Dancers perform through lecture, experiment

You’ve already heard of post-modernity and pre-modernity, but what about paramodernity? Last Friday, Artist in Residence Netta Yerushalmy – along with scholars Carol Ockman and Thomas DeFrantz and dancers Brittany Engel-Adams, Stanley Gambucci, Taryn Griggs, Jeremy Jae Neal and Nicholas Leichter – brought a preview performance of Paramodernities #2 and #3 to CenterStage at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, Yerushalmy places dancers alongside scholars to create a lecture-performance hybrid exploring the tenets of modernity.

Paramodernities #2 – featuring the College’s very own Ockman, professor of art history, and dancers Yerushalmy and Griggs – deconstructs Martha Graham’s iconic Night Journey, a ballet based on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex but told from the perspective of Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife and mother who commits suicide. Yerushalmy, Griggs and Ockman began the performance lying down on the stage. The two dancers both wore identical red costumes. Some audience members were arranged in an arch on one side of the stage, while the rest were arranged in the mezzanine such that a clear line could be drawn between the space of the audience and that of the performers.

In the middle of the performance, scenes from Graham’s ballet were projected onto the screen behind the performers, whose choreography at times could be matched to the ones in Graham’s. The two dancers alternated between angular, aggressive movements and softer, more feminine ones of grief, repeating their repertoire between each other in a sort of counterpoint, with one dancer performing a set of movements while the other followed not long afterwards. Alongside the choreography, Ockman read from “In the House of Pelvic Truth,” an essay she wrote that combined personal anecdotes about going to the dentist, the male gaze and the female body.

Ockman’s lecture emphasized that it was difficult to pay full attention to the dancer’s choreography and simultaneously take in everything; indeed, both Paramodernities #2 and #3 performed this tension between the two mediums as Neal disrupted DeFrantz with a loud interjection, while Yerushalmy and Griggs stole the script out of Ockman’s hands, stomped on it and stepped and crawled all over her as she struggled to continue reading. Moreover, Ockman and DeFrantz were both integrated into the choreography; the relationship between Ockman and the two dancers was sometimes loving and at other times hostile.

Paramodernities #3 featured Duke Professor DeFrantz and dancers Engel-Adams, Gambucci, Jae Neal and Leichter. In #3, Yerushalmy reinterprets Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, a dance that highlights African American spiritual music. But Yerushalmy’s #3 had no soundtrack, only the ghostly hum of a single dancer, which was enough to make the audience shiver.

The set was rearranged so that the audience was seated along all four sides of the stage facing towards the center. Only Jae Neal, Leichter and Gambucci, along with DeFrantz, were on stage at the beginning of the performance, but Yerushalmy and Engel-Adams soon joined them. The movements of the dancers started off highly individuated and abstracted, a visual theme which the dancers’ individually distinct costumes supported as well. Gathering momentum as the performance went on, the choreography grew increasingly more synchronized and rhythmic until the performers coalesced into one group, and suddenly dispersed at the end.

With the space set up to allow for close scrutiny, the audience was intimately aware of the human body’s limited representational capability – both choreographies require the lecture to supplement and provide context; Yerushalmy is acutely aware of this too. At the end of every performance, she hosts a small discussion. These concluding talks highlight the experimental and highly multi-pronged approach of Paramodernities to conceptualize difficult subjects and ultimately open the subject up for discussion.

‘Paramodernities’ examines tenets of modernity through a dance and lecture hybrid performance. Photo courtesy of Destination Williamstown.