Modern dance’s anything-goes nature is all-accepting, making it difficult for audiences to discern not only what is and isn’t good, but what is and isn’t dance. Stumbling upon SHOT at the New Island Festival on Governors Island last month, for example, I could not be certain whether I was early or late—the 20-plus minute piece was scheduled to be performed at intervals throughout the evening, and the four dancers onstage, dressed in disparate gear, were moving their bodies in separate, exploratory spheres. Their gazes were inward while one snaked through yoga postures, another swung her legs luxuriously, a third undulated his ribcage, and a fourth played with a stuffed black rabbit. Were they warming up, or was this the piece? Their stage—a square platform flush with the grass—corroborated the modernist fascination with the pedestrian, and suggested that this might indeed be it.
But SHOT turned out not to be pedestrian at all. When floodlights came on and music started to throb, the dancers, who had been clustered at the stage’s center, shot apart into separate corners, one holding center stage as she pushed and flexed through extreme, off-center movements, the physical corollary of a healthy scream. There were audible screams as well; another dancer rushed the first, and, meeting face-to-face in near collision, each opened her mouth and roared with liberated rage. Then the first dancer ran to her corner while the second took the stage, swinging and swooping and stretching.
Van Dijk uses a method she calls “counter-technique,” a phrase with double-meaning. Counter-technique is counter to classical technique, in which the body is stabilized at the pelvis, which serves as a kind of maypole that securely roots the rotating limbs. Convinced that this technique encourages rigidity in a dancer’s body, van Dijk developed a practice in which each extension is countered by an opposing force to keep the body balanced, even when it appears dangerously off-kilter—the pelvis is removed from the equation, made light, hollow, mobile. This method allows a dancer to drop her head completely—without holding in the neck (which a sensitive audience feels as a withholding)—so long as she counterweights that drop with equal and opposite energy through her shoulder or elbow or hip—whatever part is at the opposite end of the constantly shifting see-saw. And so, in the first half of SHOT, the dancing is technical and extreme, voluble and highly kinetic.
But van Dijk’s interests as a choreographer penetrate more than flesh. Moments after all four dancers reassemble onstage, having changed from their motley assortment of “day” wear to wardrobes fit for clubbing, the music shifts. The ambient beat skids, giving way to the sound of breaking glass and crunching metal. One of the dancers powers a spotlight and, running the stage’s perimeter, shines it into the audience’s eyes; we are temporarily blinded while the remaining dancers reel in drunken circles, hands to their heads. Whether a car crash or a car bomb, this violent incident interrupts the “pure” movements that precede it, and the piece shifts out of a physical space and into a psychological one.
We are now in a dark dream-state; a dancer runs a diagonal, disappearing as quickly as she appeared, wearing the stuffed black head of a rabbit.* The handheld spotlight turns to pursue the dancers, who dazedly stumble away from it. A dancer now holds a small stuffed rabbit in her hands (the one with which she had been warming up). Leaning down, she walks it across the floor with the dexterity of a puppeteer. The antagonizing spotlight pursues, and the bunny shudders, scuttling into fast-disappearing dark corners. The chasm between Surrealism and Camp is narrow and deep—woe to the jejune art that falls between.
And yet, van Dijk swings herself out of it. After the rabbit disappears, two of her dancers take the stage, engaging in a prolonged and poignant stumble—a profoundly evocative dramatization of posttraumatic stress disorder. Dizzy and drooping, a hapless girl lurches around the stage, her head held all the while by the two hands of a caretaker. Turning crazy, sick circles, unable to support her weight and on the brink of a faint, her head tilts, soon followed by her shoulders and the complete weight of her torso until her partner, cradling the base of her skull, deftly turns her about, resetting her course upward. Again she stumbles, droops, again he spins her up, combining the care one gives a newborn and the force one gives a new jar of mayonnaise. The piece picks up again before concluding, but this dirge is its defining moment.
Van Dijk’s fearless penetration of the psyche may elicit fascination or embarrassment—Donnie Darko counter-cultishness to some, Velveteen Rabbit and bruised-knee childhood to others—but even if her conceptualism falls flat in front of a traditionally-minded audience, her acute physical expression cuts deep. I could personally do without the rabbits, big or small, but will swallow them nevertheless—smooth seeds in my watermelon rather than sharp bones in my salmon.
*My high-modern instincts raged at this preposterous imagery—SHOT had suddenly jumped the proverbial shark—but my duty was to keep watching.