It was for a small crowd, and beginning 15 minutes late, that MLKBallet gave their performance of Chamber at Urban Grace last Saturday night. But once into the performance, the company and its five musicians wove a filigree web of artistry that explored both the unity and the disturbing polarity between music and dance.
Unity, because whether in the 20th-century works by Debussy, Messaien and Cage or in the works by Brad Hawkins written collaboratively with MLKBallet, the choreography (mostly by Faith Stevens) was one of the most musically sensitive this reviewer has ever seen. In Hawkins five short pieces, written in Glassian minimalism contrasting sparsely jagged piano with paired violin and cello, the five MLK dancers told a narrative of binding, freedom, loss and possibility, expressed through the conceit of a long draped skirt worn by each. First in formal bridesmaid procession, then confined lyricism, then exploration and finally grief as each skirt was released into a shroud-like puddle on the floor, the dancers brought individual grace to the solos (Lorraine Constantine like a bird taking flight; April Nyquist swift and expressive).
Hawkins angelic cello solo in Messiaens Louange à lEternité de Jésus was melded with a molasses-slow ode to the skirts clutched, tossed, dragged, floated which was utterly beautiful to watch, with a fine balance between individual and echoed gestures.
For Debussys Des pas sur la neige, played with sensitive touch by Caroline Swinehart, Stevens created a lyrical duet for herself and Constantine, with arresting visual symmetry and unusual lifts; for John Cages Five the interpretation of one dancer per musician, spread around the hall and unwinding in luxurious twists and ports-de-bras to the random long notes gave a spine-tingling synchrony between visual tableaux and aural dissonance.
Finally, Hawkins long work Chamber, with pulsating electronic landscape underneath floating string notes and staticky sounds played live by Joe Garvin, ebbed and flowed perfectly with the movement. A kind of deconstruction of Swan Lake, with the crossed-arm quartet fluttering away, bent necks and broken wings examined and disturbing finger-tracings giving a psychological undercurrent, the choreography moved through the well-composed score like a fish in water, to a fast, compelling finale.
But the meeting of sound and movement also offered a jarring polarity perhaps intentional, perhaps not. As dancers deliberately interacted physically with musicians the gaping chasm between an artist who creates a visual aura (a dancer) and one who doesnt (a musician) was awkward to watch. Logistical issues (musicians prosaically moving equipment around) occupied the same space as artistic ones (dancers poised); often there seemed simply not enough space to move, as fingers brushed music stands and body gestures were constrained. Creating more deliberate space between the two realms would help the audience separate the two very different visual attentions we give to these two art forms.
It also didnt help that Urban Grace was hosting a loud dance party downstairs.
On the whole, though, Chamber was one of those unique collaborations that Tacoma is lucky to have and will hopefully see more of.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com