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At Conduit, a vote for brevity and wit

By Martha Ullman West
July 19, 2014

Brevity, the long-winded Polonius says in Hamlet, is the soul of wit. That can also apply to non-verbal communication, and Kyle Marshall’s “Soundboard,” the shortest of the nine pieces included in this year’s version of Conduit’s annual Dance+ Festival, is a perfect example.

The New Yorker is the real deal, a young choreographer (he received his BFA in dance from Rutgers University in 2011), and with “Soundboard” he has made a solo for himself that is at once lean and expansive. A beguiling dancer, he not only engages with the audience (he makes eye contact, even!) he embraces it, a rarity in the frequently solipsistic terrain of contemporary dance.
It can be tricky to dance to spoken text, but Marshall, costumed by Meagan Woods in well-tailored slacks and open-necked shirt, moves with ease and energy and engagement to the words of Allen Ginsberg, spoken by the poet—the “soundboard” of the title. I found much of the verbiage in both Dance+ programs (and there was a lot of it) difficult to hear, but such phrases as “contained in my room” and “privilege to witness my existence” were amplified by Marshall’s spacious movement. It was our “privilege to witness [his] existence as a dancer,” not to mention his sheer joy in performing, pushing at air with his hands, walking, jumping, spiraling through and around the wonderful space that Conduit is for dancing.

Kyle Marshall in 'Soundboard' at Dance+/Jim  Lykins

Kyle Marshall in ‘Soundboard’ at Dance+/Jim Lykins

Small wonder that Marshall is currently performing with Doug Elkin, Tiffany Mills (with whom Tere Mathern shared an evening at Conduit in March) and Woods, another Rutgers graduate, who apart from costuming for Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Robert Battle and the like, has her own company and also runs a festival.

“Soundboard” concluded the first half of Part II, which I attended Thursday night. The show began with “Veil,” also a solo, choreographed and performed by Zahra Banzi, arguably another “witness” to the existence of the artist, in which she danced with her own shadow, projected and animated by Dylan Wilbur. I thought of Lucinda Childs’ groundbreaking “Dance,” which premiered at BAM in 1979, in which film of the dancers was projected simultaneously with live performance of the same movement, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying Banzi’s honest, expressive, heartfelt dancing. Like Marshall, she is a generous mover, and there was some playfulness in the way she interacted with Wilbur’s animation.

These solos bookended “before the dawn,” a collaboration of Meshi Chavez—who, the program note says, is passionate about butoh, arguably the most culturally specific dance form in Terpsichore’s quiver—and electronic composer Roland Ventura Toledo, performed by Teresa Vanderkin and Joe McLaughlin. The same program note tells us that the duet “was inspired by Ankoku, (the spiritual aspect of dance) and by imagery of moths, moonlight, longing and desire. It seeks to create a sense of something that has no beginning or end.”

“before the dawn” certainly created a sense of having no end (I didn’t think it ever would), and it has a very clear beginning as Vanderkin, who has a gorgeous long-limbed body and looked extremely chic in a purple tiered cocktail dress, and McLaughlin, in street clothes, inched their way along an invisible line in single file to the front of the space. “Tip-toeing toward Bethlehem” crossed my mind, a paraphrase on Yeats’ “slouching toward” ditto from “The Second Coming,” quoted in the program notes for “Beast” in Program I.

Then as the music started to sound like bombs going off and Vanderkin lifted her arms and began to move spastically, I couldn’t help thinking of the corpse of a Palestinian child on the beach in Gaza, whose image was on the front page of Thursday’s NY Times. That’s not the composer’s fault or the choreographer’s—this piece was made long before this latest appalling development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that also seems to have no end, but it certainly colored my perceptions of the choreography, making it seem pretentious and glossy. The music, on the other hand, was shattering, physically and emotionally.

Zahra Banzi performs "Veil" at Conduit's Dance+ Festival/Photo by Jim Lykins

Zahra Banzi performs “Veil” at Conduit’s Dance+ Festival/Photo by Jim Lykins

“Confluence,” Christopher Peddecord’s new film made in collaboration with Northwest Dance Project’s Lindsey Matheis, followed the intermission. Let me say at the outset that as a long time viewer of dancing, committed to the immediacy of the exchange that takes place between artists and viewers (or listeners) that occurs only in live performance, as endangered a species as the polar bear, I vastly prefer to watch the melding of film and live dancing (see above) to a stand-alone film in a concert of this kind. And while “Confluence” was performed by many excellent dancers, including Banzi, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Jordan Kindell and Michael Linsmeier, and Northwest Dance Project’s Victor Usov, they were given to perform just about every movement cliché in the book, from aggressively glittering eyes to what looked suspiciously like a group grope. I liked last year’s Peddecord film considerably better; in that one, his approach was reminiscent of the surrealism of Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Part II concluded with “Radiation City,” performed by its creator, radical child/Alexander Dones and Kara Girod Shuster, a native Oregonian and former BodyVox member. The piece also incorporates film, starting with a humor-tinged list of ways to die that includes self-immolation, a metaphor for radical child’s motto: “create. Love. burn,” a more dramatic version of the late Jann Dryer’s motto: “Frame it. Do it. Drop it.” It’s way too long and way too wordy and terribly self-conscious, but both Dones and Shuster are very good dancers, and there is a kernel of innovative movement, particularly in the fall/catch/fall partnering, that would be easier to see if some of the verbal distractions were pared away. “Radiation City” is overstuffed with ideas and needs serious editing, the hardest thing for young artists to do.

“Luna,” the piece that concluded Part I of Dance + and in which I took the most pleasure in watching, also needs editing: It’s about five minutes too long. Created and performed by Anna Conner and Company, the Seattle choreographer had the courage to provide no program notes, but to rely on the dancing to deliver her message about the friendship, erotic and otherwise, of women. I liked it a lot.
Also “Black Friday,” sort of a visual commentary on Marx’s “alienation of the worker” applied to the consumer, and yes, a film, but I thought “Beast” needed a lot more fine-tuning and “Revivify” left me cold and bored, partly again because I couldn’t hear the text. (And in case anyone is wondering, I wear two hearing aids.)

Having said all that, Dance+ this year and in previous years has produced some interesting, innovative work, which is invariably well danced. So I am grateful to the director, Tere Mathern, and the funders, for giving these artists the opportunity to explore their ideas and hone their craft and show their work, and the Portland audience the chance to see the results. I look forward to seeing new artists next year, who perhaps have been challenged to make fifteen minute works rather than twenty. Gassy or not, Polonius had a lot of things right.

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