RAD | Renay Aumiller Dances has a remarkable new piece in performance this weekend. Blood Moon premiered June 5 at the Cordoba Center for the Arts, a sprawling former industrial building east of downtown Durham, in a 100-seat theater devised by the company in a bay still boasting its signs to “watch out for lift trucks.” The aerial rigging and harnesses looked right at home there.
Some choreographers rely too heavily on the cool factor of aerial work, but Aumiller uses aerialism here for legitimate reasons, as a way to vivify the big thoughts her work embodies. Although she started Blood Moon with political and sociological ideas, she is not a literalist. Instead, she fed those ideas about oppression, violence, control, fear and freedom into dance's essential abstraction, and has made a 45-minute dance-with-flying that keeps the viewer swooping and flipping between opposing viewpoints. This is a thinking woman's dance that one experiences nonverbally, often with a jolting intensity, and can only partially corral with words. Is a dancer in an aerial harness freer than one whose urge to defy gravity must succeed on her own efforts, or is the woman in the harness controlled, a marionette? In Blood Moon, she's both, back and forth, again and again.
Once it begins, Aumiller's work is distinguished by a continuous flow of movement. Even when the dancers stand stalwart, something moves: heads turn, arms rise in abrupt geometries, fingers flutter. But there's very little standing still after the first moments: there are patterns to be made and broken, seemingly pulled out of the dancers like the moon pulls the tides – yet sometimes four or five of the six huddle like boulders while the other one or two break through the space like tidal spray. When they happen to be attached to aerial harnesses, they swing, rise and rapel, spinning and twisting in ways that seem like natural extensions of earth-stuck dance, rather than showy cameos.
The dance divides more or less into three sections, all accompanied by music composed by Dave Yarwood. Viewers who saw Aumiller's "Acquiring Dawn" at ADF last year will recognize some signature movements and arrangements of the dancers, but this work is punctuated with pulsing shocks. The first section could perhaps lose a couple of minutes — it's a kind of prologue, with the dancers weighted and drooping under unseen oppressive forces. Between the trance-like music and sameness of the actions, one's attention may begin to waver, although it certainly gets its point across.
But then beats are introduced, and the oppression becomes specific and personal, as do the responses. Again and again, the subject eludes the oppressor and her controls, and flies free, ecstatic — to be captured again. Cycles and circles are Blood Moon's central theme along with possibilities outside of those curving boundaries.
There are a number of deeply surprising images and some very upsetting ones. In one instance, the dancer in the aerial rig is beset by an oppressive incubus who literally presses the flyer to the floor. Sometimes a dancer is raised abruptly, her head lolling back, as if hoisted in a hangman's noose.
Like that one, many of the action sequences required me to quell the impulse to run to the rescue, to guard or protect. One long sequence has the dancer swinging back and forth toward the cinderblock wall. At the far end of the pendulum's swing, her skull is only an inch or two from the ungiving block. She's free, controlling herself — but behind her stands a hard barrier. Dance often makes the viewer hyper-aware of the body's fragility as well as its strengths and glories, but rarely have I seen a dance that called so clearly for us to make freedom safe for the people.
Another particularly beautiful sequence involves two pairs of dancers. The two on their hands and knees move across the stage like majestic elephants, swaying, half rooted to earth, half moving forward, while on their backs, the two other women ride like queens being carried to the river.
Although the backdrops are black, and the dancers wear black and grey (very smart costumes by Karl Green — short black Lycra unitards with grey singlets over, and black knee protectors striping the legs) a surprising amount of color glazes the set through the excellent lighting by Josh Allen. In this bare-bones technical set-up, he gets some wonderful effects with sharp focus and soft patterning both. Aerial rigging operator Andrew Munro stands, all in black, just out of the light, but not behind the scenes. His visible presence is both creepy and reassuring — he's the puppeteer and the protector, and further reinforces Aumiller's ideas about duality and ambiguity.
The dancers — Anna Barker, Amanda Floyd Beaty, Lindsay Leonard, Leah Wilks, Stacy Wolfson and Stephanie Blackmon Woodbeck — beyond giving solid performances of technically and emotionally difficult material, both individually and as an ensemble, demonstrate how much the Durham dance community has grown in recent years. The scene with the "elephants" called to mind how this has been possible: The dancers and choreographers are carrying themselves on each others' backs. Their alliance is called DIDA, Durham Independent Dance Artists, and this final production of the DIDA season bodes extremely well for the future.
Blood Moon repeats Saturday June 6 at 8 pm, and Sunday June 7 at 4 pm. Highly recommended. See our sidebar for more information.
A hiccup in our system caused us to lose a good chunk of this review when first posted. The complete review is published now. --- ed