16 January 2006

Moments of Culture

It's relatively rare these days that I get a chance to see world-class performances, but this past week I saw two, both at Dartmouth's Hopkins Center: a new piece by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and a concert by Kronos Quartet.

I've seen Bill T. Jones's company once before, and was intrigued by their mix of dance and theatre as well as contemporary and classical styles of performance. Their new piece, "Blind Date" (well described by Deborah Jowitt in this review), is overtly political, and the first half felt at times shrilly polemical, though beautifully danced and designed. The second half undercut the polemic, though, by adding complexity, by layering through the revised repetition of movements and words and images, and by ending with a cry for hope: what would it look like, Jones and his company seem to be asking, if we didn't smooth over our differences, but rather tried to balance them, preserving individuality without giving up on the idea of community? (The politics that engendered the piece are explored in this profile of Jones.) Some moments in the first half seemed tedious to me, and sometimes frustratingly simple-minded, and during the intermission I must admit I really did hope the second half would be shorter. I don't know if I got my wish, because I didn't notice time during the second half -- all of the roughness of the first half, all the shrillness seemed to be transformed (to be, as an incurable postmodernist might say, complexified), as if it were the raw material necessary for the mixing and matching of the second half.

Certain images remain vivid in my mind, aided by the extraordinary set design: words and pictures and faces projected on floating screens that reconfigured the playing space quickly, silently, fluidly. The movement that has most stuck with me, though, is one of the simplest, a movement utterly familiar to anyone who has been subjected to trust games of one sort of another. One by one, members of the company came on stage and, apparently whenever they felt like it, shouted "Me!" and let themselves fall to the floor. The other dancers on stage then ran to them and tried, usually successfully, to catch them before they hit the floor. Within the context of the entire performance, this game took on rich and varied meanings, and the sight of calm falling amidst chaotic running to save the fallers was mesmerizing.

A few days later, I returned (with my intrepid companion Njihia Mbitiru, who is not only a fellow Dartmouth grad student, but also an alumnus of the Clarion workshop) to the Hop to see the Kronos Quartet play one of the best concerts I've ever seen. (I should contextualize that statement: I rarely go to concerts anymore, because when listening to music I am far too sensitive to other noises, and so the sound of people coughing or shuffling their feet or whispering to each other can make the entire experience excruciating. So I don't see many concerts.) I have listened to albums by Kronos for at least a decade now, and through them have discovered many types of music I might never have discovered otherwise. I don't always like what Kronos plays, but I admire their virtuosity, their versatility, their adventurousness.

On Saturday night, the program was typically diverse. It began with pieces from their new album of songs from Rahul Dev Burman's Bollywood movies, then moved on to a Charles Mingus piece, "Myself When I am Real", then to three pieces from the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, and then, to finish the first half of the program, the world premiere of Dan Visconti's "Love Bleeds Radiant", this year's Under 30 Project commission. The program continued after an intermission with "Quartet No. 5" by Peteris Vasks and "Triple Quartet" by Steve Reich, and after a standing ovation Kronos returned for an encore, a gorgeous piece they recently premiered, the title and composer of which I do not know (except that I think the composer was Swedish).

The Requiem for a Dream suite was the highlight of the concert for me, because I find the entire composition (by Clint Mansell) extraordinarily moving, and watching it being performed only made it more powerful, because the four members of Kronos (including Jeffrey Zeigler on cello, a new addition in place of Joan Jeanrenaud) combine intensity and precision in their performances, making them mesmerizing to listen to, as always, but also fascinating to watch, because the music seems to radiate not such much from their instruments as their entire bodies.

"Love Bleeds Radiant" deserves far more than one listen to be appreciated. It's a difficult piece to enjoy at first, because it is often sharp, strident, and seemingly discordant. But lyrical passages pass between the more chaotic movements, and there is an energy to the piece that is almost exhausting to listen to. Dan Visconti kept a blog of his time working with Kronos, and I have only begun to mine its riches -- this post alone, about the composing process and composer's "voices" and a bunch of other things -- is a treasure trove of ideas and information.

I had not heard Kronos's previous recordings of works by Peteris Vasks before hearing "Quartet No. 5", but I will seek them out now, because it was a lovely and strange piece, one that first seemed to lull the audience, then jolt them, then return to lull, then jolt again. Steve Reich's "Triple Quartet" was also new to me, and though I've heard plenty of Reich's work in the past, I've seldom found it particularly engaging. "Triple Quartet" is a fine piece, though -- it is relentless, strong, and, I expect, a real workout for the performers.

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