For Ririe Woodbury’s Artistic Director Charlotte Boye-Christensen, dance isn’t just about movement. The company’s production of Cipher, which features Boye-Christensen’s choreography dating back to 2005, ---uses dance as a forum upon which to think about gender issues, music, science, religion and insanity.
Performed by a cast of six including Jo Blake, Caine Keenan, Elizabeth Kelley-Wilberg, Tara McArthur, Barbara Powers and guest dancer Juan Carlos Claudio, the production was intimate and, with such a strong cast, promised to impress.
What sets Boye-Christensen’s work apart from that of other choreographers is her ability to integrate dance with other ideas and art forms, weaving together what is most unconventional to create something that, no matter how unnatural the concept might seem, somehow is natural. This ability to combine things that may appear incongruous is reflected in her choreography. In the show opener, “Turf,” which observes the different ways in which men and women take control of the space around them, Boye-Christensen exploits forms of contact and works off of how contact and interaction between dancers, whether physical contact or eye contact, aids movement. She takes advantage of more than just foot-to-floor contact and hand-to-hand contact; the choreography explores what happens when the back makes contact with the floor and a hand makes contact with the hair.
The same concept is furthered in “Gravity,” a piece that looks at the force of gravity on earth, the power of momentum, the idea of weightlessness, and black holes. In this work, which won City Weekly’s 2010 Artys Award for “Best Dance Choreography,” the floor seems to become a dancer in the piece as well. I’ve had people tell me before that if there’s one thing you can always depend on, it’s the floor, because it will always be there to catch you. For the first time, I was seeing that in action as the dancers used the floor to propel themselves into new movement. It’s the way that Boye-Christensen explores the gravity of dancer against dancer, however, that makes this piece stand out. She takes advantage of what the human body has to offer: What happens when our elbows serve a purpose usually carried out by our hands? What happens when our backs support us in a way our feet usually do? Throughout the piece, dancers lift each other without making contact with their hands, and everything seems to fall into place as if, yes, that’s what our bodies are meant to do.
“Bridge” also uses a prop as a performer in the piece. Rather than simply being a part of the set, the two benches in the piece, inspired by the religious group the Shakers, were never just left alone. Boye-Christensen added layers to the work by giving action to both the foreground and the background; as dancers moved through the space, the benches were never forgotten, always being shifted to change the dimension of the space. In addition to being a part of the space, the benches also gave the dancers the possibility of new movement. They were there as a different support system, in a way; with somewhere to ground themselves in a seated manner, the dancers were allowed to move the legs in a way that would otherwise be impossible, since they were no longer needed to offer the body support.
The most anticipated piece of the production was “Touching Fire,” Boye-Christensen’s newest work and her collaboration with Utah author David Kranes and architect Nathan Webster. Krane’s voice opened the piece, asking, “Would you like to be…the kind of light that others turn away from?” As a soloist moved in conjunction with Kranes’ words that urged one to push the boundaries between creativity and insanity, he said, “Can you imagine the heat, the light, the velocity; we would have to be prepared,” a fair warning to the audience of what was to come. His words set the tone for the rest of the piece, which was supplemented by Webster’s incredible set design. Two panels of mirrors, one of which you could see a reflection in as well as see through, were moved from place to place on the stage during transitions between vignettes. Sometimes they created illusions, making it look as if there were ghosts of the dancers between the mirrors; sometimes, even when the dancers weren’t interacting directly with the mirrors, you could catch a fleeting glimpse of someone’s reflection for a brief moment before they moved.
As I told Boye-Christensen after the show, it’s hard to find words that will do justice to “Touching Fire.” The moments that took my breath away were so many it was almost appropriate to consider putting a doctor on speed dial, just in case: Kranes’ word choice (the use of “wonderfully expensive” to describe the feeling of being embraced by a loved one) was thought-provoking, Webster’s set design (with the mirrors reflecting the stage from the back, suddenly both the back space as well as the reflection of the audience became relevant) put a new perspective on performance and what the space means, and Boye-Christensen’s choreography (the dependence of dancer against dancer, that one would go flying into space if the trust and the connection weren’t there) made the impossible, possible.
I learned something new about modern dance. While the idea of modernity requires that we bring something new to the stage, Boye-Christensen’s choreography proves that it’s not about working against what is natural in order to come up with something unique, but rather, to revert back to what we have and to exploit our abilities in order to come up with something that is naturally unnatural. After much thought, and coming up with words like “stunning,” “powerful,” and “innovative,” I’ve finally decided that the best way to describe Cipher in one word is, “human.” Boye-Christensen works with the strength of her dancers and doesn’t ignore the possibilities that the human body is capable of; even when her dancers are jumping off their backs the way one would typically jump off their feet, the smooth execution of the movement and the way the human body responds to actions which trigger other actions make us think that yes, that is exactly what we were made to do. To me, that is what makes Boye-Christensen’s work modern dance.