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'above under inbetween'

Choreography by Willi Dorner

by Heather Desaulniers

September 15, 2009 -- Embassy of Austria, Washington, DC

On September 15th, the Embassy of Austria presented Willi Dorner’s “above under inbetween,” an ode to the original post-modern work of the Judson Dance Theater.  It renewed my faith that old-fashioned post-modernism (perhaps in itself a contradiction in terms) is alive and well in present day choreography. “above under inbetween” took the sine qua non out of the post-modern handbook and struggled to blur the line between life and art. Some of the attempts at this goal were incredibly successful and some were suspect.

Dorner’s re-definition of traditional performance began by challenging the relationship between the audience and the performers.  The piece commenced with the dancers emerging from the body of the audience. They were dressed anonymously in ordinary clothing and had been scattered amongst us waiting for the performance to begin.  Then, at the appointed time, they stepped out onto the performance area and the evening’s presentation started.  There was nothing grand, glamorous or showy about them, which closed the gap between the performers and audience members.

The choreography itself also effectively obscured the line between life and art.  The piece was a combination of pedestrian interludes and shape making.  None of the movements were overly dancey; they were everyday activities, like walking and running.  The dancers started by leaning against one of the walls, then, they would walk to a place on the floor and together as a group, create a shape with their bodies. These shapes developed and evolved in difficulty and with the inclusion of household items (chairs, boards and tables) and other building materials.  Each shape was then dismantled and the performers returned back to the wall, where the leaning resumed.  This process happened continuously throughout the work; it was like they were playing a human game of Tetris or Jenga.  There was a physical architecture of organizing/re-organizing, ordering/re-ordering and building/re-building. The first ten or twelve shapes were erected very slowly, and over the course of the evening, the speed and intensity with which the shapes were made increased, with a dynamic crescendo leading to the final sequence of allegro ferocity.

The space itself did not work well with this choreography.  Post-modern choreographers tend toward unusual performance venues with which to show their work.  Again, this choice stems from a desire to cloud the lines between life and art, and introduce alternatives to the traditional proscenium arch stage.  “above under inbetween” was performed on a floor at the same eye level as the audience.  Chairs had been avoided in order to facilitate the translucent space between the performer and audience.  Unfortunately, this meant that it was incredibly difficult to see.  Tall people were standing at the very front, which resulted in an actual audience incident.  Annoyance and frustration had been incited by a lack of access to the work.  Dance is visual, so anytime the audience has difficulty viewing it, the work is in true jeopardy.  I could see some of the balances and shapes whereas others were completely blocked.  I have no idea how acrobatic, interesting or kinetic these lost images were.  For more than half of the piece, the dancers were obstructed from view.  I’m all for the re-defining the idea of the stage, but a challenging space doesn’t make up for not being able to see the dance. And, I don’t think it was done on purpose for artistic sensibility; it was just poor planning.

This was my first experience with Willi Dorner’s choreography and I am excited to see a second offering that will be presented next month in Washington.  It will be interesting to see if the minimalist post-modernism that was injected into “above under inbetween” is an ongoing theme in his work or if it was piece-specific.


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