Arts & Culture Blog
Dancers Twirl, Far Away from Philip Glass' Music
August 30, 2011
By Sara Rubin and Walter Ryce
A blend of live music and dance is a rare sensory feast, which was part of the appeal of dance performances at the Days and Nights Festival this weekend. Choreographed by Molissa Fenley to three Philip Glass compositions, four expert dancers (including Fenley) took center stage Sunday while Glass played solo piano (Dreaming Awake, Metamorphosis) and the Youth Orchestra of the Americas played his haunting String Quartet #4 (Buczak).
The performance started without ceremony or prelude, as has been Glass' style all along—he sits at the piano and just plays, no dramatic pause, no adjusting or fidgeting. The first dance, Dreaming Awake, consisted of choreographer Molissa Fenley (wiry, with a look of stubborn concentration) and dancer Peiling Kao, who was more expressive of the joy of her movements. The two dancers moved around each other sometimes closely and in synch like the gears of a machine, sometimes independently, in wide arcs, like the orbit of an electron and proton. Sometimes, they fell out of synch but they always matched up quickly. The dance proceeded with vigor and grace, with little pause, on top of Glass' solo piano.
Part of what makes a combination of media artistically stunning is when each informs and improves the other; Fenley's choreography, though sprightly and lovely in its own right, missed the mark when it came to a visual depiction of Glass' work. The dancers often made big motions, transitioning suddenly from up and down to side to side, in what appeared to be a fanciful collection of random movements, even to a point of frivolity. It was dance for dance's sake: oriented around the human body, the subtle shift of weight on a foot that can adjust a balancing figure ever so elegantly, to be barely noticed.
But Glass' music went on below, much darker, and far more linear and geometric, than the organic, seemingly arbitrary loops the dancers took. There's something dancer-indulgent about this dance that distracts from the music it seemed poorly paired with.
The glimpse into the human body working, with ribs, muscles and tendons visible, is a powerful view of its functioning, not unlike a behind-the-scenes factory tour that celebrates cogs and wheels; but that doesn't solve the problem that the body movements were aligned well with Glass's work only for brief, perhaps accidental, periods. As Glass played Metamorphosis, dancers never returned to a starting point, never emerged from a center out toward infinity. Rather than improving and embellishing Glass' music, the dance became mostly a distraction from its patient repetitions, moving along with up to four dancers twirling on stage, often doing different things simultaneously.
The spotlight illuminated a couple of flying bugs that seemed to want to join the constant movement of the dancers. This first dance, Dreaming Awake, was most dramatic in its ending. The lights, an impressive palette of shifting hues, faded to black and the dancers, frozen in a pose, receded onto the starry night sky backdrop and disappeared in darkness. The audience responded with hearty applause. One woman said, "Just watching that made me tired."
There were a few movements that communicated the same lulling sensibility of the music; when arms and legs swung, pendulum-like, for just a couple of beats, the visual matched the audible. But mostly, the dancers and musicians seemed to be on different planes.
Photo by Chunyi McIver