PLACE OF AMBUSH
Beth Soll and Company
The stage is plain and black--black vinyl floor, a black drop upstage, black flats defining the wings. The costumes are plain and white--leotards and trousers for two men, leotards and culottes for four women. The lighting is understated, the score sparse, the movement itself stripped to its bones. But when Beth Soll and Company dance Soll's 1987 Place of Ambush, even the simplest materials are transformed. This is dance at its most magical, mystical, mysterious.
Soll's movement vocabulary is small in scale, even gestural. The first thing one notices is arms. They carve and slice the air, yet exert no force, a paradox that is key to both performance style and choreographic style. The most difficult movements and phrases are juxtaposed with the simplest, and given the same emphasis and attack: the choreography is seamless, liquid; it spirals back upon itself like an eddy. In that, Soll is an American modernist in the tradition of Merce Cunningham. But for all the apparent simplicity of the movements, these gestures are inherently expressive. Movement like this suggests images and meanings, yet refuses to dictate--it is movement with unspecified or unparaphrasable content, but content nonetheless--an approach more characteristic of European expressionism in the tradition of Hanya Holm, Kurt Joss, Pina Bausch, and others, who deny their works have but one meaning.
"Evensong," the first section of six in Place of Ambush, opens with a procession. Six dancers--Valerie Anderson, Phillip Karg, Lodi McClellan, Jeffry Pike, Soll, and Melinda Sullivan--are woven into a line, a hand on a shoulder, an arm about a waist, two elbows linked. The dancers move even closer, two seem to share a confidence, another two kiss; then they part and wheel about the space, arms outstretched. Unison shatters as the dancers continue to cross the stage, one crawling, another bouncing, a third stepping. The line reappears and Soll, her feet patting the stage quickly and audibly, leads the slow-stepping procession off in another direction. The dancers continue to drop in and out of the group, apparently at random: a duet rocks back and forth, Soll chants as if speaking in tongues, Karg leaps and turns alone.
Gradually certain movements acquire particular resonance in repetition: a cranelike posture, thighs together with one foot lifted clear of the floor; a side-to-side weight shift ending with the torso tipped forward and straight arms reaching forward, out, and down; a spin with arms held horizontally; a solo for Sullivan that's all fast feet, jumps, and falls. Other images emerge: soft, curved arms, one climbing while the other drifts down; elbows tracing designs in space; arms held overhead, the fingers of one hand nestled in the elbow of the other arm; hands held as if cupping a treasure or carrying a tray.
The dancers form a line, a circle, a line again; they huddle, spin, and fall. Patterns slip and shift like a kaleidoscope: the six form three pairs, a group, the pairs again, the group, two trios. Five dancers exit--yet another line tied together with an arm, a hand, an elbow--leaving Soll spinning in the fading light.
Certain gestures of "Safari," the second section of Place of Ambush, tempt us to literalness: a hand is held up as if to shield the dancer's eyes from glare; two loose fists are held like binoculars. But the dancers are just that--dancers--never lions or tigers or bears. The dancers are both hunters and quarry; the safari is a journey through a landscape of human relationships.
As in "Evensong," Soll presents a handful of memorable, ineffable movements. We see two dancers--the man kneeling, the woman lying still: he leans to place his ear on her chest; he straightens, leans away; then leans forward again to cradle her limp form. Two other dancers, a ballroom pair; but one wilts, dropping to the floor. Another pair rolls over and around each other. A seated dancer cradles her partner simply, gently.
These motifs continually reappear, now on one couple, now on another, gaining power with each repetition. The couples, too, form, reform, and dissolve. Earlier motifs appear on different dancers, in new configurations, at new tempos. "Safari" ends as it began--the kneeling dancer places her ear to her partner's chest, an image enriched by repetition.
"Coda," the third section, weaves earlier material into a different pattern and creates a brief, reassuring sense of closure. The audience has now seen Place of Ambush; in the three sections that follow, we see behind it. "Interludes and Chance Events," "Memoir," and the second "Coda" comment upon "Evensong," "Safari," the first "Coda," and their composition; the last three sections draw attention to the choreographic process itself. Soll's ironic self-consciousness has parallels in other art forms, especially the contemporary visual arts--found art, recycled art, art about art, and the show in MoMing's downstairs gallery, "Detritus: Performance Art Artifacts."
"Interludes and Chance Events" occurs in the atmosphere of a company class or rehearsal: playful and workaday, trauma-ridden and dull by turns. It begins with Sullivan calling out the names of various, familiar movements; the company scurries to comply. Then lines, circles, falls; and McClellan watches, chin on hand. Soll and Karg sing; Pike joins in. Pike and Karg careen across the stage, linked, in pinwheels, limbs spinning as they assist each other in their airborne cartwheels. Anderson and McClellan bop, everybody bops--they form a conga line, do a bunny hop; and a voice pipes, "Isn't this wonderful? I just love parties." The company stills to watch McClellan's solo--a dervish spin, a caressing hand, brief histrionics. When the company wheels off into repeated falls, she stops and complains: "I can't do this." The flurry of entrances and exits camouflages movements that have grown familiar; in spite of so much repetition--or perhaps because of it--the material looks increasingly odd, difficult, and alien.
"Memoir," an extended solo for Soll, is the most opaque section of the six. "Memoir" happens in fits and starts: phrases begin and end abruptly. The demands the choreography makes on Soll's technique are obvious--Soll deliberately bares all the bumps and glitches of this piece's choreography. We could be peeping into her studio window instead of watching a fully staged performance.
The second "Coda" slides by, made even smoother by comparison. Soll introduces little new material (just two tantalizing trios), offering only the briefest reprise. The dancers freeze; blackout. All over, all too soon.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ken Winokur.