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'The Illustrated Book of Invisible Stories'

choreography by Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton

by Heather Desaulniers

January 16, 2010 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

These days, it is practically impossible to attend modern dance without having video, multi-media, new media and mixed media shoved down your throat.  The once artistically valuable exploration of “dance and technology” has become meaningless and boring because of over-saturation.  It is very frustrating that a rigorous undertaking has morphed into a faddy trend, though I do understand why video and multi-media still elicit such a presence in current choreography.  The inclusion of these elements immediately brings another level of physicality to dance.  They create a living, breathing set on which movement can unfold and with which it can interact.  For me, the disconnect comes in the assumption that technology is the best way to accomplish this added dimension.  In “The Illustrated Book of Invisible Stories,” Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton have incorporated a living framework into performance by looking to dance itself, not technology.   They situated six company dancers against an eighteen-performer strong movement choir in this creative and humorous presentation.  Both groups of dancers were vital to the concept, demonstrating that choreographers should look first to the human body to build additional dynamism into performance. 

The first section of “The Illustrated Book of Invisible Stories” contained a dozen or so energetic, staccato vignettes, while a playful bass clarinet duet filled the room.  Each short choreographic scene highlighted different combinations of the six company dancers.  As the individual segments drew to a close, an exchange took place behind the movement choir (which was arranged in bleacher style upstage center).  The dancers completing their variation ran behind the “living set” as the next set of dancers emerged from the same place.  In this instance, the movement choir became the curtain, the legs, and the wing space all in one; it was an ingenious way to signify the completion of each motif. 

In other portions of the work, the chorus took on an active role in the choreography itself.  Garrett and Moulton created movement specifically for them, as a further accompaniment to the mainstage dancing, equally revealing as was the incredible music.  And, in still other brilliant moments of fusion, both groups (the movement choir and the company dancers) merged together, not performing the same steps, but supporting each other, sometimes literally.  For instance, during one section, Tanya Bello “surfed” on top of the movement choir in a sweet representation of vulnerability and trust.  I may have misinterpreted the narrative of this portion, but what I took from it was that the floor had become hurtful or dangerous, and the eighteen women became responsible for keeping Bello safely aloft.  They demonstrated no sense of force or control; rather, they were protective, nurturing and caring.  My favorite point in the hour-long piece was when the chorus channeled weather.  They were not miming wind nor pretending to be wind, they were wind.  They leaned forward as a group to emphasize the strength of this natural force and with their powerful sound compelled Kaitlyn Ebert around the stage.  She bouréed vigorously, yet, the movement choir was clearly the impetus behind all the directional changes that she made.  In this same segment, the chorus also used their fingertips against the bleacher steps to create the sound of rain.  It was so simple, but created a physical reaction for me.  I actually felt cold during this minor, but effective hand percussion.

Though I was captivated by the movement choir and what they brought to “The Illustrated Book of Invisible Stories”; the company dancers were equally impressive.  Many aspects of their performance deserves mention: the lightning speed at which they moved and changed direction, the mesmerizing flow they exhibited when engaged in slower sequences (especially the male soloist in the second variation), and the amazingly risky lifts of the last pas de deux.  Those lifts were literally out of this world; the female dancer had actual air time!  Despite all of these observations, the most entrancing memory I have of the six soloists was their hands.  Hands are often an afterthought in dance, overlooked by choreographers and trivially infused into movement.  Ballet hands are a dime a dozen--they all look exactly the same.  Much modern dance choreography can have a similarly contrived treatment of the hands, like Graham's famous, or perhaps infamous, (and I might go so far as to say melodramatically ridiculous) cupped hands.  Perhaps that is why these dancers' hands stood out so much in this piece.  Garrett and Moulton were able to incorporate the hands as a very real part of the choreography without making them seem placed.  These hands were both an extension of the arm and an involved part of the movement.  They were real and honest, not overly arranged decoration.

I was only in California for a week this month, and decided that I wanted to see something at Yerba Buena while I was in town.  I am so fortunate that it was this performance.  I think I had the rare opportunity to see in its early stages what some critic in forty years will call a modern dance classic.  Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton's “The Illustrated Book of Invisible Stories” is an innovative milestone for modern dance.  I believe that there should be and will be further encores in the months and years to come.


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