Dance Review by Rachel Howard, Chronicle Dance Correspondent Published Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Photo: Kegan Marling
Performers (front to back) Shinichi Iova-Koga, Dohee Lee, Terre Unite Parker, Joy Cosculluela perform in Spirit of Place at Stern Grove, May 3, 2009
The seminal landscape architect Lawrence Halprin is 92; his wife of 68 years, the pioneering postmodern choreographer Anna Halprin, is 88. Saturday morning they sat side by side on the stage of Stern Grove, the stunning Greek-inspired amphitheater of rough-hewn granite and towering eucalyptus that Lawrence designed, to watch “Spirit of Place,” a dance Anna has described as “something I wanted to do for Larry.”
For onlookers who descended the ravine in a light rain, this Dancers’ Group commission was also a gift, an education in looking and hearing and being, from two creative minds who have spent their lifetimes doing all three with unflagging intensity.
The chief challenge of creating a dance for Stern Grove, Anna Halprin explained in a pre-performance talk, was the majestic scale; her solution came from the toe-to-finger energy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.” As performers in white animal masks peeked from the upper forest like curious ancient spirits, dancers in bright red and yellow traversed the hillside and the grassy terraces in a streaming diagonal. Undressing to subtler hues, they began in tai chi-inspired movements that evolved into faun-like sideways-blade hands.
The reaching grew into falling and collapsing, then escalated to rolling that defied gravity to move up the stone bleachers, and left bodies hanging against rock. All the while, joggers and children and people with dogs – quickly revealed as planted performers – passed through, the grove going about its daily hubbub. Then the monumental Korean vocalist Dohee Lee let out a hypnotizing scream. A woman from the stage – another plant – answered in warbles and yips.
Until this moment, the gong had focused attention on an already rich soundscape of rain, birds and an occasional passing airplane, but now the bower filled with the dancers’ calls and moans. A passage of crazy monkey jumping rearranged the bodies into a new diagonal; spasms and bird arms followed. The fox-spirit descended to commune with the dancers on the grove’s center pile of boulders. Then everyone dispersed again to cover faces with bare arms and hands, a mask of flesh.
The sui generis Butoh-influenced dancer Shinichi Momo Iova-Koga is credited as associate director of “Spirit of Place.” He was also the most entrancing presence, moving with a jointless fluidity, and always as though a current of energy was passing through his body, which was only its egoless channel. Lee, too, is an artist of distractingly powerful presence. But “Spirit of Place” was about a kind of timeless communing. And that connection was between these 17 dancers, not within them.
In a closing prayer threaded with biblical allusions, Anna Halprin intoned, “Let there be moments like lightning illuminating the darkness through which we walk.” No lightning Saturday, but in the gentle rain we found softer flashes of clear sight.