In November 2011, biologist, science writer, and dancer John Bohannon premiered "Dance vs. PowerPoint, a modest proposal" at a TED Talk in Brussels. As seen in an online video, a suit- and headset-clad Bohannon entered the stage making airplane sounds, carried by four straight-faced individuals in coveralls. As he began his talk, which explained a complex physical science experiment, the individuals (actually dancers) began acting out the microscopic scenes he described. To explain the ricocheting chaos of photons, they ran frantically across the stage, and to convey the sharply beamed focus of a laser, they shuffled neatly in a single line formation.
The "modest proposal" was that dance could convey the same information that a PowerPoint presentation could — perhaps even better. And it was a fitting, although obscure, choice for Company C Contemporary Ballet, which presented a version of the performance last Thursday, May 2, at Z Space in San Francisco, as part of its new spring season. "A Modest Proposal" was just one of four works that night that explored the showing-versus-telling aspect of dance. What is the point of dance: to convey something specific, to be enjoyed for its aesthetic, or somewhere in between? Artistic Director Charles Anderson hopes the program, which will repeat Thursday, May 9, through Sunday, May 12, at the Lesher Center for the Arts (1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek), will challenge the audience to think about just that.
Following "A Modest Proposal" was a sweeping watercolor of a dance called "Natoma," choreographed by Company C dancer David Van Ligon. The ballet followed a man and a woman through three short acts, each with distinct musical motifs. The music in the first motif was a stirring cello melody reminiscent of Philip Glass' "Knee Play 5," which drew the viewer's attention to the two lovers and softly diffused the other dancers flitting and floating around them. In stark contrast to the rationality of "A Modest Proposal," "Natoma" was all emotion, driven entirely by the cello's deep resonance and by the swift and longing movements of the two dancers. Yet there was also an undercurrent of thoroughly modern anxiety; the second act presented a more frantic violin motif, with the women dancers clutching their sides as if having been stabbed, arms contorted overhead, rigidly moving their stick-like legs as if their hearts had suddenly hardened. The third act brought the lovers together again, but tainted by the knowledge of the second part, the love was less naive and perhaps less purely joyous than when we first witnessed it.
The third piece was an adaptation of the Royal Swedish Ballet's "Ontogeny," which first premiered in Stockholm in 1970. This ballet was frenetic and less intuitive than a love story, perhaps tinged by the scientific framework of "A Modest Proposal." The thrashing, primitive movements of the dancers — all dressed in flesh-toned suits of beige and brown — harked back to desperation for survival in early human history (one couple was overheard mumbling about whether it was a reference to the primordial soup that bred life on Earth in the first place). The choreography was thrilling, raw, and strange, drawing attention to the changing nature of the early human form rather than its ascension to grace.
The program then took a slight downturn in its thrilling challenge. "Boléro," choreographed by Anderson, was a somewhat forgettable homage to the early 20th century classic. Bewitching in the boldness of its musical composition, the dance fell flat if only because it lacked the layers and complexity of the pieces it followed. Yet it was still a purely enjoyable work of dance, and Anderson seemed to imply that that, too, can be the point of engaging with the art form.
Perhaps that sentiment was best explained at the end of Company C's rendition of "A Modest Proposal," as the TED Talk speaker wrapped up his neatly packaged dialectic. The dancers reappeared onstage changed out of their coveralls into serenely white flowing garments. "Perhaps [someday] we will be able to afford the luxury of just sitting in an audience with no other purpose than to witness the human form in motion," he said. The dancers, finally freed of the need to communicate anything specific, pranced and floated wildly across the stage. They were, simply, dancing.
Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 1 p.m., $23-$45. 925-943-7469 or LesherArtsCenter.org