Rachel Tess builds a ‘Souvenir’

The dancemaker, who splits her time between Portland and Sweden, creates a little house to dance in

A lot can happen in a short time in a small space. And a lot did on Saturday night, when Rachel Tess and Kenneth Bruun Carlson, members of Rachel Tess Dance,  performed a 30-minute duet at OPSIS Architecture, using every inch of  a 450-square-foot space and every muscle in their beautiful bodies to make a statement about what Tess calls “the effects of kinesthetic empathy in a confined, intimate space.”

Tess balances on the "Souvenir" house at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. Photo courtesy Rachel Tess

Tess balances on the “Souvenir” house at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. Photo courtesy Rachel Tess

The space at OPSIS is not the one for which this duet was made.  That is a “house”, titled Souvenir, roughly the same size as the OPSIS space and crafted in modular pieces of hand-planed wood, held together with pegs for easy deconstruction and reconstruction, with a low ceiling, and cubby hole seating for the audience.  It was designed by Tess, who lives most of the time in Sweden, for her Master’s degree in dance, which she received from Stockholm’s University of Dance last year. A second “Souvenir” is being constructed in Portland by Acme Scenic for use in this country, first here in Portland in the spring, then in New York next June, outdoors at Nolan Park on Governor’s Island.

You can see what Souvenir I looks like, with and without dancers and audience, as you go up the stairs at OPSIS, in an exhibition of some spectacular photographs taken by Michael Mazzola, with whom Tess worked for the first time on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Stravinsky Project” in 2011.  She has done quite a lot of site-specific work in Portland in the past few years, in empty retail spaces and galleries and the like, proclaiming in the 2008 “Details of a Couple,” with a dance that had her worming her way down a table loaded with wineglasses, that art and relationships are risky at best.  Creating your own site, and a portable site at that, is also pretty risky, but so far, so good: At Valmos, between March and July, she did more than 160 performances in it, solos and duets, including the one I saw Saturday night, transferred and adjusted for the space provided by OPSIS.

That space is defined by a row of chairs for the audience, facing a pristine white wallboard panel mounted on the opposite wall.  Windows form a wall audience right (and it’s fascinating to see the dance reflected in them) and a second wallboard panel is mounted audience left.  In the middle of the space squats a large electric fan, which at the start provides white noise to accompany the action.  There is a small stool as well, on which Tess balances at the start of the piece.

Costumed, most of the time, in blue jeans and gem-colored shirts (Carlson’s ruby red, Tess’s a shimmering blue green), their feet in equally colorful Nike lace-up shoes, the pair relate first to the space itself, particularly the walls, but also the floor, every movement thoughtful, well-considered.  Don’t look for spontaneity here; that’s not what it’s about. Carlson leans against the wallboard with one of the ten gray wool blankets that are initially strewn around the space, while Tess strides across the space, spreads another blanket on the floor and folds it like a flag at a military funeral, then solemnly places it on a second stool next to an audience member. Social and political commentary are a part of this duet; the blankets themselves look painfully like the ones I see wrapped around the many homeless people on Portland’s downtown streets.

Tess continues to clear the space of blankets and Carlson starts to writhe against the wall, at the corner, twisting his tall, thin, angular body, his well-trained legs (Tess met him while dancing with the Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm, and they’ve been working together for a year) looking rubbery, nearly spastic.  He falls, curls into himself, then gets to his feet, moving awkwardly, deliberately, presenting the kind of uncontrolled weightlessness you see in film of astronauts.  They, of course,  are moving in a small space, too.  Tess, who has the doe-eyed face of the ballerina she once aspired to be, watches him, relating to him with those eyes, then pulls the fan plug out of the outlet, taking away the white noise.  Then it’s her turn for a solo, in which she stands against the side wall, knocking on it, creating her own sound, running her fingers against it, thumping it with the heel of her hand, raising a lot of questions. Is she trapped?  Is she angry?  Frustrated by confinement? Her legs twist, the thumping hand becomes more rhythmic, faster, louder, aggressive, her head turns as if she were spotting for the pirouettes she used to do as an OBT dancer, the solo becomes quite disturbing.  She then begins to make little jumps on both feet, her whole body jerking.  Little waving motions against the wall follow the jumps, after which she walks calmly to the back wall, where she does what look like vertical push ups against it, every muscle engaged and firing.  She edges away and starts traveling in little jumps that accommodate the space, her arm scooping, then swinging in a circle, then both arms in wide circles, like a little kid jumping rope, enjoying the feel of her arms swinging. Breathing audibly and hard, Tess fans each audience member with her hand, smiling, laughing.

Dancer Kenneth Bruun Carlson in "Souvenir" at Wanås Konst, 2014. Photo: Rachelvtess.org

Dancer Kenneth Bruun Carlson in “Souvenir” at Wanås Konst, 2014. Photo: Rachelvtess.org

While Tess is engaging the audience, Carlson is toward the back of the space, taking off his shirt and putting the gold cloth over his head.  Tess then sits and rests for a minute, takes the cloth, puts it over her head, jumps in it accompanied by the very satisfying swishing sound it makes as she moves. Carlson takes it back, wears it like a cape, Tess grabs back the cloth, swings it around, lies down with it and pulls it over her head.  All of this to some degree harks back to Loie Fuller at the turn of the last century, who influenced painters and sculptors in Paris with the shapes she formed with yards of silk on bamboo poles as part of her dance.  The byplay with the fabric here leads straight into a gently tender duet, Tess and Carlson’s bodies entwined, or playing off each other, at one point her arm compelling his arm to move out into space. Their dance is solemn, thoughtful, nevertheless faintly erotic.

The piece concludes with what Tess later explains to the audience is a reaction to that particular space.  They remove their shirts, shoes, and jeans, and tack them onto the back wall, carefully, slowly, meticulously, Carlson stuffing one of the blankets into his shirt, making a cloth sculpture, folding a blanket into the shape of a kite to complete a playful, witty mural of themselves as visual art.

Much of what Tess does here has been done before.  Trisha Brown did marvelous things with dancers and clothing decades ago; so did David Gordon and Valda Setterfield.  Certainly site-specific dance is nothing new; nor is dancing without music.  But designing and building her own site, one that can be dropped into an existing space (most recently in Sweden it was inserted into a barn), or used outdoors, one that drives the choreography she makes, that’s something new.  And in that site, or one that approximates it, Tess created a dance that, while tightly controlled, made this seasoned viewer keep wondering what was going to happen next.


One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Correction: I am told by Alison Roper that the first time Rachel Tess worked with Michael Mazzola was when she was still dancing with OBT in the late nineties and participated in a dancer-choreographer showcase at Lincoln Hall. Roper also participated in that showcase as I recall. Thank you Ms. Roper: the historical record is important.

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