Premiering this weekend at the Jamestown Arts Center, PARt is an exercise in juxtaposition. It is a collaboration in dance, music and painting conceived by choreographer Ali Kenner Brodsky and fulfilled by a cast of five dancers (Brodsky, Meghan Carmichael, Jessica Howard, Ellen Oliver and Sarah Osterhus) as well as three musicians led by MorganEve Swain and featuring Jerusha Robinson and Liz Isenberg, and nearly a dozen paintings by letter drawer Cyrus Highsmith. Expertly lit by Stephen Petrilli, the vast white space is transformed into a venue that feels intimate and mysterious.
It is clear that the dance is the central focus of the evening-length concert, and yet there is plenty of space to appreciate the breadth and resonance of the soundscape, a neatly woven mix of recorded and acoustic sounds delivered as fixed compositions and moments of improvisational genius. Not to be missed is the kaleidoscope of shadows thrown from the dancers’ bodies and moving across Highsmith’s paintings, which hang on three walls of the performance space.
The dance is revealed in a series of seven movements; groupings of the five dancers vary from solos to quartets, but there is always a clear divide between Brodsky and the other four dancers. The opening image holds the four dancers swaying and flocking in the downstage space as Brodsky sits at a small white café table meticulously arranging a mason jar full of purple field-cut flowers. Sounds of seagulls and tea kettles float through the space and eventually Carmichael, captivated by a nervous headshake, breaks the tension holding the quartet together and they are off and dancing through the work for nearly a full hour. Throughout the work, the café tables and chairs are arranged and rearranged, and there is always one seat unfilled.
In the second movement, Brodsky advances downstage and the other four find stillness. Brodsky moves as though through a series of memories that she is both holding onto and beholden to at the same time. Later in another solo, following more fussy floral arranging, Brodsky masterfully conjures bold strokes of gesture and architectural exploration, adding dashes of awkward token postures of femininity; a woman fully in control of her own body and making very clear choices about what she chooses to reveal. A clear and poignant moment in the work, we witness this solo while hearing some of the only words uttered throughout the work, “ I loved once a hummingbird…” coming from Swain in the upstage shadows.
Earlier in the evening, a particularly satisfying trio is danced by Oliver, Howard and Osterhas as Swain and her collaborators play string instruments in ¾ time. The dancers move in unison, gently brushing their hands down their thighs and prancing delicately, moving on to nuanced and curious gestures and eventually lounging on the floor, facing upstage and inviting us with their gaze to take a moment and listen to the music and appreciate the paintings. The musicians begin to add their voices to the mix and the dancers rise and begin frantically rearranging the furniture, toppling it as Brodsky sweeps through the space trying to maintain something like the way they used to be.
Not to be caught taking things too seriously, the four dancers sit across from the café tables with intense stares, and then engage in an amusing post-modern dance battle, working the coy emotional nonchalance that comes with the territory of being a dancer in this form. They maintain their cool even while performing ridiculous gestures and marching band-esque formations in unison and competing on teams of blue and red.
The work peaks energetically with a duet between Howard and Ostenhas, both masters of tension in their own bodies as well as the space between them. They seem to be able to feel and respond to each other’s skin, even though they are moving several feet apart and rarely seem to even make eye contact. Their sensory intelligence is magical to behold, and by the time they are finished, there is a dissipation of energy from the performance space and into the crowd that tells us the work is coming to an end.
Once more, Brodsky takes center stage as the musicians return to aural themes from the beginning. We are on the beach somewhere with her as she is tracing shapes in the sand, letting it pass through her grasp only to pick up another handful. She wipes the imaginary design she has made away and then it is all gone. What we are left with is something about presence, a perspective on emptiness, and perhaps the awareness of perception as a cognitive act of communication. There is something about it that can really only be said by placing these creative elements together in the same space, at the same time, and letting them illuminate these precious moments of truth and beauty.
October 21 & 22 2016 Friday & Saturday @ 7:30 pm: PARt at the Jamestown Arts Center. Tickets are on sale now and available online, at the Jamestown Art Center or at the door. There will be a Q & A with the artists following the Saturday performance. Advance purchase is encouraged. alikennerbrodsky.com/upcoming-performances/