When DD Dorvillier introduced an excerpt from her Danza Permanente at Judson Church last year, explaining that each of her four dancers would mirror one instrument in a Beethoven string quartet, a dance historian might have been puzzled. On the timeline of American concert dance, this sounded rather familiar: Didn’t the modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn do something similar about 100 years ago, when they developed a choreographic approach known as “music visualizations”? Hasn’t Mark Morris, famous for his musically complex choreography, been physicalizing classical scores since the 1980s? Oh, and then there’s Balanchine…
It seemed too conventional, too accessible a framework for Dorvillier, a conceptual choreographer better known for irreverently deconstructing, fragmenting and obscuring, often skillfully but sometimes to alienating effect. Her 2009 Choreography, a Prologue for the Apocalypse of Understanding, Get Ready! began with the words “no languages only grunts groans murmurs” projected on a screen, as if responding to the claim that greets so much contemporary dance — “I don’t get it” — with “well, you’re not supposed to.” Perhaps to that work’s credit, I really didn’t get it. But I did see a strange world-unto-itself, a futuristic landscape defined by sonic dissonance and neon unitards and a definitive, if oblique, internal logic.
As it turns out, that sense of mystery persists in Danza Permanente. It was present that evening at Judson, when Walter Dunderville performed the isolated violincello line without costumes or lights (or his fellow dancers), and on Wednesday night when the full quartet, completed by Fabian Barba (violin), Nuno Bizarro (viola), and Naiara Mendioroz (violin), gave the work its U.S. premiere at The Kitchen as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival. A simple twist sets this dance apart from the kind of musical embodiment I’d been envisioning: namely, we don’t hear the score, at least not in any literal sense. But like great music, and refreshingly unlike Choreography, A Prologue, it invites us in, buoys us along on its rhythmic journey, creates a playful space in which listening becomes of a piece with watching.
Performed primarily in silence, the movement in this hour-long work is the sound — tempos and dynamics and pitches incarnate — reflected in the semaphoring of arms, the vigorous twisting of hands (imagine wringing out an invisible towel), the angling of torsos, and the pattering, shuffling, scurrying, brushing, and stamping of feet (sometimes bare, sometimes in jazz shoes). A beige curtain lines three walls of the blackbox, creating what feels like a sealed, controlled climate. The hush, however, periodically succumbs to lush deluges or delicate mists of acoustic noise and, at the beginning and end, to a few German and English words uttered in a deep, disembodied voice — fat, heavy droplets falling into the silence. (Most of these words, to non-German speakers, are incomprehensible; the final one, which gets repeated several times, is “work.”) Dorvillier’s longtime collaborator, Zeena Parkins, designed this unpredictable soundscape. She also dexterously guided the transposition of Beethoven’s String Quartet #15 in A minor, Op. 132 (written 187 years ago) into a fully functioning physical language.
That movement vocabulary, rich with delightful idiosyncrasies, becomes the basis for a wordless conversation on which we happily eavesdrop. Far from cold abstractions of musical notes, these terrific dancers — each dressed in a brightly colored uniform of shorts and a collared shirt, designed by Michelle Armet — are unequivocally human, nothing more or less than themselves. Their expressions remain neutral but not distant; we can see them thinking, or, in the case of the youthful and lanky Barba, wanting to smile. (He gives in to the urge.) Individuals with their own agendas, they also interlock into a tightly woven community through the shared ritual of counting. Polished technique is not the point here; rhythmic precision is. It’s no easy task keeping time in silence, and occasionally the dancers recite a few counts aloud — “one-two-three, one-two-three” — though this may be as much for the audience, a way of letting us in on the dance’s structure, as for themselves.
They want to be heard: “Make way,” the wry, muscular Dunderville, dressed in blue, seems to say on the opening notes of the first section, as he steps through a cluster formed by the other three dancers, his palms forward and chest out. “I’m here!” announces the tall, gangly, yellow-clad Bizarro (who, as my friend noted, comfortably sports a five o’clock shadow), throwing his arms in the air, sometimes in the faces of his fellow dancers, on a quick succession of two-counts. Mendioroz, in salmon-colored garb, relishes a short-lived solo; a spotlight, abruptly singling her out, propels her into an elated, space-gobbling romp that relegates the others to a corner.
But as much as they assert themselves, they also come together. They assemble into courtly formations, the makings of a 21st-century folk dance, before dispersing into their own distinct but supporting rhythms. Two dancers join one another in a sort of deranged back-up-dancer wiggle. In one of the more contemplative moments, the four settle into a slow, elegiac canon.
We enjoy listening to a Beethoven string quartet, but why? Perhaps because of the intrinsic humanity that Danza Permanente so effectively reveals: the score’s internal triumphs and conflicts and dramas, the ways in which its layers can at once support and spar with one another — subtleties that this untrained pair of ears, at least, might not discern in a recording.
And while the question of, “What does this music really sound like?” could get old, it doesn’t; Dorvillier keeps us wondering. Her vocabulary, while coherent, continuously renews itself; Parkins’ soundscape, erupting at odd times or rushing in between sections, as the dancers momentarily exit, smartly subverts what we thought would be coming next.
By taking music away, by channeling it into human bodies, Dorvillier helps us to see music more clearly. And in showing us how the parts of this apparatus speak to one another, she communicates candidly with us. Language — the verbal kind — is still out of the picture, but we could go on listening, both understanding and not minding when we don’t, for a while.
Danza Permanente continues at The Kitchen (512 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through September 30.