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Random Dance


by Toba Singer

November 11, 2011 -- Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

Turning the word “entity” over in my head before the show, I thought, “I hope this isn’t so abstract a piece that the choreographer (Wayne McGregor) couldn’t think of anything more specific to name it.” I had just read an interview with Jiri Kylian, in which he had offered the opinion that there is no such thing as “abstract” when it comes to dance: The dancers are there, they do the steps, they bring feeling with them: it’s not abstract. Kylian is right, and so was McGregor in his choice of a title. From start to finish, “Entity” was what, per Webster, is “Being, existence, an independent, separate or a self-contained existence.” Quite material and concrete!

In the hour-long piece’s opening moments, McGregor shows screened footage in black and white of a greyhound in full racing stride. It offers a presentiment of the loose-limbed breakout dancing we will see later in the program. As Lucy Carter’s lighting does its magic, a paneled space designed by Patrick Burnier comes into view. Manipulation of the paneling, and how space within its various configurations is lit, will shift the shape of the entity. The dancers will breathe life into it. The music by Joby Talbot and Jon Hopkins is variegated, and though fusion predominates at the end, a naturalist value shapes the opening of the piece, with images from nature, scientific equations, and ribbons of aquatic movement traveling across the panel screens. When there are no screened images, the panels go pastel, in giant blocks of adobe-like grays, pinks and sandstone.

A single dancer enters. The others file in, wearing white tops and black briefs in the first half of the program. A featured dancer’s backward glance draws a small entourage of two others, until wingmen flank each previously lone dancer. We see the polarities in action, as off-balance steps become tools for aggregating little affinity group-lets. The dancers assume animal-like shapes: The bird-like jut of a head out and in that then ripples through the spine. McGregor builds an entire pas de deux around a pas de cheval that begins with the dancers pawing the floor and then carrying that wave movement through their shoulders and necks. When multiples of group-lets are in evidence, it is as if they’ve risen out of an anthropological petri dish, each instigating its own culture, each creating a little sac from which smaller entities emerge. Then the sac becomes a sack of tricks and treats. The loose limbs tie them up and then pull steps out of them like little surprises, tiny or great natural wonders. The entity has in fact become a biosphere of many cultures, each engaged in its own ritual movements—couples flaying the movements from one another as a violin repeats an urgent appeal. Each culture is both abandoning and rediscovering its own claim to equilibrium.

In the second half, the costumes are black, and the entity is now defined by floor work. The music has doffed nature for House or something like that, with a pulsating downbeat. It feels as if there is a struggle between the screen and the score, as if the natural world and its detractors are at war. The descant that follows seems to resolve the contretemps in an unsettling, temporary sort of way, but the screens have split and the movement we see goes up and down like pistons, and these dancers really are able to take command of their bodies to assure that the timing never fails. What had been a happy coincidence of natural entropy has now assumed the mantle of some unidentifiable force that is ratcheting the pace into a synchronized regimentation. A lone dancer remains. The wingmen have vanished. As the stage darkens, the greyhound is unleashed to run his race once more.

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