It's intense, watching a penis flap in the breeze just a few feet away from your face during a tour jeté. You might think that four dancers performing in the nude would be terminally distracting, but choreographer Heather Kravas makes it work in the quartet with her mature, subtle choreography and daringly deep commentary about the dynamic between an individual and a group. In contemporary dance, the combination of minimalist aesthetics and sociological inquiry could be dangerously dull, falling into the trap of being either hyperbolic or dorky. Not this time.
For the quartet, Kravas has arranged the seating Little League–style, with bleachers on two sides of the stage. Sitting down to watch a rehearsal last Sunday night, I thought this raw and intimate closeness would only highlight the discomfort of watching dancers in the nude. Instead, the various levels of nakedness (the dancers sometimes wore clothes) were more like a series of costumes, worn in different ways to match the arc of the work. This nudity is trying to teach us something.
The quartet begins with four dancers who enter one by one between the two sets of bleachers. They recline on the floor in a square, bodies touching but with pointedly distant expressions on their faces. They lie there for a really long time, forcing the audience to stare at them or look away or look around—the choice is ours, forcing us to pay attention to what we choose to look at and how, exactly, dance can be its own vehicle for sexual objectification. Kravas, however, plays this objectification like a musical instrument.
As the dancers abruptly get up and move toward neatly folded piles of clothing, which they put on in various combinations (leather booties, underpants, socks, sweat suits), the haunting live score by guitarist Dana Wachs (also known as Vorhees) changes tempo. The group moves mostly en masse, sometimes with decidedly balletic moves and sometimes with dramatic marching, reminiscent of Soviet-era militaristic propaganda. Eventually, they end up in a tight diamond formation, completely naked again, except each dancer has a black, Nike-like swoosh pasted onto one side of one foot. They begin a cheerleading routine—cheering, counting, lifting one another high in the air with the precision of a seasoned squad. When watching a cheerleading routine at a football game, our attention is drawn to the sculpted thighs, flashy white smiles, and passionately hopeful (sometimes falsely hopeful) demeanors. Kravas's dancers expertly execute a similar spectacle—but without the smiles and without the clothes. It's as if cheerleading culture has been stripped down to its most precious foundations: timing, trust, physical perfection, and corporate sponsorship.
Among a bunch of other research undertaken by Kravas and her dancers in preparation for this piece, they received a private tutorial by the University of Washington cheerleading team, and it shows. Nothing in this dance about ballet, cheerleading, and cultural assimilation is half-assed. Lots of it is bare-assed. All of it (at least what I saw at the rehearsal) is good.