The trick to watching abstract dance is being willing to take it all in without having to know exactly what’s happening. You’re not alone if you’ve ever remarked, “I liked it, but I’m not sure I got it…” In general, leaving the theater asking, What did I just see? is a good thing, while leaving with a nagging, Why was this even made? is not.
Szalt and Anna Conner’s split bill at Velocity Dance Center last weekend presented two works with many similarities: precise, high-caliber movement, abstract imagery, poetry and moody sound scores among them. Because of these similarities, the driving motivation, or lack thereof, in each piece becomes the distinguishing factor.
Szalt, a company out of Los Angeles led by director/dancer Stephanie Zaletel, presented Marshmallow Sea. The piece begins in layers as the audience chats and gets seated: a wide swath of tousled white fabric lays diagonally across the stage when we enter, then the sound of waves begins, then a dancer falls abruptly into the space, lying still for a long time. This luxurious sense of time continues throughout the piece, and it’s clear Szalt isn’t shy about duration—it takes nearly 10 minutes for the fallen dancer to roll over and another lengthy three to watch the fabric swath inch off stage. Not until the entrance of the second dancer, soloist Lindsey Lollie, do we finally settle into audience mode.
Lollie moves with a cultivated strangeness—her weight slightly shifted back, her eyes slightly detached from her actions. Her movements are sometimes abstracted tasks, like parting a curtain or carrying a vase. Other times she’s reminiscent of a newborn fawn, flailing and collapsing with highly choreographed precision. The other dancers eventually join, their skill displayed in fast-paced snippets of choreography that push the tempo to exciting and difficult speeds, all while maintaining clarity of movement. These quick moments create essential dynamics in the pacing of a work that features a lot of drawn-out images.
Hypermobility appears to be a prerequisite for Szalt and Zaletel’s choreography feels designed to highlight it with legs, hips and knees regularly folding in on each other at impossible angles. The facility of these dancers is incredible, but the use of flexibility in the choreography is heavy-handed. Inching into splits and slamming into turned in knees is sort of like watching a sword swallower—impressive, but Ouch! And Why?!?
Despite Szalt’s physical ability and mature grasp of pacing, Marshmallow Sea is utterly confounding. At first it feels abstract, like a moving painting, but then a folksy song comes on and the dancers suddenly shift to a human, theatrical relationship, which is a hard sell. Section after section combines seemingly unrelated material, often cluttered with overlapping action that makes it hard to know where to look. The piece is only an hour, but it becomes a seemingly endless sea of images with no thematic thread to tie it all together.
By contrast, Anna Conner’s new work shows an understanding of choreographic construction that makes those abstract, hard-to-pin-down images work together. We Are Mountains opens with a recorded poem: Here I am, I find myself underground and hiding. Like a rat…The words play through the speakers while two dancers sit in the dark holding tiny lights in the palms of their hands. They guide the lights on a journey around their bodies and eventually into their mouths, shining through their teeth like a forced smile. The poem goes on to suggest an unwanted sexual experience. Meanwhile a dancer, falling and crawling, is barely visible upstage, lit only by the ambient glow of the tiny lights. This striking beginning creates a point of view that sets up the rest of the 30-minute piece.
Convulsing bodies speak to an emotional state, and repetitive or fraught movements communicate an inability to move beyond—a place of being stuck. Two dancers circle each other over and over. A trio runs back and forth on a diagonal, retracing the same path. Throughout We Are Mountains, each action is executed with an exactitude typical of Conner’s choreography; even in movements that resemble frantic scrambling or plucking a chicken, the performance is precise. This crafted quality extends to the way the pieces fit together, like simultaneous inner layers of a consciousness. Conner understands how to compose the space to direct focus—even in moments with multiple points of concurrent action, the dancers’ energy, timing and arrangement in the space complement rather than distract from one another.
Breathing life into the work are a few moments of humanity where the dancers lovingly wipe each other’s makeup off with their white t-shirts, leaving clean faces but physical remnants streaking their clothing. The performers project a sensitivity and openness that strengthens the empathetic resonance of the piece. Erin McCarthy in particular radiates emotional availability without ever overplaying it; she attacks the movement with a calm clarity.
For much of the piece, solos and small groups share the space in isolation, but gradually the dancers’ separate worlds converge and the choreography becomes more unified, arriving organically at a sense of evolution. The final image, a solo by the exquisite Jenna Eady, suggests the traumatic, conflicted world of We Are Mountains has found a resolution so that a singular, clear voice can speak out. We don’t know what she’s saying exactly, but intuitively we know why.