Improvisation in dance has inherent risks. Given a well-conceived structure, dancers choreograph on the spot. This kind of spontaneous invention can be exhilarating, intimate or even transcendent. But sometimes in an improv, those rare moments never happen and the viewer gets nothing more than a peek into an artist’s exploration. Whether or not this is a satisfying experience, it bows to the idea — popular among artists, less so among donors and audiences — that an artist’s process is as interesting as his finished product.
On Saturday night, CORE Performance Company celebrated its 25th-anniversary season with two related works, “The Point,” choreographed by Artistic Director Sue Schroeder and the dancers, and “The Moment Between,” by Schroeder and former CORE company member Jhon R. Stronks. Both works used experimental methods, fascinating in their own right and clearly explained in a pre-show talk. At times, however, it seemed that the artists’ sources of inspiration were more telling than what was seen on the Decatur High School Performing Arts Center stage.
To celebrate the Decatur-based troupe’s 25 years in the local arts community, the city of Decatur had declared Saturday CORE Day, and thanks to an outpouring of support from sponsors, admission was free. Held near the company’s Decatur Square headquarters, the event was as much a social gathering as an artistic sharing. (Top photo: Claire Molla in “The Moment Between.” Photo by Sue Schroeder.)
Which is to say that, in its 25 years, CORE has built a social community around itself, largely by inviting the public into its process. With a sense of warmth, inclusiveness and deep-seated enthusiasm for creating new contemporary works, and probably a strong will to survive, Schroeder has woven CORE into the city’s dance community at just about every level. A tireless dance advocate, she has educated audiences from all walks of life, fostered creativity across artistic disciplines through Fieldwork, nurtured the support group DanceATL, and built ties with Emory Dance, the Rialto Center for the Arts and others while keeping CORE connected to arts communities in Houston, Germany and beyond.
So it’s hard for anyone in this community to speak critically about the work presented, knowing that CORE has achieved something rare for a contemporary dance company — to exist and grow in metro Atlanta for a quarter of a century. But what happens when an arts organization becomes so deeply embedded in its community that no one within that group will risk losing a friendship, or professional connection, by pointing out shortcomings in its work? The second piece on Saturday’s program, which I saw in a stronger showing last spring, sent much of the audience out of the theater in swift, polite silence.
More encouragingly, there was almost nothing lacking in the evening’s opener, “The Point,” a defining work for the company, which played to its strengths. The five dancers’ impeccable timing, solid trust and shared rapport made it a pleasure to watch.
As catalyst, Schroeder and the dancers used Conceptual and Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #65.” The dancers had re-created the painting on their studio wall, following the instructions provided with its title: “Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall.” Eventually they had used it for daily meditation and begun to physicalize its curved lines as pathways in space; its points of intersection became human encounters. Woven into that were ideas from work by experimental novelist Raymond Federer, a Holocaust survivor and a student of Samuel Beckett.
These ideas set the dancers on a series of encounters and departures along trajectories in the stage space. Propulsive rhythms faded in and out of composer Christian Meyer’s layered electronic score while the dancers, costumed in Patton White’s casual, elegant draped ivory clothing, were often bathed in golden light that highlighted the choreography’s pure physics and flow.
Human compassion and the need for companionship seemed both causes and effects of movement. In an approach, a dancer’s swooping arm landed in an embrace, gathering momentum for a lift that whirled around, its centrifugal force sending the two spinning off into new encounters. A dive onto a dancer’s shoulder sent the first sailing around the overhead space; a pair spun into the floor like tumbleweeds in a whirlwind. After the concept had exhausted its spatial possibilities, each dancer stood alone facing the audience in an individual pool of light. There was a sense of unfulfilled potential; countless human relationships were touched upon, though never explored at a deeper emotional level, leaving a feeling of loneliness and isolation.
“The Moment Between,” in its experimental, improvisational mode, lacked the synergy I saw at last spring’s Modern Atlanta Dance Festival, shortly after the work premiered in Houston. In Saturday’s performance, its thematic elements were disconnected and the structured improvisation a little lackluster. Its medium, William Forsythe’s Improvisation Technologies system, learned from his DVD recording, did not play to the dancers’ technical strengths. But the work’s message, an artist’s personal statement on giving oneself over to the rigors of art-making, was no less sincere.
Wide strips of white butcher paper hung vertically from flies to a floor strewn with large wads of crumpled white tissue. In the darker voids between white paper, as the dancers folded, unfolded and traced circles with their limbs, it was as if they were defining space, exploring the body’s geometric configurations in the space, like artists seeking to define themselves through their work. Coupled with this improvisational structure was a Buddhist notion of Emptiness — that when an individual achieves a state that allows the space between the body and mind to open wider, movement becomes pure and honest.
Perhaps the aim for purity, linked to the abstract nature of the improv structure, created a detached, impersonal feeling. And without human connections, these spatial explorations lost cohesion with other themes, such as wrapping oneself in paper as if it were physical and emotional baggage. Neither of these themes coalesced to set up the final solo, Stronks’ deeply personal statement on letting go, clearly spoken and ferociously danced by Blake Dalton, suggesting transformation through self-sacrifice to one’s art.
Still, the evening’s performances were some of the most nuanced I’ve seen from these dancers, whose individual qualities combined to create a multi-textured ensemble, greater than the sum of its parts. Alisa Mittin glowed with a brilliantly colored aura; Alex Abarca’s dancing was particularly soulful. Claire Molla’s buttery smoothness and Corian Ellisor’s lighthearted agility were ever intriguing. And Dalton’s focused strength seemed to be central to the troupe’s power. If, at times, these works showed signs of unfulfilled potential, they augur a long future of joyful exploration. Perhaps what CORE has done for its community for the past 25 years, and what it continues to do, carries more weight than the passing moment.