Did Chunky Move’s “Connected” Connect?

by Brian Howe on November 2, 2011

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

Choreographer Gideon Obarzanek has closed his tenure with the Australian dance company Chunky Move on a spectacular note. A joint creation with the innovative artist Reuben Margolin (read our interview), Connected is a 60-minute vision of dancers and kinetic sculpture conjoined with sensual fluidity in an aura of mercurial lighting and intricately strident sounds. We got to see it at Reynolds Theater on October 28, and we left with unforgettable impressions of dreamlike beauty. But we were divided on the issue of the dance’s text-based section, which is deliberately incongruous with the piece’s overriding abstraction. Was it a bold move or a false step? We weigh out both sides below, and would love to hear what you thought as well.

Chris Vitiello: I appreciated the risk Obarzanek took by integrating spoken and recorded narratives from museum security guards. The whole thing started with Margolin’s fantastic sculpture, which the dancers suspensefully constructed onstage, and then some very strong choreographic sequences, with the sculpture being set into motion and manipulated. All awesome, particularly the moment when the sculpture first moved, perfectly synched with musical and lighting cues.

But then, even after you interact with the sculpture for a while, you’ve still got half an hour to fill. Without the narrative section, where security guards explained how they got their jobs and how they cope with boredom, the performance would have risked being simply, “Now watch us play with this amazing sculpture some more.” That might have been fine—the choreographic interaction with the sculpture was beautiful and never felt obligatory. But the narratives anchored the piece in the real, bringing in humor and personality, and setting up the ending.

Brian Howe: I loved Connected overall, though no matter how stunning the dancing was, I found it difficult to take my eyes off of Margolin’s sculpture. The moment you mentioned when the sculpture first “woke up”—there’s no other way to describe it—was really magical and memorable. But the text-based section was problematic for me. It squandered a lot of the force the piece had been gathering—all that mystery and immediacy, suddenly flattened into “comment on society” and meta-commentary on art.

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

I felt that the abstract sections were really deep and touching, and it was a shame to feel that ineffable depth reduced to prosaic “about-ness.” It seemed not only deflating, but foreign to the rest of the piece—and maybe even like a loss of nerve, like when a poet throws all his cards on the table in the last stanza, anxious to be understood. Plus, the sculpture got kind of shoved aside during this act, when its potential had only just begun to be explored. After some of the incredible effects in the second act, where the sculpture became a rippling tunnel, or a net, I would have very much liked to “watch them play with this amazing sculpture some more!”

CV: I didn’t find the narrative section reductive at all. To me, it wasn’t a commentary on society, but on being and physics: energy is nothing without form, and open, nonhierarchical forms express the energy that flows through them. The moment when four dancers each grasped a limb of a fifth to form a lattice, much like the sculpture, was especially poignant and beautiful for me. I think it was as dramatic as the moment when they first set the sculpture into motion, but it wouldn’t have been if the security guard narratives hadn’t preceded it.

That human lattice was where the piece transcended the images and stories that had been established to that point. The open form of Obarzanek’s choreography transferred energy into the open form of Margolin’s sculpture, and that energy transferred back into the dancers in the last part. It required the mundane, closed form of the narratives to set up the emotional significance of those transfers.

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

BH: For me, the sculpture itself was already sufficient as a symbol, without any narrative framework. Any time two or more humans are in the same place, a third presence manifests—a purely energetic construct where thoughts, feelings, and desires intermingle, in varying states of harmony and opposition. I liked experiencing the dance that way, as an endless mystery made visible, until the more limited meaning was layered on and diluted the purity of the abstraction. I thought the second act was virtually flawless—with Alisdair Macindoe supporting the weight of the sculpture, it had a timeless, mythic posture, with overtones of Atlas, Icarus, and Sisyphus. I guess I wasn’t prepared to make that sudden pivot from mythic/aesthetic experience to modern/intellectual experience. I think I could have been, if the intellectual quotient had been more penetrating. It’s notable that none of the promotional photos depict this part of the dance, but perhaps they wanted to maintain the element of surprise, which I did appreciate.

What did you think of the actual dancing in the narrative section? Because I found it pretty dull, if conceptually apt—wage-earners in suits and ties, doing busy, neurotic things.

CV: It was the dullest human movement in the piece, but that made sense to me in the context of “being and physics.” For the narrative section, the still-moving sculpture was raised high above the stage. It had been hooked to a motor, so after the dancers initially set it in motion, it kept going even though they were disconnected—it became a perpetual motion machine, defying entropy. The first bit of narration was about the unavoidable difference between a museum incident report and the actual incident—between representation and reality. This is a fundamental disconnect. But since we’re both witnesses and participants, our being bridges the disconnect. One of the dancers even asked, “Will you be a witness?”

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

BH: So you’re saying that this section was necessary to implicate the audience in the connection taking place between the dancers and sculpture. I get that. It’s interesting that the same gambit made you feel connected to the piece and made me feel alienated from it. Even though I didn’t like that part, I respect Obarzanek’s impetus to give what could have been a frictionless experience some grit. I’m still thinking about it days later, which is a kind of artistic success in itself.

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