Dance As A Generous Act | By Marie Tollon

Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein in Double Exposure. Photo by Andrew Weeks

Much of RAWdance’s Double Exposure transports the viewer to the realm of the gallery space. First, there is the title of the piece borrowed from the language of photography. RAWdance’s co-Artistic Directors Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith translate the visual technique of multiple exposures to the stage by exposing themselves to the choreographic imprint of sixteen different choreographic voices and exploring the process of accumulation and transformation within their bodies.

Then, there is the visual set-up of the performance: six large boards — 2 on each side of the stage and one upstage center- each glistening with shiny black tape. Reminiscent of wrapped paintings, they seem protected to survive the hazards of transportation and art handling, ready to travel to a different location, be unwrapped and installed for exhibition. Just as the series of duets that Rein and Smith perform, these screens constitute movable parts, integrated into a larger dance. Moving them into different configurations as the night unfolds, Rein and Smith continually transform their environment. The manipulation of these screens –just like the juxtaposition of the duets- seems easy enough. Yet their mapping has been carefully thought out to create different “rooms” on stage, alternate worlds in which the dances can live, contrast and converse with each other.

The opening of the piece also reminds me of a common experience in a museum space: looking at a painting while resisting the urge to read the caption and learn about its maker. Parts of me want take the piece in first, then learn about its context, letting my rational left brain, eager for control, give in to my intuitive right brain. That little struggle between the two sides of my brain is going on when Rein and Smith start dancing, as part of me wonders which one of the 16 commissioned dance makers choreographed those first seconds. Soon enough, my left brain gets the upper hand, as the name of the artist is projected above the beams on the back wall of the theater.

Throughout the piece, text (whether projected or shared vocally by Rein and Smith) provides self-referential footnotes to the movements, folding process into product. During Joe Goode’s self-proclaimed “prologue,” the dancers announce that “this is where we display our skill” as they go into a movement section –questioning the virtuosity trope of concert dance. Dancers’ human qualities always come through in Goode’s work. This is true of the duet that Rein and Smith perform, when they share some personal traits such as: “Blank walls make [Smith] uncomfortable” and “[Rein] makes a great pie crust” — which later they announce might be true or not, asking viewers to ponder the line between the authenticity of their delivery and the fictional possibilities that creative work offers.

Self-reference is also hinted at in Monique Jenkinson’s delightful duet, where Rein and Smith are rendered Siamese for a moment, their sides comically joined by the type of stretch band that dancers’ often use in their warm-up. Blending vogue posing, drag performance and post-modern movements, Rein and Smith form a bright duo, exploring gender roles with the humor always present in Jenkinson’s work.

Sometimes the text acts as a mini-prologue to the following section. The beginning of Tahni Holt’s piece feels like a literal application of the lyrics of Sonny Bono’s “I Got You Babe,” which Rein and Smith sing just before starting Holt’s section. Laying on the floor in a pool of light and wearing sheer unitards, Rein and Smith hold onto each other for dear life, or so it seems. They grunt as they climb forcefully onto each other, seemingly aiming at eradicating the slightest corridor where air could travel between their bodies. The moment reminds me of the prompt I heard Holt give to both dancers in rehearsal a few months ago: “Every position is a piece of a puzzle of your two bodies fitting together.”

David Roussève’s voice stands out with violent and unexpected force, due in part to a gunshot seen and heard on the brief video projected across the entirety of the stage wall. Rein and Smith begin dancing in silence, while Roussève’s words can be read on the back wall. The Los Angeles-based artist recalls hearing the beginning of Aretha Franklin’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and not being able to translate into words the impact of the song on him. Dance provided the right platform to attempt to express those feelings. Rein and Smith start repeating the choreographic phrase faster and faster, the increased rhythm soon blurring the clarity of their movements, as they appear not in control anymore but caught into a chain of involuntary actions. At moments, the phrase is abruptly interrupted for a split second. In rehearsal last fall, Roussève had suggested that this movement become “the physical realization of an uncontrolled outburst.” These sudden interruptions echo the violence of a life abruptly interrupted, such as featured in the projected video of the shooting of unarmed Walter Scott by a police officer that occurred in South Carolina in 2015. What can dance –and art- do in the face of racism, injustice and violence? Roussève asks. At the end of the duet, we are left with the rhetorical question: “Is it enough?”

By exposing themselves to a wide variety of choreographic choices and styles, Rein and Smith, who have performed and created work together for over 12 years, disrupt their own process as choreographers and open themselves to discovery and challenge. Morphing from one duet to the next with feline versatility, they create an intricate moving installation that displays the breadth of styles and genres that can be found on the West Coast dance map. Aside from their technical strength and intelligence as curators and performers, what comes through in Double Exposure is their generosity: generosity in sharing the artistic complexity of 16 different choreographic voices, thereby introducing viewers to artists with whom they might not be familiar; generosity in breaking down the fourth wall and transforming the theater into a personable space where viewers can experience some of what dance can “do,” including entertain and question. I am brought back to the words of Bay Area based painter John Zurier, who during a round table with visual artists questioning “Painting: For And Against” at Altman Siegel Gallery last Spring, insisted on “the generosity of art: [art] gives an experience where people become participants.” Last weekend, Rein and Smith demonstrated this with gusto.