Dance Program Uses An Innovative Design

“We aim to articulate ideas for which there are no words.” So wrote Office for the Arts Dance Director Jill Johnson in the program notes of this year’s Harvard Dance Program Spring Performances, a presentation of three original works at Farkas Hall on Friday.

Undoubtedly, the programming—which included choreography by Johnson and OFA Artist-in-Residence Christopher Roman—was conceptually ambitious. At its core, the repertoire was an effort to examine choreographic design. But at times, the effort to manipulate space and sound felt overdone, emphasizing provocative ideas rather than showcasing the movement that truly makes dance emotionally and aesthetically engaging.

“The Sum of Missing Parts,” choreographed by Roman in collaboration with his cast, was innovative in its use of space. Incorporating a pedestrian feel reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’ 1983 “Glass Pieces,” Roman arranged his dancers in single file lines that ebbed and flowed across the stage in intricate patterns. But the emotional weight of Roman’s choreography was lost in stretches of silence and overstated in passages of spoken words. Anxieties of self-worth professed in exclamations of “It’s my life!” and “Is this it?” could have been crafted more sensitively into the movement itself.

Roman and Johnson’s “Third Rail” investigated ideas not of space but of sound in choreographic design. While the audience listened to a steady electronic beat, the dancers performed to soundtracks of their own—many donning headphones plugged into a music player. Throughout the piece, the dancers removed their headphones and pressed them against microphone stands to reveal their songs. Though the idea was novel, it came at a cost: a great deal of distracted fidgeting onstage.

Johnson writes later in her program that the Harvard Dance Department aimed “to design motion and organize space in ways that resonate in at least one individualized moment with each member of the audience.” And indeed, moments certainly caught the attention. In “The Sum of Missing Parts,” Melanie J. Comeau ’13, Shayna Skal ’13, and Boston University student Samantha Stockman graced the stage with a seamless dance for three. Later, Halimeda Glickman-Hoch ’12 and Irineo Cabreros ’13 performed a touching duet with fluid weight transfers and intricate floorwork, while Tsung-Yun Tzeng, a Harvard Extension School student, opened “Third Rail” with shoulder oscillations that blended a balletic grace with the power of krump.

If “The Sum of Missing Parts” was an exploration of space and “Third Rail” of sound, the evening’s final work was a union of these choreographic ideas: a piece that aimed to “measure” the music using the stage as ruler. “The Sound of Distance in Itself”—a choreographic collaboration by Jill Johnson and Harvard students enrolled in Music 103r: Dance Masterwork Class: Forsythe—was inspired by the choreographic process of William Forsythe. As a revolving spotlight traced one beam of light across the theater, Johnson’s piece began with the emergence of an eerie buzz that evoked the sound of an approaching plague of locusts. Only when the sound reached a fevered pitch did the lights brighten to reveal that the dancers were producing the cacophony, each flinging a tangle of metallic yellow measuring tapes.

As the thunderous, cascading first notes of Gavin Bryars’ “String Quartet No. 1” began, Johnson’s choice to clad her dancers in black rain gear and goggles became clear: they were preparing to weather a storm of sound. With a sharp pulse of music, one dancer would lunge forward while another stepped back; with a distinctive bow stroke, a dancer would run across the stage as if to chase the length of the instrument’s sound. The flurry of movement—each motion unfolding beautifully in a spiral around the body’s vertical axis—wholly embodied Forsythe’s style.

As Johnson’s dancers flung their tangles of measuring tape a final time, the lights dimmed until only the flurry of glinting metal was visible against the black—an intriguing depiction of “sound” in the space where Johnson’s dancers stood. It was this finishing touch that revealed most clearly the aim of Spring Dance Performances 2012: to deconstruct the use of sound and space for both student dancers and their audiences. The Harvard Dance Program’s effort to pursue provocative choreographic design is laudable, though the balance between novelty and the quality of movement was not fully reconciled. Nonetheless, the challenge is a worthy one, for the most breathtaking moments in a performance happen when dance steps cease to be classroom exercises and become–as Johnson notes in the program—“ideas for which there are no words.”

—Staff writer Alyssa A. Botelho can be reached at abotelho@college.harvard.edu.

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