Local dancers in Durham have positioned themselves for a great leap forward by forming an ensemble, Durham Independent Dance Artists, earlier this year. The first DIDA season opened in November, and continued with performances by DIDA co-founder Justin Tornow's Company at the Carrack Modern Art Gallery on December 13-14, when she premiered her work No. 13, The Weights.
The Carrack is a rectangular room, not particularly large – but it does have a wooden floor, and is welcoming to performers as well as visual artists. Choreographer Tornow divided the space into angled quadrants (30 seats total) and created an “immersive” dance that flowed and eddied among the viewers. The four dancers were never more than a few feet away from the viewers, and often much closer. It's a brave thing, to dance like no one's watching, when in fact you're so close to the watchers that you can feel their breathing, as well as see their eyes running over every aspect of your Lycra-clad physiognomy, evaluating, judging.
The three women – Emily Aiken, Amy Blakely and Sam Steffen – and one man, Ronald West, are all compactly built. Sleek but not thin, and fortunately for this room, not long-limbed, they adroitly navigated the space barefooted to live music by Lee Weisert (electronica) and Matthew McClure (saxophone), without once bumping into the audience.
The intimacy of the setting was key to the success of the dance – it was made for the space, and would not transfer to a stage. The movement is simple, and the sequences are short, yet the artists managed to create a sense of density, and yes, weight. While appearing oblivious of the audience, they maintained a sense of connection among themselves, even though not often looking at each other. For instance, one might move backwards, unerringly threading between chairs, directly into an encounter with another dancer. Hands reach and clasp. Bodies lean/fall/catch/sink/lift. They might entangle, or one dancer might raise another's leg, or the whole person, sometimes as if she were a log. In one repeating sequence, one dancer lies prone while another sits on her, as if sitting on a log. You definitely sense the weight here. Where ballet attempts to make the body appear weightless and ethereal, Tornow's work focused on the body's density, connectivity and capacity for sudden explosive changes. The space precluded any running or big leaping, but The Weights does include some rather surprising jumps powering out of turns or reversing a corkscrew turn that has taken the dancer down to the floor. This theme of reversal runs right through the work.
The dancers were strong and accomplished, and all were working at commensurate skill levels. Even at the end of the second 45-minute performance of the evening, they were graceful and controlled. The work ends with a cascade of motion by all, culminating in sudden darkness and silence. The Weights was very enjoyable to watch, and although it didn't quite fulfill one's desire for conclusive meaning, it did leave one wanting to see more work by Justin Tornow.
The DIDA season continues at the Carrack Dec. 18-20 with Tommy Noonan's Brother Brother. Click here for more information and check the DIDA website for ticket availability.