I was first introduced to Lauren Simpson’s choreographic voice through Still Life Dances, an eight-part, multi-year series in which Simpson and co-creator Jenny Stulberg looked to different 19th century still life paintings for movement inspiration. While every chapter in their collection was distinct, what spoke in each was extreme clarity and precision as well as attention to line, perspective and angle.
These qualities remain paramount in Simpson’s new venture, Lauren Simpson Dance (LSD), which she launched in summer 2018. On 9 May the company premiered its first work, Dance Exhibit, at Minnesota Street Project, a hip San Francisco multi-discipline art hub where Simpson is currently Visiting Choreographer. I caught the show on closing night and saw a terrific company debut filled with collaboration, rigor and a connection to the visual art community.
True to its title, Exhibit was like a living art gallery – a continuous stream of abstract, movement scenes performed by Arletta Anderson, Virginia Broyles, Lydia Clinton, Marlie Couto and Cauveri Madabushi Suresh. Story and emotions were appropriately absent, allowing the focus to rest on the work’s active artistic dialogues. And many arose over Exhibit’s forty minutes as bodies conversed with each other. They collaborated with, and reacted to, the space and its structural details. Objects were introduced into the choreographic frame. Everything about Exhibit was beautifully unassuming – it was about movement and spatial relationships, redolent with choreographic and compositional gems.
One of these gems was apparent right from the start, as the piece opened on a set of bleachers at one end of the long corridor room. As the company explored the wooden terraced steps, their unity was riveting. From the smallest of gestures – palms splaying, fingers gripping, knees twitching, elbows flexing – to more mid-size motions of crawling and sliding, the cast was completely in sync. This was surely a measure of being incredibly well rehearsed, but also of being totally in tune with each other. The exactitude had such strength and power (even if the movements weren’t large or grand) and it was thrilling to see this incomparable unison recur multiple times throughout the evening, including one footwork sequence that felt inspired by old-school soft shoe.
Once the initial movement investigation on the bleachers was complete, the audience and cast switched positions, the bleachers transforming into the viewership space and the main room, with its central row of steel columns, into the performance area. As noted, unison continued to remain a connective thread in the work, and the columns added an absorbing element of purposeful obstruction, hiding some interactions and revealing others. But the gem here was when the various objects began entering the conversation: fluorescent light tubes by lighting designer Jack Beuttler, painted pieces of rebar by collaborating artist Brion Nuda Rosch and what looked like an elaborately braided extension cord by collaborating artist Dana Hemenway. The exchange between the choreography and this last article was indeed the richest of the lot. As the dancers dragged the woven cable into the space, bodies were dragged across the concrete floor in parallel. On one side, two dancers cycled through a partnered pas de deux, while on the other, a third dancer mirrored the same duet with the cord itself. Eventually the cord was woven around the columns, almost like an artistic slack line/hammock. And as it was later unwound, the quintet threaded their way through the steel pillars, embodying that laced quality. The object had become an integral part of Exhibit, as a dance partner and cast member, yes, but also as a deeply embedded aspect of the choreographic texture.
Fifteen minutes before the performance began, there was a prelude of sorts, or as Simpson referred to it in a press preview, a “soft start.” I think this was a genius move for this piece and this venue. During the pre-time, the audience milled about while the dancers set up the room. It was a time of preparation for everyone, providing a lovely welcome and transition into the unique, non-proscenium container. Simpson had also organized an impressive post-piece discussion series, with a different guest speaker on each of the five nights responding to the work and offering thoughts, insights and questions. But I always opt out of this and did here too. Not because I don’t value the exercise. And not because I’m uninterested in other perspectives and viewership lenses. It’s because, as a reviewer and as a viewer, these talks tend to overtake my experience of the work rather than letting what I saw in the moment, in the space, percolate in my mind and guide my commentary. A short five-minute interlude would have been nice addition between Exhibit and its post-performance speaker series. Not just for those audience members like me who prefer to let the piece simmer, but as a transitional moment for those wishing to stay and participate in the dialogue.