Local dance companies are faced with the challenge of extending themselves in multiple directions at once. The creative aspect of things goes without saying — innovation and craftsmanship are at the core of any artistic practice. But here in Miami, local dance companies also have to build an audience, and sometimes, that means taking a step back from the cutting edge to educate people about the basics.
This past weekend, as part of the Miami Dance Festival, the Dance Now! Ensemble presented Ekphrasis 2: More Art from Art at the Bass Museum of Art. For the second year in a row, Dance Now! placed site-specific choreographies within the museum, responding to specific artworks and, this year, to the building itself. For Ekphrasis 2, artistic directors Hannah Baumgarten and Diego Salterini seemed concerned, above all, with keeping the atmosphere informal. The program opened with a conversational introduction tuned to a beginner audience, starting with a definition of the word “ekphrasis”– one art form commenting on another.
Baumgarten and Salterini introduced each of the projects in turn, explaining exactly what, in the artwork, inspired their choreography, and the audience seemed to appreciate the gesture. Both the lyrical ballet-inspired choreography and the artworks were accessible, allowing just about anyone to engage with them.
The first two choreographies responded to paintings from the museum’s permanent collection in a direct way, beginning with A Night Out. Illustrating Portrait of Flore Mahieu Lesieur (1938), an impressionistic portrait of a woman by artist Kees van Dongen, two dancers acted out scenes that might have come before and after the moment in the painting. As the directors wrote in the program notes, “we envision her preparation for the night ahead, waiting for her gentleman caller.” A dancer in a burgundy evening dress slowly extended her arms and touched her own cheek as her partner quietly approached. They danced together with slow-simmering sensual chemistry. Very briefly, the woman elegantly arrived at the pose in the painting.
A second choreography, The Shrine, was a short, beautiful meditation on The Crucifixion Tryptic (c. 1600), a small alterpiece by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem depicting Christ on the cross, surrounded by mourners including a grief-stricken Madonna. Here, the choreographers took a cue from the artwork in a more broad way, interpreting the emotion of a mother who has lost her son. Three dancers in dark blue costumes reminiscent of nun’s habits or mourning veils entered the room, each of them carrying a folded white cloth suggesting both a shroud and a lifeless body. The gestures were pleading, a living portrait that could have come from the same scene in many other paintings.
Before the audience moved downstairs for the second half of the show, Baumgarten and Salterini asked the audience if there were any questions, and then explained, “as we move away from this floor, we’re also moving away from the literal into the abstract.”
The third piece, FloatingFlyingFalling was a response in movement to an installation by local artists Francis Trombly and Leydon Rodriguez-Casanova, specifically a piece by Trombly called Leaning Canvases (2010). As an artist, she is known for handwoven copies of familiar objects, from garbage cans to caution tape. For the Bass Museum, she leaned a pile of blank canvases and empty stretchers against the wall. One detail removed her canvases from the everyday — the material she stretched was visibly imperfect and handmade.
The Dance Now! choreographers approached Trombly’s work as a commentary on the creative process, and FloatingFlyingFalling was a visually surprising embodiment of the artist’s struggle to bring an idea into form. The entire piece happened within a shockingly small wooden box with open ends. From the first minute of this piece to the last, a dancer struggled to reach beyond her containment, curling up forlornly or screaming silently at times and eventually collapsing. It was equal parts expression and contortion
For the final choreography, the audience was led to a shady outdoor patio near the museum’s reflecting pool for Drawing Circles, a response to the architectural environment of the museum itself. We were told that the curves and straight lines of art deco architecture were at the center of Drawing Circles, but the choreography itself was much more complex than that, allowing the audience, finally, to see the open-ended abstraction that dance does so well.
Those who missed the program at the Bass Museum will get a second chance to see both FloatingFlyingFalling and Drawing Circles at Dance Now’s upcoming performance on May 7 at the Byron Carlyle Theater, 500 71st St., Miami Beach, also part of the Miami Dance Festival; www.momentumdance.com or call the box office at 305-674-1040 x1.