“Evening Soul” and “Shadow Play”

Saturday, April 26, 2012

A couple weeks ago, I picked an envelope as my “raffle prize” at the end of faculty meeting; it contained a pair of free tickets to a dance concert at CSULB. The Dance Department is celebrating the 20th anniversary celebration of the campus’s performance space for dance, which is formally named the Martha B. Knoebel Dance Theater. While I have frequently walked or drive past the Knoebel Theater many times in the past eight years, Linda and had never attended any performance there. The interior of the Knoebel Theater turned out to be one of the best designed small theaters I’ve ever seen. It holds around 250 people and every seat in the house seemed to have an acute sense of its linearity to the stage.

Linda and I ended up sitting in the back row, next to a young dancer who had performed in an earlier version of the first work of the second half of the program, Lorin Johnson’s “Shadow Play.” Johnson included a note in the program in which he acknowledged the contributions the dancers had made to the choreography of this piece, and in the brief interlude between “Shadow Play” and the next piece, Linda and I quietly asked the young dancer, who will soon be moving to Dallas, about the difference between the 2009 staging and the current production; she described the previous version as having more solo dancing and duets. I would love to have a chance to see both versions, but my hunch is that this new version is a significant point in the work’s maturation. “Shadow Play” is an extraordinary piece of dance; I confess that I would rather have seen it danced again immediately last night than see the rest of the second half. Johnson’s piece deserves widespread attention: it had the deftness of a chess master fully attuned to the sensuality of symbolic space. The eight dancers, half in white costumes like ever so slightly tarnished cream, and the other half in resplendent black, interwove and dispersed in a thoughtful frolic. The subatomic fields of the life force can operate only because their surfaces are so inaccessible. How rare, therefore, is it that what can find no equivalent in representation somehow aligned itself in this work with an outpouring of visible comprehension. The generosity of the collaborative genesis must certainly be largely responsible for this effect.

The only other piece in the evening that came close to Johnson’s was the late Susan McLain’s “Evening Soul,” which I equally enjoyed, though the transitional moment in which the dancers moved the chairs to the rear of the stage left me yearning for some magical hand to slide them back while the dancers kept me suspended in their prolonged, gliding enchantment. The revival of this piece in no way seemed in debt to some kind of obligatory sentiment. If her memory is revered, it is because only an artist of the highest caliber could have choreographed such a vivid incarnation of solemn human consciousness in communal oscillation. The dancers in Andrew Vaca’s “General Education,” for instance, certainly had a nimble exuberance (or should I say exuberant nimbleness?), but it went no deeper than that. The profound inquiry of McLain’s “Evening Soul” accompanied Linda and me as we left the theater and fittingly found ourselves walking through a surprising sprinkle that later turned to light rain. I never met McLain, but both Linda and I will remain in her debt for the gifts of her vision.




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