If you have any doubts about the imagination's ability to transform time and space, you can find proof positive by going to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this weekend. Thanks to Margaret Jenkins's new A Slipping Glimpse, the YBCA's Forum — that ugly box of a multipurpose theater — has been changed into a place of magic reality. Jenkins's 75-minute piece (plus a 10-minute prologue performed outdoors) is a rapturous celebration of fragility and resilience, a canticle of what it means to be alive. And yet how ironic: This is a work whose fierce physicality is as ephemeral as a gust of wind or the felt presence of something that may not be there.
Jenkins has been choreographing and collaborating for more than 30 years. She has always chosen carefully, but rarely has a piece of hers emerged so completely from its mold. It helps that she has worked with three of her collaborators — poet Michael Palmer, designer Alexander V. Nichols, and composer Paul Dresher — for a very long time. Still, Slipping shows a remarkable congruence of spirits and style.
Major credit has to go to Nichols's brilliant design of red-hued, multilevel platforms and elevated walkways positioned between four wedges of seating areas. The effect is of a theater in the round with a nondirectional performance space, where perspectives are shaped by where you sit. The musicians are placed on opposing balconies above everyone else. Dresher's score is full of rich textures, sometimes percussive, sometimes ballad-like, with a quasi rock beat now and then, plus Joan Jeanrenaud's cello soaring like a lark. While not offering much of a rhythmic base, the music provides its own commentary — and often envelops the dancers in a multi-colored sonic mist.
Poet Michael Palmer's suggestive texts, read on tape, give just enough of a grounding to set signposts for Slipping's four sections. First, he suggests oppositions to be considered; later he evokes a group of dancers' dreams about sailing on a frozen lake.
Slipping is the result of a partnering between the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company from Kolkata, India, where the Jenkins company had a residency in 2005. Choreographer Shankar also worked with Jenkins’s company in San Francisco. The resulting work is performed by 15 dancers, including four from India. At times the two groups intermingle, but the Indian dancers also perform by themselves. It is gorgeous to observe how the Americans and the Indians — so differently trained despite the fact that both perform in contemporary styles — move from a common base. The details of the gestural vocabulary and use of levels, for instance, are varied, but similarities are striking and unforced.
Slipping opens with a tableau on one of Nichols's red platforms. One by one the dancers find individual ways to lower themselves onto the equally red floor. In a traditional greeting gesture, they fold their hands in front of their faces, then open them as if peering into a mirror or a book. Then off they go, on communal, loping runs that move forward and also recoil back. Picking up gestures from each other, they pull and they yield. Twice, multi-level chains form and simply dissolve when lifted dancers cannot breach the space between the two groups; overhead horizontal lifts often freeze in time.
Jenkins also showcases her dancers individually. Heidi Schweiker, whom I have never seen dance better, roams the stage on her own while everyone else is busy on platforms. Melanie Elms burrows into a knot of bodies only to emerge on the other side. When the stage is packed with multiple activities, Ryan T. Smith runs around its periphery tying them all together. Levi Toney is all over the place, holding Schweiker and "dropping" her to the floor; he later partners a splendid new dancer, Matthew Holland, who has his own jaw-dropping solo.
Slipping recalls Jenkins mentor Merce Cunningham's Ocean, particularly in the way the choreography is multi-focused. Even though the lighting cues provide some direction, audience members make their own choices about what to watch. At one point, my eye caught four dancers on one of the platforms as they deeply inhaled and exhaled toward their colleagues. Were they sending them energy or were these movements a coincidence? At another moment, the four Indian dancers appeared high above, posing as temple statues, as a vigorous male duet unfolded on the floor. Why then, why there? Right in front of me, a woman pulled away from another dancer who had reached out to her. Who else saw that gesture?
Slipping doesn't have a linear trajectory, but its ebb and flow, the way hyperactivity balances stillness, suggest purpose and something like an underlying unity — and maybe even order. SFBG
A Slipping Glimpse
Wed/24–Sat/27, 7 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum
701 Mission, SF