Courtesy UCI Dance DepartmentThemembersofRepertoryEtudesProject,anaudition-onlyperforming group run by Donald McKayle at UC Irvine, are relaxing before another rehearsal of TheQuestioningofRobertScott,a William Forsythe piece about the doomed Antarctic explorer who died on his second expedition with all his crew.
It's not a typical ballet subject, and this is no classical ballet company with identical Stepford-wife ballerinas all in a row. Etudes is a vivid array of physiques and personalities: some are tall and curvy, others tiny and boyish, the men in tights or sweats, laughing, hugging one another, being very touchy-feely and free—in a way very much alien outside ballet. It stops when rehearsal starts, and the dancers become isolated in the routine—much in the way Scott and his men met their end, alone on the ice, snowed in.
"Let's do just a little bit of our boogie circle," rehearsal director Douglas Becker says faintly, and the dancers take turns improvising before the formal rehearsal. For the first month of the seven-week rehearsal, Etudes has worked only on improvising from a Forsythe movement sequence called Tuna—after the fish. They all have the same sequence of movement in their heads, but as they go, the dancers each must change it into something new. They point drop (fall to the floor), disassociate the head (roll it around in dissonance with the body), freeze, all within the same sequence of steps.
It's called deconstruction, and varied though it is, they mix it up even more: instead of doing a specified movement with their arms, they do it with their legs, or change the level of the movement; speed up or slow down, or move in the negative space of the step.
"The work is based on one long phrase of movement, modified, regenerated and re-imagined using very specific forms of improvisation techniques," Becker says. In practice, it changes dance from a passive activity of learning steps to on-the-spot change with instantaneous movement. Forsythe pioneered this technique of movement selection with RobertScottin 1986, and it's been described as a new vocabulary of dance.
"It isn't just executing finely defined movements," McKayle explains. "It's executing finely defined concepts. You must be a creator of the movement."
When the dancers warm up, they launch into the actual piece, which works entirely from the same Tuna sequence, but with a structure of groupings and order that creates a midpoint between improvisation and guided movement. McKayle settles himself in the corner with a microphone, and his resonant voice fills the room with the bizarre and probing text of Thom Willems.
To an unending single note and against McKayle's live verse, dancers enter and exit, timed by the assistant's stopwatch. Their dance is utterly peculiar and fascinating with a distinctive array of physical accents. A man strolls across the floor with a bucket on his head, occasionally pulling an imaginary big-rig horn and making honking sounds. Later, a woman stands in the center of the stage and screams 88 times as she windmills her arms.
Tuna's force of individuality is everywhere, its pressure perturbing, almost unbearable. Yet you can't look away, even as the dancers—disconnected, minds are turned inward—reach a similar point in the sequence. RobertScottinverts the traditional idea of dance as a folk activity, filled with touching, linked hands or feet—but it's every bit as compelling as the real Scott's expedition was 93 years ago.