas Eakins painted them. Expected, and wonderful. Not long after, there’s an unexpected and strange vista to the left: crumbling cement retaining walls backed by vivid green fields, and beyond, gray towers angling against a blue sky. Downtown Philadelphia, glinting in the light and looking for all the world like Oz. At such a sight, the spirit quickens, as it did on my last trip into the City of Brotherly Love. I was off to see "The Partita Project;" and in this work by Lisa Kraus I encountered courage, heart, brain, and beauty, too.

Lisa Kraus began dancing at the age of six with Jane Dudley, a former Martha Graham dancer, and then took classes at the Graham school, and at the Merce Cunningham studio. At summer camp, she danced with the fabled James Waring. At Bennington, she studied with Judith Dunn and Steve Paxton, and on graduating moved to new York and joined the Trisha Brown Dance Company, where for six years she absorbed the repertory and created roles in three works. (Recently, she set one of these—the wonderful dance called “Glacial Decoy”–on the Paris Opera Ballet. I was lucky enough to see it, and it was beautiful, and true.) She then appeared with other choreographers, and founded a company of her own. Each of her dancers from that era is now a well known choreographer: John Jasperse, Meg Stuart, and Sasha Waltz. (You might want to keep your eye on the dancers in The Partita Project — I certainly will — because Kraus has a clear track record here.)

Out of all this history, you can see most clearly the Trisha in the Lisa: the dissolves, the cantilevering, the partial falls, the retrograde recoveries, and the call and response from one body part to another, and one dancer to another; and, too, the wit. However, she takes that style and carries it someplace else — back, if you will, to the future. For where Brown would leave a phrase unfinished, in that loopy and ineffable way of hers that makes everything vanish, Kraus offers completion, just as Bach does. However long her phrases, they have real endings. There is a poetry in this. Her forms are elastic, but they are indeed forms. An arm may waft out propelled by a force that travels up from the opposite leg, but it doesn’t drop; the movement doesn’t deplete itself, because it isn’t traveling on a finite energy supply. Rather, it gathers itself in and recovers that energy, the way a line of poetry does when it comes to a full stop, no matter how it has meandered, and no matter what the terminal punctuation, or even implied punctuation.

In 2000, after working at Naropa in Colorado, and then spending a decade in The Netherlands at the European Dance Development Center, Kraus returned to the United States, and began working first in hospice and later in elder care, leading recreational activities. Though these activities are not evident in any overt content in her work, she has written that “these experiences marked me by dissolving a notion I’d long held–that with my ‘elitist’ orientation to dance, that is always being pre-occupied with non-mainstream ideas and continuing on from the line of the Judson Church experimentalists, what I do could never be compelling for a group of people who knew nothing about those things. Not true. Reading the newspaper became theater. Looking someone straight in the eye and listening to them became the most precious thing I could do. “ This part of her experience is indeed evident in her current work. “The Partita Project opens with a long solo for Kraus, who is seated in the center of a room lit by lovely neo-classical chandeliers designed by Michael Biello, who cantilevers and tilts them over a rectangular performing space. Along the front, there are tiers of seats. To the sides, rows of chairs seat the dancers when they are off stage, and more onlookers. The effect is intimate, as at a private concert.

Stage center, a chair with a lyre back–nothing extraneous in this detail, as it echoes the Rilke text that will be Kraus’s script–sits on a small oriental carpet. Kraus is gently and gracefully collapsed there, seated on the rug with her her head cradled on her arms on the seat of the chair. She is a study in white and taupe silk, and white skin and taupe-ish curls her feet shod in charming suede court shoes that look touchingly worn. Her red lipstick is not only a spot of color, it is a spot of drama. Her simple tank top and trousers seem timeless, and so, too, does she. She is playing a character who is herself, but also somehow someone other. There’s something reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty about her, and even more of the girl in “Spectre de la Rose.” Timeless, and artful, yet artless. She begins to speak, saying “Eyes shut. Eyes open.” Then she begins whispering, in German, from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus.” Her monologue morphs into movement — a ballerina remembering what it was to perform; and thence into a lecture about Bach and his partitas. Somehow, she is not only telling about the composer, but evoking someone important to him, one feels. She is a narrator, and she is also a player, a participant, a figure out of some inner vision and apprehension about Bach’s life at the time he composed the music that soon will fill the room.

Double and redouble; point and counterpoint; part and counterpart; layer on layer; past and present convergent: this Kraus’s choreographed response to the violin partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach. In performance, these are played, and riffed on, by the violinist Diane Monroe, whose musical activities range from traditional to contemporary, and include original and improvised works. (Like Kraus, she is currently on the faculty of Swarthmore College, and pursues a crowded performing schedule. Her web site, should you want to learn more about her work, is For “The Partita Project,” Monroe combines her pellucid classical line with her jazz artistry, responding to the music as she plays it, and also responding to the music as the dancers embody it. The entire construct is like a conversation: layered dialogues. Bach and Kraus, Monroe and Bach, Monroe and Kraus, and also, in sympathetic response, “The Partita Project” and its audience. There is an cumulative sense of all this as the music and dance build together, deeply winding us into their twined architectures. A total sense of something complex and wonderful and real, yet utterly ephemeral. Poignant then, the way dance is. The way life is.

