So you walk into Conduit Dance and stop at the doorway to the performance hall, under orders not to proceed farther until a guide with a flashlight appears to take you to your seat, because it’s dark. And although it’s not really all that dark you go along with the game, ducking through the tunnel and stepping through the half-light into the womb.
If the conceit seems a little college-dance-troupe earnest, it turns out it isn’t, because Jim McGinn, leader of the contemporary troupe TopShakeDance and creator of its newest piece, Jamb, has a specific physical rationale for this imposed entry, and as it turns out it’s not an entrance into but an entrance down: down into the dug-out depths of a mountainside. And even though you don’t need to know that to appreciate the sound and movement of the dance, it’s interesting because it suggests the emotional and historical wellspring of what’s essentially a highly impressionistic work of art. So let’s listen in on McGinn’s telling, in his program notes, of the story:
“After my first year of college, I took a summer job working in the Climax molybdenum mine essentially inside Mount Bartlett, just outside of Leadville, Colorado. … I quickly learned that my choice to live in the mountains in a tent and work the mine would not be a time of comfort, but that it never has been for those who have chosen to extract the earth’s elusive metals. For many of my fellow workmates that summer, the confinement of the mine was an incremental freedom compared to their recent experiences in prison. The underground is another world from our terrestrial surface. While some tunnels are a jet stream of fast-moving ventilation, others stagnate with an ancient stillness that makes your heartbeat a deafening roar. … In the deep blackness there is no balance as standing is nearly impossible. …. We relied on our fellow workers one day and distrusted them the next. … I learned to distrust the real and artificial nature of the subterranean. With one brief moment of inattention I was lashed across the neck and flung against a rock wall by a taut steel cable of an equipment train. Living alone in a tent sheltered me from the frequent fist fights and stabbings that were a regular occurrence in the bars of America’s highest city nestled below the mine and built upon a century of tailings. Over the summer I grew more lonely, disconnected, and dreary from the hard hours underground.”
So there it is: a dance about hard labor, and ever-present danger, and claustrophobia, and emotional isolation, and maybe even, at some level, satisfaction. And knowing all of this, you begin to understand a little of the sense and feel of the movements by the five performers, who include Dana Detweiler, Chase Hamilton, Amanda Morse and the riveting Pamela James in addition to McGinn. The moments of rough unison, like workers joining on a common task. The flare-ups: angry looks, little pushes and shoves. The accidents: workers hauled helpless away from the scene. Maybe most of all, the sweat pouring freely from the dancers’ tensed bodies. Even the winched metal claws dangling from the ceiling, like a biplane above Kitty Hawk or a pair of giant colanders, begin to make sense: McGinn writes of the workers “squeez(ing) ourselves between large boulders and two-ton steel scoop shovels.”
Comparing what I saw with McGinn’s description of the dance’s genesis, what I miss the most in performance is a more visceral sense of the extreme physical and emotional claustrophobia of the tale. Much of the lack, I suspect, is a product of a tight budget. Chris Balo’s lighting design, Rachelle Waldie’s costumes (red work-suits for the men, patterned blue for the women) and Jon Plueard’s set pieces are effective as far as they go, but it’s not hard to imagine a truly otherworldly expressionistic environmental design that would suggest the Dantean intensity of the mine-world’s innards. I sometimes think overdesign detracts from the essence of a dance. In this case, more might have been more, not less. Maybe next time: There’s something solid to build on here.
As it is, the 47-minute dance is consistently engaging and attuned to the musical score by Loren Chasse, who also created the wind-driven score for TopShakeDance’s Gust, which was performed in this same space a year ago. Chasse’s anthropological/existential approach to composition – he builds his works not so much from scales and progressions as from the sounds of the world around him – is a good match for McGinn’s imagination, and this time around discovers something a little more industrial-sounding than the elemental whoosh of Chasse’s score for Gust. It’s not ambient, even though it has surface similarities, and it provides a solid structure for the dancing.
Few dancers in town are as focused in performance as McGinn, whose intensity never seems to waver even when he’s standing on the sidelines, and the feeling extends throughout the company for Jamb. That, combined with Chasse’s music and a fair amount of circular movement, creates hints of dance’s ancient role of inducing trances.
I spent the evening, for the most part, simply feeling the interplay between performers and sound, concentrating on the essential musicality of dance, which often comes with stories attached but at its deepest level doesn’t really need them, because, like music, dance is essentially unexplainable. Only afterwards did I read the program notes and discover the story that inspired McGinn. In a way that was a good way to go, because it gave me two experiences: the first, essentially emotional and existential; the second, reflective and intellectual. Put ’em together and you get a sense of how the human animal works. I’ll dance to that.
Jamb has two more performances: tonight, Friday, May 25, at 8 p.m.; and tomorrow, Saturday, May 26, same time. Ticket info here.