“There is no surer way to be derivative than to be unaware of your history,” dancer-choreographer Jody Sperling said in a 2014 interview. That’s sound advice, coming from a choreographer whose integrity is clear from the first moments her dancers take the stage. Sperling can make a movement phrase, then layer it in variations. She can do level changes, use spacing, and move her company’s six dancers — Jenny Campbell, Carly Cerasuolo, Lior Daniel, Alejandra Dominguez, Halley Gerstel and Krissy Tate — across the floor.
Most of these movements are simple, involving only the upper body. Sperling has been choreographing for her company, Time Lapse Dance, since founding it in 2000. She is considered the world’s leading interpreter of the style originated by the fin-de-siècle dance theater pioneer, Loie Fuller. Fuller was famous for her Serpentine Dance and her Fire Dance, which used fabric and lighting to transform the dancing body into abstract shapes. (La Danseuse, a French biopic of Fuller, made its debut at Cannes in May. Sperling served as creative consultant and dance coach for the film.) Fuller designed her own costumes, full-body skirts she could control at the hem, and innovated lighting design. She even danced atop a glass floor lit from below. (She was also the first dance artist to sue for copyright infringement. She lost.)
Costuming is the key to the style. The Time Lapse dancers wear skirts and carry sticks hidden within the skirts that extend the reach of their arms. Some of the skirts are full-body and cover the legs; others are more like capes and do not completely cover the legs. The dancers spin and/or move their arms continuously to create swirling effects. The dancers serve the costume, giving it shape by moving their arms; but the costumes also serve the dancers, allowing them to become more than human and to create fantastic moving shapes. Every trained modern dancer knows that the arms start at the back, as Martha Graham famously taught. They also extend the dancer’s line and raise the torso in a way the legs cannot. The dancers of Time Lapse demonstrate this physicality expertly.
For Time Lapse Dance’s most recent performance, presented June 2 through 4 at University Settlement’s Speyer Hall, Sperling looked to the natural world. Polar Rhythms: Dance and Music of Ice, was inspired by ice. In 2014, she was invited to be the first choreographer-in-residence on the United States Coast Guard Cutter Healy, an icebreaker then on a science expedition to the Chukchi Sea. Her dance on the polar ice was captured in a short film, “Ice Floe.”
The challenge is in using the Fuller idiom to convey something as seemingly motionless as an ice sheet. In a small space like Speyer Hall, the audience gets to feel the breeze generated by the choreography. So the dance generates its own climate, and it’s pleasant, not chilly. Sperling gets close to a solution by recruiting self-described “ecoacoustic” composer and native Alaskan Matthew Burtner for Ice Cycle (2015/2016) and Piece for a Northern Sky, two of three dances on the program. For Ice Cycle, Burtner and his 10-year-old son Barrett Burtner played live, and the music included sounds of dripping water. When a woman stands among three dancers spinning into abstract shapes, she could be a lone soul in a landscape of icebergs, but the only moment in which ice was explicitly evoked was the opening of the piece, when dancer Jenny Campbell unfurled a white cloth wrapped around her body. Images of polar ice were projected onto the taught screen that she left in her wake.
Beauty is a good enough reason to make a dance, and there is much beauty in Sperling’s work. Ice Cycle demonstrated the simple visual pleasure of projecting light onto fabric. Guest artists Amy-Claire Huestis and Omar Zubair created a magic lantern performance for the premiere of Piece for a Northern Sky, a solo for Sperling also set to Burtner’s music.
Turbulence, Part I (2011), featured a more up-tempo treatment of the company’s climate-themed work. Set to music by Quentin Chiappetta, the dance sets six dancers free into the air. When the women start jumping, all facing downstage right, they look like a flock of butterflies. Unison work showed off low arabesque turns that were, again, connected to the back, with the spiraling motion driving much of the movement. (Mary Jo Mecca, Michele Ferranti, Ann Blanchard, and Jessica Dunham were responsible for the costumes of Polar Rhythms.)
The dancers wear unitards as a base layer and don’t always wear their skirts. During a group section of Ice Cycle the skirt-less dancers perform the same movements as the skirt-wearers, punctuating the art nouveau scene with a modern perspective. When Sperling emerges for the second part of her solo, Piece for a Northern Sky, wearing only a unitard, she does little but walk toward the light source downstage and backtrack. It’s a sharp contrast to her presence in costume, and it comments on the vulnerability of the naked body. Finding the world within the self was the hallmark of the Transcendentalist movement. Perhaps discovering what we are without the natural world is today’s artistic quandary. Sperling is right that art history can guide artists through this new creative maze.