Heather Kravas’ dance-work “the quartet” is, in part, about making you wait.
Cool, concise and sometimes fascinating, it’s minimalist fare that keeps its viewers guessing.
Those endlessly repeated movements … is there an off-kilter pattern emerging from them? That long-held pose … is it a statement unto itself or the start of something?
For Kravas, the world premiere of “the quartet” at On the Boards represents a bit of a homecoming. She grew up in Pullman and spent much of the 1990s in Seattle, where she co-founded the much-loved d9 Dance Collective before moving to New York in 1998. She now divides her time between New York, Seattle and France.
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Her title refers to both the number of dancers in this 90-minute work (no intermission) and the number of sections comprising it (each section separated by a minutes-long pause). Kravas, more elaborately, describes the piece as ‘“a cult, an essence, a machine, a snowflake, a Utopia and a quotation mark.”
Whatever it is, this is dance stripped down in two senses of the word. For one thing, the dancers kick things off entirely in the nude. Only later do they don guises (tracksuits, ballet gear, bodystockings in basic black, folk costumes complete with bells) that impose some sort of character, or caricature, on them. Even then, their expressions remain so neutral that, in essence, the performers seem oddly unadorned.
The dance is also stripped down in that it involves few elaborate movement phrases. Instead, it’s built mostly from atomized dance-steps that, with slight shifts in accent or speed, are gradually reshaped into something else (the parallel with the early music of Steve Reich is strong).
Thankfully, there’s a thread of humor thrown into the mix — a dry, almost arid comedy that did get some laughs on opening night. It’s most conspicuous in the “basic black bodystocking” sequence where Oren Barnoy, Cecilia Eliceche, Jennifer Kjos and Liz Santoro, lined up in a neat row, pass gestures up and down to one another — at first in simple trigger sequence, and then in increasingly asymmetrical combinations involving crazily intricate memory feats.
Text is then incorporated in the mix — or rather, one word of text: “Want want want,” repeated to the point that it becomes “twan twan twan” as the accent seems to shift in the performers’ mouths. Sped up and slowed down, the vocal rhythm verges on sexual innuendo at times, though Kravas is too sly to tip her hand and spell it out.
The second section of “the quartet” features two “ballerinas” (Santoro in a stiff white tutu, Eliceche in white satin sheath) occupying the same space as a quasi-ballroom couple (Barnoy and Kjos), though no one seems aware of others’ presence. All four cut such curious arcs and rectangles across the floor that you may wish you were viewing them from overhead. Maybe their traffic flow has a minimalist Busby Berkeley logic to it?
The “folk dance” finale, with all dance steps again reduced to their bare essence, is simultaneously simple and complex. Is every path the dancers follow set in stone (another daunting memory feat)? Or are they improvising in accordance to rules that prevent them from colliding with one another? Contact between dancers, at all times, is sparse — a formal touch here, a pressing of knuckles together there — and the rigor of the piece is continually impressive without necessarily being seductive.
Tape-loop electronica, composed and manipulated live by Dana Wachs/Vorhees, adds some final formidable touches.
The end result hovers artfully on the border between patience-testing and hypnotic — and that seems to be exactly how Kravas wants it.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org