A Natural History by Catherine Tharin: Playful, Contemplative, Organic

What does it mean for a work of art to be ‘inspired by nature’? What does it mean for a work of art to be ‘organic’? I was stirred to contemplation of these core questions during the Soaking Wet series performance of A Natural History at the West End Theater, led by choreography from Catherine Tharin, Esme Boyce, and a film by Lora Robertson. Do the works obviously bio-mimic like Meredith Monk or Erick Hawkins? No, not quite…. Do they harness the power of collectivism to blur the individual like many folk dances? No, not quite…. Do they inundate us with images of green and blue things, like any nature documentary? No, not that either….

Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.

This collection of dance and video seems to be one degree removed from nature as a physical setting. And therein lies its virtue. Instead of self-immersion, assuming nature’s universality, it skirts the surface by examining its effects on people. What results is a reflection, both physical and psychological, on human beings through the lens of a human-less world, which is actually a wealthier avenue to explore. The dance is a child inventing a new fantasy world, ritually ecstatic, and reverently contemplative all at once.

Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.

Due to a last-minute scheduling change, Lora Robertson’s film came first, which in retrospect underscored the cyclical elements of the series. A montage of scenes of dancers Esme Boyce, Racy Brand, and Susan Rainey shows them in a dried cornfield, on a autumnal hillside, and in an empty cottage. It appears as if the sun has just set– the light is either blue and diffuse or sharp, low, and warm. They are dressed in black or in light, loose shirts, they stretch out with their arms and backs while their feet move little, they sometimes get quite close and intertwine, and they meet the camera’s gaze a few times… they could be nymphs, sisters, or even lovers.

The dances that follow are variations on a clearly-envisioned theme, fusing the characters’ ambiguous interrelationship, a broad repertoire of gestures (at times as simple as walking or pointing, at times complex flowing sequences), music that is both ambient and grating, and the unique setting of a church apse. The side lighting, the inclusion of a live violin for one movement, the nearness of the wings, and the generally close quarters help to draw the audience into the drama. From our vantage point, each tiny glance and smile that the dancers give each other is amplified and fed into our construction of a story– by the end, we have established their individuality, determined a familial hierarchy, recognized repetitions, and felt a passage of narrative time. These are the building blocks of any ‘history’.

Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.

I had difficulty grappling with the disproportionate length allotted the final dance North Star, perhaps three times longer than any other section. Then, having written the previous paragraph, it became clear to me– Catherine Tharin wants us to get a little lost in time, she doesn’t want us to have a crystal memory of every previous chapter. This way, as the end nears, its details snap us out of a lull. The dancers’ whistling (a uniquely playful invention) beckoned me out of a trance. For the piece to feel like a chronicle, the past has to begin to stretch.

The choreography also stakes out a very specific relationship to physicality. It is both playful and strenuous. The dancers sync up and weave in and out of one another effortlessly, yet it becomes evident how exhausting it is to sustain that flow. The playful transgression of physical limits is a rarely-encountered kind of organicism in dance– I suspect that most choreographers avoid it because they think it looks childish or sloppy. But they easily forget how amazing it is to see a child continue to run and climb even though they are visibly out of energy. 

This flow is interrupted with contrasting still poses to mark movements or sections. The end of the first movement of North Star has all three dancers bunched together and up on the balls of their feet– during this pause I studied their oscillations and wondered what the limits of stillness are. How still is still enough for Catherin Tharin? A knee-jerk direction for such a pose would be “as still as you can.” But what if the dancers were given the freedom to move and use each other for balance quite freely? The picture comes alive.

Similarly, I remember the evening’s final moment: the three dancers group together and look up, following Susan Rainey’s pointing finger (which echoed my own glances up to the dark vault during intermission… was this a site-specific move?). As the three inched backwards and the lights faded out, I thought of how people have historically oriented themselves by the stars, but how that sense of orientation has been deeply shaken since Copernicus. All things are in constant motion and evolution. The curvature of the entire stage wall enforces these dynamic vectors.

We often think in static images, and are frequently confronting and recalibrating when movement is introduced. We’ve all glanced at the edge of a forest from afar and thought it to be motionless, and upon second glance found it to be shaking with life: shivering leaves, passing animals, swaying branches. ‘Organic’ means allowing for those tiny oscillations to happen, and then grow into permanent parts of the larger whole.

Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.

I had a discussion with a friend of mine yesterday whether human Progress (with a capital P) is nowadays dependent only on math and economics (simple equations of supply + demand)… OR whether there are cycles and rhythms outside of mankind which act as metronomes. I have grappled with this question abstractly for many years, and I have found that those who believe in the latter are more inclined to contemplate things as they undergo slow transformation. Catherine Tharin and the whole team behind A Natural History certainly belongs in that latter camp: they cast a peculiar light on small events (sometimes literally as in Lora Robertson’s film) while retaining a larger evolutionary framework. It is a sharp but glowing light, like the afternoon sun reflected off of a mirror, which both illuminates the subtle transformations undergone by planet Earth’s players and reminds us that it is only under that very illumination that we can open gateways to engage a world beyond us– a world in which forces exist that both unify us and drag us apart, calm us and exhaust us, bear us and kill us. That is the basis for an organic work of art.

Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.

By the.vonz.himanen

Ivan Himanen is an architect, writer, and artist based in New York City.

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