ODC Theater, San Francisco, California, October 6, 2017
At its previous performances in North Carolina and New York, Kate Weare’s commanding “Marksman” played in large proscenium theaters, where Clifford Ross’s backdrops of black and grey images suggesting cresting tsunamis loomed high above the six dancers. The effect was lost last weekend in the black box ODC Theater where I saw “Marksman” on the San Francisco stop of its yearlong tour. Here, the dancers were practically near enough to touch, and Ross’s totemic scrolls did not seem so overpowering. But while Weare herself seemed to lament the shift in scale during Friday’s post-performance talk, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. This is how I relish Weare’s dancers: up close, their heavy breath in my ear, the articulation of every sinew as entrancing as a leaf’s unfurling. And this is what places Weare’s work an order of magnitude beyond even the most accomplished dance-making typically seen in San Francisco: her use of movement not as “steps” but as a vehicle for exploring primal states of being—her way of making every kinesthetic event an intensely present teetering on the edge of time.
Or at least this is one aspect of Weare’s artistic command. The other is her rigorous awareness of form, a fluency in compositional play that allows abstraction to resound with suggestiveness, allows her dance images to cause “a flare-up of being in the imagination,” as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard would have put it. This mastery reaches new levels in “Marksman.”
Weare has many times stated that the sextet, an expansion of a trio created for her company’s tenth anniversary in 2015, was inspired by her experience of giving birth, the sudden realization of a will within nature much greater than your own, but as with all resonant art, “Marksman” is about something even more universal and elemental, the inexpressible made inexpressibly contained (to put a twist on Wittgenstein) by a dance that is, in the richest of ways, almost purely abstract. That is to say, even though Weare has cited further inspiration in the book Zen in the Art of Archery, there is no “content” to the dance, per se: what you see is what it is.
Nicole Diaz and Douglas Gillespie begin in a duet at rear stage left, her stunningly articulate back exposed by Brooke Cohen’s elegantly simple silk costumes, the bare musculature an imposing, abstract form unto itself. They induct us into Weare’s style, a jab from his arm activating her leg, chain reactions taking us to unlikely consequences, his arabesque leg wrapping her back only to be repulsed by a thrust of her scapula. Saxophonist composer Curtis Robert MacDonald’s commissioned score shifts from dissonant strings to ominous drumming to something that sounds like prepared piano and then into a sequence of saxophone noises, looping, using the fluttering of the fingerings percussively, squalling like a great beast.
Mike Faba’s lighting, like the glow of a primitive campfire, delineates intimate regroupings that emerge and dissolve like geologic formations, often side by side duets of male-female and male-male interactions. As several of the highly engaged audience members at the post-show talk noted, there’s a sense throughout of heightened listening, of a constantly shifting power struggle between inside and outside forces, of the forceful partner gradually become the forced one. For a while, Diaz, who with her red hair and her rippling intentionality can’t help being charismatic, threatens to become a character in some kind of schematic drama, but then she recedes. Kayla Farrish comes to the fore at what feels like the final movement of the piece, unleashing qualities we haven’t seen before: exuberance, vulnerability. But she doesn’t represent anything, exactly, other than the possibility of those qualities in a world of forces we’d like to believe we control.
That “Marksman” sustained a lengthy, philosophical and never trivial post-performance discussion touching on everything from the reality of humans as organisms to the fearsome beauty of nature’s will testifies to the way Weare is working: as an artist whose medium happens to be the human body. If there is any discomfort I feel with “Marksman” it is only that the work does feel hermetic, in the way that certain fifties and sixties modernism could feel. It gestures to no societal context, which in a way is a relief, but in a way this feels like what the current discourse might call “privileged,” or at least protected. I can’t help but think of Ohad Naharin, who also works in the realm of pure form, but with sometimes direct, sometimes oblique evocations of Israeli political tensions; or of William Forsythe, who sometimes takes on current social realities (powerfully in “Three Atmospheric Studies), but whose ballets so often have, in more mysterious ways, an edge of social critique to them.
The trick would be for Weare to gesture to a societal context in a way that feels organic, but I sense this possibility for her. Interestingly, one of the audience questions was about the costumes, which expose the women’s backs but not the men’s in what otherwise feels like a remarkably genderless work; Weare said that was the costume designer’s decision but also quipped that maybe “the women are more important in this work,” which felt a little disingenuous, or at least unexamined.
I wish that I knew the whole trajectory of Weare’s work to speculate further on how she might grow next. She has spoken of “Marksman” being new territory in that in it she responded less to the dancers’ personalities, more to their sheer physical being. I have been fortunate to see Weare’s work only a few times over the twelve years since she left her homeland of the Bay Area for New York. The first two times it struck me as sensual and likeable, but only with the revelation of her shockingly erotic duet “Drop Down” reset on dancers from San Francisco company ODC/Dance in 2014 did I feel “I must see everything this choreographer does.” Fortunately, we will be seeing much more of her in the Bay Area. After her resounding collaborative success with ODC choreographers Brenda Way and KT Nelson on that company’s “Triangulating Euclid,” in 2013, she was made a choreographer in residence here. For 2019, she will rework her earlier dance “Brightland” on ODC.
The major New York press has not, to my mind, given Weare’s work nearly the amount nor the seriousness of coverage she is due. Should that situation persist, she will find seriously appreciative, committed viewers back in a West Coast city that’s happy to claim her as its own.
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