Mary Oslund: the wonder of the dance

bete-3.jpgAt the conclusion of Bete Perdue, Mary Oslund’s beautiful new dance, singer Lyndee Mah, still in the glow, said it was like a symphony. I think she was talking about how it cascaded by, sometimes in unison, all eight dancers carving space similarly, according to his or her “voice,” sometimes in solos or duets or trios that mixed, matched and reformed, sometimes in pairs of duets or even four duets, weaving in and out, occasionally interlocking. It swept by, pulsing with action, small moments and large, establishing its own time. When it was over, how long had it been going on? It was hard to guess, it was so absorbing. And so, yes, like a symphony.

If someone had taken a psychogram of audience members during the performance it would have registered many different states, and that’s like a symphony, too. Let’s see: delight, reverie, anxiety, keen attention, even a series of undifferentiated states that could turn into almost anything, from aggression to love, the stem cells of all our emotions. But mostly satisfaction, not as in “fat and happy,” but as in this typifies the complexity, tension and release, and ultimate harmony of great art.

That’s not a claim I make lightly. But building on the great success of last year’s “Sky,” this dance finds Oslund creating something amazing at both the smallest and largest levels, micro and macro. A shoulder shrug from dancer Keely McIntyre sends a shiver of recognition and contains deep expressive possibilities. So does the rush of multiple dancers, arriving and departing, lifting and being lifted, sliding past each other in erratic orbits. Like a symphony, it’s too much for the brain to process, but you can “understand” it in your own particular way as a whole.

If someone asked me what it was about, that’s what I would try to say. Layers, lots of layers. The soundscape by Obo Addy and Katie Griesar had a similar effect, drawing on the simplest drumming rhythms to clouds of sound, a parallel enterprise that somehow fit the dance, surprisingly so to me at least. Otherwise, all the meaning was coming from the dancers — the costumes (by dancer Rinda Chambers) were simple, the set was the Imago Theatre stage well-lit by Jeff Forbes.

The dancers. They can be a problem in Oslund performances. (I have watched her dances since the mid-’80s when she moved here and added her Merce Cunningham ideas to the stew of Portland dance, which actually was a pretty good fit.) So much rides on them, on their ability to create something worth seeing within the phrases Oslund constructs. If she (women have predominated in Oslund’s companies) is intent on simply executing the “steps” in a given amount of time, getting from Point A to Point B in the smoothest possible way, all is lost. Because then the shoulder shrug or the hip rotation or the peculiar neck angle — all at once — will be lost. And they are everything. An Oslund movement phrase, to my mind, has little to do with Points A and B and everything to do with the infinite number of possible points in between and the choices the dancers make to deeply inhabit a certain number of them. There’s a certainty to the way McIntyre dances Oslund’s dances that makes her way of dancing them right somehow, vehicles of deep expression.

Not everyone can do it, and when they are onstage with those who can, the difference can drive you crazy. There have been times, recent times, when that has happened, when I found myself watching in horror as a dancer or two or three absolutely DID NOT GET IT. How do I know: They clump or tip-toe about, they try to look graceful, they try to add emotion with melodramatic facial expressions, they crash and burn phrase by phrase, worse when they are dancing alone. And they say nothing. Part of it is degree of difficulty. These aren’t easy phrases, twists, stretches, lifts, partnerings. They can get to the edge of a dancer’s ability to control them, although there aren’t any tricks involved, 27 pirouettes in place or a leap that ends in a split. And that’s been a problem, too.

I didn’t feel that way about anyone in this particular ensemble, which is good because then you can watch without worrying. And some of the dancers are fabulous. McIntyre, for example, short and dark, with a lion-hearted approach to each second of her time on stage. She’s been with Oslund for three years and understands exactly what’s going on, what’s at stake. Sometimes it takes longer. Jim McGinn is now great fun to watch in an Oslund piece, but it took him a long time to get there. Is he the best Oslund male dancer ever (not the best dancer, the best Oslund dancer)? Maybe so, but whatever, he’s an Oslund dancer and that’s saying something important, from where I sit. On the other hand Michelle Rogers is in her first year with the company and has figured things out immediately, an excellent visual balance to the shorter McIntyre, though they both have the same kinetic intelligence and commitment to the moment. I won’t do a report card on everyone, though — who am I to hand out grades, after all, and the success of the whole itself implies the success of the parts.

But let’s say I was asked to provide an Oslund primer for prospective dancers. What might my rules be:

1. No faces, neither looks of consternation nor happiness. Just dance.
2. Every gesture means something. Be there for it.
3. Avoid the timidity implied by “washy,” indistinct movements, which means…
4. Be aggressive. Don’t dance carefully. Commit.
5. Don’t rush, you have time to say something if you have something to say (and you should have something to say).
6. Be aware. There are others onstage with you, learn from them, amplify them, serve them.
7. Find your own way. Oslund’s choreography gives you expressive space. Create something amazing in it.

But really, all I’m saying is “be an artist.” And we all know that’s a lifetime’s work. Which bring us back to Oslund herself. Bete Perdue is a wonderful dance, a great dance even, the work of an artist, the work of a lifetime. There really isn’t anything more exciting than that, not for those of us who love dance. It’s the same sensation I get watching Cunningham or Balanchine and what Lyndee meant when she said it was like a symphony. I want to see it again. Now.

Note: photo from the Oslund+Co. website, photo by Julie Keefe

Dance fans might be interested in two other recent Art Scatter posts, one on the dismissal of Deborah Jowitt by the Village Voice and the other on the resignation of dance critic Laura Bleiberg from the Orange County Register.