EXPANDING POSSIBILITIES: Garrett and Moulton’s Latest Work Illuminates Borders Between Realms

By Kate Mattingly

September 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

It’s mid-July at ODC Dance Commons and in a spacious, sunny studio Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton are directing a room full of dancers. There’s one particular moment that draws their attention: six soloists lean forward at the edge of the stage as if suspended at a precipice while the movement choir, a group of 18 dancers, supports and tethers them. The image evokes feelings of vulnerability and risk, and in some ways encapsulates the themes and distinguishing elements of this new project called The Luminous Edge.

Featuring a cast of 24 dancers, seven musician and singer Karen Clark, The Luminous Edge is expansive in its scale, scope and subject matter. Inspired by questions about healing and transformation, the project will have its première this month at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, marking the first time Garrett and Moulton will present work on this stage.

Creating such a momentous performance may seem daunting in terms of both logistics and finances, but Garrett and Moulton are familiar with expanded casts, and a special grant called New Stages for Dance (administered by Dancers’ Group) has contributed $8,000 to their budget for this project.

Garrett and Moulton last performed at YBCA in the Forum when their performances of The Illustrated Book of Invisible Stories garnered the 2010 Isadora Duncan Dance Award (also known as an “Izzie”) for Best Company Performance. For this earlier project they used a similar cast of 24 dancers. In fact, talking to the directors after their rehearsal revealed their long-standing commitment to working with large ensembles of performers.

Moulton’s best-known choreographic work may be his Precision Ball Passing, which he created in 1980 and has set on groups of all different sizes, including 144 performers he will work with in Stuttgart, Germany next year. In 2001, Moulton worked with an even bigger cast of 1,000 people when he choreographed the Zion Dance Scene for the film Matrix Reloaded, released in 2003.

Although Garrett and Moulton have spent much more of their careers making works for stages instead of films, there is a cinematic quality to scenes in The Luminous Edge. The group of 18 dancers, referred to as “the movement choir” by the directors, often provides a setting or background for the actions of six soloists. One example is the scene when they tether the soloists as they hover over the stage’s edge. Another great example is the “crack the whip” section that separates the 18-dancer choir into three circles of six dancers running in fast paced rotations around three duets by the soloists. When the choir suddenly releases their circles to create lines, the impact is jarring, like the shock created in a children’s game when the tail of the line is pulled sharply, or “whipped,” in a certain direction.

These visceral effects provoke kinesthetic responses, sensations felt in our bodies as we watch physical interactions, and they emerge frequently in The Luminous Edge. The juxtaposition of mass effects and individual movements generates multi-layered scenes, and the ways in which these scenes produce reactions is vital. Moulton says, “What is perhaps most interesting to me about choreography is that we experience dance on a pre-language level, which is very deep. Our experiences of ourselves and our bodies are a kind of universal vocabulary. We are all human after all and as humans we have inner lives that are very charged and, to a certain extent, hidden. Trying to honor that and what that experience is of being inside a body seems very difficult and very honest to me.”

Although dancers and performers have explored and questioned this idea that embodied experiences can be a “universal vocabulary,” Garrett and Moulton work with large casts to reveal ideas about “shared experience.” Garrett says, “I’m interested in the interplay between the 18 dancers in the movement choir, who represent a larger sense of humanity, and the six dancers in our company, who have a more singular voice in the work. Throughout the piece, we continually juxtapose the movement choir with the soloists in order to express what it is to be human and how, at the deepest level, we are all a part of a shared human experience.”

Seeds for this project were planted last fall when Garrett and Moulton presented A Show of Hands at the Jewish Community Center. For this 2013 performance, Garrett created the choreography and Moulton provided a backdrop of his drawings: 24 pairs of hands. Their company of six dancers performed the 45-minute work that investigated gestures and touch, emphasizing the expressive and communicative abilities of our hands. Garrett says succinctly, “Healing is transformation, and touch and human contact are essential parts of healing.”

For The Luminous Edge, their movement choir expands these choreographic ideas in remarkable ways. Moulton says, “Working with a large cast creates a very dramatic space where movement gets amplified. Even simple things––especially simple things––when done onstage by many people, become very strong.” Their performance invites us to reflect on the relation between crowds and individuals, themes that have been an integral part of dancing for centuries. A variety of occasions––from parades to Olympic ceremonies––are distinguished by masses of performers that evoke feelings of solidarity and celebration. The movement choirs developed by Rudolf Laban in Weimar Germany were testaments to notions of collectivity and mutuality. American modern dance choreographer Doris Humphrey incorporated large casts in seminal works like With My Red Fires to make statements about crowd mentalities.

Although Garrett and Moulton have absorbed influences of particular choreographers, their dancers’ choreography is a fusion of styles. As Garrett says, “I describe my movement as a modern vocabulary that comes out of a combination of influences from my career, most especially the work of Dan Wagoner, with whom I danced in New York, as well as my early training in Limón technique. I had many catalytic experiences as a young dancer and my current movement style reflects the ways in which I have chewed up, digested and assimilated all of those experiences.”

Moulton brings a different set of experiences and expertise to their collaboration. As he explains, “I don’t really think of myself as a choreographer even though I have been doing this for 40 years. My father and grandfather were vaudeville performers so I grew up around entertainment and ideas about how to make dance ‘numbers’. Then I moved to New York and danced for Merce Cunningham. So I have a collage of influences. I don’t know that I have a particular style. Performance for me is all about a sense of community. The performers and the audience join together to create a space where they can experience themselves in new ways together.”

An integral part of The Luminous Edge is space itself, namely YBCA’s Theater. Garrett noted several times during our conversation how the dancers they selected were distinguished by their energy and as she choreographs she is keenly aware of the “energy” needed to fill the venue. Space and choreography have intimate and constitutive relationships, with particular places influencing and informing how audiences receive performances. As one of the founders of PS 122 in New York City, Moulton is savvy about such interactions between movement, space and sensations. He says, “There is an armature of choreography but what lives inside of it is the dancer’s experience…The way Janice and I work is that we have a lot of initial discussions about the work. We listen to a lot of music, we talk a lot, and we look at images. We talk to our musical director, Jonathan Russell, who currently lives in London… then when we reach the stage of moving from the drawing board into reality, ideas are replaced by real material. That’s when things really start to grow. We will continue experimenting—virtually until opening night—with different orders and relationships. A lot of material is created and thrown away. Somehow magically everyone pulls—all 32 performers [7 musicians, 1 singer, 24 dancers] contribute and it all comes together.”

Their cast includes long-time company members, students of Garrett, and dancers who responded to a “call for performers” for this project. Garrett says she selected performers for “their energy as dancers as well as their energy as people.” At their rehearsal, several performers stood out for their exquisite clarity and risktaking abilities, particularly Dudley Flores and Vivian Aragon. Their distinct movement qualities enrich a work that is, at its crux, about varied interactions. Garrett says, “The Luminous Edge grew out of ideas about hands and healing to become questions about what happens when we go through an inner catharsis, when we move between darkness and light. How do we face challenge and adversity, and how do we move into the light?” It will be intriguing to see how these virtuosic artists perform a work that aspires to communicate human experience writ large.

The Luminous Edge, will premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts September 18-21, 2014. More information at garrettmoulton.org.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of In Dance.

Kate Mattingly is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.