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Dances with words at Polaris

By Jamuna Chiarini

November 26, 2014

There is no doubt in my mind that Robert Guitron, the artistic director of Polaris Dance Theater, is as passionate about written language as he is about dance.

Earlier this month (November 7-16) at Polaris’s home studio on SW Taylor St., Guitron debuted his new production Word, an evening of dance to spoken word, comprised of 15 dances including choreography by company dancers Kieraqmil Brinkley, Jocelyn Edelstein, Briley Neugebauer and M’liss Quinnly all performed to various works of different authors, poets and playwrights. All the readings were prerecorded with music mixed in, except for one.

In between pieces in the second half, company apprentice Valerie Grabill came to the edge of the stage and read to us from her ballet corrections notebook about her memory of a four-hour ballet class she had taken with Summer Lee Radigan, teacher and artistic director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. I don’t remember exactly what the notes were, but I do remember that her feelings were raw and that hearing about her experience was moving and inspirational. The audience stayed right with her, laughing and loving every moment of it.

Polaris performs "Words" in its home studio./Photograph courtesy of Polaris

Polaris performs “Words” in its home studio./Photograph courtesy of Polaris

Yes, this was a massive undertaking with a distinctly grassroots feeling. Not only was Guitron the main choreographer and the host of the show, but during the performance he ran the sound and moved scenery onstage as well.  For the performance the Polaris studio was converted into a black box theater seating roughly 100. Because of the number of dances and performers on stage (15 most of the time) this density, along with multiple large sheets of opaque plastic dissecting the space and the feeling of sameness throughout the show, made it difficult for me to differentiate between the pieces, and the ones that stood out were the pieces with fewer dancers in them. It was the space around them that made it possible for me to see them. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the dancing of the larger company: This is a very capable group of highly skilled contemporary dancers, after all.

Those standouts:

Trust, choreographed by Guitron and also the name of a poem by an unknown author, was performed by six dancers; two couples in white splitting the stage in the back and one couple dressed in black positioned in the far front suspended from a large ring. The poem describes trust and how it looks and feels. This conversation unfolded in the partnering movement of the three couples in their use of touch and weight sharing with each other—counterbalance, leaning, pulling, pushing, falling, suspension, etc.

The aerial couple, M’Liss Quinnly and Tia Palomino, captured this sensation of risk merely in their suspension alone. They stayed acutely aware and connected to each other as they slowly moved through their own dance of dependence and independence on/in the ring. In a culminating moment,  Quinnly and Palomino faced each other sitting side by side, legs dangling, in an ecstatic moment, and daringly leaned back off the ring as the line was read, “Over time, with familiarity, I can relax and start to lean back.” They communicated the essence of the whole poem in one short sequence.

Body Love, a black and white film by Guitron and Mike Dawson (edited by Dawson) to the powerful spoken word/music/song of Mary Lambert, about loving ourselves and taking back our bodies,  spoke to me personally as I am coming to terms with my aging body as a dancer. The dancers in the film seem to be improvising and moving from their inner voices as opposed to set choreography. And the camera captures the movement from unusual and odd places creating a conceptual rather than a literal depiction of the poetry,  which allowed me to enter into it and bring my own thoughts as opposed to being told what to think and feel by the emotions of the dancers. I found this a refreshing respite in the middle of the program.

The last two pieces in the program were choreographed by long-time company member M’Liss Quinnly to the recordings of comedian Bill Cosby, the monologues “Censor Yourself” and “Brain Damage.”  (When I saw the show the sexual assault allegations against Cosby hadn’t been made public.)

Danced by couples spread out around the whole stage, one as the parent figure and the other as the child, the dancers tell Cosby’s stories of his annoyance with his children. Quirky and gestural the dancers capture the rhythm, cadence and phrasing of the words and sentences as well as the hilarity of the experience ending the concert on an upswing.

Words used as sound score add a whole other layer of meaning to a dance. Words can be used literally or can be broken apart and used abstractly for their sounds. As a person who enjoys dance and written language, I enjoyed seeing this relational interplay unfold on stage.

Informal performance spaces mean intimacy. This means the audience can see every detail of the stage, the sets, the choreography, the costumes, the movement and most importantly for me, the dancers faces. I need to see the facial expression as well as the form of the body in motion to get the full picture of what is being communicated in the dance. Yes, it is about the body moving in space, but it is also about the person in that body. If I can’t read that face then that information is lost, and I cannot connect to the dance. I have seen dance in much larger venues where I could not see the faces and could squish a dancer between my fingers with one eye closed. In those instances I felt cheated of this opportunity for human connection and the chance to feel what the performers are feeling. Polaris’s goal in performing in their home studio was to foster that connection between performer and audience members. In the beautiful, rustic, barn-like setting, that connection was made.

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