Unlike many postmodern dancers, Caitlin Corbett uses the word abstraction without shame. She makes movement structures that speak for themselves without any narrative justification, but she admits they can be read as behavior, too. Four women may be standing in a line and elbowing their arms around their heads, shrinking in and hugging themselves, turning together to make one step in another direction. As a movement phrase this has undertones of narcissism, perhaps, and of communal experience. Another viewer might sense a different meaning in it.
Movement, however made up, always communicates something when it’s done by human beings. This basic phenomenon has been a cornerstone of modern dance, and maybe even an unacknowledged component of postmodern dance, which started out as a refusal of all theatrics and emotionality. We like to see people move, but we want more from dance ultimately. I believe that good choreography always lets us see that expressive component. In her new work, Caitlin Corbett seems to be offering meaning with one hand and snatching it back with the other.
For her concerts at Green Street Studios last weekend, Corbett had the idea of putting 30 phrases one after the other with no further manipulation. The sequence, not really a dance and not really a series of small dances, was called Undone. I found the only way I could absorb the hour-long piece was to redo it in my head.
Corbett seemed to be working with a few movement phrases throughout, or maybe with only one phrase. The actions I just described were part of it, but there were more, all fairly simple and almost ordinary. Each tiny segment was done by a different group of performers from the company of two men and 14 women and girls, and accompanied by a little chunk of song or story, all understated except for a chorus of howling dogs. The phrase underwent variations — expanded or contracted in size, got more or less active, acquired detail and technical splash, traveled across the space — and the movement was parsed out among the dancers to make choreographic designs and rudimentary counterpoint. The changes, though, weren’t progressive in any obvious way that might make the piece more engrossing.
Four women in one group did a phrase vigorously through the space while another woman slowly stepped backward down a diagonal. Two women danced their way upstage, escorting a woman who just walked, and all of them had their backs to the audience. Another group of four women ended in pairs, lifting and lowering their partners gently. Two women side by side seemed to be dancing with their eyes closed. A woman and a young girl moved close together, often in contact, and it seemed to me the woman was trying to move with a child’s awkwardness while the child was smooth and assured. Later the two men did the same snippet, but it looked like two pals hanging out. Sometime after that it was replayed again by the whole cast, in pairs, like some mass ballet pas de deux.
All the women wore slips in different styles and colors, none particularly flattering. Two or three of them were pregnant, but at times I thought they were all trying to look pregnant. The men wore shirts and chinos; one was fat and the other bearded and slim. The one thing that all the performers had in common was their calm, unemphatic way of performing. Even when the movement got more active — Corbett did one solo where she seemed on the verge of going out of control — they conveyed it as if it weren’t really getting under their skin.
By my arithmetic, the fragments averaged two minutes in length, but actually they must have been shorter because Corbett decided to separate them with blackouts. The pauses, while people went off and came on in the dark, seemed almost as long as the dance segments, and though this gave a certain nocturnal rhythm to the piece, I thought it was bad idea. The fragments were so short and deliberately inconsequential that it was hard enough to grasp what they were and who was doing them. After the first couple of blackouts, I began to dread the predictable cutoffs, the fake drama that they induced.
Maybe Corbett’s title means that she first through-composed the dance and then took it apart on purpose. I don’t really understand why.