From Thought to Physicality Jan 18, 2013

by Nick

I was on the bus, thinking about the tension between taking responsibility for a performance vision (as director, or choreographer) and then incarnating it on stage.  How well can a brain, I was asking, handle the two very different tasks: composing a comprehensive stage picture and enacting one element of that picture, from the inside?  I was on my way to see Fire!.

I knew only that Catherine Cabeen and Company's piece grew out of a conceptual conversation with sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, so the dance would be a very intellectual enterprise, Cabeen having to translate ideas about objects into her technique.  The first few moments of Fire! confirmed this, with heady, analytical prose voiced over movement that was clearly in direct response it.  I wasn't expecting the dancer performing that movement to be Cabeen, and I don't know her by sight, but somehow I recognized her.

How can a brain handle those two tasks?  Perhaps it doesn't; perhaps the performer's body integrates and expresses the mental efforts.  Perhaps the artist can toggle between roles, dancer/choreographer, because she has learned how to move from thought to physicality despite any natural tension that might create lag or disconnect.  Maybe Cabeen the choreographer was recognizable to me in Cabeen the dancer because I could read the results of the intellectual enterprise on her performance.

As the dance progressed, it seemed to me that not only was Cabeen managing this tension -- as any performer/visionary has to -- but she had brought it into the concept.    Niki de Saint Phalle's sculptures were often female bodies, their shape abstracted by stereotypes, their surface covered in vibrant symbols reflecting those same stereotypes.  Cabeen and Company -- five female dancers -- literally moved through those ideas (one section had each dancer, in turn, stepping through a staggered line made by her partners holding strong poses) and it was as if the ideas were abrasive, repulsive, hard to traverse. The mental burden of the concept was a physical obstacle that Cabeen and Company deftly faced with their performance, and, of course, the choreography that came from Cabeen's dynamic with the sculptures.