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A psychology-major roommate told me once that a hallmark of the human brain is its proclivity for categorization. Well, count me in. In ruminating about this year’s memorable dance performances, I found myself subconsciously dividing them into three groups.
These are the shows that vibrated with energy and left audience members practically sweating with a visceral satisfaction. They include performances like Step Afrika’s The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence at the Atlas; the Bill T. Jones-choreographed Fela!, which ran at Harman Hall; and the Connecticut-based David Dorfman Dance’s tribute to Sly and the Family Stone at the American Dance Institute.
Crowded with powerful, athletic movement that rarely let up, those shows—and the rousing physicality they transmitted—were ideal examples of why people see dance. On the other hand, they were based on fairly clear narratives and didn’t leave much to the imagination. As a result, the cheesiness element—and its accompanying cringe factor—tended to be a bit higher with these performances.
Presenting concepts through dance is tough, but, boy, is it tempting. In this category I’m including shows that focused on ideas: pieces like the Dance Exchange’s Hammock, which ran at both the Millennium Stage and Dance Place; More, by Philadelphia’s Headlong Dance Theater, also at Dance Place; and Collapsing Silence, a Source Festival collaboration by dancer Ilana Silverstein, artist David Carlson, and director John Moletress.
All three were intriguing performances that utilized a welcome spare aesthetic and appeared to be about way more than just movement. But only Headlong—whose More abstractly captured a sense of the motions we go through from birth to death—fully succeeded in creating a complete piece. It not only raised questions but, by the end, seemed to answer them, or at least provided a sense of resolution that pulled the performance together.
A few shows this year managed to combine both elements, mixing gorgeous dancing with a sense of something deeper, be it ideas, emotions, or simply an abstract mood. I’m thinking of Tzveta Kassabova’s The Opposite of Killing at Dance Place; Tinsel and Bone, by Erica Rebollar, which showed on the Millennium Stage; and the September PearsonWidrig Dancetheater show at Dance Place.
But the very best dance performance I saw all year was probably the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s show at the Kennedy Center earlier this month. It’s the last time the company will perform in Washington; Cunningham died in 2009 and the company is disbanding at the end of this year.
Which is a huge shame. After years of disliking Cunningham’s work, I’ve finally come full circle and can’t help but be awed by the man’s brilliance. Yes, brilliance. It’s not a word I use often, but watching his smart compositions as dancers moved in and out of various groupings, taking in the clarity of his aesthetic—which is reliably unsullied by either sentimentality or the sense that he’s trying to say something I’m not getting—I felt I was seeing the work of someone who exists on a higher plane than the rest of us. And how often does that happen?