– by Kathy Valin
On a chilly Cincinnati evening – December 4, 2012 – in the company of two friends, I ascended Mount Adams after being picked up from Over-the-Rhine. We were in search of a dose of seriously diverse and hopefully thought-provoking art and culture: specifically, an evening of percussion, dance and photography, set in two separate venues, presented by the Cincinnati Art Museum and FOTOFOCUS.
And that’s exactly what we found: yet another example of the abundance of art offered regularly in Cincinnati.
But let’s begin at the beginning.
It was already dark and it had been raining on and off all day when our little trio skittered across the parking lot off St. Paul Place into the relative windlessness of the vestibule of the adjoining Holy Cross-Imaculatta Monastery. Wearing clear goggles issued to protect our eyes from the contrast of a brilliant carbon arc lamp directly ahead of us in the unheated, abandoned void of a decaying monastery, we entered and strolled among other visitors taking in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s off-site “Gravity of Light” by Mike and Doug Starn, while watching live dance from MamLuft&Co. Dance said to be inspired by the exhibit.
Giant photographic reproductions were hung on each of four huge walls, illuminated by the aforementioned single source of light so bright one knew better than to stare directly at it. I guess “blinding” light would be my attempt to convey it.
On the information sheet I was handed before this performance, I noticed that the Starns had quite a lot more to say about light in addition to its traditional use as metaphor for spiritual and intellectual illumination. For them, it is also about “the enormity of all of our past experiences, combining with all that is our present and our future, the conscious and the unconscious, external and internal factors that drive our lives . . . and renders each of us conductors, absorbers and emitters of the universe’s energy.”
Whoa, pretty heavy stuff. Did I feel this had all been conveyed to me? Not really, but for me the installation was indeed a seismic shift from my normal daytime routines, almost as if I had traveled several times zones away. The spatial enormity and the enormous depictions of a tree, a leaf laced with decay, a Renaissance model for the underlying anatomy of a human face and a Buddha gave me a jolt, but the whole perception was anchored by the disorienting presence of the arc lamp.
Around this eerie light source ten couples danced. Director and choreographer Jeanne Mam-Luft (who also credits Susan Honer, Ashley Powell and all her performers) is a fan of “post-modern” dance, which dates from the rebellious 1960’s and espouses the notion that modern dance does not need to be traditionally theatrical in presentation or performed by highly trained dancers, among other strictures.
For Mam-Luft and her collaborators, this theory has resolved into a fairly spartan movement vocabulary of steps that are more typically pedestrian than virtuosic although her company members are intrepid trained dancers, who are to be admired for their focus, stamina and skill in executing them.
Here ten couples, dressed in street clothes (and wearing the aforementioned goggles), seemed taken with each other to the exclusion of any awareness of their surroundings or the specific emotional weight of their moves, although that did not mean that there was no meaning to be found among the partnerships. I think the idea (and here I’m referring specifically to something Jeanne said to me several years ago) is that we are primally connected, and our bodies’ expression of memories, thoughts, joy and conflicts are so basic and so human that they can reflect everyone’s stories.
For instance, one dancer in a couple seemed to have an obsession with raising one leg to the side and then throwing herself against her partner repeatedly. This action was sometimes soft, sometimes more violent. The momentum of the endeavor was sometimes repelled, but her partner often caught her weight and she was lifted and manipulated in different configurations. What this might mean to any particular person is up for grabs, but I certainly discerned a dynamic between them that reminded me of a number of real life scenarios.
Another dancer tenderly explored the face of her partner with her hands. In a program note Mam-Luft explains that “point of contact,” is a seminal technique honoring the touch between dancing bodies, as a way of transmitting information and energy. She related this to the Starns’ acknowledgement that knowing comes from seeing, but that seeing may only come from touching. I supposed I’m glad I’ve been told all this, but as I’ve said, for me a little theory of composition goes a long way.
I think Mam-Luft’s acknowledgement of the Starns’ theoretical influence on her work is a bit stretched – the dance would have played the same with or without knowing about it – but certainly her response to the otherworldly setting had impact, especially since the arc-lamp’s presence was key to our perception of the movement. To consider the artwork hung on the walls, it wasn’t necessary to have the harshness of the light in your field of vision. However uncomfortable it could be, though, it was nearly impossible to watch the dancers as they circled around it (like planets around the sun?) without responding to the painfully high level of ultra-violet light. This effect seemed true to the spirit of the thing, especially since the lamp was designed to be not only a source of illumination both physical and spiritual, but a work of art in itself, an exemplification of a force both generous and cruel.
As this performance wound down, we hopped in our car and drove to the nearby Cincinnati Art Museum, where, in Fath Auditorium, we enjoyed the second part of our evening in a more traditional setting.
This time the MamLuft dancers (who had also relocated by then) appeared in “The So-Called Laws of Nature,” a performance shared with exploratory chamber ensemble Concert:Nova featuring four percussionists and five composers. The two groups had apparently been discussing a collaboration when the Cincinnati Art Museum invited them to create a performance around “Gravity of Light.”
The variety and creativity on display were impressive.
The auditorium stage was not large, and it often had to hold many instruments, musicians and dancers, but the configurations were imaginative and projected images from the Starns’ exhibit added to the mix.
The program opened in darkness as dancers wearing lights on their heads that illuminated the area in front of them moved through the aisles, integrating the ramp and bannister surrounding the stage as props. Once again, the connection to the Starns’ work seemed a little tenuous, but not overwhelmingly so. When I read the descriptions of the cross-influences in the program, I often had the distinct sense that I was reading the language of a grant proposal rather than a performance note.
Following were Charles Griffin’s “The Persistence of Past Chemistries,” David Lang’s “the So-Called Laws of Nature,” Thierry de May’s “Musique de Tables,” a show stopper with no accompanying dance, “Trio per Uno,” by Nebojsa Zivlovic and Paul Lansky’s “Threads.” I’m not a percussion expert, but it was no secret that the four musicians (Erica Drake, Matt Hawkins, Jeff Luft and Patrick Schieker) brought significant virtuosity, musicality and verve to a variety of styles.
As for exotic instruments – and here I’m cribbing from Rafael de Acha – they included melodic percussion instruments, cajon, guiro, tubular bells, woodblocks, drums, xylophones, vibraphones, marimbas, ceramic cups and bowls, a set of wooden logs, and, in “Musique” the performers’ own hands on tabletops.
And the dancers? Interwoven throughout, they gently explored each others’ faces and heads with their hands. They moved sinuously. They moved slowly and quickly, in duos and groups deftly on and off-stage, a Mam-Luft trademark. They took their weight into the floor. They mimicked the beat. They reached, they carved space, they spiraled, they jumped. They suspended their movements, they kicked, they divided themselves into opposing groups. They scooted on their butts. They moved forward and back in unison. Sometimes there were solos and there were duets with improbable lifts, and cartwheels.
When we finally drove off into the frigid night, it was with a clear sense that we had absorbed a lot. But somehow, I wanted something a little more specific for these dancers who were giving their all. Could be it’s just my personal bias, but I craved a clearer story line for them. I wanted them not to reflect everyone’s story, but their own – to have somehow a stronger sense of narrative to carry the beauty, and yes, the personality of their performance forward.
MamLuft dancers were Colleen Byrne, Stephanie Ann Danyi, Clint Fisher, Rebecca Fleisher, Susan Honer, Casey Monday, Mindy Nagel, Ashley Powell, Elena Rodriguez, Emily Scott, Amanda Sortman and Nicole Suzel.