Review: Sasha Waltz's action painting swirls on "In C"

The instructions for Terry Riley’s seminal 1964 composition, “In C”, are quite simple. The one-page score consists of 53 short musical ...


The instructions for Terry Riley’s seminal 1964 composition, “In C”, are quite simple. The one-page score consists of 53 short musical motifs, which the musicians play in order. But since each musician chooses how many times to repeat each figure before moving on to the next, there is a continuous change in alignment and movement. This, combined with the incessant, metronomic ticking of a C note, creates a tension between staying put and moving on. It’s the sound of collective decision-making, the harmonious kind, more buzzing hive than rowdy town hall meeting.

Transferring all of this into dance, as German choreographer Sasha Waltz did, is also quite simple. For the “In C” that Sasha Waltz & Guests brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday, Waltz devised 53 dance phrases, one to go with each of Riley’s patterns, and gave her 14 dancers similar discretion. For about an hour, the Bang on a Can All-Stars play Riley’s composition, expertly, on one side of the stage while the dancers do something equivalent everywhere.

The added dimension is not just visual. It’s spatial in the variable distribution of the bodies, which sometimes overflow into the wings, the dancers weaving their way among the musicians. Individual and collective musical play is replicated, as dancers perpetually shift allegiance, briefly synchronizing with each other in groupings ranging from pairs to full ensembles. You can see the decisions happening. In a group repeating a phrase in unison, a dancer freezes; when the others return to the point where she froze, she joins them. But the overall look is a whirlwind of paint action.

It is also on the cheerful side of serenity. Olaf Danilsen’s lighting bathes the stage and backdrop in sherbet or sherbet hues. These shifting colors are stronger than the slight harmonic movement of Riley’s score but they don’t push the production out of the key of C.

The dance phrases, too, hover in a slightly loose area. There are contrasting jerks or jerks to register the pulse of the metronome, but one phrase form dominates, stretching elastically in the middle and closing in a clipped fashion, as when a fist rises to pull the cord of a train whistle. There’s enough variation – floor work, minimal physical contact – but little that’s striking on its own. The action is both absorbing and easy to adjust.

At best, the dance spatializes a suspension or a tapestry of time. At any moment, some dancers, repeating a phrase, show where we were, while the first to adopt the following phrase hint at the future. The memory here overlaps but only in the short term. The sequence of repeated sentences goes in one direction, and few of these sentences stick in the mind.

A spectator’s memory encompasses more than this dance, of course. I thought of Trisha Brown “Set and Reset”, recently on stage at the Brooklyn Academy in an adaptation by Candoco Dance Company. With its relaxed pace and sudden alignment, Waltz’s “In C” was clearly influenced by “Set and Reset,” much like the ping in Laurie Anderson’s score for this dance descends from the pulse of Riley’s “In C.” But to remember “Set and Reset” is to remember how much more exciting the game of looseness and rigor and individual and group can be.

In a recent interview, Waltz explained the practical ways that “In C” is pandemic-friendly dance. Initially, dancers could learn the phrases in isolation, and now, if someone tests positive, a performance doesn’t have to be cancelled.

But there’s also something about the dance, in its structure and tone, that matches recent stages of pandemic life among the lucky ones: the way it keeps changing as that C note keeps ringing, the feel of the time that advances even if it remains motionless, the need for cheerful colors. For better or for worse, it’s a dance of the moment.

Sasha Waltz and her guests

Until Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; bam.org.

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