For dancers, the body is a surrogate for concepts and a tool for arranging shapes in the air. One increment of success for a dancer is the mastery of the body in the negotiation of space. Another comes when the understanding of motion is expanded to include the bodies of other dancers or telescoped to focus on even smaller increments.
The two pieces presented in the Pontus Lidberg Dance program that ran June 6–7 at the Joyce Theater were developed separately by Lidberg, but the ideas and motifs explored in “Written on Water” act as a kind of primer for the main work, “Snow.” In both, the individual performers forego their autonomy in space, dancing in an interconnected way that visually articulates the relationships and emotions that bind and motivate us.
Lidberg originally developed “Written on Water” as a pas de deux for the 2014 Fall for Dance festival in New York and more recently expanded and adapted it to include three dancers, whose interactions play out as the shifting power dynamics within a series of entanglements. The choreographer is now working on a cinematic iteration of the piece, and his comments to Hyperallergic about the project illuminate how he conceives of and uses dance: “Written on Water (working title) is a film about an impossible love. Dance is the thematic and poetic device of the film; the plot is driven by the creation of a new dance work in a theater, the choreography of which also illustrates the emotional experiences of the characters outside of the theater.”
At the Joyce, the dancers functioned as pieces of a human machine, with movements rippling from one body to the next. During a restful moment, Lidberg — who performs in each of the pieces in addition to his role as choreographer — sat beneath a gentle fall of charcoal-colored petals, which continued to rain down throughout the movement of the piece. The sweeping crescendos of dancers Kaitlyn Gilliland and Barton Cowperthwaite triggered whispering drifts of these petals as they accumulated.
The second act, “Snow,” extended the practice of connected motion to a bunraku puppet — scaled at half size and appointed as a child-like doppelganger of Lidberg in the central role. Now the four dancers (Gilliland, Cowperthwaite, and Lidberg were joined by Christopher Adams) had to address the question of how to manipulate a body in particulate form, controlling only the head, hands, or feet in a collective execution of the puppet’s movements. Clad in spectral ombre costumes designed by Reid Bartelme, these ‘manipulators’ seemed to represent the internal forces that motivate and impede us, and in alternating movements, Lidberg, his bunraku avatar, and each of the other dancers — clad in blank masks that mirrored the puppet’s appearance — sought to liberate themselves from their machinations. In the last movement, all four dancers were performing as freed and actualized humans; they raised their masks in recognition of this in the final moment before the piece cut to black.
The sheer physicality of dance is intimidating, as alienating as it is alluring — to say nothing of the labor of translating concepts and emotions into precise bodily expression. Pontus Lidberg’s work shows a real attention to the human psyche, and a concerted effort to externalize obsessions and inner demons, to forge them into something liberating and beautiful.
Pontus Lidberg Dance was at the Joyce Theater (175 Eighth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) on June 6 and 7.