In January, Trajal Harrell brought to the Institute of Contemporary Art his “(M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (M),” a piece that asked the question: “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform at the Judson Church with the early postmodern choreographers?” “(M)imosa” set the tone for a year in which dancers didn’t just move about in the performance space. They talked politics and philosophy. They riffed on film noir. They appeared live and on film simultaneously. They broke the fourth wall to speak to the audience. They went into the audience to perform. They even invited audience members to return the favor by coming up on stage.
These were the most compelling and rewarding dance performances of 2013.
The early postmodern choreographers of the Judson Dance Theater were concerned with “pure” dance, with the beauty of ordinary movement. There was nothing ordinary about “(M)imosa.” Cécilia Bengolea crabwalked in a flesh-colored bodysuit and red stiletto heels. François Chaignaud appeared in a feather headpiece, fake plastic breasts, and very little else; Marlene Monteiro Freitas wore black gloves, tights, and boots and nothing else while playing Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp minor. The piece’s extended title alluded to Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” in which members of the Harlem ball culture explained their desire to be someone — as ball legend Dorian Corey put it, “In a ballroom, you can be anything you want.” In “(M)imosa,” each performer tried to convince the audience that he or she was the legendary (and mythical) Mimosa Ferrera, even as they channeled Adele, Prince, and Kate Bush.
Identity was also an issue in “The Better Half,” which the Chicago-based Lucky Plush Productions did at the ICA in March. This piece began with four performers auditioning for parts in an unidentified play and wondering who they were supposed to be. When the plot did emerge, it suggested the Ingrid Bergman-Charles Boyer film noir “Gaslight.” At one point, Julia Rhoads, in the Bergman role, said, “I don’t know what’s real anymore. I don’t know what’s in the script.”
When Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal performed Barak Marshall’s “Harry” at the ICA, the audience was told straight off that this would be the story of a “good man” who was crushed because he defied the gods. Zeus and Hera did seem to have it in for Youri De Wilde’s Harry, who kept getting killed and laid out on a stretcher, whereupon the mourners would engage in a philosophical debate over matters such as whether “honor is a bourgeois invention.” In between appointments with the undertaker, Harry would try to find a Cinderella who had the lid that fit his saucepan. Everyone did a line dance to the Andrews Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” and engaged in a frantic red-balloon chase to Maria Callas singing Puccini's “O mio babbino caro”; it all ended with the dancers jamming, Pina Bausch style, to Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen.” It was about as far from pure dance as you can get.
Or maybe not. At Jacob’s Pillow in June, “LEO” had circus artist Tobias Wegner appearing live stage left and in a video projection — rotated 90 degrees — stage right, so that if he walked across the stage, his doppelgänger would appear to be walking up the wall. And in October, Belgium’s Charleroi Danses’ “Kiss & Cry” put a toy train track on the Cutler Majestic stage and had a film crew shooting the action and projecting it live on a screen at the back. The actual dancing was done by the hands of Michèle Anne De Mey and Grégory Grosjean, who made their fingers into expressive legs, miming a beating heart or a swimmer. They ice skated, snuggled on a pillow, made love. The piece, which opened with spoken words, was a film, a theater piece, a dance, a puppet show, a poem, a musical, and a meditation.
“Lost for Words,” from Italy’s Spellbound Dance Company, wasn’t quite, since it had a spoken text. And words certainly enlivened Tim Rushton’s “Love Songs,” which Danish Dance Theatre brought to the Tsai Performance Center. About halfway through the piece, a man stole a kiss from a woman, whereupon the singer, Caroline Henderson, broke in with “Björn, Björn, was that a kiss? You can’t just dive in like that. You need advice,” and then proceeded to give it.
Even Boston Ballet wasn’t lost for words — at least, not in Jirí Kylián’s “Tar and Feathers,” in which Kylián’s own voice could be heard reciting lines from Samuel Beckett’s last poem, “What Is the Word.” At the outset, Kathleen Breen Combes seemed to be trying to get words out, as if, like Joe Chaikin, to whom “What Is the Word” was dedicated, she had been stricken with aphasia. Later on, five dancers wearing black wigs, red lipstick, and bubble-wrap skirts appeared behind a bubble-wrap sculpture and also appeared to be trying to speak, as if they were bubble rappers. All this in a piece that also sported an onstage baby grand piano on stilts, with Tomoko Mukaiyama improvising and at times reaching into the sounding board to play the strings directly.
As for audience members on stage, it was hardly a surprise to see them there during Step Afrika!’s November appearance at the Cutler Majestic, since audience participation — whether clapping out rhythms, voting for favorite performers, or trying out stepping — is a basic part of the Step Afrika! show. But it is unusual to see amateurs onstage when Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater comes to town. There they were, at the end of Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16,” doing a cha-cha with the regular Ailey dancers.
Dance without words, without popular songs, without dancers performing in the audience and audience members performing onstage, is hardly dead. Paul Taylor’s November date at the Shubert was proof of that, particularly his “Private Domain,” which he made in 1969 and which is as disturbing today as it was back then. But in 2013, dance in Boston was in a mood to explore what lies beyond pure movement.