Friday the 13th was auspicious for San Francisco dance: Margaret Jenkins Dance Company premiered Trace Figures, a site-specific performance immersion that could be done by no other company or permutation of artists. Created and performed at DZINE, a warehouse gallery of high-end furniture and art, Trace Figures is a galvanic collaboration between MJDC’s tight-knit family of eight dancers and three of Jenkins’ longtime collaborators – the poet Michael Palmer and the avant-garde musicians Paul Dresher and Joel Davel, who play an array of hand-built instruments invented by Dresher and Daniel Schmidt.
Jenkins, a renowned postmodern choreographer who danced for Twyla Tharp and staged Merce Cunningham works before founding her SF company in 1973, is unconcerned with technical dogma. Rather, she cultivates the individuality of the performers she brings together and sculpts their contributions with her masterful sense of structure, pacing and transition.
Trace Figures starts with four vignettes, each 5-7 minutes in length, that travel between stations set in DZINE’s loosely arranged bays; display models of sofas, chairs and ottomans serve as impromptu seating for the audience in tow. At least one of Dresher and Davel’s instruments anchors each performance area, and the dancers interact with the unique soundscape, the instruments and the musicians.
At Station 1, the dancers slither and slide amid the Field of Flowers, two rows of wood-block boxes that hold wooden balls and are set on flexible steel rods. The dancers set the Flowers in motion with their hands and feet, creating the tick-tock cacophony of a clockmaker’s workshop, a metronomic chaos that is wonderfully at odds with their earthy movement quality and the warmth emanating from their bodies at such close range.
Alex Carrington and Kelly Del Rosario’s dark, slow, full-contact duet unfolded on the convex surface of the Octagon in Station 2. The wood’s responsive creaking was their only accompaniment – until Del Rosario set the Octagon’s steel-pipe ring into motion. The ring spins freely, picking up speed as gravity pulls it toward the ground, and the grinding friction of wood and metal becomes louder and more urgent, like the gunning of an engine that won’t turn over. Then it stops with a spectacular crash.
While the audience sat mesmerized by the spinning ring, the dancers crept out to Station 3, where Davel played the Frame Drums, trapezoidal wood surfaces with varying pitches and timbres. In a phalanx behind him, dancers Crystaldawn Bell, Kristen Bell, Corey Brady and Carolina Czechowska popped up and down, and turned this way and that in the same quirky rhythm as Davel’s percussion, with an effervescent effect.
Kristen Bell danced a solo in a dining chair in Station 4’s kitchen setting, where Davel clanged bells and pounded wood on the Percussion Table while Dresher bowed the Hurdy Grande, a massive string instrument with a hand-crank and a motor. It was hard not to project a narrative of domestic discord onto Norma Fong and Dalton Alexander’s adagio duet, given the decor and Palmer’s spoken-word voiceover – the title Trace Figures refers to wave-washed sand drawings as a poetic metaphor for the ephemerality of life and love. In faster sections, their increasingly temperamental partnering embodied the musicians’ frenetic noise-making – or was it the other way around? Trace Figures is not created to the music, nor is music a backdrop for movement; impossible to parse, they are continually bonding molecules that form an entirely new element.
Trace Figures culminates with a 30-minute full-company ensemble in a square space with formal seating on two sides. The shift to a more conventional format felt jarring; even Dresher and Davel’s music, a progressive-jazz jam session played on the Hurdy Grande, the gnashing metal-on-metal Quadrachord and the high-tech mallet-struck Marimba Lumina, felt more structured and through-composed than earlier soundscapes. Watching these dancers is pure pleasure, yet movement notions that richly fill 5-minute vignettes don’t necessarily sustain over half an hour, and a slower, rather repetitive central section could be edited out. After the massive sensory input of the previous 30 minutes, the finale was simply a lot to take in.
That said, there were marvels to discover: Del Rosario and Fong’s aggressive duet that read like a fight sequence (Del Rosario has a long history in martial arts); tiny but resonant gestures like Czechowska’s flexed feet, almost hidden in her trio with Alexander and Brady, but as deliberate as any other gesture in the work; Kristen Bell’s outstretched hands, delicate as butterflies; and a duet by Brady and Crystaldawn Bell, who in their first-ever performance together revealed an alchemy of mind and movement that has limitless and thrilling potential.