Thursday, September 8, 2022

Moving Beyond Time, Place, and Circumstance


Leah Terada, rear, looks over Liane Aung's arm in A Liminal Space
photo @ Henry Wurtz, courtesy Seattle Dance Collective

When the pandemic started two and a half years ago, I (like many fans of live performance) wondered what it would be like to live without the very particular thrill of settling into my seat, alongside fellow audience members, collectively anticipating a new dance, a new play, a new concert.

Somehow, we all adjusted to art’s new digital delivery system. The dance world offered up everything from older recordings of live shows to odd Zoom pastiches. As the pandemic dragged on, artists adapted to the new norm, moving beyond simple video captures to create ingenious new work for our small screens.

This fall most performance venues are welcoming back live audiences, but Seattle Dance Collective’s latest film offering, A Liminal Space, conceived and directed by Henry Wurtz with choreographer Bruno Roque, reminded me, first, that digital offerings are here to stay. Second, that they can be as evocative and satisfying as a live performance.

Leah Terada crawls out from the white fabric cube
photo @ Henry Wurtz

A Liminal Space begins inside a white cloth cube. Dancer Leah Terada lies on a bed of soil, her off-white pants and sweater covered with dark loam as she rolls and writhes. She rises from the dirt and spots a pinpoint of light, ripping through her fabric enclosure with the help of fellow dancer Liane Aung, who is just outside. Together they dance on a wide Puget Sound beach, their curved arms seemingly gathering in the sun and salt-water breezes as they revel in their freedom.

The film moves both the cube and the dancers onto a grassy meadow, then into a lush forest grove. Aung and Terada are dressed alike, in light slacks and sweaters, their dark hair styled into identical single braids that hang down their backs. Are they doppelgangers? Mirror images of the same person? As Fabian ReimAir’s original score builds in momentum, the two women dance in unison, circle one another, lie side by side, fingers lightly brushing up against the other’s body.

Terada and Aung working together to escape the cube
photo @ Henry Wurtz

The concept is simple, maybe even simplistic: here’s what it’s like to be caged up, then released. We all remember how it felt when we first emerged from pandemic quarantine; how we felt when we first met up with friends, family, even strangers, after months of enforced social distancing. We were confined in our own versions of the white cube; slowly we were freed to experience the wider world and to enjoy human interaction again. Roque’s choreography performed by these two dancers, plus the magnificence of a Pacific Northwest summer, combine to give A Liminal Space more heft than it might have had in the hands of lesser artists.

Liane Aung, who left Olivier Wevers’ company Whim W’Him this spring after several seasons, is a standout dancer. She imbues each movement with a crisp clarity that draws the viewer’s eye. Leah Terada, a corps de ballet dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, has a softer approach to Roque’s choreography, although she’s no less compelling to watch. Together they create a physical harmony that elevates this short film.

Leah Terada, photo @ Henry Wurtz

Terada is having a moment of sorts, emerging from the relative anonymity of PNB’s corps. Two years ago, she danced on a dock with fellow PNB company member Miles Pertl in a lovely short film The Only Thing You See Now, another Seattle Dance Collective commission. Terada was featured in several PNB offerings last season, giving ballet audiences a chance to see her versatility. And I was awed by her complete dedication to her art form while watching her earlier this summer as she performed choreographer Eva Stone’s punishing solo, one of a series created for Stone’s site-specific Sculptured Dance on Whidbey Island.

The joy of a dance film like Wurtz’ A Liminal Space is that we get a close, even intimate, view of Terada and Aung. We savor the expression on Terada’s face when she first escapes her white cube, watch them watch each other as they start a duet. We see how Aung gives a physical weight to Roque’s choreography, the way she angles an elbow or crouches low into her knees. Meanwhile Terada almost seems to float above Aung, her version of these same movements seemingly weightless. These are details we’d miss if this dance was performed live. In fact, A Liminal Space could never be live; it’s a piece of art created by a camera intended for a screen. It’s beauty is fleeting, like the tangy scent of the salt water carried on the breeze.

One of the many lessons the pandemic has reinforced is the myriad ways performance can pack an emotional wallop. I now cherish each opportunity to sit in a darkened theater, the tingle of anticipation before the stage lights come up on a live show. But as I watched Terada and Aung whirling on the sand in the early morning sunshine, I felt a different kind of joy. I’m grateful for the way artists adapted to changed circumstances, the way they found new ways to illuminate our collective human experience. Thanks to Seattle Dance Collective for making a space for this to continue.

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