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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Fragile—Engaging, but Slow

K. Kvarnstrom & Co.
San Francisco Performances
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, Caliifornia
October 30, 2003

by Rita Felciano
Copyright ©2003 by Rita Felciano

Watching Fragile, Kenneth Kvarnstromís engagingly physical quintet from 2001, felt like entering a public space full of people whose language you did not understand. While perfectly civil, they were so completely focused on each other that they turned a public into a private event.

In this hour-long discursion of movement possibilites, the Finnish-born Swedish resident, who, starting this January will dissolve his company to take on the directorship of Stockholmís renowned Dansens Hus, invites you to watch but does not seem particularly interested in projecting a unified whole. Given the fact that the performance takes place in a proscenium theater, this may sound like a contradiction in terms. But the work doesnít roll along an identifiable trajectory. Loosely structured, it meanders with the dancers looking to each other for cues, for feedback, for energy. One gets a sense that this process would be going on even if we were not there. There is but the barest sense that Fragile has a beginning and an end. The piece ends with the light (discrete but excellent design throughout by Maria Ros) coming down on a single dancer as if she was trying to finish a phrase not yet completed.

Fragileís fiction is that of a rehearsal: the dancers in rehearsal clothes stroll in, water bottles in hand; they retreat to the sidelines when they are not needed. A stabile-like sculpture (by Carouschka) arches over the performance space like one of those Italian designer lamps that were all the rage in the seventies. Throughout the piece there is a lot watching each other, standing, sitting, reclining. Phrases are repeated; partners exchanged. Two dancers talk to each other on the sidelines. One of them changes his shirt. When itís their turn they step back into the arena. At the end they walk out. The performance style throughout is flat, no crescendos, no inflections, no metaphors, just the tasks at hand. The piece starts in silence— maybe the sound man couldnít find a parking place? At one point the music stopsóunion-required break?--the dance goes on. No matter, the dancersóand weóstill have the steady, somewhat simplistic beat (music by Anders Jacobson and Amon Tobin) in our ears.

A few times Kvarnstrom pokes a hole through this hermetic bubble in the way, as a friend pointed out, that Pina Bausch does, though much more dramatically. First one dancer, then another steps to the apron and pulls a snapshot out, shows it to the audience, then puts it down. One of them picks up a Polaroid, slides into a pin-up pose and snaps her picture. Another repeats the action. At one point they all advance, pictures in hand as if telling us, there is more to me than what you see in front of you. But in the end, they crumple the photos. There is, after all, nothing except the dance and the dancer.†

Almost despite itself Fragile draws you in, precisely because it only focuses on the dancer and the movement. No metaphors, no stories, no symbolic intent. In front of you, you see a group of people, so supremely comfortable with each other that their grounded sensuality is erotic without becoming sexual, if such a thing is possible. These dancers know each others' bodies, and they trust themselves and each other completely. When one of them slides her back along a partnerís, itís a gesture which exudes familiarity with the otherís tension of the skin and the skeletonís support. No wonder these dancers often smile at each other. This intimacy is Fragileís most precious asset; maybe thatís where the piece got its name.

In a pre-performance conversation the night before, Kvarnstrom disclaimed any debt to contact improvisation and expressed a dislike of the form. We have to take him at his word. But some of those spun-out phrases must surely have originated in dancersí trusting their bodies to speak to each other in unexpected ways. Kvarnstrom then carved the results in stone. As a result Fragileis about as fragile as a diamond, transparent, multi-facetted, physical. There is nothing spontaneous about this piece, except the ease with which the dancers engage each other.

More than anything Fragile seems a piece about action and its consequences. Much of it is unexpected. Kvarnstromís silky phrases are full of surprises. Like water that needs to find its own way, twisting and turning, going underground and emerging in unanticipated places, they spin and pull and shoot off in new directions. (Anybody ever having to face a leaky roof will recognized the phenomenon)

A woman dives between the outstretched arms of two dancers, bounces back to rebound to the top of a third, only to twist herself around his waist before shooting off into an independent trajectory. Another woman, after being joyously hoisted up by two men, rolls off them and casually walks across the floor and, without missing a beat, seamlessly steps into a female unison duet. These energy transfers surprise us, they also seem news to the dancers. They repeat the experiment, and, surprise, surprise they get the same result. Conclusion: it must be a law of physics. A woman touches her chest, and melts to the ground. I didnít know that, letís try it. Another takes a photograph of herself and ďfaintsĒ backwards, only to be caught by two arms that lower her to the ground, after which she rolls off and jumps up. Did you know that if you poked the back of a knee, not only does the person crumble, but a shudder goes up his spine all the way to quivering fingers? If you slide onto the stage, lower leg folded along ground, the centrifugal force spins you in a circle. The move returns in a duet for Erik Bildstein-Hagberg and Matthias Ekholm.

Fragile is quite fragmentary in the sense that it is chockfull of phrases that return repeatedly in slightly altered contexts like scientific experiments that have to be replicated, but given the fragility of environments, they cannot exactly be duplicated. The jumbling sections ultimately do coalesce but only to something loosely pinned together rather than into a firmly stitched garment. Maybe thatís why the periodic unisons feel like knots trying to impose stability to these free floating cells.

Somewhat unusual in these PC-colored times† was Fragileís traditional division between male and female roles. While these dancers were unquestionably equal to each other, male/female duets abounded, men did most of the lifting though the women often instigated the actions. The three women, Helena Franzťn, Cilla Olsen and Ina Sletsjoe, also performed solos, the men did not. Yet this sharing of labor in no way impinged on the comfort level of their egalitarian interactions. Gender simply was not an issue. Maybe the Swedes have discovered an easy co-existence between the sexes that has still eludes much of so called on-the-edge dance in this area.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 6
November 3, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Rita Felciano




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