Back in 1965, postmodern choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s “No Manifesto” said no to glamour, no to spectacle, no to stardom, no to storytelling, and yes to dance as pure, sometimes pedestrian, movement. In 2017, Boston hosted choreographers and dance companies who said yes to just about everything.
The San Francisco–based ODC brought two pieces, one proposing to explore “a world transformed by climate change,” the other focused on Euclid. Jessica Lang gave us a piece inspired by Shakespeare sonnets and another from the point of view of shellshocked soldiers. “WHALE,” from Andrea Miller’s Gallim Dance, purported to be about “love, sex, and domesticity.” Maureen Fleming’s “B. Madonna” was originally titled “Persephone: O Black Madonna,” and it proposed that the Greek goddess of the underworld was an early example of the black madonna. In “Harbor Me,” Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project tried to tell a story of refugees. Anna Myer’s “Shift” promised to explore “the intricate complexity of diverging cultures that have been an essential part of America’s history.” Most ambitious of all was Boston Ballet’s presentation of William Forsythe’s 1984 “Artifact,” which appears to address nothing less than the history of dance.
“Artifact” was the most successful of these attempts. With a score built around the Chaconne from Bach’s Second Partita for Unaccompanied Violin, Forsythe’s evening-long work incorporated a Man with a Megaphone, a Woman in Historical Costume, and a Woman in Gray who might have been the Spirit of Dance. “Artifact” could be irritating, what with all its talk about remembering what you never saw and forgetting what you never thought. But its spiky, furious choreography pushed the limits of dance, and it included a kind of scherzo (“Artifact” is conceived along the lines of a four-movement symphony) in which the dancers — men on one side, ladies on the other — created a hilarious back-and-forth of counting and clapping. The downside to the piece was that there was a lot to take in on just one viewing.
The rest of the dance year in Boston spoke to how difficult it is to address topics in what’s normally a silent medium. How does one explore climate change in movement? Not easily, it turned out. ODC’s “Dead Reckoning” gave us a sky obscured by lime-green confetti, but the choreography didn’t take us anywhere. And “Triangulating Euclid,” with its voice-over about a 1482 edition of the Greek mathematician, seemed to be as much about books as about geometry.
Miller’s “WHALE,” like so much of what we saw in 2017, boasted superb dancers, and sex was indeed on offer, with the dancers stripping to their underwear, but it’s hard to find love and domesticity in a piece that has no ongoing relationships. Fleming’s “B. Madonna” was assembled in part out of shorter pieces she’d already created; little about the result suggested Persephone or a madonna. And though Myer’s “Shift” made hip-hopping to Bach (the same Chaconne that Forsythe used) look natural, the spectacle of 10 multicultural dancers finding a common movement vocabulary hardly touched on America’s “intricate complexity.”
Often, we were reminded, dance can say no and still speak volumes. The centerpiece of “B. Madonna” was the 30-minute “Axis Mundi,” in which Fleming, lying on one side, twisted and turned in a way that posited the spine as the axis of the world. No program explanation was required. On Lang’s bill, “The Calling,” a piece set to the hymn “O Maria, stella maris,” Julie Fiorenza twisted and turned in a white dress that pooled on the floor like a parachute. Her feet barely moving, she suggested supplication, acceptance, childbirth, and perhaps, at the end, a pietà. The first half of Myer’s program comprised six brief duets from previous works. The dancers connected, and each relationship was different. Here again no program notes or titles were necessary.
Then there was Alessandro Sciarroni’s “FOLK-S_will you still love me tomorrow?” The title seemed to promise a “yes” sort of piece, but what Sciarroni brought to the ICA was the thigh-and-foot-slapping Schuhplattler dances of Bavaria and the Tyrol. The six dancers stripped the Schuhplattler to its rhythmic and kinetic essence, but they also expanded it and made it timeless. The piece, as one dancer explained, was designed to last until there was just one performer left onstage, or one audience member left in the seats. The last two dancers threw in the towel after 90 minutes (at which point a good 90 percent of the audience was still in place), but there was no need to continue; Sciarroni, with the simplest of means, had made his point about the infinity of dance. I like to think Rainer would say yes.