This year’s Berkeley Dance Project, presented by the University of California at Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, was inaptly titled Equal Footing, in that it was a peripatetic series of uneven assemblages of dancers from wildly different calibers. But, as an indignant performer of that night told me after I shared with her my feelings about the lack of across-the-board kinesthetic aptitude, it wasn’t about technique. She is right. It isn’t about all of them being on the same level in terms of dancing, and—as an undergraduate production—that would have been near impossible. So, I will suspend my insistence on technical precision and look beyond the clumsiness to locate why the showcase still left me underwhelmed.
The first piece, “MinEvent,” staged by Patricia Lent, was a composition of five dances choreographed by Merce Cunningham. My response to the piece, prima facia, was that it was cringe-worthy to say the least. It felt dated and underdeveloped. I don’t have a problem with abstraction or repetition and I by no means require a narratological through-line to enjoy a dance, so it was difficult for me to ascertain why I was so resistant to this piece. A friend who accompanied me to the show that night hit the nail on its catachretic head when he said that it felt like being at the museum. And for me, it was the difference between the Smithsonian and a warehouse of replicas. If a piece assumes itself as a compendium of works by a dance auteur known for razor-sharp precision, doesn’t the piece have to be immaculate? Each section of this dance seemed labored and over-concentrated. With a sequence of hyper-technical, seemingly simple combinations, the phrasing has to be effortless and precise. It just wasn’t. The costuming added to the dated-ness of the piece, and frankly, many of the dancers looked uncomfortable. So if the dancing wasn’t great and the piece was theme-less and abstract, there just wasn’t anything for the audience to hold on to. I will say, however, that the music provided by David Coll was the main event in “MinEvent.” The atmosphere created by the tonally surprising force of the underscoring provided a solid wave that carried this drudgery toward the finish line. It literally reverberated throughout the entire space, vibrating panels of metal at specific and poignant frequencies.
The second performance, choreographed by the director of Equal Footing, Lisa Wymore, was well-placed, like a sorbet to wash the bad taste out of our mouths from the unpalatable previous piece. “Ain’t gonna be…” was facile and concrete. Drawing from stories and images from accounts of the great dustbowl, Wymore took a very literal approach to choreographing. It was about wind, so the dancers danced as if pushed by great zephyrs. It was about struggle, so the dancers adopted strained looks on their faces and danced as if they were having great difficulty. Again, the music was the best part of this piece (and the latter two—I might as well save my proverbial breath). Though the genres of music (folk and hymnal) too were easy choreographic choices, I appreciated how it was generated by the bodies of the dancers via voice or corporeal percussion. The employment as body as musical instrument illuminated the reality that the travesties of the dustbowl weren’t only economically or agriculturally impacting, but that this accost by nature was physiologically distressing. Erik Lee's solo in the piece was the highlight; he exhibited commitment, ferocity, musicality and full release. All in all, this was a lot easier to digest than the former. I don’t understand, however, why Wymore decided to include herself in the piece as the wind generator and square-dance caller. Seemed a bit self-indulgent. Perhaps she was playing with the stereotype that choreographers have insufferable god complexes.