As the dancers slowly sashayed off the Quadrangle (Quad), all focus shifted to the glistening installation that had hung there for months. In a few moments, it gently descended from its lofty throne among the trees. Minutes later, it would be broken apart, piece-by-piece, and carted off to some other place.
Last Saturday at 7 p.m., four Emory alums and a professional modern dancer performed a site-specific dance on Emory University’s Quadrangle entitled “Questions to Ask A River ... Or A Creek,” in collaboration with renowned sculptor John Grade’s water-inspired project entitled “Piedmont Divide.” Lori Teague, director of Emory University’s dance department, choreographed the piece after observing water’s movement and flow.
Though both Teague and Grade used water as their artistic inspiration, the collaborators assigned their works very different meanings. While Grade focused on the West Nile Virus (as it pertains to water), Teague “was going for the beauty of how it moves,” as she translated her vision into dance choreography, she said.
“I’ve taken in the imagery and facts about how water moves, the dynamics of it, the rhythms and the pathways,” Teague said. “For example, water often moves in spirals.”
Birds faintly chirped in the trees that surrounded the Quad, the sun was just beginning to set, and Grade’s sculpture gently swayed in the slight breeze. The sculpture’s movement created quick sparkles as it captured the waning sunlight. Suddenly, the sound of water coursing through a riverbed emanated from the speakers.
Emory alums Tiffany Greenwood (’10C), Natasha Nyanin (’08C), DeLa Sweeney (’06C), Jacqueline Woo (’11C) and professional dancer Juana Farfan steadily walked backward with long swaths of pale magenta and green fabric as they eased toward the installation. At first moving in straight lines, the dancers began to diverge. Clothed in leotards and draped in flowing fabrics, the performers made steady lines, intersecting then deviating once more, just like the paths of a river.
Soon the sheets of fabric created a boundary between the audience and the performance space. The music transitioned from the sound of a babbling brook into “The River,” a song by David Darling and Ketil Bjornstad.
Simple piano chords and haunting violin melodies accompanied the dancers as they spun rapidly in their billowing costumes, then tumbled onto the ground, rolling backwards. The dancers alternated between quiet movements like simple body undulations and fast-paced, articulate footwork.
In a memorable moment, Nyanin edged away from Farfan, who was violently contracting her pelvis and reaching out through her fingertips, as the other dancers circled around her. Nyanin’s intense expression was caught in a glimmer of sunlight, its power amplified by the subtlety of her movement.
Soon the instrumental music faded, and the sound of trickling water returned. As the dancers leaped and cart-wheeled in unison, their flowing outfits caught the wind. The gentle sway of the fabric seemed to mimic water currents.
Conga drums faded in, and four of the dancers backed into one another to form couples. Woo crept along the periphery, gesturing with her arms and hands. In what Teague referred to as the “dam duets,” one performer held the other in place — whether in the air or on the ground — and the other struggled against the barring movement.
Gregory Catellier, a senior lecturer for Emory’s dance department, noted his particular fascination with the dam duets and his interpretation of this section.
“Two dancers are holding the other two dancers up, and the [performers] that are being held up seem like they’re struggling,” Catellier said. “And to me that’s interesting because it’s about water holding you down. It’s about being trapped under water and the feeling of being out of control, and yet, they’re being held up.”
Though the dam duets were meant to simulate the obstacles water encounters as it flows, other partnering sections involved more intimate movements.
At times the dancers would caress each other’s faces, only to push them away. Other times, two couples would roll across each others’ backs, then push and pull, each movement corresponding to an action imposed by the one of the dancers.
The partnering sections of Teague’s piece were an audience favorite. College freshman Nikki Coley said she felt the duets embodied the power of the piece itself.
“I liked how they had this reliance, and had to react to each other’s motions,” Coley said. “Especially when they had to lean on each other.”
The end of the dance was hardly noticeable to the audience. By this time, the audience was used to following the dancers’ extensive movements as they tumbled, spiraled and literally ran in circles. But when they wove in and out of each other’s arms toward the opposite end of the quad, all eyes shifted to Grade’s sculpture.
It slowly lowered foot by foot until it hung just above the grass. Then, inch-by-inch, it crept toward the ground, as the sound of a coursing stream remained in the background.
As it finally met the earth in heap of modeled plastic, the sculpture sounded like the sudden rush of rain in a thunderstorm.
When Teague later commented on the seamless transition from her piece to the ultimate dismantling of Grade’s sculpture and the perfect fusion of sunset and wind and temperature that comprised the entire event, she was pleasantly surprised.
“It was wonderful to feel those elements connect,” Teague said.
— Contact Stephanie Minor.