At what point does dance spill over into theater, comedy, or poetry?
Barnard/Columbia Dances—an annual performance now in its 11th season that is produced by the Barnard dance department in collaboration with New York Live Arts and performed by Barnard and Columbia students—explored this very question.
The performance featured new work by three contemporary choreographers, along with a reprise of Mark Morris’ “Canonic 3/4 Studies.”
The evening began with “Amdo,” choreographed by Molissa Fenley. The piece is excerpted from Fenley’s larger work-in-progress, “Water Table,” of which this is the seventh part. Fenley writes that the Amdo region is home to the largest lakes on the Tibetan Plateau. The performance attempts to evoke the plateau and to dance in celebration of the abundance of water.
The stage opens bathed in cold blue light. Four dancers in pearly grey jumpsuits enter. The effect is of a blue-gray seascape, cold and serene. The movements are staccato, segmented—almost industrial at moments. The dancers are joined by another four and, accompanied by a stampede of drumbeats, they begin to walk in lockstep. They fluidly move in and out of mirrored gestures and bring their palms before their faces, which seems more defensive than mimetic. With arms at precise angles, the dancers are sharp like swimmers, slicing through a current. The effect is of a perfect synchronicity—at once clinical and serene.
The dancers are accompanied by a soundscape both industrial and ambient, an original composition by Icelandic electronic musician Úlfur Hansson. It simultaneously is like the sound of a helicopter descending, a static clicking, and a quiet humming. There are two moments where the dancers move in silence. The effect is one of pure density—of movement through thick air, or through the weight of water.
Caitlin Trainor’s “Cosmorama” is a more playful, organic exploration of the kinetic moment. It begins with an ensemble of 11 performers, charmingly candy-striped in red-and-white petaled dresses—the mini-skirt descendants of Loie Fuller’s 20th century skirt dances—under evocative red lights. Overall, Trainor’s ensemble produces the effect of a whirling dervish or playground game.The piece is deeply gestural. The dancers split into pairs and explore the spaces they create, crawling under legs, entering into playful relations with one another’s bodies; they create wholes together, to be locked and unlocked. The score is equally colorful: marimba, xylophone, a series of staccato drum beats, wind chimes, a school bell that rings and rings.
“Cosmorama” is about clocks, as much as anything else. The dancers repeat a memorable motif: They each use their arms to create the face of a clock, which, once disturbed by another dancer, is ruptured and falls apart. Another recurring motif is the performers’ forming the arms and feet of synchronized clocks, ticking away time.
Finally, Trainor orchestrates a synchronized exodus of all 11 performers across the stage. The ensemble forms a path for a single performer to walk—as if floating 6 feet above the ground—step-by-step across the stage. As she nears the audience, she falls, and the ensemble dissolves into movement.
The third piece, choreographed by Alexandra Beller in collaboration with the dancers, stole the show. “Art is as is, and as it is not” can be described as a set of surrealist exercises in intimacy and groupthink. It is rollicking fun. The piece opens with five performers lined up before the audience, elaborately costumed. Among the ensemble, there is a sparkly silver jumpsuit, a black leather mini-dress, an argyle sweater with very little else, a pair of “shorter-alls,” and an outfit that easily could’ve been thieved from Popeye’s Olive Oyl. Together, syllable by syllable, they improvise a sentence of nonsense on the spot, while, behind them, a projection shows the words as they emerge—typed out, erased, rewritten onto a blank word file.
Using movement, projections, and ensemble outbursts, “Art is as is, and as it is not,” lampoons the lingo spouted in dance classes and academic classes alike. The performers take turns narrating, in the caricatured style of radio announcers, the ensemble’s movements using the exact vocabulary one assumes the choreographer used to teach them the sequence. Each movement becomes a caricature, a pop-culture reference, a song lyric. Periodically, the ensemble interrupts itself to present mid-dance commentary on the dance itself—e.g., “This dance is a geopolitical landscape of Otherness”, “This dance is bullshit,” plunging the dance into new terrain. In Beller’s piece, one is immersed in a world of spontaneous free association—paying witness to the evolution of an idea.
Finally, Mark Morris’ “Canonical 3/4 Studies,” while comedic, charming, and cleverly composed, cannot help but disappoint after the festivity and innovation of the earlier performances. While watching it, one cannot help but be drawn to the ghost of the disco ball (featured in the previous performance), which lingers onstage with a sparkle.