March 3, 2009

Ithaca Ballet: Dancing in the Face of Death

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Tragedy strove to reverse itself in Byron Suber’s dance piece, Bach Solo Cello Suite No. 1, Circa 1986. Dancers in black fell to the ground one by one, like birds shot in midair — only to rise again, flinging their skirts with a death-defying joy.
Suber’s dance piece was performed at the State Theatre last Saturday for The Ithaca Ballet’s Winter Repertory Performance alongside with pieces by other choreographers. Bach Solo Cello Suite No. 1, Circa 1986 was an exercise in contrasts.
Dancers whirled together simultaneously with a frightening vigor — producing a dizzying juxtaposition of chaos and order. Neo-classical balletic movements jostled with modern dance techniques for a place in a piece where life and death are intimately intertwined.
Even though the dancers sashayed, strutted and tangoed in pointes across the stage with larger-than-life stage grins in other pieces, they came into Suber’s piece stripped of the theatricality that was characteristic of the earlier pieces on show.
In contrast to classical ballet, which dictates that dancers present themselves in one direction (usually towards the audience), the Cunningham school of dance rethought the concept of the dancer’s “front,” directing the dancer simply to move where they were moving, and adopt multiple “fronts.”
Cunningham-esque in its irreverent treatment of the neoclassical and explicit rejection of the manifestly theatrical, Suber’s piece had a deeply psychological texture and historical cadence.
In the first movement, set to the prelude of Bach’s “Solo Cello Suite No. 1”, eight dancers moved through the stage space. Collapsing their backs, they took on the posture of weepers. Lifting their black skirts up and releasing them, each dancer appeared like a mourner scattering the ashes of a beloved.
The piece was choreographed in 1985, during the escalating AIDS crisis. Then, Suber was living in New York City’s East Village — a bustling, creative community synonymous with the thriving performance and art culture in the 70s and 80s. Then, the AIDS crisis took a toll on the dancing community centered around the East Village.
Speaking in the Schwartz Center while rehearsing with Cornell dancers, Suber spoke about the day he cleared out his rolodex of the pages with friends who were claimed by AIDS.
A New York Times article shows that estimates of the number of people diagnosed with AIDS in New York City from 1981 through early 2000 ranged from less than 120,000 to 200,000. The AIDS crisis also focused public attention on gay communities in America.
Confronted with the death of friends, Suber produced this paradoxical portrait of life and death, joy and grief.
This piece has a strikingly dramatic quality that gives it the feel of a stylized mime piece. In the third movement, a lone dancer kneeled with her back to the audience. She arched and reached backwards, and then stretched her arms forward, producing a portrait of absolute isolation.
Then, seven other dancers joined her from the opposite end of the stage, some miming clutching at the walls of a glass box, as though trapped in by death. They melded together organically into a community of movement. Perhaps Suber is trying to suggest that death is the great equalizer, uniting everyone in common knowledge of his or her mortality.
The choreography of the piece, because it plays on the juxtaposition of order and chaos, prevented the technical disparities of the dancers from showing through.
In the last movement, the dancers grand jete-d across the stage, swinging their skirts with a desperate joy that in its violence, veered on mania.
One by one, they fell to the ground, collapsing into stillness. The skirts became a visual marker — distinguishing who survived and who didn’t. Two dancers — the only ones upright and without skirts — tiptoed through the rubble of bodies, pondering their losses.
The title of Suber’s piece, Bach Solo Cello Suite No. 1, Circa 1986 makes one aware that art isn’t produced in a vacuum. It is made somewhere, with someone’s face in mind, at a specific point in history.
In producing a dance piece that acknowledges unspoken private and cultural losses, Suber suggests that art can facilitate mourning. Bach Solo Cello Suite No. 1, Circa 1986 shows the capacity of dance to offer a form of healing.