Duke Performances brought the Australian company Chunky Move to the Reynolds Theater stage to perform director and choreographer Gideon Obarzanek’s recent work, Connected. The company, whose body of work is quite eclectic, was last in Durham during the 2005 American Dance Festival. Although extremely different visually, Tense Dave, the work performed in 2005, and the new piece share some aesthetic and psychological concerns.
The stage set for Connected, designed by American sculptor Rueben Margolin in collaboration with Obarzanek specifically for this dance, brings to mind the elegantly drawn images of textile processing equipment from Diderot’s famous Enlightenment encyclopedia. On the 28th, we were given more than ample time to examine it before the dancers appeared for the hour-long work. Stage right stood a machine with gears and a cam; its attached cables lay extended across the stage before it. Suspended from above, stage left, was another group of wires, hanging straight down in a grid pattern, each terminated with a small knob. Downlighting allowed us to see a grid of dots below it on the stage floor. The grid wires also ran overhead in such a way as to be connectible to their matching components coming from the cam. The whole arrangement was very like a dobby or Jacquard loom, but expanded to create a three-dimensional “weave.” Beyond the suspended grid, in the shadows, a pile of white objects, vaguely shuttle-like, stood waiting.
Suddenly, the five dancers sprang into action — four in black, one in white. Four began a tentative, then more assertive, series of actions indicative of growing connection between and among themselves. The fifth began connecting the suspended wire cables, slowly hooking adjacent verticals together with one of the white shuttle-like spacers. We could see the grid developing in the shadow lines that replaced the shadow dots on the floor. What the dancers were doing, and what was happening to the suspension were reasonably analogous: as the choreographer described it, in both cases kinetic sculpture was being built. However, this bifurcated action was oddly difficult to watch. The dancing was pliant, emotive, the bodies sleek and exciting — but the attaching of the horizontals to the grid was strangely mesmerizing. One felt distracted and pulled away, whichever way one turned one’s attention.
But when finally the 3-D grid was completed, the four dancers were clipped to the cam cables — the connection was made. What ensued was breathtakingly beautiful. The dancers’ slightest motions transferred to the grid, which became like a flock of white birds, or a patch of ocean waves. The dancers could raise and lower the apparatus by extending and retracting, and moving forward and back, their own movements a kind of wave form. In one section of the dance of the wires, the woman in white, under the grid, was caressed and surrounded by the fluttering, rippling, cascade of wavelets. Lovely stuff — but as far as shape-making, it just did not go far enough into the unexpected. After a while, the dancers are unharnessed, the cables connected to other cables and the mechanism set in motion without them. With a single, fairly small cam, that motion is limited and the repeat time is very short.
Connected has another long section that did not seem connected to the earlier part of the piece, except by attenuated conceptual strands. The dancers all appear in gray suits and heavy shoes, in the guise of museum guards, who talk (and walk) about their experiences (the recorded sound is taken from interview transcripts with actual gallery attendants). This section centers on the questions of the value of art, and what is art, and to whom. It was a little dreary (oh, no, not this old treadmill again) until the dancers stripped off most of their clothing and actually danced. That is when this viewer felt the most connected to the artwork.