Falls The Shadow
Somewhere in the middle of the dance the music stops. Upstage, three amorphous forms continue to ooze in silent motion. Downstage, one small body remains stranded, frozen in a single pool of light. In the center, a flood of darkness. Between the idea and the reality...The isolated dancer begins to beat her foot slowly against the ground. Between the conception and the creation...The beating comes louder then faster and faster. Between the desire and the spasm... Until suddenly, lifted by her own momentum, she rises....
Between the beginning and the end of this student-choreographed piece, Claire Mallardi would say, "falls the shadow" of imperfection that Eliot spoke of in his poem, The Hollow Men." Mallardi, who is director of the University's dance program, has spent the last two years as artistic advisor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company trying to help her students realize their intentions in movement. "I want to erase the discrepancy between what the students think they are showing and what the audience actually sees," Mallardi said in a recent interview. All but one of the six works performed by the company last weekend at the Hasty Pudding Theater were choreographed by students who studied with Mallardi, and the last, "Winter Places," was done by Jack Moore, a New York performer and an old friend. The rehearsals must have been labors of love. Mallardi claims she was a "monster" who "battered" her students with a barrage of criticism aimed at specific movements in order to "help them raise their levels of consciousness of what their own pieces are about." Even more than for her gently trained students, the process must have been a struggle for Mallardi who had to refrain from trying "to impose my own dances on them."
The teacher doesn't think of the final version of a dance as preordained; she aims to develop the germinal idea in phases. Mallardi welcomes unpredictability in her students and shies away from learning by rote; still her dancers must justify every urge. "Currents Cast," the first piece in the program, transforms the contradictions and releases basic to every modern Graham class into the rhythm of ebb and flow near the ocean's floor. But while the reflected images swim beautifully and smoothly overlap, they are inpalpable, slipping like water from the hand.
The problem with the piece may be that its direct translation of concept into pure form is too reductive. The only other abstract dance included in the program also opens with visual simile. "Cresence" has a direct line of development which draws the bodies of the dancers, like the four phases of a waxing moon, more tightly together against an invisible night sky. "Dancers should make us feel strongly what's missing rather than just what's there," according to Mallardi. Visually, then, a horizontal line always implies a vertical; a contradiction, a release; a leap, a fall. Conceptually, the underlying idea for the dance emerges with an atmosphere that is greater than the dancers, and that they can only hint at.
The more theatrical pieces in the program succeed best because their visible human interactions imply more complex, less apparent relationships. "Between Two Moons," choreographed by Harvard senior Andy Borg as his thesis, is a subtle satire. Three harlequins meet on what appears to be an empty city street at night. The figures come swirling together, "sharing energies" as Borg puts it, only to unmask themselves after the encounter and whirl apart. In "Plot," more obvious parody accompanies a more explicit depiction of the relationships between the characters. A pair of female clowns performs whenever a male clown, shod in huge flippers, blows on his horn. Two strolling figures enter and, by depriving the trumpeter of his supporting props, leave the women free from their male-dominated roles. "Sunday morning...undone" also depends on audience recognition of a familiar setting and roles. As the curtain goes up, choreographer Liz Lurie, wrapped like a mummy, is being slowly un-wound from offstage. A TV flips on somewhere as Lurie trots around the stage removing more clothing and brushing away invisible flies. Finally, not knowing how else to amuse herself, she play-acts--a belly dancer, an Indian woman, a femme fatale throwing pink hand-kerchiefs to the wind.
"Sunday morning...undone" works at least partly because Lurie surrounds herself with the artifacts of restless desperation. But "Winter Places," the most effective piece in the program, says it all without using a prop. Although it is not clear whether the dancers braced against the cold are peasants laboring in a field or just people plodding through the snow, the sense of oppression here is very real. The work is made of fragments until the isolated images of the dancers become rapidly more systematic and simultaneous. The climax brings a kind of ghoulish march with the eyes of each dancer riveted to a demonic force, unseen by the audience, which surrounds and controls them all.
The appropriately simple stage bares the essential primitivism of "Winter Places." Mallardi wants her students to understand what goes into a theatrical setting by realizing that "lights, color, and costume" all play a role. "And if they choose not to use them, then that is a decision too." But can artistic choice really explain all the technical simplicities of the company's production? Mallardi herself says that the uneven cello and piano accompaniment to "Cresence" might have been re-recorded, but the group didn't have the money to pay.
This year the non-credit dance program operated on a $5000 University gift. As of now there is no money for next year in sight. In such a situation, Mallardi says, it is hard to ask students to give their time. Dancer Lise Newcomer's statement that "in order to perform you have to give something up" becomes more practical than inspiring.
Mallardi works with her dancers as Michelangelo did on his unfinished statues of "Slaves," chiseling to release the sculptures trapped inside. But there are other forces at work. Unless the University gives this talented company recognition for its work, the forms of dance at Harvard will remain hidden in the stone.