Gentle Solo and Violent Clockwork in Viljandi

by John Sanford Friedrich
(Tartu, Estonia)

Audience participation in high art is necessary for those who think this allows them to co-create the performance, or at the very least these interactions make the performance more tangible and memorable. There are others who feel that involving the audience only breaks the spell of magic being cast onto the audience, those of us who feel that entering a trance of passive rapture is the best gift that can be taken from performance art.

Extending the Estonian custom of removing one’s shoes when entering a private space also applied in Viljandi on Nov. 19 2013 where two young choreographers displayed the fruits of their studies at the Kultuuriakadeemia.

’’Soolo’’ by Karoline Suhhov began in the lobby when the audience preparing to enter was instructed to engage in deep breathing exercises in their sockfeet and to continue these breaths after they took their seats. Another world awaited the audience as a fog machine billowed and dull white lights slowly panned across the square border of plastic chairs and an ingeniously constructed stage within a stage, a small elevated platform made mostly of wood but with a large metal plate that became an important element in this minimalist dance.

Suhhov began on the edge of this platform, testing the sides of it cautiously as the sighing fog machine and our breathing provided the initial sound. She rose to the challenge and took the stage, again cautiosly testing its dimensions by crossing it by placing one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe. This slow motion gradually began to build upon itself as she continued to test her powers, leading into a swaying motion as an ambient track overtook the sound of breathing. Her sway became spin which became a violent fall, half onto the metal plate and creating a thundering boom in this fraction of the theater.

The falls recurred until reaching a crisis point where the young dancer expressed her mute frustration with a pained and seemingly sincere facial expression. She then crawled with an uncannily feline lack of urgency before rising again for a final time. Dipping to her waist and jerking back as a creschendo of lights reached a boiling point, this was clearly the climax of the piece but thankfully a short epilogue was attached as she tested leaving the stage with the same delicacy as she entered upon it. The lights under the design of Rommi Ruttas dimmed to a single red bulb as she sat on the edge of the stage, sharing her own breath with the audience which now recommensed its participation.

This was a performance worth seeing, but coming in at around fifteen minutes and feeling like five, it was simply too short to answer any questions. Dance need not have a specific narrative and much less to be explanative. For a work to succeed in capturing our attention like this to only to be over so quickly felt
like a bit of a waste.

’’Meraki’’ by Elina Selgis was more complex though it did not try to obscure its meaning. Speaking after the show, Selgis explained that meraki is an ancient Greek word for loving one’s craft and doing it well. Obviously Selgis has both love for the craft of dance and a good deal of mastery.

An eerie beginning which suited the gently paced work began with distorted static and clicking, more in the genre of ’’noise’’ than ambient. Six dancers, four in red and two in white stood obscured at the edges of the stage for a few moments. Walking like automatons with no movement of their upper bodies, the dancers passed each other without a glimmer of recognition. This was repeated several times until one suddenly posed with a curved arm before returning to her meditative walk. This motion was captured and repeated by other dancers until it elaborated itself into a clever movement in which the dancers’ bodies rotated in discrete clicks along with the sound still tapping steadily, imitating the mechanism of clockwork itself.

The entire dance then geometrically increased in complexity as the six broke into duets with hypnotizing diagonal sways that were at once separate and complementary. This intensity rose higher until there were passionate, if not violent, outbursts until resolving itself back into gentleness. Each of the three pairs resumed sychronized movement, with one dancer standing inert and unguided as her partner then used this still body as a platform or anchor for themselves to move in subtly different fashion from the other pairs, as one draped herself and another slid down the motionless body.

Divergence grew into a protracted climax, as one dancer in white went into spasmodic motion, collapsing again and again onto the stage floor with only her own partner observing her. This attention was not to lead to support but rather abuse as the two began an unstudied form of wild wrestling, a second pair stood facing each other in a back corner of the stage while the slenderest pair of dancers began what can only be described as a highly seductive form of tango, with one covering the other’s eyes the entire time as she led her, dipping and clinging across the stage.

This three part pattern repeated for a little more time than was sufficient until an ambiguous ending with one dancer in her original standing position in the wings of the stage and the others continuing their blank staring or tango as the lights dimmed. ’’I don’t know how my study of dance ends, so I wanted the audience to feel this too,’’ Selgis stated.

Endings are hard to see, though they can be felt. However, there are more semester-culmination works of dance scheduled this month in Viljandi, whose Cultural Institute evidently holds at least as high if not higher standards in undergraduate choreography than this reviewer has seen in the United States.

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