Anna Sperber’s “Ruptured Horizon” at Gibney Dance

http://gibneydance.org/performance/making-space-season-spring-2015/anna-sperber/As I entered the white box studio theater at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center last Wednesday evening, I was struck by a stream of natural light pouring in through a skylight. The late afternoon sun provided ample illumination for Anna Sperber’s Ruptured Horizon, running through June 13, but also what seemed a unique challenge to lighting designer Elliot Jenetopulos. As the work gained momentum over the next hour, I was quite pleased to note that Jenetopulos opted for a spare and understated vision that complemented rather than competed with the light that nature had provided on that clear June evening.

One by one, Sperber’s four superb performers, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Michael Ingle, Alice MacDonald, and Rebecca Warner, entered the space and stood motionless facing the assembled crowd as if introducing themselves. After they exited in a similarly unceremonious way, Omagbemi re-entered and began an articulate, looping solo. Soon she was joined by Ingle and then MacDonald and finally Warner, and the cast moved about one another, trading places and orientations to create an appealing moving landscape. Clad in steely gray, white, and silver, they took the shape of a winter storm, at times a churning cloud, at others a soft snowfall.  With her keen eye for visual design and fashion, Sperber enlisted the services of costume designer Christian Joy to create a series of chic ensembles that reflected the shifting tones of the piece. The muted colors of the opening gave way to technicolor ponchos as the movement became more full-bodied, and finally to delicate undergarments and barcoded fringe as the dance shifted toward the introspective.

The most powerful part of the evening came mid-piece, when Rebecca Warner danced a stunning solo set to a simple progression of violin chords performed live by composer and instrumentalist Jessica Pavone. Standing in profile in front of a plain white wall, Warner wore a colorful, multi-tiered tunic over a simple blue leotard, legs exposed. She moved back and forth, at times supporting herself against the wall before launching into an assemblé or a low run, arms raised overhead. Somehow, she managed to be at once academic in her precision and wild in her attack of the material. As the solo wore on, her breathing became ragged and her effort was legible, but at no time did her mastery of the steps waver.

Later on, one of the dancers pulled back a curtain at stage right to reveal a mirror that extended the length of the side wall. From that point forward, the mirror proved a useful visual aid; when a column obstructed my view, I could watch the action by directing my gaze leftward. Even when the dancing was unfolding in plain sight, I caught myself watching the dancers moving in the mirror. I liked that Sperber offered up this distinct perspective alongside the obvious one, creating a sort of kinetic kaleidoscopic effect.

As in Sperber’s past work, this piece favored grounded, locomotive movement that gradually evolves through slight variations in direction and phrasing. A weighted lunge is accented by flourish of the hand and followed by a crisp pivoting turn. In Ruptured Horizon, choreography was a vehicle, motoring Sperber’s dancers across the spacious studio, slicing into the negative space around them much like the columns supporting the weight of the floors above. The dancers held their gaze strongly at eye level, looking upon their audience with cool restraint. And thus the piece progressed, driven by Sperber’s usual exactitude and intensity, full of the skill and craftsmanship that has come to define her work. Yet despite its polish, the piece ultimately fell short of establishing meaningful relationships between its performers. Groupings and regroupings of the four dancers often seemed arbitrary, and they didn’t quite manage to develop unique roles in relation to one another. Many of my questions were left unanswered.

The conclusion of the piece brought about a shift in tone from one of competition to one of collaboration. Impossibly wide lunges, performed one after another by Ingle and Warner in a “look what I can do” fashion were replaced by subtle gestures of support: hands clasped over fists, weight suspended over extended legs airplane-style. Although these less dancerly acts felt disjointed from the strongly non-representational nature of the rest of the work, the end of Ruptured Horizon was well crafted and poignant. As Ingle and Warner withdrew from their tentative embrace, the charged energy of the preceding hour began to dissipate. And as they found their resting positions, supine on the floor underneath the skylight, the sun had just set over their heaving bodies.

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