Dance Review: Kelley Donovan’s Tides of Thought

Kelley Donovan believes every dancer should own her movement, not just perform it.

Transitional State, Kelley Donovan & Dancers at the Dance Complex, Mass. Avenue, Cambridge, MA, on March 16 and 17.

Kelley Donovan & Dancers in action. Photo: James Falvo.

By Marcia B. Siegel

Kelley Donovan is a modern dancer. Not many of those around these days. Her ideas and the way she uses her physicality predate the contemporary dancer’s balletic, all-purpose eclecticism. When you see her dance, you’re seeing a fully energized mover. It’s clear where every move starts and how it travels successively through her limbs and torso, and how the initiation impels her through space. She doesn’t separate the space above her from the space below, or what’s around her from what’s within her. She preserves this sense of legato through all her changes.

Her movement isn’t virtuosic; it isn’t meant to incite swoons or screams from the audience. It probably begins with very basic ideas: a hand reaching out, a head turning, a step backwards. The move spreads into the rest of the body, into propulsion, withdrawal, locomotion, turning, twisting. It gets physically complicated and it isn’t pared down to the bone the way ballet movement is. It has a rhythm, an ebb and flow. We can’t see what she’s dancing about; it’s not coded like ballet steps. These are moves all of us do in our own lives, and in a way, we all dance with her, feel our own meanings.

Guest Artist Karen Klein began Friday evening’s program at the Dance Complex with outstretched arms that undulated through her shoulders as she advanced into the room. She stepped on half-toe, one foot in front of the other, down a straight line; reached up with an arm; twisted around herself. (This is a version of the basic sequence that the great movement analyst Rudolf Laban called the dimensional scale.) Donovan entered with her own elaboration of this: big gliding, sweeping movements, swings, changes of direction, a luxurious slow weightiness alternating with a lightness unusual for a big woman. At the end they faced each other, smiled, sensitively touched each other on the chest, the shoulders. The dance, Phases, was co-created by Donovan and Klein.

Donovan later does a brief improvisation, Underwater, with a more intense variation on the same movements. The changes are faster, the stretches bigger. She creates such momentum in this that even when she stops, the movement doesn’t. Not every dancer finds the plush connections that Donovan does, and her group choreography gives the audience a way of seeing each performer separately as well as part of a collective movement.

In Community seven women in ankle-length gowns/pajamas stand in a cluster facing the audience. Side by side and swaying together, without relying on external cues from Samuel Barber’s nearly metreless “Adagio for Strings,” they create an intuited relationship. (The ancestor of this group image, the opening scene of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations (1960), comes to Boston this week, in the repertory of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.)

It occurs to me that Kelley Donovan's new dance, Transitional State, may be about the effort dancers make to produce high emotions and the way the moves decay with exhaustion.Click To Tweet

Gesturing together the Donovan dancers respond to cues the audience can’t see. They turn away and blossom out into a circle, then return to the cluster. The breaking group expands into bigger movements, then into subgroups that can lift each other. By the end of the dance they’re standing apart, facing the audience and rocking something invisible in their arms.

Donovan believes every dancer should own her movement, not just perform it. The spontaneity and authenticity of performing this way is striking in the age of staged “reality.” Legend has it that the visceral shock of Martha Graham’s early work came from her demand that the dancers produce their movement from the gut, screaming and sobbing on a breath that stirred the spine. Eventually these contracted shapes became codified and learned, but they had to be expelled from the body every time. I think this process is different from the ballet dancer learning steps and then finding the movements’ expressiveness in performance.

It occurs to me that Donovan’s new dance, Transitional State, may be about the effort dancers make to produce high emotions and the way the moves decay with exhaustion. The six women, in tiny mini dresses, all different, appear one by one, face the audience, and sway until they fall to the floor, laughing all the way. With hands on their sides, they push out their stomachs, showing off an invisible bloat or an expanding pregnancy.

Some of them come downstage and approach the first row of spectators, making a point of confrontation. They stick their faces up close to a chosen audience member, seem to whisper in the audience’s ear, pull on their own ear, open their mouth into a silent roar. They return to the dance space, laughing and falling. They dance their own individual phrases simultaneously, slipping into unexpected unison. At last, they’re spent with falling and forced laughter and funny faces. The end of the dance finds them all rolling through the space very slowly.

The idea of community is very big in dance right now. It’s not only used everywhere as a choreographic theme, but it determines who dances and how the dance is produced, funded, talked about. “Community” can encompass the idea of service, diversity, history, and even resistance. Karen Klein’s “poetry/dance collaborative” teXtmoVes [sic] seeks to make performances that are intergenerational, inclusive, and that cross genre lines.

With Donovan as a guest, Klein and four teXtmoVes dancers performed the other dance on the evening. Don’t Break the Circle was based on a poem of Klein’s about three Russian women who were martyred for acting against oppressive regimes. Speaking her poem, Klein moved through the space while performers representing the women heroes, a narrator, and a memory-spirit enacted sympathetic moves. I have to say that despite its efforts at fusion, I didn’t get much out of either the words or the movement in this piece. Both activities detracted from one another. Or it could be that neither the words nor the movement was striking enough to capture me.

Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

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