Live Wires: Chunky Move in Residence at Duke

by Chris Vitiello on October 27, 2011

Chunky Move in "Connected" (photo: Jeff Busby)

We tend to regard “natural” and “manmade” as mutually exclusive categories, but the Australian dance company Chunky Move, which presents dance/sculpture hybrid Connected on October 28 in Reynolds Theater, makes no such divisions. During their residency events at Duke this week, linkages abounded between so-called natural forms (like a raindrop hitting a pond) and manmade forms (like choreography or sculpture). But Connected—in which dancers assemble, attach themselves to, and then manipulate a “kinetic sculpture” by Reuben Margolin—expresses more than simple linkages. Both dancers and sculpture are revealed as energy inhabiting and moving through form. The beauty of this movement lends its intellectual implications an emotional impact.

During a Wednesday conversation between Margolin and Connected choreographer Gideon Obarzanek, the outgoing Chunky Move director described his personal development, from ballet through choreography and on into physics. “The first thing I did was just working with dancer’s bodies,” he said. “The second thing was working with light: how to see these people.” Obarzanek said that the “self-conscious idea of performing” led him out of the body and into the equally physical space around it. “I started working with a lot of water for a period of time,” he said, “showing off the arcs of movement coming off the bodies and the ripples on the surface of water… but this proved to be extremely dangerous,” because of electrical safety hazards onstage.

Video projection provided an electrocution-free way to explore the fluid relationship between movement and space, which led Obarzanek to the PopTech Conference in 2009, where he discovered Margolin’s work. It was startling, how similarly Margolin’s gear-and-cam sculptures and Obarzanek’s integrated video-and-dancers moved. Obarzanek recognized not just a kindred spirit, but an artist who understood the physical relationship between energy and form. “[Margolin’s work] was very exposed,” he said. “You could see how it was made and what it was about, but it transcended these forms and became wavelengths in nature.” Obarzanek thinks of his dancers the same way: “When they begin to dance, they become bodies in space, and continuously flux back and forth.”

Chunky Move in "Connected" (photo: Jeff Busby)

Margolin showed photos and video of his studio and some sculptures. One featured a ceiling-mounted cone framework infested with small gears and motors, to which many lines of monofilament were attached. The bottoms of the threads held a set of concentric plywood circles, the largest of which was five feet in diameter. Set into motion, the circles mimicked a pond’s surface accepting a droplet of water to such a smooth and mesmerizing degree that it was hard to believe the movement wasn’t computer-generated.

At the end of the talk, Obarzanek looked over his shoulder at an image from Connected on a screen. He reflected on the commingling of the dancers with Margolin’s sculpture to form a breathtaking, new thing: “There’s nothing magic. And yet it does transcend its own form and become something quite beautiful and intangible in a tangible world.”

***

Alisdair Macindoe swooped from side to side, spun twice, and finished with a leaping tumble. “Got it? Good,” he blurted, leaving no time for a response. It was Tuesday, and he (with other Connected dancers) ran a roomful of wide-eyed students through a 90-minute master class at Duke’s Ark studio. Even the warm-up exercises were challenges to the short-term memory as much as the body. Capoeira sweeps segued into balletic stretches in a “whatever means necessary” hodgepodge for the 35-plus students. Their reward was a series of dance games.

Chunky Move in "Connected" (photo: Jeff Busby)

In one autocatalytic game called “Fish,” dancers gathered in a loose but coherent group. Whomever faced front began a movement that those behind had to follow. When that movement turned, the dancer who was newly in front of the group became the leader and determined the movement for the others to mimic. The dancers resembled windblown wheat or seaweed beneath surf, and delighted in how leadership rippled through them. The nonhierarchical improv sometimes manifested two leaders, other times zero. When the complexity of the game challenged a group of dancers, Macindoe focused it back upon the real by stating a simple visual rule: “If you can’t see anyone, you’re leading; if you can see someone, you’re following.”

In another game, dancers formed equilateral triangles with two partners. As the trios moved, they had to jitter and slide to maintain their triangle while avoiding collisions with others. “This isn’t so much about dance as it is about movement,” Macindoe reminded the class. “It’s a self-organizing pattern, like how water works.” Then Macindoe and the other company dancers taught the students several phrases from Connected, concluding the lesson by dancing them one after the other in a long sequence. All together, at speed, the movement had a sense of specificity and purpose, as if each motion acted within its phrase like a word within a sentence, even as it also conveyed a sense of gathering without intention, like how water sticks together.

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