Kraus did not choreograph the work with Monroe. It was made first, to the Bach alone. In following the deep structures of his music, she has found the way to wind back the choreographic clock but keep her identity intact. You see the Brownian, and, if you will, the Bachannte. You see the structures of court dancing ,with a bow to the square dance that would later evolve from it. (This might remind you, in passing, of Balanchine’s similar connecting of the baroque and the country, in his “Square Dance,” to Vivaldi and Corelli”). Kraus has effectively become a time traveler, transporting herself back to the day in which Bach made this music — and made it to be danced to. Her fidelity is itself courteous in the deepest sense, and courtly, yet contemporary. Her response is also emotional and heart-felt–or so one feels with one’s own heart, watching this work transpire over about an hour, in harmonious correspondence to the music, with intimacy and whimsicality. Contemplative, yet spontaneous. Elastic, yet formal. And utterly attentive.

Indeed, attentiveness might be the key attribute of “The Bach Partitas.” Dancers to dancers (there are four women and one man, wearing contemporary black and white costumes that evoke the baroque in glancing visual allusion); and, as stated, choreographer to composer, performer to choreographer, musician to composer and so forth. Most of all though, the attentiveness of Lisa Kraus to J.S. Bach — to his music, the time in his life at which he wrote it, to the state of mind you can intuit in listening. In wonderful complement, you meet Bach in this dance, and Kraus in this music.

Sometimes their counterpoint is implied, with Kraus weaving her dance over or under the continuous line of the music. Thus, for instance, she follows a long phrase in the Chaconne by twining her dancers over the musical phrase in fluid progression, so that the movement, while passing from one to the next, does not end until Bach’s phrase does. In other words, two or three or four or five dancers may perform a single musical line , as relay runners run a single race, passing the baton one to the next.

That is perhaps the most invisible of the Kraus structural correspondences to the Bach. At other times, as one note’s resonance joins the next note played and then both join the next note still, until three notes hang together in the air as a single chord, the dancers respond in kind, joining in trio. Then as the dancers jointly embody the architecture of an arpeggio, Monroe reiterates the chord in exultant declamation, first playing two notes together, and finally adding a triumphant third note. The airs filled with resonance, as does the ear. And the mind.

You also see canon, fugue, and the constant or near-constant variation in the number of voices, which here are not voices but dancers. Sometimes they dance singly but in unison; sometimes they dance separately but together, because they are hearing the same music; sometimes two take up one voice, and three another. They are Meg Foley; Jaamil Kosoko, Melissa Putz, Renee Robinson-Buzby, and Josie Smith. They perform as themselves; there is no acting in this dance; and yet, they convey a dancerly narrative that builds as the music winds its way into the Chaconne and through danced called Monroe, Preludio, Sarabande Double, Gigue, and Party Game. (This last is a game of musical chairs, entirely spontaneous.) At one moment, one dancer sits in air, making her body into a chair; another reclines on her, and then another, with her arms reaching forward. Reclining back, reaching forward. That is the movement in this piece, and its overarching construction. It ends with another doubling, as one of her dancers settles into repose just as Kraus was settled at the beginning. “Here I am,” she seems to say. “I have been dancing in this piece all along. I dance as my dancers.” Sitting to one side, she has been watching along with us. A part of her dance, and a part of us, as well. Her unaffected and lucid presence, her lovely clearness, recalls contemporary descriptions of the Italian actress Eleanora Duse, who rather than paint her face with rouge, would actually blush. In other words, she not merely seemed real, she was real. Here is part of an entry on Duse from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britttanica, Vol. VII, that I will borrow here to evoke Kraus for you: “Her art depended on intense naturalness rather than on stage effect; sympathetic force or poignant intellectuality rather than...theatrical emotionalism.” The result of that is the same now, as then: real calls to real. We respond in kind.

Lisa Kraus plans to continue “The Partita Project” over the next two years, first presenting performances “in historic and alternative spaces,” and then in a repertory version with a consortium of Philadelphia area colleges. I would hope, too, to see this project take to the road, so that you might see it. Meanwhile, I’ll be traveling back to Philadelphia. I’ve been drawn inside this work, and I want to revisit the self I am when I am with it. Another doubling then. Part, and counterpart. This is one of the ways to dwell in possibility: to dwell in a work of art.

The photos are stills from a video by Carmella Vassor Johnson.

Note: Nancy Dalva is traveliing. Her letter will resume when she returns.

Volume 4, No. 22
June 5, 2006

copyright ©2006 Nancy Dalva



©2006 DanceView