ODC/Dance Explores the Formal Elegance of Geometry and its Human Implications

Nélida Nassar   09.17.2017

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At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, during the 10th and final week of this summer’s events, ODC/Dance tackles both the frightening unknowns and the relative certainties of mathematical conclusions. Its artistic director, Brenda Way, who was on the faculty at Oberlin College before moving to San Francisco to launch her company, has always been drawn to the big idea, taking abstract theories about culture, religion, astronomy and evolution as the starting points for her work. Sometimes her creations founder under the weight of their intellectual baggage, but this is not the case in Triangulating Euclid. The piece is structured around the discovery of a rare 1648 edition of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, perhaps the most influential work in the history of mathematics, and here the ideas are expressed in a fluid medium of triangles and lines that are eminently danceable thanks to the skill of its three choreographers: Way, KT Nelson, and resident artist Kate Weare. From its title, you might expect a lot of talking and philosophizing from Triangulating Euclid, and the first few minutes offer exactly that. But the three choreographers, drawing on their previous collaborations (including The Velveteen Rabbit and Boulders and Bones), have created a work which is consistently interesting in terms of pure dance.

At the start, dancer Mia Chong , dressed in a black two-piece bathing suit, performs a series of cryptic gestures, while a woman’s voice in the background recounts the discovery of an ancient book and a man stands in the audience with a large white megaphone-like object held to one eye. Chong is then joined by other dancers, all in different versions of the bathing suit, and they follow her in unison, gathering in a series of lineups that create geometrical figures. They alternately disperse and line up again. Accompanied by Schubert’s song “Nacht und Träume,” sung by tenor Ian Bostridge and then by soprano René Fleming, two important visual events occur simultaneously and persist through the rest of the piece. The dancers enter with gauzy but meticulously tailored jerkins over their bathing suits, and one of them, appearing almost stealthily, draws a chalk line across the front of the space. She crouches in order to sprinkle the chalk and moves slowly backwards. At the other side, she veers upstage on a diagonal, then turns left to go straight out at the same side from which she entered, leaving the space carved into geometric figures. The dancers then form three pairs executing slower movements more akin to classical ballet while the song continues and then finally disperse as Fleming reaches the last note.

In one of the work’s highlights, Tegan Schwab and Rachel Furst engage in a dialogue of playful, intricate moves, into which Natasha Adorlee Johnson, exiled from their circle of intimacy, keeps trying to insert herself. She hopefully places her waist into the curve of Brandon Freeman’s arm or lays her head on Jeremy Smith’s shoulder, but her loneliness is palpable.

All ten dancers are outstanding, theatrically expressive as well as technically assured, and they are accompanied by the superb ebb and flow of music composed by Olafur Arnalds, Max Richer and Daniel Bernard Roumain, which moves among them, leaning into them, shadowing them as if urging them to show even more emotion. There is a judicious use of props, too, like the giant rectangular sheet of fine handmade paper that becomes a geometrical floating form of joy or the three white vertical lines. The choreography is at its best when operating on a semi-abstract level, and during the more literal moments the tone falters. While the scenes are always beautifully executed, one feels towards the end that the choreographers’ confidence has wavered, that they are searching for ideas extraneous to the dancing, spinning out the piece beyond its natural length. All the same, Triangulating Euclid is terrifically entertaining throughout.

Fundamentally, this three-part piece – variously emphasizing form, illuminating detail, and the inherent drama of numbers – is about the power of movement to create a kinetic sharing of emotion, exploring how audiences can experience dance as a physical surge of joy, a quiet moment of contentment or a prickle of dissatisfaction. Above all, this elegant piece confirms the truth of the first two lines of Euclid’s Elements: “A point is that which has no parts. A line is length without breadth”.

Preceding Triangulating Euclid, ODC/Dance performed Dead Reckoning, a work inspired by a trip to Death Valley which shows how vulnerable we are to the powerful natural forces that are being unleashed by climate change. Unfortunately, I missed it.

Choreography: Brenda Way, KT Nelson, Kate Weare
Music: Olatfur Analds, Max Richter, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Franz Schubert
Costume Design: Brenda Way and Lisa Claybaugh
Lighting and Scenic Design: Matthew Antaky
Dancers: Jeremy Smith, Natasha Adorlee Johnson, Brandon Freeman, Jeremy Smith, Tegan Schwab, Daniel Santos, Rachel Furst, Lani Yamanaka, James Gilmer,
Mia J. Chong
Photography: Christopher Duggan