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PASSION VS PEACE IN DANCES OF BETH SOLL
Beth Soll & Company presented "Dances of Passion and Peace" November 22 and 23 at University Settlement on Eldridge Street. Described as a concert of dance, music, poetry and translation, it was set to new music of composers Thomas Addison, Nuria Divi, Wendy Griffiths, Josh Rosen, and Stan Strickland. It was also set to poetry, both sung and spoken, by Robert Frost, Lin Haire-Sargeant, Langston Hughes, Rumi, and Walt Whitman. Notably, poems were recited in many languages including Catalan and American Sign Language.
So unlike Broadway, you don't go in humming the score.
The eleven-part program included four premieres, with Ms. Soll appearing frequently. The movement was gestural, not highly technical, and there was a lot of walking. Ms. Soll seems to use a lot of trained dancers but not really challenge them. You don't see much in the way of turns, extensions or jumps. Soll uses a select vocabulary, played forward to the audience and back, in and out. The dancers, all female, relate to each other, usually with tenderness. There is a quiet aesthetic throughout.
When I watch dance, I generally do the supposed critic's job of watching the movement and making notes on the imagery. When I started writing this article, I thought that if I were to experience this concert over again, I might view this work more with my ears than my eyes, to see if its music was meant to be primary. Upon finishing it, I saw that the point lies somewhere else.
Let's talk about the four premieres.
"Twilight Strategies," set to music by Wendy Griffiths, was a reworking of a 2016 solo for Soll employing pretty standard modern dance vocabulary with unconventional gestural movements. I wrote in my notes, "This is soooo female!"
"Generations Telling...Listening," a trio to music by Thomas Addison, Josh Rosen, and Stan Strickland, starts with Soll in gold top and tobacco brown pants looking as if she is appraising herself in a mirror. Two women enter upstage and move slowly, covering their eyes. (This is to be a recurring motif in the evening.) Rain sounds drown out and overtake a woodwind score. Breathy "huh huh huh" sounds are overwhelmed by a sudden rock metal song. I have my eyeglasses off at this moment and, startled, drop them. I get a dirty look from the woman seated in front of me as I fish for them. The other three dancers help Soll to the stage floor, for an image of sleep or death. They touch each other's long hair (another recurring motif of the evening), join hands and circle like the Greek fates of mythology. The young girls dancing seem to love to put their heads against each other's tummies. Beth Soll seems to love the saluting gesture and she draws her hand out, extending it. A girl runs around in circles. I feel dumb not to know what the point is and I become aware of the uncomfortable seating. The rows are too close together. It's a long room, and I think that University Settlement could provide a few more inches of legroom in the risers. At least nobody in front of me is turning around to look at me any more.
"A Wild Dance," set to music by Thomas Addison, had the performers moving as if in confusion, then reverting to gestural stuff, less wild, with chest-slapping and touching of each other's hair. Its frantic activity left the dancers breathless. Between "A Wild Dance" and "A Quiet Dance" was "I Died as a Mineral and Became a Plant" by Rumi, recited by Abby Dias (not a premiere), during which time the dancers could catch their breath. Four women in red return for"A Quiet Dance," set to music by Wendy Griffiths. One is on the floor. They can't revive her. Oops!, she's up. Nobody stays down long in these dances. They cover their eyes over and over. I can't discern a coherent visual narrative. The dance ends with the four of them humming together, punctuated by the pinging of a Tibetan hand cymbal.
The evening's literary components included two excerpts of "When I Sleep, then I See Clearly" by Catalan poet J.V. Foix (recited in Catalan), an excerpt of "Spontaneous Me" by Whitman, "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost, "Old Heat" by Lin Haire-Sargeant and "Stars" by Langston Hughes.
We are told that inspiration for "Dances of Passion and Peace" comes from Hermann Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game," and his interest in spiritual enlightenment within the context of contrasting, potentially transcendent ways of life: in this case, a life of power, love, and conflict versus a life of supremely quiet meditation (italics, mine, added for emphasis). The game itself is a melding of learning, in which motifs of musical themes and philosophical thoughts are proposed. As the game progresses, connections between its themes become deeper and more varied but its rules and mechanics are not explained in detail. This may explain why I saw the images as incoherencies. Conclusion: to put yourself into Ms. Soll's head, familiarize yourself with the book before you go to this performance.
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