Oz Nashville bills its Thursday Night Things (TNT) series as a blank canvas, a clean slate that encourages local artists to experiment and try new things. Last night’s TNT, however, seemed more like the opening of a much anticipated new restaurant, one serving a cuisine that the population has long been craving.
The featured item on TNT’s menu was New Dialect, Nashville’s terrific, newly established contemporary dance collective. Oz organizers had apparently anticipated that only a small audience of about 200 (consisting mostly of friends and family of the dancers) would attend, and so only a single stack of bleachers was set up to accommodate people. Bad idea.
On Thursday, Oz was utterly inundated with dance aficionados, with an overflow crowd of nearly 600 people filling the bleachers, standing along the walls and sitting on the floor. It was a wonder that the room even had enough oxygen left to support the dancers.
What attracted the fans was a strikingly original multi-media program of dance, film, music and the visual arts, presented by an international roster of artists from Tennessee, Russia, Romania and Israel. The performance opened with Fight/Flight, an ambitious ensemble piece choreographed by New Dialect’s founder and artistic director Banning Bouldin.
Bouldin found inspiration for her dance in an Emily Clayton photography exhibit called Coupling, which was on display at Zeitgeist Gallery last year. Clayton had taken photographs of herself interacting with her own artworks. In some photos, we see Clayton, her face obscured, struggling to free herself from brightly colored fabric. In others we see her clinging to a painting. The photos, some of which were projected on a screen above the stage, represent our tangled, complex physical and psychological relationships.
Like Clayton’s photographs, Bouldin’s choreography was thoroughly modern and abstract, containing no clear narrative threads. Over the course of this 25-minute work’s five movements, an ensemble of nine dancers explored a variety of “couplings.” Many of these choreographed relationships were combative, with pairs of dancers engaged in movements that seemed like a cross between ballroom dancing and wrestling. At other times the entire ensemble clumped together, becoming a moving mass of emotion.
The score was a hodgepodge that often tried too hard to be trendy and post-modern. We heard voices on tape along with the monotonously steady electronic-pulse music of Alva Noto & Ryiuichi Sakamoto and the lyrically appealing piano music of Erik Satie. Abstract dance often works best when it is in contrast to the music – with glacially slow movements working in counterpoint to a kinetic score, and vice versa. In Fight/Flight, droning voices and glacial harmonic progressions too often accompanied equally glacial (though admittedly beautiful) dance movements, obscuring foreground and background, creating a visual and sonic blur.
Nevertheless, New Dialect’s dancers – Rebecca Allen, Mary Arwen, Luke Davis, Becca Place, Rosemarie Mientka, Tony Montalvo, Emma Morrison, Emily Rhyne and Sarah Salim – acquitted themselves with distinction in their first outing as a professional troupe. Throughout this long and complicated new piece, the ensemble danced expressively, executing athletic movements that were graceful, tasteful but never overly showy.
Thursday’s program included a short film called Phase One, documenting the creative style of the wonderful Israeli choreographer Idan Sharabi. The attractive black-and-white film showed members of New Dialect working with Sharabi and trying out his singular dance language. Dancers were often seen moving backwards, their arms and torsos moving in wild quicksilver patterns, as if their bodies were being pulled by some unseen force. The film did its job of whetting our appetites for more of this choreographer’s work, which will hopefully figure prominently in future New Dialect programming.
The strongest piece on the program, for my money, was Emin Variations, which closed the performance. Bouldin collaborated on this 12-minute work with Romanian dancer Ana-Maria Lucaciu and Russian-American composer and violist Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin, who performed his original music live on Thursday.
Bouldin and Lucaciu are both world-class dancers, and so it was no surprise that they gave riveting performances. The dance seemed to have an implied narrative of two strangers (or in this case two different body types) whose lives suddenly intersect. Their movements were intimate, playful and often humorous – Bouldin occasionally used Lucaciu as a kind of typing chair. Zhurbin freely mixed modern classical and folk music in his performance, and he used a loop pedal to create layers of colorful harmony and counterpoint. In an interesting twist, Zhurbin got the last word (or sound) on Thursday, with the performance ending with the violist playing an extended solo. The gesture nicely blurred the line between dance and concert.
There was some wonderful serendipity at work on Thursday. Nashville has long needed a contemporary dance troupe, and with the rise of Oz Nashville such a company now has a way to connect with more contemporary dance lovers. The city would do well to embrace both of these terrific new institutions.
PHOTOS: Emma Morrison and Rebecca Allen during Fight/Flight rehearsal, and the overflow crowd at Oz on Thursday.