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Review: Tanz Farm Series 2 delivers stunning evening of intimacy and innovation

Sidra Bell's "Nudity." (Photo by Thom Baker)
Sidra Bell's "Nudity" used ballet moves in a contemporary context. (Photos by Thom Baker)

The second installment of the nine-month dance series Tanz Farm: A Performance Anthology opened Friday night at the Goat Farm Arts Center, providing a welcome jolt from the sweetness of “Nutcracker” season. The program was produced and curated by Lauri Stallings of the gloATL performance group and Anthony Harper of the Goat Farm and comprised three premiere works by three distinctly different choreographers. The Goat Farm’s atmospheric Goodson Yard, with its highly adaptable configuration, was the perfect environment for a rich and challenging evening of movement, sound and imagery. (The three-day Tanz Farm Series 2 ended Sunday.)

Atlanta is lucky to have this cutting-edge dance series. It’s helping our city grow and evolve as an artistic community. One drawback on Friday, however: there were no intermissions. While that immersed us in the experience, there was no time to absorb and process each piece before going to the next. And each deserved our time and attention.

This was the first time I’ve seen the work of Seattle’s Zoe Scofield and her collaborator Juniper Shuey, New York’s Sidra Bell or Atlanta’s own George Staib. It won’t, I hope and expect, be the last.

Zoe/juniper’s work, “No one to witness and adjust, study #3: for forgetting,” opened the evening. The dancers were already in place and brightly lit as we entered the building. The dance floor consisted of a thick carpet of Georgia dirt, a clear homage to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, the pioneering creator of Tanztheater (“dance theater”), who favored surfaces of decaying leaves and water. Her influence was strongly felt throughout the piece.

Dancer Mary Jane Pennington lay behind a white plaster body cast, partly buried under the dirt. On the other side of the gauzy scrim that divided the space in two, Jimmy Joyner sat behind more white body casts, each set in a meditative pose, palms open. Two other dancers stood to one side. Joyner seemed absorbed in his own thoughts and, as we sat on the folding chairs closest to him, it felt as though we were intruding on his inner world. That kind of strange, unexpected intimacy permeated both “No one” and Bell’s “Nudity.”

Mary Jane Pennington in “No one to witness and adjust, study #3: for forgetting.”

“No one” included a series of keen-edged duets for Pennington and Joyner. In one, she walked slowly across the space as he rolled to the floor in front of her, forcing her repeatedly to halt in midstep to avoid walking on him. It evoked the “almost hurts” of relationship. Later, Joyner picked up purple irises with his teeth and placed them gently, one by one, on Pennington’s body. After each achingly tender gesture, she moved coolly away from him, letting the flowers fall to the ground.

“No one” is the first work created for gloATL by someone other than its founder, Lauri Stallings. It’s a good move, because it expands our view of what gloATL can be. And while the dancers at times lacked technical finesse, they inhabited the environment with confidence.

The piece was set to Matt Starritt’s predominantly electronic sound collage, leavened with snippets of Erik Satie and Glenn Gould. Shuey’s video projected shimmering clouds and ghostly images of the dancers onto the scrim. Other memorable elements were the dancers’ blue necks (the fifth chakra?), long hair braids for the women and the smell of the dirt as the dancers compressed it beneath their feet and bodies.

The audience was next guided into an adjacent area for Staib’s “Crevasse.” With no sets, just kinetic energy on a white floor, it was a world away from the first piece. Helen Hale, a compact and arresting dancer, was the first to break away from the group of 12 standing in simple practice clothes. The score had yet to begin, but in a quintessential Goat Farm moment, sound was provided by a freight train grinding past nearby.

A scene from George Staib's "Crevasse."

A pointed forefinger was a thematic gesture throughout, at first in a close-to-the-body spiraling phrase, later as an assertive arrowhead at the end of an extended arm. The work began with waves of spacious, unison group work, which broke into solos, duets and other groupings. The sound collage, edited by Kendall Simpson, reflected these shifts with its splintering and cracking. Of the three works performed, “Crevasse” contained the most traditional modern choreography. In the program notes, Staib describes his work as thought-provoking and accessible. While less obviously thought-provoking than the other two pieces, it was accessible and beautifully performed.

Bell’s “Nudity” laid bare not so much the five dancers’ bodies — although their black mesh tops revealed plenty of skin — as movement itself. Bell is known for her eccentric, gestural vocabulary, but here she tucked classical ballet positions in among angular, syncopated phrases: a small jeté, an unadorned port de bras, a solid fifth position accentuated by the dancers’ black socks. Elsewhere, dancers adjusted their bodies into “correct” ballet posture. It was as if Bell was exploring anew the relationship between bodies and dance, and its necessary discipline.

When Jonathan Campbell executed one complex phrase, Rebecca Margolick yelled at him to get his leg up, stop, go back, do it again. Was this the humiliation of old-school dance training? Later, the technically stunning dancers called out phrases such as “prepare,” “settle” and “arms open” as they ran in circles around the space. How wonderful to be so close that you felt the air move as they passed!

My companion was one of the audience members chosen for an even closer interaction. Campbell walked over and stood almost touching her, his face, arms and torso expressing silent anguish, before he whispered into her ear, “Thank you for sharing.” It was a non sequitur that seemed totally and ironically right.

The evening ended with a performance by Klimchak, an Atlanta composer and musician who specializes in electro-acoustic music. While it was fascinating to see and hear him manipulate his array of instruments, it was too much of a good thing for many audience members. I was among the two-thirds who left before it was over, filled to capacity with bracing movement innovation.

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