United States The Tragedy of Time: MamLuft&Co. Dance, Jeanne Mam-Luft (artistic director), Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio. 20.6.2014 (RDA)
Steven P. Evans, Susan Honer, Jeanne Mam-Luft and Elena Rodriguez, choreographers; Ensemble members: Clint Fisher, Nicole A. Hershey, Amber Rutledge, Amanda Sortman and Nicole Suzel. Music: Mike Wall/soundFORmovement (with apparat); Direction, lighting, sound: Jeanne Mam-Luft.
At the Cincinnati Art Museum, the current exhibition Cries in the Night: German Expressionism around World War I, explores the impact that the Great War (WWI) had on the careers of German art and artists. Utilizing the Great Hall of the Museum, choreographers Jeanne Mam-Luft, Susan Honer, Elena Rodriguez and Steven Evans presented The Tragedy of Time, an evening of dance inspired by the exhibit. The visual works on display – all from the museum’s permanent collection – evoke the spirit of a time when not only the visual arts but other art forms enjoyed a renaissance in Germany. Modern dance then thrived thanks to the work of the Swiss pioneer choreographer and dance pedagogue Rudolf von Laban, and the German choreographer Mary Wigman.
Expressionism is a term often used to describe the tortured and at times grotesque images of Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and other Central European artists of the Weimar Era, artists whose work the Nazis sought to exterminate by naming it entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”), which was also the title of an infamous exhibition in Munich in 1937. These works were later destroyed.
Jeanne Mam-Luft’s dancers move to the beat of their own hearts, aided by the electronic sounds of Mike Wall, executing just about anything that the body can do in motion or at rest. On this occasion they responded to the gestural language portrayed in many of the drawings, woodcuts and lithographs on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum—not by merely aping the contorted angle of an arm or the skewed slant of a head, but by sailing off on their own journey of kinetic discovery. Stretching boundaries, never repeating themselves, never quite revealing their intentions, never anticipating the start of a movement until the very moment in which unpredictably, precisely and fortuitously that move happens in time and space, the members of the troupe riveted attention. They glided, ran, descended and ascended on a sweeping marble staircase, barefoot and simply clad in gray knits, and they let their work silently and compellingly express the anguish and devastation of war, for well over an hour in a work divided into four sections: “Hope,” “Anxiety,” “Loss” and “Change.”
All eight of the troupe members are actors, and their language is that of movement, individual gesture and facial expressions. The choreography is complex, precise, demanding, but it never asks for simultaneity of execution, so that if and when someone initiates a movement, others echo it, rather than mimic it. Repeated gestures of not seeing, not speaking, not hearing pile up to imply the muffled, blind, heedless society that the Weimar Republic was before the advent of the Great War. The imagery is potent.
When in the section titled “Hope,” a young female is brought down the flight of steps, held aloft by two other dancers, we need not be told that we are witness to the high hopes of a populace dashed in the throes of chaos. When Elena Rodriguez perilously walks on the backs of the other dancers who lie supine on the marble floor, we recognize what is silently conveyed. When Steven P. Evans poignantly remains as the last man standing on stage, surrounded by a field of dead bodies, the image suffices. When Amanda Sortman sustains for a fraction of a second, a stance straight out of the Kathakali tradition, we know we are in the presence of a group of dancer-choreographers who possess a vast dance vocabulary and an equally vast knowledge of other cultures, all conveyed through the subliminal allusions and references that inform the work of these protean artists.
Female dancers lift other females. They lift the males. They fearlessly fall forward and backwards into the arms of their colleagues, trusting that they will be caught. At one moment there is a pile up of bodies that one may wrongly suspect as the final image of the evening. But from under the human mound a single survivor crawls out. Elsewhere a female dancer drags not one, but seven other dancers along the floor in a vain attempt to leave behind a scene of carnage, but those she pulls behind are the dead who need to be buried. At times the dancers writhe on the floor, entangled with each other, but somehow the moment does not resonate as a scene of sensual pleasure but as one about the primal human instinct to bond with other human beings.
As we walked out into the Cincinnati summer evening, that most potent of all images: bonding as a means of survival in the face of utter loss and pain.
Rafael de Acha