Dd Response: Backhausdance in "The Elasticity of the Almost"

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Jennifer Backhaus’ new work, The Elasticity of the Almost, veered in a direction rather antonymic to the word “almost.” Indeed, I might have called it A Little Too Much. Although the dancing itself played before the eye in quick, inventive gestures and sweeping, hungry passes across a stark white stage; the piece suffered, if not from the thousands of small plastic balls that later entered the space in myriad ways, then certainly because of the voice-overs, which indiscriminately listed Ms. Backhaus’ reminders-to-self over the course of nearly a year.

These voice-overs, to me, became the greatest distraction to an otherwise successful piece. The first, if startling, was alluring: as a writer, I am fascinated with choreographers’ incorporations of text into their work. Initial intrigue faded to disappointment, however, when I realized that the words held little substance. Let me paraphrase: It’s my Dad’s birthday next week. I, ah, better put that on the calendar. Gotta remember that. Um, oh yeah, Josh’s birthday is Saturday. And I have to talk to Jeremy about that meeting. Two birthdays and a meeting? If the choreographer was inviting us into the busy, demanding life of an Artistic Director, then she stopped short of much detail and relied too strongly on fillers. Based on what she actually spelled out, the million balls were over-representative of her workload. Had these throwaway words had been dance steps, I feel sure that Ms. Backhaus, a talented choreographer, would have edited them out. But her discerning eye proved more meticulous than her ear; her dancers surer executors than her own voice.

Every so often I’ll come across a crumpled sheet of paper at the bottom of a grocery cart or underfoot in a parking lot. It’ll be a list, or a receipt, or even a note to someone, and picking it up, I’ll reflect for a moment on the romance of receiving a glimpse into some anonymous stranger’s life: Eggs, cat litter, Pick up dry cleaning. These voice-overs were something different. I didn’t stumble across the performance, I made a point to go and Ms. Backhaus’ voice memos hadn’t accidentally been dropped into the piece on her way to her seat. They were evocative of our age of oversharing; one, at least, directly referred to posting on Facebook. They revealed a choreographer’s vulnerability, if not also her arrogance. But then, they also pointed to her strength, when, finally, redeemingly, the voice began to narrate the choreography itself. Now it spoke rhythmically, in a new language, the private language of choreographers. It said what it knew best how to say: dance moves.

The eight dancers who performed in The Elasticity of the Almost each exhibited an individual style that found expression in quirky gestures and differentiated ways of folding and unfolding limbs, heads, and torsos. Stationary motifs slipped into swinging partnered lifts or switched suddenly to choreography which the eight devoured, in unison . The movers and their movement were athletic, clean, and strong. There was groove and personality–a memorable solo to a Diplo remix demonstrated once and for all the full range of motion of the human backside. In the duets, with their fast now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t maneuvers, Ms. Backhaus expertly navigated the negative space.

So call me a purist, but the part that saddened me most about all the extraneous stuff–red balls flooding forward from below the backdrop, balls raining in bursts from the ceiling, balls catapulted from the floor, balls corralled to one corner of the stage–was that it, the stuff, balls, created the basis for and synopsis of the piece’s visual appeal, rather than the dancing. In other words, I “got” it, for there was something to “get,” although the dancing contributed not to my understanding. But didn’t I come to see dance?

I fear that Ms. Backhaus’ The Elasticity of the Almost falls into a genre of works by choreographers that hope to satisfy audience members who might be intimidated by dance itself, who might require the added stimuli of props in order to enjoy a performance. But let us not pander to these patrons. Let there be a fine line between production quality and overstimulating stupor; between exploring movement relative to the obstacles of matter and letting matter do the work. After all, the Backhausdance dancers worked hard and well; their choreographer worked too much. I’d be curious to see the piece again stripped of pretense–its movement, music, and light might be just right, and not Almost at all.

{Photos via facebook.com/backhausdance}

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