Why would an 11-year-old boy be interested in going with his aunt to see an evening of dance? In fact, why would anyone want to go to see an evening of dance? This is the very question that Against the Grain enthusiastically answers for its audience.
The backdrop of the mainstage dance show is a running dialogue between two characters, the aforementioned 11-year-old boy and his aunt, who take the role of an audience watching the performance occurring on the stage. The parts are played by Jody E. Flader ’02 and Daniel A. Spitzer ’05, who do not dance in the show, but nevertheless turn in top-notch comic performances. The slight plot of Against the Grain, which nicely sets the stage for the dances, concerns the aunt taking her nephew to the ballet in order to open his eyes to the world of dance; the boy thinks he is going to a professional wrestling match. When he discovers that he is in for a night of dance, he tries to escape the clutches of his aunt, but she insists that he remain and at least try to understand and appreciate what he sees.
And appreciate it he does, along with all who come to this show and see Harvard students proving that they can both dance the steps of the choreography and elicit an emotional response with their movement to the music. Anyone expecting to come see some girls in tutus doing tame, traditional dancing should check that assumption at the door.
The program starts with an excerpt from George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments.” It is classical ballet choreography, and yet, Balanchine is a revolutionary of the art form. His dancers break some of the cardinal rules of ballet in their movements, while simultaneously maintaining the spirit of ballet and taking the discipline to a new level. Thus, it is a fitting opening piece, demonstrating dancing talent, while challenging conceptions of what is dance and what dance can mean. The technical skills of the dancers in this portion of the show were impressive. The Balanchine style is not an easy one to master and perform, but the dancers, under the direction of Anna K. Weiss ’03, exhibit a level of comfort with the steps that makes it enjoyable to watch.
After the ballet segment, the show switches gears to a more modern vein with “Still Rising,” choreographed by Shelby Braxton-Brooks ’03. The background music to the dancing alternates between poetry from Maya Angelou, music from Sweet Honey in the Rock and silence. Thirteen girls interpret the poetry of Angelou (which they also deliver vocally) with their movements in an attempt, according to the program, to “connect the spoken word with the moving one.”
The style of the choreography is very lyrical and interpretive, and a little hard to get into at the first. By the end of the piece, however, the build-up of the emotion sweeps the audience into the final, exuberant number, where the joy on the girls’ faces is clearly evident. Any hesitancy that the audience may feel during earlier sections of the work disappears in the final segment. A stand-out from this piece is the section which uses “Phenomenal Woman” as the background to the dancing, as the movements of the dancers blend effortlessly with the connotations of Angelou’s poetry.
Unfortunately, not all the movements are totally synchronized, especially those occurring during the silence. Despite this flaw, the piece remains powerful, and the dancers in Braxton-Brooks’ segment begin to win the audience over with conventions that audience members aren’t bound to recall from the time they saw The Nutcracker at age eight.
The first number after intermission, “Into Emptiness,” choreographed by Ryuji Yamaguchi ’03, continues to take the audience outside of the box and to lead them into more modern styles of dance. Set to minimalistic piano music by Arvo Pärt, the piece begins with various dancers walking slowly across a stage dappled with spotlights. The piece then moves into a section where three men use each other’s bodies to create lines and sculptures. A sense of complete fluidity pervades the stage, and the beauty of the men’s deliberate movements captures the audience.
When the women enter, the contrast of their performance is rather jarring after the slow quality of the men. The choreography is jumpy and the coordinated breathing of the dancers contributes to the staccato quality of the variation, which is not always in keeping with the languorous background music. Any lack of coordination stems, though, from the desire to contrast traditional roles of men and women in dance, and the result is favorable. The audience is impressed not only with the great strength and coordination necessitated by the weight-sharing maneuvers, but also by the juxtaposition of male and female stereotypes.
The final section of the show is a rock ballet, “Warning This May Cause,” choreographed by a professional choreographer Derrick Sellers, and complete with a light show and music by Björk. The frantic, almost violent tone of the ballet is a stark contrast to the fluidity of the previous piece. When the dancers open their mouths, there is almost a bestial quality to them; when they assault the stage with baseball bats, they assault the senses of an audience not used to movements so powerful and abrupt. This piece, the most challenging of the evening, is appropriate to close the program. The dancing in this section is intense to say the least.
Against the Grain is a show not to be missed. If that phrase is thrown around too much, it is nevertheless appropriate here. There are very few opportunities on this campus to see a dance show performed in a high-quality venue, and this one takes advantage of its generous surroundings. Against the Grain provides a night of well executed, tremendously inspiring dance. And if it can believably reach both an 11-year-old boy and a dance afficionado, it should be met with adulation from the entire Harvard community.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
Read more in ArtsIncubus: Morning View