How do we watch modern dance?
Although I suggest that you see more dance, I really couldn’t tell you how to watch it. I often get sucked into the magnifying glass method: I inch my eyes as close as possible to the stage and try to translate what reach-overcurve-head turn-flick could possibly signify when repeated six times. I don’t suggest this; it’s frustrating and ineffective.
With his piece Matching Drapes, choreographer Chris Schlichting offers some important insights into modern dance viewing. Schlichting reminds me that dance viewing takes stepping back and paying attention in a different way than I track the plot of a play or a character arc. To absorb the full picture of Matching Drapes, I had to employ the Bob Ross Viewing Method. When Bob Ross (the late host of the popular PBS show The Joy of Painting) worked on a painting, he usually didn’t start at the left and progress to the right. Rather, he created pictures in layers. (“A little bush here, and then a little happy cloud over there.”) The final image was a culmination of these carefully considered elements. And, though it’s hard to compare a modern dance with a mountain landscape, Schlichting’s Matching Drapes is also a marriage of deliberate layers and elements, from scenic design to sound and gesture, best savored when they intersect and culminate for maximum emotional punch.
To Program Note or Not
I like the comfort of program notes, especially when I’m in the audience of a modern dance piece I know nothing about. As I sit in my chair at the Red Eye to watch Matching Drapes, the program offers just a collection of performance credits. And the very all-telling title. It potentially says more than any neatly written paragraph, but I’m not yet sure what. Asking if ‘the carpet matches the drapes’ is an intimate question, and you can only find out if the person in question strips down.
Carefully stenciled white flower patterns cover the black floor of the Red Eye stage, and two sections of patterned wallpaper, separated by an expanse of black velvet curtain, cover the back walls of the performance space. The dancers are dressed in black and navy short sleeves and tight shorts or short skirts, and the dark costumes combined with lots of skin jump out from the busy patterns around them. The effect draws all my attention to these stunning five movers (Mary Ann Bradley, Krista Langberg, Laura Selle Virtucio, Dustin Maxwell, and Max Wirsing) and their enviable effort and precision.
Chris Schlichting’s movement is detailed. It’s full of nuanced gesture, pointed looks, and continual locomotion. The legs cover space, while the arms counter in intricate, repetitive patterns. I notice the overtly sexual outlining of the body with a hand, the image of a leaping deer, a pouting spasm of frustration to the song “Whatever Happened To The Teenage Dream.” There isn’t any weight sharing or dynamic lifting, but Matching Drapes is full of duets and the intimate partnering of perfect unison movement, every look and bend and reach like the shadow of the partner’s. One duet progresses to two complementary sets of unison, and I start to feel like I’m watching independent pieces of a puzzle weave in and out of one another. There is never ending movement, often repeating, and I don’t always know where to look.
When I don’t know where to look I rely on sound. Schlichting’s sound score is a map of its own. In addition to “Whatever Happened…” there’s Velvet Underground, and Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” intermingled with sections of silence. A good portion of the piece is set to the opening riff of “The First Time...”, and when the song is played later on in its entirety, the effect is sublime. Recalls pull it all together. I feel tingly as I soak in Roberta’s voice and watch the dancers effortlessly prance like deer.
Piecing It Together
As I watch, I think about layers: layers of wallpaper, layers of intimacy, layers of movement. The literal unveiling of a new layer occurs towards the end of the piece when the velvet stage curtain is tied back to reveal another wallpapered room with glass doors, with Maxwell, who we haven’t seen until this point, standing inside. He and Wirsing dance next to one another to the tambourine beats of the Velvet Underground simply, tenderly. Sometimes they are in perfect unison, sometimes not, but they always move perfectly equidistantly. It’s breathtaking. It’s in this moment where the full picture of Matching Drapes appears - this final duet appearing so intimate and vulnerable after the earlier flurry of patterns and effort.
Matching Drapes reminds me that modern dance can be most satisfying when I stop laboring over translation. It’s not English, after all. I take away more when I focus on how the movement makes me feel, on what it reminds me of. Schlichting is incredibly generous with his audience. His access points, from a glance at the audience to a gesture to a song, helped me map out my own journey that was far more gratifying than a prescribed or literal one. It was a tingly and gorgeous ride.