As I walked into Emory’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, dancers were already sitting in chairs downstage facing the audience. As the audience continued to filter in, other performers continued to fill the entire downstage line. The dancers began a series of gestures, inviting or implicating us into this lexicon. One male dancer remained onstage continuing the gestures with rapid succession and adding mundane gestures that became comical as he moved his chair upstage.
This introduction set the feeling of the entire evening. Vacillating between the familiar and the whimsical, the modern and folkloric; one is transported to a place that is neither here-nor- there. When I think folk arts, I think of belonging and recognition. “Folk artists, in the past as much as now, made objects that created a kind of belonging, and the objects themselves, in time, came to belong. Here is a pot: you use it every morning to brew your coffee, it belongs in your house, it belongs in the houses of people here. Even its design is something recognizable, it is a part of what is life here in _________. This is a pot from ___________, it is our and yours and mine of we who live in ______________. You have one that looks like mine because we are both from _____________.”
When I think of modernity, I think the objects become a pastiche of themselves. The objects no longer are from anywhere, but have the unique character of just existing. They have no history and might not have a future. They are common, mundane, and ordinary, and are in every other house all over the world.
When you mix the two you have George Staib’s Name Day. An autobiographical dance, and according to an interview in Creative Loafing,
“Staib’s American father met his Armenian mother when he was stationed in Iran with the military. Staib lived in Iran until he was 10, when his family returned to the States. “Wherever we lived, there was always this blending of American culture and Armenian tradition,” he says. ‘We tried to cling to both.’ ”
I found myself part anthropologist and part audience member. I felt myself striving to recognize and to remember (as if I shared a common history.) Staib’s vocabulary is prolific with percussive gestures, which often turn violent, and there are surprisingly rich qualitative shifts in the movement.
The dance was divided into two parts: “Through the Window” and “From Inside.” I wanted them to be more integrated. If any medium can do this, it is dance.
In the first half, as promised in Creative Loafing, Helen Hale’s performance was one of the highlights of the evening. Her voice both whispered in your ear and seemed distant all at once. With dancers clothed in black, pensively moving on stage, one could feel the vespers rising from the floorboards. With careful steps,one felt a consciousness closely tied to the steps taken in a pilgrimage.
I would be remiss not to mention the “Thou shall..” section. Witty, easily lovable, with stereotypes of Jewish parents’ thoughts exposed, it transitioned seamlessly into the dancers lip syncing.
Finally in the last section, one could not help but see the influence of Ohad Naharin. Is it the formula that makes the dance exciting? Chairs in a circle, percussive gestures, circling motifs, chanting, a stage filled with dancers, really, what’s not to love?
As much as I wanted the second half, “From the Inside,” to be more integrated into the first half, I felt the beginning duet shadowed and almost carried you into the section marked by the rituals of death. Even though I initially did not understand the text’s subject, one felt the passing of time. This was accentuated by Claire Molla’s sinuous solo. Interestingly I thought of zygotes, instead of death. Perhaps this was my subconscious recognizing the cycle of birth and death.
Though we can point to aesthetics that arise from different regions, and though we can trace training and influence topographically, we cannot integrate dance into the everyday lives of people the way that the pot can be integrated. Yet we can save dance for those special times, perhaps this is one of them.