The Pleasure of Effort

By Catherine Rush | Photography by Arno Hunter Myers

Erik Thurmond’s Ripple at the Historic Rhodes Theater and Dance Writing in the Digital Age


Our Longings Ripple Outward, But Seldom Ripple Back

The evening of March 24, 2015, I hurry, alone and in the nick of time, to the Historic Rhodes Theater for the closing night of glo and Goat Farm Arts Center’s series 3 Tanz Farm collaboration. Crossing the sidewalk I catch a glimpse backstage through the storefront window of Erik Thurmond exchanging a warm here-we-go-it’s-closing-night hug with Johnny Drago.

“I had been thinking about the myth of Echo and Narcissus for awhile,” Thurmond tells me a week later at Negril Village over a Red Stripe, “and Lauri Stallings [founding member of glo] posed the question: ‘When is it not theater?’”

His response, pushing into the question rather than falling out of it: “What if we started from a script?”

Thurmond consequently asked Drago to write a play about the myth for him to work from, but, instead, Drago wrote a series of seven poems, which became the scaffolding for Ripple’s choreography.

Seven Lithe Bodies

After picking up my ticket from the Tanz admission table, I enter the dusty, light-drenched theater and stop in my tracks, temporarily overwhelmed by the ambience. The raw pink and brown walls lend a mossy sepia-tone to the audience framing the folding chairs and patrons tucked neatly side-by-side, the atmosphere gently buzzing with polite anticipation. Seven lithe bodies in thrifted floral prints lie motionless in a row across the square sandbox stage in the center of the crowd. Thurmond enters, positioning himself facing the wall opposite me in the sandy arena, lying on his side, an urbane Venus of Urbino.

A moment of stillness ensues, then Ben Coleman chimes in as the company of odalisques awaken.

The music and movements transpire in waves, breaths, intoxicating rises and falls. The seven chapters unfold up and out and back down again through the bottomless ache and ecstasy of yearning.

As Thurmond holds his pose on the floor, Anicka Austin, Anna Bracewell, Claire Molla, Kristin D’Addario, Miriam Golomb, