Mac Dance brings its Inverted Force to the stage

By Jesse Sawyer

I’m sitting in the Macalester theater. I’m watching people, both students and faculty, move their bodies in ways that are presupposed to be completely relevent and meaningful. They are telling me something with their bodies, I remind myself. What are they telling me? I wonder.I’m watching a full-dress rehearsal of the Inverted Force dance performance, the actual performance of which debuts tonight at 7:30 p.m. I know absolutely nothing about performance dance. This tells you two things about me. First, that I’m an incompetent Arts editor, and second, that I am probably not much different than you.

Modern dance often finds itself the subject of parody within the mainstream consciousness. It brings to mind abstract slow-motion movements, over-contextual, politically-obscure wankery that seems to value concept over talent, inaccessible at best, ridiculous at worst.
Anti-intellectual as this reaction may be, it’s not completely unfounded. Conceptual dance is one of the least easily interpreted mediums in existence, lacking the obvious narrative codes of literature, film, or even the gestalt nature of visual arts.

This also makes it interesting.

I know this, now. Now that I’m sitting here at this rehearsal, watching groups of dancers contorting their bodies in and out of synch with one another to the sounds of Coco*Rosie, trying to forge meaning out of motion. I’m filling up pages of notes, my own interpretations of the interactions of bodies with light, sound, space, and each other. And you know what? I’m not bored. I’m not incredulous. I’m watching people move, and nothing more. And yet I’m captivated.

The performance is made up of ten different pieces, choreographed by three faculty members and six students, from solo pieces to ten-plus members. Ranging in styles from jazz and hip-hop to abstract modern, they address widespread themes and differing points of view, but, to this lay viewer at least, certain thematic motifs seemed to reoccur.

The majority of the dances addressed, in one way or another, the dichotomy between individual and social collective. In many of the pieces, dancers, in pairs and in groups, explore the expectations of the audience through constant straying from unity into disharmonious movement. In this way, social groups are established and subverted, usually only to reform again, in such a way that the social group is shown as a supporting network to which the individual returns. In many instances, the “solo,” in which one dancer diverges from the chorus in order to declare an individual movement, is one in which the dancer achieves a uniqueness of self, and yet is able to return to the fold of the group afterward, an apt metaphor for healthy social support systems.

This feeling, expressed passionately in many dances, was perhaps most clearly articulated in Emily Gastineau’s ’09 work, set to three songs off of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon album. Concerning “the tension between looking back and breaking free,” this work incorporates the intermingling of separate dancer’s paths into a formal unity, to the extent that at one point a simple social exchange repeats itself over and over again, each time bringing the dancers closer and closer together, to a claustrophobic level that perhaps mirrors the kind of social interaction prevalent in the Macalester environment.

Philip Higgs ’07 choreographs and performs in a work that deals with this social exchange on the traditional level of romantic interaction, in a less modernist and more narrative form. In his work, set to more pop-based dance music, the drama of lovers who continually move away and towards each other works to poignantly express the way in which we both need and reject one another continually in personal relationships. Technically flashy and well-executed, his dance is dramatic in ways that are less obscure, but no less affective than the other pieces.

Also breaking away from the overt idealism of many of the pieces is Alessandra Williams’ ‘07 hip-hop-based piece, which contains a barely-suppressed rage that paradoxically coexists with a celebration of the potential for individual movement and expression. Another technically flashy piece, it incorporates elements of breakdancing in such a way that maintains that movement’s tradition of individualized expression within collective framework. The solo moments in the piece are amazing, and yet it is the collective effort that is most celebrated, a rationalization of anger that subverts contemporary views of anger as an ineffective emotion.

The performance is directed by Becky Heist, Director of Macalester’s Dance Program, and her work is evident in the performance’s modernist aspects and the influence of Chinese tradition in the second piece, a work entitled Two Think, a duet that is performed before the glowing Chinese symbol of the title by Heist and Judith Howard, Visiting Instructor, and accompanied live by distinguished flautist Zhang Ying.

The concert’s finale, performed by the Macalester Dance Ensemble, and choreographed by Judith Howard, is entitled Threshold. This work, which both advances and calls into question the interrelational concepts that precede it, seems to deal directly with the act of breaking away from social standards, in this case in such a way that seems to invoke ideas of madness and depression. As dancers nearly slide off the front of the stage, the community pulls them back in. The work seems almost to recall Anti-Oedipus, in that it simultaneously shows individual “schizophrenia'” as a positive aspect of personality as well as a socially-impacted negative affect. When the dancers move in their spasmic individualized motions, they carry our gaze with their unique undulations, and yet without the social group they are adrift in a stage no individual can successfully navigate. As a finale it works to succinctly summarize the importance of social exchange the concert evokes, and as a performance piece, it demonstrates the advanced technique of the Mac Dance Ensemble.

I’m no dance critic. I sat down in my folding chair expecting nothing more than the movement of bodies. Inverted Force delivered that. And yet, it delivered something else, that infinitely interpretable something that basic human expression calls for, something I felt in the Macalester theater that I hadn’t expected, while looking at nothing more, or less, than the movement of bodies across a stage.

Inverted Force, Janet Wallace Fine Arts Theater, December 8 and 9, 7:30 p.m. December 10, 2:00 p.m.