It turns out that the title of Nancy Karp’s newest work is rooted in the Italian language. As relayed in the press materials, the phrase piano piano translates as “slowly, slowly, gradually, gently, carefully; quietly; take your time; don’t rush – you’ll figure it out.” That intention was more than evident in the evening-length work, which premiered Thursday at the Dresher Ensemble Studio in Oakland. Together a cast of six gradually explored the space and gradually explored the music, composed by Jay Cloidt. This exploration was undertaken through lush modern dance, fifty minutes of tonal layers and textures choreographed by Artistic Director Nancy Karp. It’s not often that one gets to experience pure modern dance without a lot of extra stuff – such a treat.
Unfolding over five continuous parts, each set to a different musical selection, piano piano began with great purpose and attention to the word ‘gradual.’ But that didn’t mean that the movement was timid or small, in fact, quite the opposite. Arpeggiated treble notes quivered with expectation and possibility while the ensemble systematically investigated the stage surface with large lunges, parallel attitudes and swinging arms. Extreme pencheés and side extensions entered the vernacular as the music built and intensified. And grand, sweeping circular motions indicated that their exploratory experiment was well underway.
As dissonant cluster chords took over in Cloidt’s score, the six began ascending up a small staircase and into the balcony space. Clinging to the railings and engaging the walls as partners, they continued their survey unhurried. The collection of notes hovered in delicious ambiguity, neither major nor minor, as the choreography similarly played with what might become a dancing surface. In what was the most beautiful picture of the night, Amy Lewis and Nol Simonse worked together to create a gravity-defying balance in the balcony – she looked as though she was effortlessly floating skyward. Later sections found a plinky piano part meeting with robotic phrases and a clanging bell inspiring clock-type motions.
Striking and pleasurable from beginning to end, piano piano’s choreography, with its spinal curves and diagonal postures, made me smile. Not a trendy inversion in sight; instead, Karp filled the stage with clean modern dance vocabulary – solid lines and uncluttered positions, all flowing seamlessly together. And the communication of the material was so remarkable. piano piano’s cast was made up of some heavy hitters in the San Francisco dance scene (Chris Black, Nick Brentley, Sonsherée Giles, Katie Kruger, Lewis and Simonse) and watching them move was a gift. Accomplished technicians surely, but each also has such deep and enviable artistry.
I think the only miss for me was that most of the music, except for the final chapter, played with phenomenal vivacity by pianist Marja Mutru, was recorded. Not only was the show held in a music rehearsal studio (which suggests acoustical prowess), but with Cloidt’s compositions being so woven into the work, it seemed like a missed opportunity not to have each part scored by live musicians.