Signals from the solar system

By DEBRA CASH  |  March 18, 2008

It must have been a coincidence that a second local contemporary dance troupe performing this weekend also presented an uninterrupted work of just about an hour in length. Kelley Donovan’s Triadic Memories had as few formal signposts as McCusker’s Jupiter, but in contrast to his work she hung her invention on the structure of a sophisticated musical score.

Triadic Memories is the name of a 1981 piano piece by Morton Feldman. Donovan used 45 minutes of this long-duration work, the selection played at the edge of the Dance Complex studio space by dance critic and musician Theodore Bale. There was nothing easy or obvious about her musical choice, and it was not always clear how and why Donovan had aligned particular patterns to the chimes and splintered chords of the score. Nonetheless, Bale played Feldman’s stepwise, decaying chromatics with keen, almost prayerful attention.

Triadic Memories also starts with a solo by the work’s choreographer — but Donovan was not introducing a set of themes and variations. A solid, heavy woman in cropped black clothing, she seemed to be spiraling in an underwater vortex, whipping up energy. This is how she likes to move: we’ve seen this sinuous movement pattern in previous dances. It makes the dancer look as if there were no up or down, no right side up.

Donovan’s ensemble of seven women moved quite differently: more deliberately, more like stupefied human beings than, say, tide-tossed sea flora. Wearing shades of black, brown, and rust, they walked and suddenly bent over double or spooned into one another. They stood stock still and then, for no apparent reason, spun and scattered to different corners. Facing in different directions, they decentered the performing space: this is one dance I’d like to see just once from directly overhead to observe the logic of Donovan’s floor patterns.

Each woman’s snippet of a solo indicated what Donovan sees in that particular dancer. For one, it was a loosey-goosey energy; for another, brittle transitions; in a third case an unexpected “come hither” pout. None of the women’s movements ever congealed into a sense of distinct personality, however — their interactions seemed contingent and emotionally flat.

Donovan says that in Triadic Memories she was exploring some of Feldman’s ideas about the nature of transformation and memory. All dance deals with that issue, of course, because it occurs in time. By the time you reach the end of a performance, the earlier moments of the work have disappeared forever, and memory is all you have to hang onto. Moreover, it’s a familiar modernist’s game to pare down art to its abstract essence and then try to vary it just enough to keep it alive.

I imagine that for many people in Donovan’s audience those transformations were too deadpan and too hard to detect to be anything but tedious. But if you paid attention, Triadic Memories was like spending a night looking through a rain-pelted windshield. All the raindrops looked the same until one let go, leaving a shining trail.

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