There are countless ways to be an audience – tired, excited, distracted, curious, bored, interested, etc. Regardless of how each of us began the performance, we, the audience for Still Life Dances on Friday night last week, became transfixed together, as if taken into stillness by the performance.
Still Life Dances, choreographed by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg, is a series of dances based on specific still life paintings in the de Young Museum’s permanent collection. I saw three different works from the Still Life Dances series last year, Still Life No. 1, No. 2 (two different iterations) and No. 3. I didn’t plan to see them, but was always happy when they appeared on the program. I will admit that by the third time, I was a little giddy. Given the giggle, I am not drawn to discuss the intricate compositional features or choreographic strategies used by Simpson and Stulberg. Marie Tollon superbly detailed that work last November, and captured the overall movement quality as a reinvestigation of “the small, the minute, the quirky play with duration and modes of seeing,” which creates a unique style. Yes, there is something new happening here, but it’s more than something new. Why do these dances seem so touchable, so inviting? What are their movements of stillness trying to say?
The Oxford English Dictionary first defines stillness as the “absence of movement or physical disturbance; motionlessness.” The second definition moves beyond physical action: “Freedom from tumult, strife, or agitation; tranquility.” The dances presented in Still Life Dances at ODC on Friday night– Still Life No. 1, hold (STILL), and Still Life No. 4 – explore the movement between these modalities of absence, freedom, agitation, and tranquility by creating movements of stillness that slice open aspects of life, creating glimpses into seemingly unnoticeable or forgotten spaces of human relationality.
Still Life No. 1 and hold (STILL) consider the movement of stillness between two performers, a duet of gestures that may seem simple like the shrug of a shoulder or the thrust of a palm. Yet, when considered as sentence-like sequences, these gestures and the stillness they navigate suggest a striving toward connectivity. About a minute into Still Life No. 1, the dancers pull each other into a “not-quite-hug.” Bodies lean into each other, heads resting on shoulders. A place of stillness is achieved, yet the arms dangle and torsos sway slightly – the residue of movement. Then, a need to move, to get more comfortable, to find a new place or maybe they are just not ready to let go: heads change slightly, arms readjust. This moment of stillness repeats albeit differently at times throughout the dances offered in Friday’s Still Life Dances. Watching this moment again and again seems to articulate a tenderness, a desire to be felt, noticed, or considered.
In Still Life No. 4, “made in close collaboration with the dancers,” four dancers move in various spatial and perspective configurations, which created multiple groupings of still movements. The walls divided the stage into spaces that played with distance and depth, providing new surfaces for the dancers to explore. By carving the stage into a kind of art gallery, the dance created moving pictures that evoked perspectives of passing as opposed to standing (still).
Within this spatial framing, choreographers Simpson and Stulberg also played with the movement of sound. It started with one dancer making a popping sound – “pop.” Using the lips, this bubble-like sound resonated as a singular signal. The sonic stillness of this singular pop could be the ping of sonar – the sending out of a signal in the hopes of making contact. Eventually, the dancers pop in response, slowly at first but then faster with a subtle urgency. The stillness between pops might suggest a yearning to shorten distances or a reaching toward others.
As the dance came to a close, the stillness was fully transferred to the audience; it was palpable. The effect of the performance was reflected in the proliferation of questions at the Q & A, which suggested a desire to shorten the distance between experiences of watching and dancing – a striving for relationality. In the end, Still Life Dances remind us that the movement of stillness can be opportunities for human connections even if at times they are just “pops” or “not-quite-hugs.”
Michelle LaVigne is a dancer, writer, and teacher. Currently, she teaches rhetoric at the University of San Francisco. Her writing/research focuses on the intersection of dance, rhetoric, and performance. In particular, Michelle writes about the persuasive qualities of dance movements and aesthetics, and how practices of rhetoric might be rethought from the movements of dance and choreographic praxis. She also very interested in embodied practices and is working on several collaborative projects about dance, rhetoric, and dialogic thinking. She presents at national and international conferences and has published reviews in the Quarterly Journal of Speech and Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Michelle was also a guest writer for the ODC Theater Writer in Residence Blog, Triple Dog Dare, in 2014, and blogs about dance in San Francisco.