The Museum of Arts and Design has a new series this year, dedicated to exploring the intersections of the fine arts and dance. Called Dance Under the Influence, its stated purpose is to serve as a venue where choreographers may show dances inspired by visual arts. Tonight, in the penultimate performance this spring, audiences will be able to watch new work by Ron Brown, Sean Curran, and Nelida Tirado.
Last month, in the second performance of the series, the relationship between the two art forms was not particularly explicit. Of the three choreographers (Miro Magloire, Ben Munisteri, and Michelle Wiles), only Munisteri cited particular works that inspired his piece. What emerged instead — in both the dance works shown and the discussion after the performance — was a reflection on space in dance and and other visual and performing arts. The stage the choreographers had to work with was tiny, only eight feet deep and twenty feet wide: in this nearly two-dimensional space, the choreographers had to figure out how to create the illusion of depth. It was not unlike the challenge painters have, said Magloire (artistic director of the New Chamber Ballet): to flatten something from three to two dimensions, while still retaining a sense of liveliness, of depth and movement, is difficult, but not impossible.
Magloire’s first piece, created for two dancers (Lauren Toole and Katie Gibson), was inspired by materials used in many works at MAD. Called Bronze & Iron, it began as dancer (Gibson) entered onstage in silence; she held a bar of iron in front of her as she took slow, deliberate steps en pointe in profile that brought her from one side of the stage to the other. Soon, Lauren Toole appeared, holding a tiny bronze bowl in her hands. Though without musical accompaniment, the piece nevertheless achieved a sort of internal rhythm, and the dancers, preternaturally composed, drew music from the silence. They created a believable world onstage, making me forget the limits of the space in which they danced.
Toccatina, like Bronze & Iron, took advantage of the space by scaling back on sound and movement. The piece was set to an incredibly quiet solo for violin by Helmut Lachenmann (played by Eric Gibson); the stage was almost entirely dark with a light on one dancer (Katie Gibson), seated on a high stool, and wearing a long black dress. As the violinist began to play, Gibson spidered her fingers up her arm, plucking at the air when percussive notes sounded.
For his second piece, Magloire re-imagined his ballet Silk (an expansive work for three dancers) as a spatially and temporally condensed version for only two dancers. Unlike Bronze & Iron, which was perfectly suited to the space, Silk for 2 felt restricted by the small size of the stage. The bigger movements here mostly served only to remind me of the limitations with which Magloire was working; the smaller ones were repeated often enough that even the most innovative (as when the dancers, their bodies teetering slightly, opened and closed their forearms on unexpected musical cues) began to lose their potency towards the end of the piece.
In Tiny Cellar Ben Munisteri chose to eschew Magloire’s pared-down aesthetic. His choreography, inspired by the texture and color of works such as jewelry artist Rami Abboud’s “Omnipotent” and structure of those like Anni Albers’ “Meander“, audaciously shuttled no fewer than 15 dancers onto the small stage. Amazingly, the stage never seemed crowded — in fact, there were times when the great number of dancers seemed, incongruously, to open up the space. In one section, for example, a few dancers wove through a crowd — on a shallow diagonal, downstage to upstage — thus creating the illusion of depth. He also included carefully balanced lifts, which created another spatial plane with which to work.
I’m not quite sure what Michelle Wiles’ rendition of The Dying Swan has to do with the visual arts, though her practical concerns about the space were interesting to hear and reminded me of the ballet’s legacy: Anna Pavlova danced the piece all over the world, often adapting to less-than-ideal stages. Yet Wiles’ interpretation of this iconic dance was a bit too pretty — too refined a death. I wonder if her dancing would change in a larger space: maybe she thought a death with broken lines and jagged elbows too ugly for so intimate a space.
For more information on Dance Under the Influence and other exhibitions at the Museum of Arts and Design, check out MAD’s website.