Repeat viewing is one true test of a dance work: stripped of its novelty, does the work reveal new layers of depth or run aground in its own shallows? I’ve seen Garrett + Moulton’s The Luminous Edge three times now, and I’ve yet to plumb its deepest currents. Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton’s hour-long, abstract meditation on life and death premiered in September 2014 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, to overwhelming audience and critical response. By popular demand, it returned this July 9‒12 for an encore. The company could probably reprise it successfully every year, like an existentialist Nutcracker.
Garrett and Moulton, partners in life and in dance, bring prodigious intellect as well as artistry to their work; Garrett holds a degree in math from Stanford University as well as an MA in dance, while Moulton danced with Merce Cunningham’s company in the early 1970s and is a founding co-director of PS122 in New York. They have a gift for channeling deep emotion and tempering it with clarity of thought.
Luminous features three couples: Vivian Aragon with Michael Galloway, Carolina Czechowska with Dudley Flores, Tegan Schwab with Nol Simonse (fortunately, the original cast was available for the reprise). Among the Bay Area’s rich population of contemporary dancers, they are some of the finest, bringing groundedness, musicality and unaffected technique to the stage. They collaborated on the piece with Garrett and Moulton, so the movement highlights their quirks and beauties, such as Aragon’s jazziness and Simonse’s gentle energy. The hypnotic effect is only heightened by David Robertson’s masterful lighting; his shadows and spotlights double as scrims and curtains, allowing dancers to appear and disappear like magic, always surprising the eye.
The meaning of the piece, as always, is in the eye of each beholder. Aragon and Galloway perform an anguished duet that exudes alienation and regret, she riding the heightening string notes and he descending with the piano. Flores and Czechowska dance side-by-side with sensitively matched energy, alternating with embraces and releases in a reminder that, as interdependent as we humans are, we never fully merge. Changing partnerships, allegro ensembles and brief solos keep the pace moving while adhering to the central theme and structure of the piece; Garrett and Moulton crafted the work like sculptors, removing extraneous details to reveal its essence.
The most magical pairing of all is Simonse and Schwab. Simonse has a rare emotional vulnerability and a beautiful counterbalance that makes the simplest movements feel significant. Schwab is his perfect match, giving and receiving in equal measure. Present in every moment, they dance free from the past and without anticipating the next step. The touch of his hand triggers her response as though it was a surprise; when he lifts her just off the ground for a tiny gargouillade, the delicate flick of her leg, so finely attuned to the music, causes a shiver.
The principals share the stage with an 18-dancer “movement choir” that enters and exits like magic, taking on myriad formations. Artfully staged and wonderfully disciplined, the black-clad men and women sway to and fro, furl and unfurl their arms, wiggle their fingers and, before you know it, you’re tangled in a kelp forest of emotion, and happy to surrender.
Garrett and Moulton have used movement choirs before, but its genesis goes all the way back to Moulton’s most famous work: Precision Ball Passing. Originally created for three people in 1979, this mind-bogglingly fun dance-puzzle has been re-created all over the world for groups from 9 (video) to 60 (video), and is well worth watching..
The only longueur in The Luminous Edge comes late in the work, when the movement choir walks slowly (very slowly) onstage, embracing and lowering to the ground, only to be commanded by Simonse to roll slowly (very slowly) offstage. Its on-the-nose lugubriousness compares unfavorably to the marvelous abstraction all around it.
Alternating moody, cello-led sorrow with jangly xylophonic hope, the pastiche score for Luminous ranges from Hildegard von Bingen to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, filled out with original contemporary orchestral music for strings, percussion, clarinet and piano by London-based composer Jonathan Russell. The ensemble plays live onstage, accompanied by Karen Clark’s resonant contralto. Dancers and musicians perform as one, and you sense that the creative process was a meeting of bodies and minds that continues to evolve on the stage.
Garrett and Moulton are apparently at work on a new piece. Their creation process can be long, but if it results in work that’s this smart and beautiful, you can bet I’ll see it twice. Or thrice.