BILL SETTERS FOUNDATION DANCERS
At MoMing Dance & Arts Center
September 29 and 30 and October 1 and 2
When I was a child a lot of my bad dreams took place in basements. The same atmosphere of doom and chill pervaded most of the concert Bill Setters Foundation Dancers performed at MoMing. In black costumes under predominantly low, blue light, the dancers often seemed trapped in one way or another.
But the second half of Setters's last dance--Modern Times--shed a new light on what had gone before, and I was reminded that sometimes what looks like despair or bitterness is the fruit of a visionary yearning for wholeness and peace.
The first two works, Radio Flyer and Primitive Fragments, showed off Setters's formally precise method and revealed some of his preoccupations. Radio Flyer, performed to orchestral and vocal music from Puccini's Madama Butterfly, embodies the ghostly presence and emotion of opera heard over the radio. Three dancers (Patrizia Tombesi, Kerri Mather, and Charles Roussin) manipulate scarlet fans--this much is obvious and expected, but what's interesting is Setters's meditation on how the body can fold in and out, how the voice can fold in and out, and the way he occasionally offers the two in counterpoint. In a brilliant moment, when the soprano suddenly soars, the dancer contracts swiftly to a ball--but this counterpoint works, the sense of injury and pain, the dancer an animal curling in on herself. At the same moment she expands her fan, but with a slicing motion that prefigures the dance's end.
Radio Flyer shares with Primitive Fragments a couple of formal preoccupations. Setters often appears interested in taking a static picture and breathing into it motion and life. Both these pieces begin with the dancers stock-still or nearly so. Setters opens out those poses by creating a phrase that includes them, and has the dancers perform the bits consecutively, one after the other. This method recalls a film--though it is nowhere near so mechanistic--first frozen in a single frame, then gradually speeded up through successive frames until the original motion is recaptured.
Primitive Fragments seems to bring to life the remains of a broken frieze depicting a hunt. Andy Kirschner's music, which ranges from the authentically primitive--chants and drums--to the jazzy, provides the appropriate backdrop of sound and an interesting rhythm that allows the dancers (Debra Noble, Tombesi, and Roussin) to move at different paces at the same time--two in a slow unison, one in a quick solo--and not look like a merry-go-round gone berserk. A recurring motif is the dancers' stylized breathing gesture, the hands gathered from below into clenched fists at the chest, then pushed hard to the front, wrists flexed, as the chest collapses. It's an appropriate gesture for a strenuous hunt; the dancers almost literally breathe life into what they depict.
But there's a sadness to Fragments, a hopelessness. The structure of the dance, which moves from pictures through motion but ends with a picture, reminds us that dance is as far removed from the hunt as the original picture, broken, that the dance seeks to restore.
So far the concert seemed intellectual, more than a little sad. Duet proved more emotional but also more pessimistic. It opens with a male and female dancer (Roussin and Tombesi on the evening I was there) standing together in a flood of harsh chiaroscuro light. In a couple of patently erotic moves, each one slow, deliberate, and charged, he touches her waist, then his hand closes around her throat, the fingers settling one by one. The lights go down, and in the next section the two dance like Astaire and Rogers--they have the same graceful drag, like a confident singer just a beat behind the music. They pause in unison, each poised on one foot, backs to the audience and shoulders on the diagonal, and gaze down one arm at the floor, all the while offering us the gift of their clear profiles.
In the next section, however, even as the jazzy music (again by Kirschner) continues, we hear in a voice-over a conversation from a radio talk show. A woman is complaining to the male host, something about $25, or is it $250, someone is paying or not paying up. This voice-over is so dissonant, grating, and distracting that it becomes impossible to attend to the dancers. All we know is that human contact, initially sexual and elegant in turn, has become anonymous, vaguely antagonistic, and mercenary.
The rest of the dance seems to show how impossible modern life has made the romantic duet. Elegant turns and smooth runs give way to gestures remarkable for their hostility and alienation. In one heavily muscled move, the arms are held parallel and drawn in to the chest in what looks like a bodybuilder's pose, an isolated, vain, and meaningless exhibition of strength. Performing a curiously melancholy, undulating developpe, the dancers point their legs at each other like accusing fingers. Or are they supplicating arms? The dance ends on a note that crystallizes the distance between the man and the woman; it made me want to rush home and sit by a blazing fire.
So I felt prepared for the ominous-sounding Modern Times that was to close the program, and I was not surprised when it opened with a text (written and read onstage by Eileen Shukofsky) about an alienated punker riding the subway. I was not surprised when the four dancers (Tombesi, Roussin, Mather, and Noble) took identical poses in which hands were used as shields, or in which they curled in on themselves in precarious balance, like snails in a row about to topple. And I was not surprised that the audience thought the piece was over and began applauding when Shukofsky stopped reading and the lights went down on the four dancers standing defeatedly with their backs to the audience and about as far away from us as they could get.
What was a surprise was the second half of the dance. Following the "false" ending, the dancers scuttle downstage in the dark and stop immediately in front of us. As the lights come up, they've reassumed their backs-to-us stance, but of course they're much closer, and in fact the second part of the dance lets us see behind the alienation of the scared young girl riding the train. The poetic text has already hinted at it, but the dancing shows us how we yearn for contact even as we repudiate it.
The music, "Tabula Rasa" by Arvo Part, an Estonian composer now living in West Berlin, goes a long way toward humanizing Modern Times's bleak message. It has the same poignant attenuation as the end of Mahler's Ninth, the same keen, unresolvable, drawn-out yearning. So even as the dancers perform in the second half their percussive, abrupt gestures, gestures that look like slicing, hitting, and cowed self-protection, the music reminds us that we're capable of something different. A recurrent movement in which the dancers jerk first their shoulders, then their faces away from each other--in its meaningless geometry it looks mechanistic, almost militaristic--is increasingly in pointed contrast to the music, and to the other dancing as it becomes more and more human and connected. Setters repeats some of the moves from the earlier dances, but we see them differently. The fanning hand that shields and conceals the face and the clenched, muscled arms that form a self-protective cage are understandable deviations from what we really want. And the pushing movement with the arms that recalls breathing reminds us of our common life and humanity.
My final impression was that Setters is a man obsessed with the tragic distance between what is and what could be, between heaven and the garbage can, who believes that what's static is false but tragically inevitable, that breath links us, with animals and with each other, and that concealment is often artful revelation. The work is still chilling--Modern Times left me with a frisson that, even in memory, I couldn't shake off--but what lies behind it is compassion, and that redeems it.