Wednesday, February 9, 2011

This Was Mine, Nearly

By Mary Sheeran

The Summation Dance Company is a group of women who, in their world premiere of co-founder and artistic director Sumi Clements’ Keep Your Feathers Dry at the Baryshnikov Arts Center last week, participated in the world of grief, which is mythically women’s work. This was evident in the dance even if one hadn’t read Clements’ “what I meant” notes in the program. (Why do choreographers do that? Dance is a wordless art. Tell me later.)

The hour-long program was divided into three sections: Fortitudine, Whac-a-Mole, and No Man’s Landing. There was much in Clements’ choreography to draw you in. From the start, you were trying to make sense of a world that didn’t. Three women spoke rapidly in gibberish as if on their cell phones, but the incomprehensible words were pungent with emotion, while we tried to hear but were unable to make sense of it. It was a quick and telling introduction. While dancers moved with fierce, angular movements, one woman, all in black, moved through with sweeping movements suggesting that underneath the confusion was a profound depth of feeling. There followed a dance of touching and caught dependency among the dancers, with imploring movements, anger (a kind of “acting out,”) followed by moments when the women supported each other tenderly.

Clements apparently liked to roll her dancers on the floor and they did that in unusual ways as they did so much else. In the third section, No Man’s Landing, a woman (Julie McMillan) in a low lunge balanced on one foot, for a very long time, and I thought, that’s how it is. At another point, dancers hurled themselves from the wings onto the floor so smoothly I didn’t even wince in sympathetic pain. They curled into fetal positions, sleeping with a reluctance (I inferred) to keep going, but their motion soon became, nevertheless, relentless. The same could be said of all the dances, where someone was always sleeping, curled up, fraught.

In another segment, they ran across the stage or – contrariwise – stood absolutely still, in one striking moment, turning their heads in what could be thought of as a Jerome Robbins Dancers’ at a Gathering moment, but with a very different feel, as if all the turbulence seen now rested within them, but now how should they move forward?

I understood without written words that this rapidly changing movement and the quick turns of emotion (dancers in black being pushed but not yielding; women in flowered garb fighting these dancers as if trying to shove their grief away – and then the tables turn, the “grief” dancers relentlessly calm and unmoving) were physicalizing shock and grief.

Certainly, these were interesting movements and well done, but the three sections in themselves could not sustain the narrative of the piece or the audience’s attention. Too much of the movement was the same – the rolling, the up and down, lying on the floor, the anger, the caring, the similar themes from one section to the next. Not enough was different to indicate progression. I hate to say that “the work is promising,” but it is. In addition to the interesting way Clements’ work demonstrated trauma and grief, the groupings of the dancers was both classical and fluid, and there seemed to be more dancers than there actually were. But there didn’t seem enough language to keep the dancing going for even the hour that we had.

Now for “what it meant.” Clements, according to her note in the program, was expressing her “heartbreak as I watched my boyfriend’s reactivation into the Marine Corps and his subsequent deployment to Afghanistan...I was flung into a storm of the unknown and even today continue fighting my way out.” Clements divided the sections of this piece “from confusion and despair, into the slightly deranged, leveling off into an emotionless precipice on which I currently stand.”

I’m not sure how much of that we needed to know right away, for without the description and pointing to herself, I wonder if we would have been able to point to ourselves as we watched what she created. I think we could have. Then, in learning the impetus for the dance, we would have thought, "Yes, I know what that feels like."

The Summation Dance Company’s Presentation of Keep Your Feathers Dry at the Baryshnikov Arts Center Feb. 4, 5. Choreographed by Sumi Clements. Produced by Taryn Vander Hoop. Lighting by Simon Cleveland. Music by Moby, Four Tet, Blockhead, Kyle Olson. Dancers: Sumi Clements, Angela Curotto, Cat DeAngelis, Sarah Holmes, Allie Lochary, Julie McMillan, Erin Okayama, Kristin Schwab, Yohta Tsagri, Taryn Vander Hoop (Apprentice: Kelsey Berry). For information, go to

Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe.

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