Island Moving Company’s ‘Return to Live’: Deep, thoughtful art

Island Moving Company. Photo by Kim Fuller.
Island Moving Company. Photo by Kim Fuller.

Waterfire Arts Center, Providence, RI.
May 6, 2021.

Returning to live performance — these days, it’s a development that can make dancers and dance lovers everywhere rejoice. Since March of 2021, Island Moving Company (IMC) has kept its mission alive, as best it can in the circumstances, in a variety of ways: outdoor, socially-distanced performances (weather permitting); live-streamed shows; classes streamed over social media; outdoor classes; and more. Return to Live, at Providence, RI’s Waterfire Arts Center, was the company’s first show in a theater for a live audience since COVID hit. 

The company always creates notably thoughtful work — in concept and execution — yet the works in this program in particular evinced deep, thoughtful artmaking. It demonstrated how even simple choices can have profound meaning behind them. Perhaps the weight of the occasion was part of that effect — if even on the subjective part of this reviewer. Whatever the cause, the effect of this deep, thoughtful art was provoking thought and creating unparalleled aesthetic experiences. 

IMC Associate Artistic Director Danielle Genest’s Night Creature (2019) opened the program. It’s an exploration of moving through the uncertainty of darkness, feeling your way around and then coming to the courage to feel inward. Ultimately, light and hope are on the horizon. Mark Harootian’s Steady Grip (2021) is a physicalization of the often very lonely experience of experiencing mental illness. Dancers moved through space with turmoil filling their body — together but not quite connected. The theme of the work is a very important focus, particularly in the context of COVID, when conditions such as anxiety and depression have skyrocketed. 

In both pieces, in just the most slightly noticeable way, the dancers moved with less expansiveness through the space than when I’ve seen these pieces performed previously — not for lack of commitment to their performances but because the dancers seemed to have internalized the work in a different way; the works seemed to be deeper into their bones this time. That’s a powerful thing to bear witness to. It was also wonderful to see a new trainee with the company — Ane Arrieta — more than holding her own with the work; she didn’t stick out as a new, less-experienced edition to Steady Grip or to any others she danced. In fact, her performances were full of technical command and passion.   

Genest’s Belief, a world premiere, opened on four dancers in a diagonal line — reaching to the wings, in and out of unison. A stark contrast came as they broke from the line and moved independently. Canon and various other groupings brought them back to unison, dynamically animating the stage. The music brought a sense of playfulness and joy, although the lighting was a bit darker (lighting design by Kyle Eldridge). The movement was largely lifted and elevated, more about full body shape than gesture. Even so, arms swerved through unique patterns, as if in exploration. Another section had dancers in a circle, where one fell and they supported her up — reminiscing childlike play in many ways. 

Later on in the piece, lighting brought blues and purples — colors of midnight. Yet, the changing external conditions didn’t change the movement quality or the way the dancers related to one another in the space — and with the space, moving all about it with gusto. That feels like what belief is — moving forward, exploring and being playful through a resilient hope that although darkness permeates, brightness can remain in our heart and how we hold one another. 

Also notable is how the piece is an intriguing departure for Genest; in contrast to this one, her pieces are often notably weighted and highly gestural in movement, and mysterious in tone. Yet, something meaningful that’s always in her work remained in this one — thoughtful creation of something that embodies a truth of the human experience. 

Ruth…less (2000), by IMC Artistic Director Miki Ohlsen, is based on the novel The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton. It’s the story of a fraught mother-daughter relationship leading the daughter to seek comfort and connection in a man. As such, a clear and overt narrative guides the work. The dancers — Brooke DiFrancesco, Emily Baker and Timur Kan — told the story superbly, with their movement as well as with their overall theatricality. It’s a largely classical work, but contraction, release and unique gesture on the more contemporary side of things helped to build that theatricality. 

Getting lifted and kicking with flexed feet connoted protest. Being lifted from lying on the back illustrated support. Brushing the back of a hand on one’s own cheek spoke of self-soothing and reflection. Heart shapes in the spaces between bodies (negative space) and leaning for closeness and support conveyed the romance at hand. A robust score with brightness but also unrest undergirded it all. 

A particular costume choice was also intriguing; Baker (the mother) and DiFrancesco (the daughter) wore dresses of the same design but different colors (costume design by Eileen Stoops and Sarah Good). This choice reminded me how we carry so much of who our parents are, yet — to some extent — ultimately we are drawn to find our own ways of being in the world. 

The world premiere of The Sea Washes the Shore, from former Artistic Director of José Limón Dance Company Colin Connor, closed the program. It seemed to pay homage to the company’s seaside home; both movement vocabulary, and the formations in which it resided, evoked the ebbs and flows of the tide on the shoreline. Formations of varying numbers of dancers, as well as more and less athletic, fast movement, illustrated the ever-changing speed and strength of waves upon the shore. 

Beyond that very literal interpretation, interpersonal dynamics shone through as well — support, moving in synchronicity, reaching to and away. The ending was particularly memorable: dancers facing upstage, stepping in a rising and falling pattern, all in unison. The wave washes the shore. It was a simple, yet powerfully evocative construction. A little thoughtfulness can go a long way when it comes to artmarking. Going deeper can reap exponential returns. Brava and thank you to IMC for exploring and sharing as you returned to live performance!  

This program also included Miki Ohlsen’s A Life Well Lived, a work dedicated to the reviewer’s late aunt, who was associated with the company through her husband, former Chair of the Island Moving Company Board. The reviewer has chosen not to review the work because o the emotional weight of the work for her personally, and for maintaining journalistic objectivity. Yet she does want to express that the work greatly moved her, and she is incredibly grateful to the company for creating and presenting it. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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