Orson Welles once said that the enemy of art is the absence of limitation. Perhaps Michael Fothergill had a similar adage in mind when he drew up the rules for Ballet Arkansas’s most recent evening of new works. The terms were these: Five dancers had nine hours each in the studio to create a new work. They drew their casts from a hat, and rehearsals began. The result was “Debut,” performed Nov. 15-16 at Argenta Community Theater in downtown North Little Rock.
A highlight of “Debut” was Paul Tilman’s “Umbra,” a fast-paced thriller full of swerves and sudden mutations. In the piece, seven dancers moved in and out of formation, making and unmaking a flurry of new shapes. Though the piece had no narrative, there was a sense of urgency pulsing beneath everything the dancers did. They looked like people on the run — diving to the floor in a quick shoulder roll, racing to the edge of the stage — but Tillman’s choreography left their motives unclear. The dancers darted glances over their shoulder as if they were fleeing an unseen threat. Tillman never defined the mystery further, and that made the dance all the more electrifying.
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As the dancers wove in and out of each other, Tillman’s choreography turned into a kaleidoscope of human bodies. The movements were often simple: One dancer curled up in a side plank; another fell down into a push up. It was the way Tillman combined each step with another, linking his dancers in one giant textile, that made the picture so startling. His choreography was full of impossible shapes — a dancer suddenly moving with four arms, three legs — and it happened so quickly, I started to lose track of each individual head, hand and foot. The dancers’ bodies dissolved into something inhuman and thrilling: the pure geometry of Tillman’s vision.
There was another kind of human centipede at work in Deanna Stanton’s “Stained.” The piece was a pas de trois among Kaley Kirkman and two male dancers, Matthew Larson and Tillman. The men surrounded and cleaved to Kirman, making it impossible for her to escape their hands for even a second. The moment she rolled from one partner, she was in the arms of the other. By the end of the dance, the two men stood on either side of Kirkman, one holding her in an arabesque, the other touching her ankle as she rotated in a slow circle. In this final tableau, Kirkman’s body was rigid as a ballerina suspended in a jewelry box, petrified by the gears cranking around her. Her body was tense, her face grim, but her partners expressed nothing. They were not so much actors in the scene as props that had appeared to surround and obstruct her. Their detachment threatened to drain the piece of any real tension, turning Stanton’s choreography into a limp dance between automatons.
In Meredith Loy’s “Connect 4,” the dancers were similarly detached, but always buoyant. They bounded onto the stage like a fleet of hurdlers running circles around a track. The look was country-club-beach (think red rompers, spandex shorts) and their movements were all knees and elbow. They happily commanded the stage, moving with the easy athleticism of a bunch of acrobats cartwheeling onto the scene. When one dancer sailed through the air in another’s arms, kicking her toes back and forth, she could have been a synchronized swimmer paddling into place. Everyone was bouncy and bright, but at the bottom of their movements, there was something just a little bit sinister, a touch bloodthirsty. I got the sense that the dancers’ faces could change in a moment and any of them would break an arm if the situation called for it. Halfway through the dance, the music became more tender and the dancers broke off into pairs. One dancer wrapped her body around her partner, using every muscle to cling to his torso, and when she kicked her toes in the air, she moved with more tension, less buoyancy. This was meant to be the most intimate part of the piece — the moment when the dancers began to dance with each other, rather than at each other — but it felt the least genuine. The dancers’ movements, once strident and strange, unraveled into a string of romantic cliches. Loy’s choreography felt more original, more completely her own, when her dancers returned to elbowing one another around the stage. In one of the piece’s final moments, they all hovered in a tense plié, their knees bent like coils ready to spring. They were full of themselves and their own ambition, shallow and careless, and it was wonderful to watch them there — looking like cats preparing to pounce on their prey.
Matthew Larson’s “De Profundus” was less country club, more cult. Though the piece had no setting, it felt like it happened underground. Gregorian chants droned over the scene in long somber moans as a group of female dancers shuffled around the stage, arms limp, shoulders hunched, every motion drooping and lagging. They looked like corpses partway through the process of decay, and their skin-tone dresses clung to them like shrouds. Watching them, I felt like I had stumbled on one of those extremophiles that live 8,000 feet beneath the Earth and survive by breathing sulfur. The dancers were inhuman, primeval, completely without motive or feeling. If their movements had a setting, the air would be close and damp, putrid with mold. Light might enter the scene, but only for contrast, to make the dark feel darker. As the choral music pressed down, it all began to feel too circular, too repetitive, too claustrophobic for comfort.
After Larson’s drooping note, Hannah Bradshaw’s “Reminiscence” was a relief. The mood was all old Hollywood, exaggerated smiles and pouts. The lights came up on a big brass band and Zeek Wright spinning happily at the center of the stage, looking like the leading man at the start of a big musical number. Bradshaw’s dancers moved breezily between ballet and Broadway, leaping across the stage with jazz hands, then passing each other with a saucy flick of the wrist. When the music turned wistful, the dancers slowed with it, transforming the party into a glamorous sort of tragedy. It was a drama full of melodramatic flair, the kind of movie where the leading lady sheds a single twinkling tear, and no one’s mascara ever runs.
Watching Bradshaw’s dancers, I felt like I had caught them posing in front of a mirror, tapping out a dance intended only for themselves. There was a moment early on when all the dancers leaped away, leaving Deanna Stanton alone on the stage. As Bing Crosby’s voice crackled across the speakers, she swayed and brought her hand up in a beauty pageant wave, like someone standing in the middle of her kitchen, just as her favorite music began to play. As another dancer (Leah Morris) entered the stage, Stanton greeted her with a sultry shoulder roll. The gesture was gleeful, and also a little bit vain. It felt like singing in the car, or twirling around in a circle when no one else is watching, a movement full of the simple joy of dancing. Reason enough for a trip to the ballet.