On Saturday, February 19, the Boston Conservatory Dance Theater presented “Liaisons,” a farewell performance for Yasuko Tokunaga, the company’s outgoing Artistic Director, and director of the Boston Conservatory’s Dance Division. The program featured two works by renowned choreographer Martha Graham, and “The Moor’s Pavane,” a 20-minute dance interpretation of William Shakespeare’s “Othello” by Mexican choreographer Jose Limon. To complete the program, contemporary choreographers Parren Ballard and Thang Dao each presented the world premiere of an original composition.
The performance opened with “Frontier,” a quietly powerful work originally choreographed by Martha Graham in 1935. To the faintly militaristic melodies of a fife and drum, a solo dancer (Catherine Jaeger) conveyed through movement both the adversity and excitement of life in the American West. To evoke this somewhat wistful setting, one segment of a wooden fence rested at the center of the stage; this simple yet effective set piece gestured to the bygone era without any trace of overstated theatricality.
Barefoot and attired in a long, dusty-pink dress, the dancer was wrapped in a floor-sweeping skirt, a costume characteristic of Martha Graham pieces. The fluid yet figure-hugging gown allowed the audience to see the dancer’s every careful contortion. Indeed, throughout the piece, Jaeger’s movements were purposeful and deliberate; focused exhalations were even audible at times.
A second Martha Graham piece, “Lamentation,” followed. Seated on a bench, and contorting her body from side to side, soloist Giulia Pline moved her body in a way recalling an erratic metronome. As the piece progressed, her oscillations grew more anxious, and her body began to twist in angular juts and starts. Encased in a body-length tube of maroon fabric, Pline’s every move created new triangular shapes. Appearing like a mourning Madonna of the modern world, she twisted through the various stages of grief, lit only by a dim purplish light.
Unlike the solo pieces which preceded it, “The Moor’s Pavane” featured four dancers, each loosely representing a member of Shakespeare’s two parallel couples: Othello and Desdemona, and Iago and Emilia. The decision to structure the story around the play’s two principal pairs allowed the classic narrative to be somewhat refocused and reframed. With the ever-changing arrangements of the dancers onstage, Limon’s piece was able to visualize the complex web of relationships among the characters. At times, the couples are clearly juxtaposed; in a technically-complex opening sequence, the evident passion and sincerity shared by Othello and Desdemona is subtly contrasted with the snake-like dance of deception between Iago and Emilia nearby. In this way, Limon presents the latter’s relationship as a cheap imitation of the genuine emotion deeply felt between Othello and Desdemona.
Indeed, when Iago and Emilia dance, it is clear they exist to frame the story of the misguided yet nobler lovers. In what is perhaps the most visually arresting moment in the entire piece, the devious pair begins to move toward one another as Othello violently suffocates his wife. This suggests that they unite as a couple most powerfully when conspiring to destroy others.
In particular, Desdemona (Megumi Kawahire) danced her part with evident cheer and naïveté. In the opening scene, her movements were as much marked by gaiety as Othello’s (Daniel Johnson) were by passion and precision. Like Shakespeare’s jealous military leader, Johnson punctuated his every movement with a sharply-defined edge; he fueled each twist and snap with a palpable intensity of spirit.
The piece’s costuming, by Pauline Lawrence, offered a particularly decadent visual treat. Johnson, clad in luxe, blood-red velvet robes, contrasted strikingly with Desdemona, who appeared to float on thick layers of virginal white tulle, her grace as airy and refined as the gossamer puffs dotting the sleeves of her dress. Musically, the piece featured dramatic classical compositions, often imbuing the performance with a quietly-pulsing aural heartbeat. Even more powerful, however, were the abrupt halts in the music during particularly impassioned exchanges between Othello and Iago (Brett Sjoblom). The startling moments of orchestral silence, punctuated only with a few terse pants of breath, dramatically underscored the violent tension trembling in the air between the two men.
Though Kawahire was clad in pure white, the piece’s three other characters were each enrobed in rich flame-colored tones: Sjoblom in burnt amber yellow, Emilia (Amanda Jenny) in fiery orange, and Johnson in blood red. In the dance’s final moments, these three hues first rise and then slowly quiver down to meet Desdemona’s splayed body, calling to mind the slowly-dying embers of a once great fire.
To balance the dramatic and deeply mournful mood evoked by Limon’s masterwork, the second half of the performance featured the thoughtful, ballet-inspired “Radian,” a new piece by Ballard. Dao’s high-energy choreography followed, offering a large ensemble piece to close the show. Like Tokunaga’s own tenure with the Boston Conservatory Dance Theater, “Liaisons” moved through a series of intricate, complex, and highly emotional experiences with both beauty and grace.
—Staff writer Clio C. Smurro can be reached at email@example.com.