The Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston is just feet from the ebb and flow of Boston Harbor, its two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows bringing the outdoors in. For a new work by Liz Gerring Dance Company, the theater is not just the setting for its world premiere this coming weekend, but also the inspiration. “I used that as the starting point of my imagination, the incredible harbor, the boats, the water,” says Gerring. “Having time in that space was one of the reasons I said yes to the project.”
Aptly titled “Harbor,” the dance work is set to a newly commissioned score by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams, and it will be played live by the acclaimed JACK Quartet, seated onstage alongside the dancers. In addition, the ICA scored a major coup in snagging Jennifer Tipton, whom Gerring calls “a legend in the field,” as the work’s lighting designer. “She’s a magician with light,” says John Andress, ICA/Boston’s curator of performing arts. “Her style is simple but elegant, and she creates an intense sense of drama.”
The multi-layered project has been years in the making, instigated by Summer Stages Dance founder Richard Colton and the ICA/Boston’s former director of performing and media arts David Henry. They wanted to work with the JACK Quartet and its frequent collaborator, composer John Luther Adams, and they co-commissioned a new work. Adams chose to reimagine an earlier percussion composition for string quartet. Colton suggested Gerring create choreography for the piece, with Summer Stages Dance residency opportunities at the ICA to get the work underway. “[Adams and I] had both done pieces reflective of nature, so there was that initial connection, the idea of landscape,” says Gerring, who began developing movement using the original percussion score.
Then COVID hit, and the dance spent the next couple of years gestating until Gerring’s company found three weeks this May to work with Adams’s challenging score. “The music is very dense, very propulsive,” she says, “like a thunderstorm rolling in and coming back again.”
The project marks the first time Gerring has choreographed to a specific score from the very beginning; normally, she generates movement first. Improvising in the studio, she plays off any number of musical sources — from Bach to Madonna — discarding the music as she develops movement phrases with their own internal rhythms and dynamics. Viewing music and dance as separate entities, she mostly accompanies her dances with ambient electronic scores created after much of the movement is complete.
This time was different. “This piece [of music] is so full and complete of itself, so to figure out how to fit into this world was a long process,” Gerring says. “I took a lot of detours. But I came to feel that limits can be really helpful. Having to adhere to a strict structure was in some ways liberating — and eye-opening.”
Though Gerring’s modern dance training is centered in Graham and Limon techniques, she says her primary artistic influences are groundbreaking postmodernists Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, coupled with an attraction to abstract painting. “I’ve worked for 30 years and developed a vocabulary based in abstraction,” she says. “Non-literal work has a certain power and suggestion that is sublime, a purer experience. You’re not telling, just suggesting something for your audience to interpret. I think that’s the core of my artistic belief system.”
“The formal quality is so legible,” says Andress. “It’s fascinating to watch how the motifs develop. You can really see how Liz thinks choreographically.”
Gerring’s work also has a visceral athletic physicality. “What threw me into that was the idea of movement and effort for its own sake,” she explains, “its own intrinsic value, the purity of effort in sports, pushing and exploring what the body can do. Those ideas really resonate with my aesthetic.”
But even though “Harbor” is non-narrative, the initial inspiration is threaded through. “I think dance is so much about our relationship to the natural world,” Gerring says. “In lots of my dances I feel like I’m creating an environment, like a landscape [for] the human body in motion, and being in that space looking at the harbor and being part of that was such a reminder of this very basic connection.”
At Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, Oct. 21-22. www.icaboston.org
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.