As Tulsa Ballet prepares to present Val Caniparoli’s “Lady of the Camellias,” I confess I’m still absorbed in its first show of the season. Life has kept my blogging presence to a minimum these past few months, but thinking about choreography and performance never stops. I’d like to share some belated thoughts on Wayne McGregor’s “PreSentient,” which had its U.S. premiere at Tulsa Ballet last fall, on the off chance that you might still be absorbed in it, too.
I left the theater after the company’s “Age of Innocence” triple bill back in September on the sort of high I get only from dance. What is this trancey endorphin rush? Where does it come from? Why did it start to happen during, of all pieces, Jorma Elo’s “Slice to Sharp,” a technical whiz-bang of a ballet with only a modicum of human feeling?
Feeling isn’t what does it to me. It’s connections.
Even in choreography like Elo’s, made up mostly of tricks (very skillfully done ones, but tricks nonetheless, speed for speed’s sake being one of them), I could see him making the connections. Leg and arm in relationship; then the relationship changes. Couple One and Couple Two pick up little ends of each other’s movement shadows. Not even the contrivances of Elo’s odd hand gestures and undeveloped flicks could take me out of my trance as I watched physical connections come and go — physical, as in the body, and physical also as in physics, the beautiful mysteries of nature that dance calls upon and manifests more than any other art.
Choreography is a highly conscious process that, on stage, appears to unfurl unconsciously. We watch as one movement flows into another, and when the flow is awkward or obvious we know we’re seeing a choreographic mind that is still somewhat asleep. It hasn’t understood deeply enough the connections that are available to it. It has perhaps not asked enough questions. There’s no fault in that, as there isn’t fault in the same quality as it appears every day in our lives. We can only be as awake as we are this minute. Excellent choreography, it seems to me, as in any great art, is fully and vividly awake. That’s why so much of it brings that elusive happy/sad emotion (surely there is a word for it?), that deeply familiar sense of simultaneous pleasure and pain. It reaches toward us with a truth that fits just so into that lonely lock hidden in the heart.
Connections? I think it’s about connections. Wayne McGregor’s life’s work has been to investigate links and chains and pathways — neural ones, technological ones, cross-disciplinary ones, and of course, always, physical ones, revealing connections by breaking or distorting or redirecting them. The juicier the connection, the more pleasure he takes in jangling it. Left hip and right ear? Brain science and the art of improvisation? See where that takes you.
McGregor’s art is awake. Do we have to enjoy it? Certainly not. “Awake” does not necessarily mean noble, or refined, or subtle, or lovely. McGregor has refined his passion and his purpose over the years into something that’s nearly irresistible to news outlets and sophisticated types the world over — namely, to explore what he calls “the technicities of the body,” its “technological literacy,” its immensely high degree of relevance as a tool for navigating the modern world. This verbiage is hugely effective in getting people to snap to when dance is mentioned; it sounds like something you could play with on an iPhone app.
But McGregor describes himself as “a real-world choreographer.” The technological literacy he champions happens at the level of joints and fascia and the split-second physio-cognitive decisions each of us makes throughout our daily lives. (He has noted the influence of William Forsythe on his thinking, Forsythe with his more than 30-year-old “improvisational technology” that explores and experiments with counterpoints and connections and disconnections within the body, an approach that has rippled through an entire generation of dancemakers.)
Onstage, the effect of a large number of bodies investigating their mental and physical options can be overstimulating. PreSentient, which premiered at Ballet Rambert in 2002 and received its American premiere in Tulsa Ballet’s season-opening program, is an organismic animation, a moving tableaux of whipping and pulsing and stretching cells, a few frames in the life of, perhaps, a water droplet seen under a microscope. Stager and longtime Random Dance member Antoine Vereecken described the individuals in the scene as “items coming in and out of relationship.” In a pre-performance talk, McGregor encouraged viewers just to “notice”: not to try to make things relate, to engineer cohesion or resolution, but just to observe and see what emerges from that observation. There was, to put it mildly, a lot to notice — the rhythmic structures McGregor invents in response to Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet are very, very dense — but I found the piece ultimately clear and mesmerizing.
As the curtain opened on an opaque white world (a “presentience” of McGregor’s famous Chroma), Sofia Menteguiaga was profoundly present in every second of the ballet’s opening statement, an exploratory solo as fascinating and un-self-conscious as liquid mercury dripping through a maze of tubes. In a tiny, drapey purple tunic, she moved meditatively from location to dislocation and back again, skipping over not a single moment of transition along the way. As she finished her solo she joined the rest of the cast, revealed in orderly lines as the opaque scrim rose behind her — and time suddenly accelerated. What was a single organism seen in slow-motion close-up was now that organism multiplied by 18 and at a wide zoom.
The whole cast wore purple, with variations in sleeves and skirts and shoulder design. (Tulsa World critic James Watts conjectured that the purple signified the extreme end of the color spectrum, the ultraviolet that’s almost invisible to the everyday eye.) Bodies, phrases, and time itself seemed to stretch and contract, as several dancers did the same movement but completed it at different speeds. Transitions in and out of movements were organically surprising: not familiar or even efficient, but full and imaginative. Throughout the piece, both men and women punched through super-physical solos that featured no distinction between the sexes (both wore soft ballet slippers, and both were dependent on each other as they leaned and lifted). Patterns emerged for only a moment — two pairs at two opposite corners, with shifting lines surrounding them — and then very swiftly returned to swarming chaos that was still always moving toward order. The effect is overwhelming in its velocity of change, as the music is relentless in its push, but at the same time a clear space opens up for the relaxed mind as it observes the internal transitions that make it all happen.
A pair of simultaneous pas de deux in the middle of the piece allowed my perceptions to slow a bit, but invited the same intense mental receptivity. Diana Gomez (whose extreme flexibility is coming in handy as more and more contemporary choreographers visit Tulsa Ballet) and Jiyan Dai began as the other dancers left the stage. In rosy light he let her bend in all directions; she floated to the ground like a sheet of paper, and he followed her pointed foot as it traced a circle on the floor around her and over her head, from which position she plucked herself up into a seated position in side splits. He stood just behind her, his vertical tension humming in a sort of reverse echo of her horizontal pull. A pair with a difference, like fraternal twins, or opposites who attract. Meanwhile, Menteguiaga and Jonnathon Ramirez Meija’s pairing was more unified: even when their movement was slightly different they were joined in directionality and timing. As they reclined on the floor, her arm curved around, then his leg. They swept up into downward dog, then bent their wrists backwards and leaned into their upper bodies on all fours.
The finale returned the stage space to “swarm” mode, with one organism jumping in only to be followed by others that surrounded and absorbed it and rushed away again. Dancers began to give random glimpses of clarity, like Ma Cong doing crisp double tours en l’air in a back corner, amidst the chaotic blur. Slowly, the whole thing began to organize, with Gomez center stage, and suddenly it was her alone, doing tendus into fifth position, spinning out crystalline pirouettes: a fully developed and integrated living structure with form, function, beauty, and intention. The piece ended with Gomez, small and fierce, quietly facing a grid of light at the back of the stage, with the memory of her furious, elegant evolution — not to something “higher,” but simply to a new organization, a new panorama — still humming in the air.