Where would modern dancers be without a wall to butt against? Artists who define themselves as rebels need a tradition, like a wall, that they can assault and dismantle, so they can take up residence amid the ruins.
Choreographer Ann Carlson and her collaborators remind us of this fact in “Elizabeth, the dance,” a provocatively humorous work that the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company of Salt Lake City presented on March 28 at Montclair State University. Performances at the Alexander Kasser Theater will continue through March 31.
At the outset, the wall stands at center stage, a calcified fortress made of Styrofoam blocks. Arranged in piles, six dancers slumber cozily below. Gradually they awake, perform a sunrise meditation, and then gleefully begin another day’s work laying siege to the wall, in the process deconstructing and reconstructing their own history. Because — here’s the rub — the tradition modern dance usurps doesn’t end with corseted ballerinas and toe dancing. Each generation of libertines becomes the next generation’s tight-lipped oppressors. Each innovation devolves into a stale convention. And it seems there’s just no way that “modern” and “post-modern” dance can avoid growing old and turning against itself.
So we can take Carlson’s own description of “Elizabeth” as an “homage” to her teachers with a grain of salt. True, the piece is filled with historical references, which, in this fluid and wonderfully inventive romp, are more often suggestions than quotations. Seated atop plinths, three witches hunch and claw the air, conjuring the memory of Mary Wigman’s “Hexentanz.” Gathered in a circle on tip-toe, with arms around one another’s waists, Carlson’s group evokes the communal spirit of José Limón. They assume a taut, angled posture not exactly like a denizen of Martha Graham’s “Steps in the Street,” and they pit the lonely heretic against the group. They fall and recover.
Yet Carlson’s affection for her forebears is never distant from satire. A child reads from Doris Humphrey’s guidebook, “The Art of Making Dances,” in a halting voice, making the instructions sound silly (“Avoid In-tel-lec-tualism”). Duncan dancers swoon, and with a languid shove they topple the wall’s latest manifestation as a pair of phallic towers. Hilariously, a ballet dancer rehearses her death scene over and over but, as we know, classical ballet itself refuses to expire.
Then, before the past becomes the present and Carlson is obliged to point out the foibles of her own generation, the choreographer switches from the particular to the general. Modern dancers, she tells us, are like shamans, crouching in a ritual circle and stuffing their faces with sacramental vegetables. In contrast to the lascivious clowns who grab each other’s bumps (presumably a reference to the U.S. Senate), modern dancers shed their clothes and proudly celebrate their bodies. Most importantly, modern dancers are sentient, empathic beings who reflect our own complicated emotions back at us with delicacy, humor and a touch of grandeur. It’s all true.
And yet, will it ever be possible for modern dance to move beyond its infatuation with youth? Can modern dancers ever learn to value the past for itself, rather than as a prelude? Would the Peak Performances series ever feature a retrospective?
This evening ends with a tongue-in-cheek chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” and a popcorn party in which the audience is invited onstage to join in the irreverent fun.
The hints of bygone glory scattered through “Elizabeth, the dance,” nonetheless, have led us to hope for an art of dance that does not only look forward, but also can look backward with wonder and joy.
Performances continue March 29 at 7:30 p.m., March 30 at 8 p.m. and March 31 at 3 p.m.; visit peakperfs.org.