Choreographer Rashaun Mitchell essentially pulled rabbits out of hats Thursday night at the Institute of Contemporary Art. In two pieces — a restaging of Merce Cunningham’s sparkly “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run” (1965), and Mitchell’s own somber yet quirky “Interface,” a work in progress — he juxtaposed elements seemingly at odds with one another and made them sing.
That Cunningham’s dance delighted was no surprise. A lickety-split compendium for nine dancers of first-position hops and elastic arabesques, skittering feet and bent-legged leaps, “How to” slaps nonstop comings-and-goings up against stories from composer John Cage’s “Indeterminancy” that two distinguished-looking speakers — here poet Robert Pinsky and actor Oliver Platt — must read in 1 minute flat, regardless of the tale’s length.
Toasting each other with glasses of bubbly before the recitations, the pair pulls words like taffy or races to the finish, each utterance drier, wittier than the next. Consider this deliberate rendition by Pinsky: “On Yap Island phosphorescent fungi are used as hair ornaments for moonlight dances.”
In Cunningham’s world, movement and sound exist in parallel universes, separate but equal. And chance helps determine the order of phrases and entrances and exits. In “How to,” solos beget colorful trios beget slow walks or near-jigs of dancers in a joyous, measured though almost raucous display. The mashing of movement and spoken text can be uncanny, with barreling leaps punctuating the “moonlight dances” oozing from Pinsky’s microphone.
Mitchell’s “Interface” is a dark tangle, with spliced faces of the four dancers projected behind them on a large screen, half of one woman’s face, say, spliced with half of a man’s. Slowly an eye winks. The piece is a curious intermingling of parts — partners with cheeks seemingly glued together as they advance and turn, or one molding the face of another as if it’s putty. Facial expressions — grimaces, tongues thrust in cheeks — figure as prominently as whole-body movements.
Set to Thomas Arsenault’s now thrumming, now dinging, now whooshing electronic score, this is a land of lost souls. Emotions rise like steam through limbs and torsos, driving the movement invention: a woman sits, head hung, legs extended and feet flexed with tension, arms limp yet oddly torqued at her side. Yet the strangers do find some solace, at points, in their ability — awkward and fleeting — to come together and touch.