General 7-4-2004

Beauty May Be a Cruel Aesthetic: Space T.U. Embrace at the Southern

Lightsey Darst writes kinesthetically on "Space T.U. Embrace" as they looked at the Southern last month: the extraordinary performance is embodied in her virtuoso language.

First, the movement. Choreographer Uri Sands’s marriage of ballet and modern is long on leg and fairly fixed in the torso; the dancers may stick their hips out but they remain upright and muscled, never slack in the gut. As ballet often seems to depend on the configuration of one leg in the air and the other standing, so does this choreography: dancers swing turned-in, fiercely pointed legs in arcs or spin in back attitudes. Each held pose rises out of a valley of supporting movement and sinks back into it, so the dance has a breathing rhythm.

Sands especially values the suspension before the breath: dancers sustain not only the balance, but also the growing out of balance, the off-balance balance. There’s also tension between circles and angles, as unforgiving straight lines give way to beautifully articulated waves, while dancers moving curvingly cut suddenly to diamond-hard lines. I take this movement style to be the origin of the night’s title: it’s space-conquering dance, unafraid, unlimited.

But there are limits. Ballet and modern combine here in Venn diagram fashion, with mostly common elements included. With its reduced vocabulary, the dance is less interesting; it can’t rise, like ballet, into dizzy heights of technique and fantasy, or sink, like some schools of modern, into slack-bodied earthiness. The steps remain pure and uninflected throughout, with emotion indicated through gesture and changes of tempo. Since the movements lack emotional or mental connotation, I wonder why the figures on stage are motivated to perform them.

One answer is that the characters on stage are not like us. They are, in fact, dancers, and they’re irresistibly attracted to attitude turns. In a way, they’re showing off, and every dancer on stage is visibly happy with the dance, because these are just the kind of positions dancers love to see in the mirror—crossed, sprung positions, making the most of every inch of line, every hyperextended trick, every inch of flexibility.

This isn’t a bad thing. Beauty may be a cruel aesthetic, but it’s easy on the eyes, easy to enter. When Toni Pierce-Sands flashes a leg that defines straight, the world is a better place. “Space” sold out the Southern Theater on all four nights; the audience knew there was something to see and enjoy. And Sands isn’t afraid, as some choreographers are, of grace; even men are allowed swan arms. It’s not everyone’s job (and maybe not Sands’s) to question the concept of beauty.

Sands himself is the first dancer on stage, and he sets the (very high) standard for “Space”: arrow-straight lines, the kind of superhuman articulation and coordination that suggests extra joints in the body, lightning changes from line to curve. As he dances it, the choreography shows a playful, exuberant mood that seems born of the body itself, rising out of and dependent on the body’s capacity for movement. The mode of this bodily happiness flicks from demonstration to reverie, but the mood itself doesn’t change.

That is, it doesn’t change through most of the performance. The program contains six separate short works; it’s not easy to tell whether Sands prefers a poetic or a narrative mode, because he uses both, but he’s more interesting in the poetic mode. The narrative pieces, like “Chaaya (Shadow),” in which Pierce-Sands traces Aparna Ramaswamy’s Indian dance with her ballet, or “Lady,” which ends with all the dancers raising their arms and walking towards the audience, are more predictable and less complete. The dance doesn’t fill the story and the story doesn’t fill the dance.

But in the more associative, poetic pieces, Sands’s choreography blooms. In “Work XIII: It Could Be Fear,” Mary Ann Bradley and Peggy Seipp frenetically swirl around each other, dressed in long sand-colored coats (designed by Pierce-Sands). Are they Dickensian waifs? Refugees from a stock market blasted by a sandstorm? It doesn’t matter; Seipp and Bradley form a vortex of motion and possibility. Seipp creates a mood here, panicked, aggressive, and needy, while in other pieces she’s lost, trying to find an emotional entrance.

“Work XXI: Tones of Adney” contains the most interesting movements of the night. Dancers stand and sway or sprawl starfish-wise on the stage. Couples push and pull at each other, stretching lines to the breaking point and beyond. Shapes that dulled the eye in earlier solos become infused with emotion in partnering, with a human dynamic of need and aid. Bradley’s flung extension would fall if she weren’t held, but whether she wants to be supported or to fall is a tantalizing mystery. “Adney” also gives a younger dancer, Eva Mohn, time to expand on stage. She, like Sands, appears to have more joints, more places to bend, than the average human. Her spare body has a curious emptiness as well, an absolute neutrality. While Stephanie Fellner, for example, has a recognizable stance at all times, Mohn returns to silence between each step. While this makes her a less engaging dancer at times, it also allows her to fill completely with each movement.

“Adney” is compelling, but feels unfinished at the same time, not fully explored. Sands takes a paragraph in the program to explain his experience of Lake Adney; he could use more of that experience to flesh out the piece, which could easily become a separate performance. The watercolors of “Adney” have just begun to dye Sands’s choreography; it’s an inspiration he can follow farther.