BWW Review: THE DAY at Tennessee Performing Arts Center
Maya Beiser and Wendy Whelan's collaborative performance, THE DAY at Tennessee Performing Arts Center in partnership with Oz Arts Nashville and Nashville Ballet on January 18, 2020 at 7pm exemplified post-modern choreographer Lucinda Childs and composer David Lang's collaborative, layered practices. Accomplished artists in their own realms (music and dance), Beiser and Whelan combined Childs and Lang's processes with their own aesthetic for a deeply restrained and strenuous performance. As Beiser and Whelan described in interviews, Part One of THE DAY contained a newer score, while Part Two, Lang's world to come already existed in their shared performance history through Pontus Lidberg's film Labyrinth Within.
Individually, Beiser and Whelan captivated - Whelan walking contemplatively across the stage, Beiser seated in a power stance, limbs enfolding her cello. Together, they grounded the work's multi-disciplinary, hybrid structure with their various expertise along the spectrum of creative function. As a primer on post-modern movement built on a neo-classical ballerina and a musical marathon fusing classicism, romanticism, and modernism into a dense score, these artists triumphed despite navigating a heavily nuanced, deeply detailed construction. Each component of the work - music, movement, text, and media - warranted full exposure, but became somewhat over-saturated at times.
Having recently revisited Deborah Jowitt's 1988 collection of essays, Time and the Dancing Image, THE DAY recalled 1960's performance "Happenings" and "Events" by Fluxus artists and the prolific Judson Church era. Childs' drew upon Whelan's capacity for precision with rules and tasks. Childs' vocabulary is highly repetitive with seemingly infinite variations. Earlier in the week, Whelan spoke of her gratitude working with Childs' at this point in her career. How many prima ballerinas chart a new movement path after thirty years in Balanchine's house?
Childs' put Whelan through her paces in the annals of modern, post-modern, and contemporary dance. Whelan's white shorts and sleeveless top were reminiscent of a PE uniform (many college dance programs originated in physical education units), but once draped with additional white material, continually transformed. Whelan glided with ease and flow in homage to Isadora Duncan's grecian profile; played with shape as Loie Fuller did; wrestled her body inside the billowing fabric as Martha Graham, Alwin Nikolais, and Pilobolus dancers have moved; falling and recovering, arms and legs wide as Doris Humphrey and Alvin Ailey dancers are often canonized. Whelan followed a determined path as Merce Cunningham might have laid out, completing tasks with small props (a stretchy loop, several slender rods, and additional fabric molded into various shapes) with high focus.
Childs gave Whelan brisk walks and turns, arms swinging, nearly flying aloft as Paul Taylor's dancers do - smooth but at high speed. Childs' highlighted Whelan's dexterity to pivot quickly between axes in sagittal, coronal, and transverse planes. Balanchine loved to send dancers into off-balance spirals, which also appeared here. Whelan embodied the singular strength of Yvonne Rainer, continually repeating patterns until they faded away, only to return again. Trisha Brown's company remained a female-only troupe until Stephen Petronio's arrival (Whelan has appeared as a guest artist with Petronio's company). For Whelan, this is the inverse; she previously operated in a hyper-traditional male to female structure and THE DAY removed her from that.
Whelan followed Baryshnikov's quest for continual growth and challenge, moving from a highly structured, secure position in a ballet company to foraging new movement in contemporary collaborations. Like Baryshnikov did at American Ballet Theatre, she now holds a leadership position in the company which strongly shaped her. Whelan described her post-ballet projects as hugely confidence-building which was clear seeing her move on her own in THE DAY after her Restless Creature debut in 2013 with choreographers Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo. Childs periodically sent Whelan to the floor in what could be seen as a fleeting b-girl balance or freeze; Whelan's groundedness in moving is much stronger than in her initial duet with Abraham. Brooks' contribution to Restless Creature, in which Whelan appeared mostly deeply in sync creatively, complemented Abraham's aesthetic in embracing weight, the ground, and directing energy out, rather than up in a final pose as regularly seen in classical ballet.
Beiser and Whelan wore white for the first part, black in the second part. The white added softness in tandem with a more melodic score; brightening the mostly somber text, using crowd-sourced "I remember" statements. Beiser had a hand in every aspect of the work, including producing it. Like Whelan, Beiser has few direct peers, thus she accompanied herself with recorded music and vocal tracks. Her vocals reminded me of Meredith Monk's compositions; with what other ways of creating music might Beiser proceed? The live and recorded aspects gave mystery to her performance, as the music heard didn't always match what was seen.
Beiser directed the transition between parts, walking her cello down the small platform, pausing to strum it, with the effect of sounding a gong. The second part, musically, demonstrated Beiser's attack and fluency. Less soft and melodic than the first part, world to come surged and swelled in tempo, crashing like the waves projected on the screen. Beiser occupied the stool Whelan utilized in the opening movements, gently spinning herself around. Beiser turned her back to the audience, completing the final bars of music.
This turning away signaled the concluding of remembrance. Like a eulogy, one never wants to end, afraid of saying everything and nothing all at once. Beiser and Whelan said everything in their movement and music; but for the audience they said nothing in conclusion, having brought us into the recesses of our own memories, and left us there. In interviews, Beiser described the journey she and Whelan take each night on stage together; perhaps it most resembled the biblical admonition regarding the presence of God from the Old and New Testaments: "a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day."
Photo by Nils Schlebusch.