Back about 100 years ago, when choreographers were busy trying to figure out what modern dance would be, they spent a lot of time throwing things out. No ballet (too aristocratic), no music hall or vaudeville (too common), no romantic music (too sappy)—modern dance was serious stuff. But in the century since, everything tossed out as irrelevant has been embraced and re-integrated—though sometimes with an ironic twist. Modern dancers are shameless cross-trainers, sampling martial arts, movement therapy, and spiritual practices along with a mix of more conventional dance styles.
The ballet influences in the work of a choreographer like Zoe Scofield are tempered with gestures far removed from that tradition. The hyperflexible extensions in Old Girl, which she performed this past weekend at Northwest New Works, looked like a production of Giselle cast with giraffes—beautiful and very strange. And the virtuosity that Vancouver, B.C.’s 605 Collective brought to Audible came as much from gymnastics as breakdancing, as they hurled themselves at each other.
The temptation with all this freedom is to say “yes” to everything—to the movement invention, the voice-over text, the film, the costume pieces, the crates full of props, the meta-narrative, and the witty asides. But then, the effort to keep all the elements moving can mean losing the dance in the bigger patterns.
The live trio performing in Jürg Koch’s ab:from/to at the Studio Theater Showcase this past weekend were fabulous movers, or at least they were when I was looking at them. But the two films running on the upstage wall and the voice-over describing the actions of “A” and “B” kept dragging my attention away. And although the crowns and poufy dresses in Always Merry and Bright, performed the festival’s first weekend by the Portland group Hot Little Hands, were charming evocations of long-ago princess parties, the thoughtless cruelty of the group picking on a hapless outsider was undercut by the pop-up books and party favors.
It’s not that I think all theatrics should be ditched—some of the festival’s most charming moments were “performed” by props or ghosts. The pair of shoes that seemed to walk on their own, following Beth Graczyk in Salt Horse’s Man on the Beach, were a poignant suggestion of a missing person. And when the projection of a cat that seemed to hover over Amelia Reeber in this is a forgery finally pounced on cue, it was the perfect exclamation point at the end of that tour-de-force solo.
Sometimes the clutter is the point—Jeppa Hall as Queen Shmooquan and Helsinki Syndrome tied for the “most props” award this year. Hall brought the widest variety with her BMX bike, roller skates, and rubber chickens, but Helsinki used wading pools filled with Mylar confetti, which automatically makes it harder to clean up. Helsinki also included an ambitious live Skype conversation with a cast member in London, but that didn’t really do anything that a prerecorded tape couldn’t have done.
Despite the excitement of technology or the happy clutter of props, it’s on the level of the human body that dancing reaches us most powerfully. And the works that let bodies be bodies were the most successful in the festival. In the newest installment of their Finding Home series, Aiko Kinoshita and Aaron Swartzman left the tchotchkes behind, and as they struggled to connect with each other, negotiating in their shared space, we learned more about them, and about ourselves, than any collection of stuff can teach, no matter how shiny. That’s what can happen when you say “yes” to the dancing and “later” to everything else.