Last month, the Celebrity Series of Boston presented Kyle Abraham’s “Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth” at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre. During a preview conversation about “Requiem,” Abraham and the composer of the score, Jlin, were asked to respond to audiences who said they liked what they saw on stage but wanted to know what it was about. Jlin answered, “Why can’t you just enjoy it for the beauty of what it is?” Abraham concurred: “If you paid money to go experience something, you are wasting your money thinking about the why if you are not actually being present and just taking it in.”
It’s easy to “just enjoy” the beauty of dance. The performers we see in Boston, whether visiting or local, are almost always unexceptionable. But movies, plays, books, pop music — they’re all about something. Even classical music — which, like dance, is predominantly wordless — is about something. When you go to Symphony Hall, you’re looking to take in more than just the artistry of Andris Nelsons and the BSO musicians. So, yes, you can expect a dance work to be about something. It doesn’t have to offer a message. Just a suggestion will do.
Some dance works, of course, do deliver a message. With “Accommodating Lie,” Colombian company Sankofa Danzafro looked to “challenge falsehoods about Black bodies and the meaning of being of African descent.” Jean Appolon Expressions’ “TRAKA” limned Haiti’s history of colonialism and racism. Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE’s “The Equality of Night and Day” had a suggestive title and voiceover reflections from activist Angela Davis citing the high percentage of young Black men in prison and searching for “a version of democracy that does not need enemies for sustenance.” “Requiem,” which Abraham described in terms of Afrofuturism, death, rebirth, and afterlife, transitioned from African tribal to Afro-American contemporary on its way to conceiving a starchild right out of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.”
All four of these works were clearly “about” racism. Three were an hour long (“The Equality of Night and Day” was half that); all paid homage to African dance forms; none had the kind of musical score that would help to shape a narrative. There were breathtaking moments, like the sequence in “The Equality of Night and Day” where six dancers in blue tunics and flowing pants suggested giant birds in unison arabesque. We learned that regardless of what language colonialism and slavery speak, dance is the language of liberation. But the message didn’t go much farther than that.
In 2022 we also had hour-long pieces (the new “evening-length”) on other themes. Presented at the waterfront Institute of Contemporary Art, Liz Gerring’s “Harbor” was inspired by Boston Harbor, but it openly eschewed narrative. William Forsythe’s revised “Artifact Suite” for Boston Ballet was hyperballetic in its extreme speed and extension; at times it seemed to be speaking a foreign language. Fouad Boussouf’s “Näss” at least suggested how individuals coalesce into a community.
Some forms of dance don’t require much more than the performers’ impeccable technique and some personality. This year we were treated to Boston tap company Subject:Matter and Spain’s Farruquito Flamenco Íntimo, both of whom reveled in the joy of their art. But we were also treated to a pair of showcases, “New England Now Dance Platform” and Boston Ballet’s all-female “choreograpHER,” that were rich in suggestion. A highlight of “New England Now Dance Platform” was the video “In This Time Dilation,” in which nonbinary disabled Vermont artist Toby MacNutt coiled on the floor of a large living area, climbed up onto a stool, rocked their head into their hands, pulled a leg up, rose with their upper body, flexed their feet, lifted off the stool, all in a riveting slow dance that needed no explanation. And the five sterling entries in “choreograpHER” ranged from New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck’s “Point of Departure,” where we saw what figures on a Grecian urn might get up to when we’re not looking, to British visual artist Shantell Martin’s “Kites,” which demonstrated that drawing is a form of choreographing.
Two pieces from Cuba’s Malpaso proved that you can say a lot in 10 minutes. Daileidys Carrazana’s “Lullaby for Insomnia” had Heriberto Meneses channeling all his insomniac thoughts into the muscles of his body as he mimed weightlifting, took a swimmer’s crouch, looked at an arm as if it belonged to someone else, peered uneasily around and overhead, and walked toward the wings as if searching for the exit. Mats Ek’s black-comic “woman with water” showed what you can do with a woman, a table, a glass of water, a man, and a broom.
Boston Ballet chimed in with its own 10-minute beauty, Helen Pickett’s “Tsukiyo,” in which a woodcutter stumbles upon a moon goddess emerging from the mists and they have a brief encounter. You didn’t need to have read Pickett’s source, a 10th-century Japanese tale, to know what her piece was about. That was true also of the two Greek-themed George Balanchine pieces Boston Ballet presented this year. “Chaconne” has Orpheus and Eurydice in dance Elysium before they return to earth to hold court; “Apollo” depicts the birth of dance, the god partnering with Terpsichore before ascending Mount Parnassus.
And then there was Jiří Kylián’s “Bella Figura,” which the Ballet hadn’t done since 2014. At one end of the stage a bare-breasted woman struggles to extract herself from an omnivorous black curtain; at the other a seemingly naked man tries to unknot himself while upside down in a box. They look like a hapless Andromeda being devoured by the sea monster and a feckless Perseus attempting to unsheathe his sword. We get nude mannequins in coffins overhanging the stage, bare-breasted men and women swaying chastely in red puffy skirts, a man walking a woman as if she were a dog (and then they trade places). You might not be able to say exactly what “Bella Figura” is about. But you know it’s about something.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.