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Flash Review, 12-19: Meditations on the Formal
Looking for the Underside of Abstraction in Liz Gerring

By Alison D'Amato
Copyright 2006 Alison D'Amato

NEW YORK -- Liz Gerring's "When You Lose Something You Can't Replace," presented by Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church December 14 - 17, is an unabashedly abstract piece of choreography. Although that may sound like a coy way to describe something (especially a piece of contemporary dance), abstraction is so central to the logic of this work that it's impossible to take for granted. I use abstract as an adjective in more than one sense. We are dealing with nonrepresentational movement here, yes; but further, Gerring has performed active processes of abstraction across the entire work, distancing the dancers from their movements and the live performance from the video projection supplied by collaborator Burt Barr.

All this talk of abstraction is a bit dizzying -- should I take a step back and start with the concrete? Five dancers (two men and three women) perform "When You Lose Something...," passing through solos, duets and larger groups. They wear attractive, slithery blue outfits designed by Deanna Berg, and Carol Mullins has put together a soft, atmospheric lighting design that effectively and subtly changes the temperature in the room from time to time. Above the dancers' heads are two screens on which are projected identical images of a woman rolling around in a puddle of water. Both she and the puddle are filmed from underneath, suspended by something that looks much like a sheet of plexiglass, so we see the press of her flesh on the surface as well as the water rippling around her. It's a perspective that makes you feel gravity, but in an upended way, as if you were watching someone walk on the ceiling. These visual elements are paired with a score by Douglas Henderson that is appealingly earthy, mellowed out and grounded by cello instrumentation.

Gerring's choreography has an angular, precise quality. It sets up a consistent and persuasive rhythm, with muscular sequences leading up to brittle jabs accentuated by the dancers' audible exhalations. These punctuations make the movement phrases feel somehow even more phrased, with each becoming a sentence that ends emphatically at full stop. And when the dancers stop they really do; their efforts seem aimed much more at posed shapes than suspended energy. Accordingly, formal concerns seem to outweigh any communication of motivation or intent. Even when partnering, the dancers are less reaching out to each other than working together to create an exciting new shape. The work they're doing is often explicitly technical; occasionally I heard ghostly echoes of the demanding teacher at the front of the class -- battement front, side, back, side! Hold! And...again!

The choreography contains quite a bit of unison movement which has the potential to offer up an unexpected depth when transposed over this set of five such different bodies. What is most striking about the performances Gerring coaxes out of these bodies, though, is the persistent distance between who the performers are and what they're doing. We get miraculously controlled performances from Mandy Kirschner and Emma Stein, but Robbie Cook and Rosalynde LeBlanc tend much more towards a satisfying, weighty richness. Miguel Anaya has a charming and elastic energy that's all his own. (A quick look at the dancers' bios goes a considerable way towards contextualizing their respective strengths; LeBlanc has danced for both Bill T. Jones and White Oak, while Kirschner is a former member of the Cunningham company, for example.) The strange thing is that texture, this fascinating variety in the dancer's internal experience, feels like something that we're not really supposed to see. The dancer is something other than the dance.

Something else that persistently holds itself apart is the video work. Barr's contribution is listed in the program as "set design," which makes me very curious about the relationship that he and Gerring are looking to establish. At the very least it's obvious that the media element is independent, coexistence being a better way to describe the relationship between moving bodies and moving images than either synthesis or juxtaposition. While maintaining this friendly cohabitation, though, the artists make choices that constitute unmistakable gestures toward -- yet again -- distance. Why is there a body in the video that is not one of the live bodies onstage? Why water, an elaborately evocative element that's never alluded to by the live performers? Why do the two screens project the same image, an image that remains constant over and above such strenuous activity? Most important: why are the screens up in the air on the same vertical plane as the performers -- as opposed to, say, on a scrim in a backdrop? It's as if Gerring and Barr are dramatizing the very act of choosing to look at the projections over the live action.

Coming away from a dance performance asking these kinds of questions is not necessarily a bad thing. But I was hungry to know more about the conceptual framework underpinning these choices, as they seemed so considered and consistent. I always suspect that total commitment to abstraction is something of a ruse. A real rigorousness about separation surreptitiously reveals the cracks and crevices, fissures that end up functioning as conduits between ostensibly separate realms. Moreover, formal meditations that bring our attention again and again to shapes, lines, and patterns have a fascinating double life -- nonrepresentational structures that exist on their own terms do a great job of hinting at the real power of the concrete fleshiness inhabiting them.

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