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DOUGLAS DUNN: Sky Eye and Cleave at Danspace, St. Mark's Church

Enthusiasm, in its Greek root, refers to an inspiration from deep in the bowels, animating the body with an energy that is as biological as it is spiritual. Douglas Dunn is a wry enthusiast: he choreographs with the vital genius that devotes itself to a love for life being life. But his intuition is genuine, and he knows that enthusiasm without doubtful irony falls flat. Dunn’s two recent works of choreography, Sky Eye and Cleave, at the Danspace project at St. Mark’s Church, explore the zones in which the body, music, and shape nonoverlap, jar, and enliven one another. Dunn highlights and exaggerates the movements you see every day, wherever you go. He is a great stylist, limning the potent expressivity that underlies human movement as such, going to the body as generating source of the dance. In his words, it is a matter of “playing off the predictable,” using a familiar vocabulary to get to an unfamiliar place.

Douglas Dunn�s <i>Sky Eye</i>. Photo by Boyd Hagen.
Douglas Dunn�s Sky Eye. Photo by Boyd Hagen.

Sky Eye is aptly titled: if one were to look at the performance from a birds-eye view, one would not only see the sum of gestures and pieces that are the performance proper, but also the gaps and blank areas that keep those pieces distinct. It was left open in such a way that it could be varied without losing its particularity. Dunn invites such variation. It is often left up to his dancers to decide where, before or after a musical phrase, to place the steps he gives them, providing room for improvisation, and a level of drift. Dunn is skeptical of what he calls the “seriousness” of dancing to music; this is one way he loosens things up. He also does this by having the dancers stay on the beat so literally, with their attack so at its center, that the phrase is overstated, even ironized, calling attention to the fact of the dancing itself, as dance.

In its first conception in the 1980s, Sky Eye was an experiment with difference, juxtaposition, and with the use of music which Dunn had seldom previously used. The music’s tone shifted tenor from segment to segment with little or no continuity. Fruitfully, the dancers’ gestures also mismatched often. Dunn said that this is why he chose such specific music, music one could recognize as, say, “GOTHIC,” “SPANISH,” or “AFRICAN.” Their moods didn’t logically fit together. This shifting abruptness suspended the arrangement’s potential, creating spontaneity amidst the un-sequenced moods. It was very full; its crammed aesthetic was part of its drive. The segments, so charged as they were at their edges with surprise, together resulted in a self-perpetuating subterfuge, the phrases energized by not fitting together, each shape making the other pop.

Douglas Dunn�s <i>Cleave</i>. Photo by Boyd Hagen.
Douglas Dunn�s Cleave. Photo by Boyd Hagen.

Cleave was a new work. Its exploration of symmetry was uncharacteristic of Dunn’s choreography. Its intensity,as the title suggests (the word cleave meaning both to cut apart and to yoke together: a one-word paradox) was reached through a rather bi-polar fusion of symmetry and chaos. Its loose narrative, implying a medieval pageant in which Douglas Dunn and Grazia Della Terza played King and Queen, was a new conceit for Dunn. He successfully drew it away from the expected catharsis a narrative signals. His ability to pull textures of expression away from meaning was at work here: there was only the feel of a narrative: no plot.

A number of the movements in Cleave could be characterized as intentionally retarded, spasmodic. From this varied source of writhes, spasms, and collapses there sprung a wild, unpredictable constellation of geometric, athletic forms. The poet Anne Waldman, during a discussion after the performance, typified these gestures accurately as Romanesque. Delving into the full spectrum of raw movement, the spastic on one end, the mannered on the other, the dance pulled together a full range of both form and feeling: giddy humor together with hysteria and despair. Its euphony came from discord, and, working off of flaws, you might call the dance’s process evolutionary.

Both performances abstracted language to the level of music and dance. Sky Eye had a segment in which all but one dancer were speaking in babble, while, in the background, a dancer elaborated syntax and syllable with fluid steps. In Cleave, Dunn periodically read from the Latin of Seneca and Martial: a good choice, given Latin’s tendency toward the conceptual. Dancer and text merged into a sort of language-animal. During Christopher Williams’s astonishing solo, his gestures were at times guided by the text’s structure, and at times seemed to override it, imbuing it with physicality and frenzy. Douglas Dunn said using text with semantic meaning is new to him, perhaps a sign that he has begun to allow ideas into his choreography. Here’s a snippet in English from what he read: “The leopard carries a yoke attached to his spotted neck…Ugly bison draw chariots and the great beast, bidden perform an agile dance, does not refuse its black master.” One thing left open was, what, in the end, is subject to the other’s will? Dance or choreography? Symmetry or spasm? King or Queen? Cleave’s title would suggest Dunn has had it both ways.


Roger Van Voorhees

Roger Van Voorhees is a poet in New York who lives with a young cat named Lillith.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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