DD Dorvillier / human future dance corps
September 28, 2012
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
DD Dorvillier’s “Danza Permanente,” which received its New York premiere last week at The Kitchen, is—quite literally—Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet #15 transcribed for four color-coded dancers performing (mostly) in silence. The argument is that 45 minutes of music by Beethoven—“a deaf man,” as the program notes remind us—can be embodied in 45 minutes of silent movement. Well, sort of. The end result of Dorvillier’s painstaking efforts—and it is clear that she and her dancers have worked hard on this project—is a schematic diagram of someone else’s masterpiece rather than a work of art that can stand on its own.
Dorvillier follows Beethoven nearly note-for-note. Her phrases—which pointedly incorporate the sound of the dancers’ feet striking the floor—hew to the rhythmic and, to a lesser degree, the melodic contours of Beethoven’s motifs and themes; her patterns trace out the interplay of the instruments’ individual lines. When Beethoven repeats material, so does Dorvillier; when he develops it, she does too. If you knew the quartet reasonably well, you could suss out where she was. If you had a score in hand you could likely follow along much as you would if you were listening to a recording. You might even be able to figure out which quartet it was without her telling you. (The long third movement—the famous “Heiliger Dankgesang”—would be the giveaway.)
The dance vocabulary itself is modest, almost penny-plain in its refusal of virtuosic display. Dorvillier’s version of music visualization eschews the cheap and easy mimesis of big, sweeping gestures for swelling crescendos and fluttery little ones for trills. The feet and legs look like they’ve been inspired by an 18th century dancing master’s manual: there are little chassés, changements, and tombés, though they’ve been stripped of the elegance of address the ballroom would have prized. Some passages look like a polite Biedermeier take on jigs and reels. The hands and arms, however, have been given over to a lexicon of abstract gestures intended to represent specific thematic material. In one, the dancers hold their hands up in front of their faces and give them a quick, “flick-flick” twist; in another they eggbeater them like basketball referees calling a travel on a play.
It’s the elaborate patterning that tests the dancers’ concentration—and the audience’s. Each dancer has been assigned to an instrument. Naiara Mendioroz and Fabian Barba are the first and second violins, respectively—she in orange, he in dusty red. Nuno Bizarro, in saffron yellow, is the viola. Walter Dundervill, in blue, is the cello. (The cast wears long-sleeved button down shirts; loose, running shorts; and tan jazz shoes.) Their individual trajectories are determined by what their particular instrument would be doing at any given moment, rather than by the combined effect of the musical lines taken as a whole. One dancer might execute a combination while turning to the right, another might launch into the same combination a beat later and turn to the left, a third might turn in the middle rather than at the beginning, and the fourth might not turn at all.
Yet it doesn’t work. In her determination to stick to the score, Dorvillier has abandoned the dance-logic that would have given “Danza Permanente” stand-alone legibility, and, paradoxically, would have made it truer to the music. For all the evident purposefulness of the movement, the rules that govern it—who goes where when, and with whom—remain occult. Dorvillier has extrapolated them from the score, but her dance never reveals them too us. We’re lost in a thicket of impenetrable, affectless detail—and nothing could be more counter to the music than that. Dorvillier can replicate Beethoven’s rhythms and devise emblems for his motifs, but she hasn’t found a meaningful kinetic equivalent for the harmonic rules and procedures that are the bedrock of his musical language.
Because of these rules, our ears know how to meld Beethoven’s detailed individual lines into a coherent whole, even if our musical training consists of little more than listening to pop songs, commercial jingles, and soundtracks. Dance also has rules to help our eyes make a whole out of a multiplicity, and Dorvillier hasn’t violated them so much as set them aside in her attempt to replicate Beethoven’s score in abstract movement.
Music is itself “abstract” in the sense that notes—like dance steps—don’t represent things. But a piece of music isn’t an abstraction, it’s a series of events that have real meaning within the context of its language. A modulation tells us something new is happening. A cadence is home, closure, the release of tension into repose. We don’t just hear it, we feel it.
There is little in “Danza Permanente” that replicates the visceral punch of Beethoven’s musical events. It’s all abstraction. Dorvillier has kept her vocabulary neutral and her dancers at a relative arm’s length from one another in order to hold any incipient narrative or extra-musical philosophizing at bay. The refusal of mere virtuosity is also commendable. But her motivic emblems and elaborate figurations don’t accumulate into a resonant dance image that registers the way a cadence does—they’re too atomic and impassive.
Zeena Parkins’ soundscape punctuates the proceedings with the occasional eruption of found sound and spoken word. The sounds are evocative but inscrutable: one passage seems a collage of rain, beating wings, and wheels on gravel. Another features yodeling and the gentle clink of marbles. The sounds provoke an emotional response—out-of-context yodeling is innately hilarious, and some members of the audience giggled—but were we intended to let that response color our perception of the work? Isn’t that at odds with Dorvillier’s scrupulous impersonality? Ditto the occasional voice-over in German: “Geburt,” “Schule,” “Arbeit,” und “Tod.” (Birth, school, work, death.) It’s disconcertingly portentous.
Although there’s a kind of theatricality to the dancers’ intense concentration and sheer marathon fortitude—they’re in constant motion for almost an hour—“Danza Permanente” is nearly devoid of drama. The opening of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” hovers for an astonishing three minutes in an indeterminate tonality and gives us a glimpse of what a divine, unchanging eternity might be like. The corresponding passage in Dorvillier’s dance transcription is just slow.
But there’s a moment late in the work that shows us what might have been. The music in the quartet’s raucous fifth movement becomes so unhinged that it sounds as if it’s about to fly apart into little pieces. The dancers shoot off into the gray curtains that ring the performance space, and it’s as apt an image for what’s happening in the score as you’ll ever see.
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photo by Paula Court
Naiara Mendioroz, Walter Dundervill, Nuno Bizarro, and Fabian Barba in “Danza Pernamente”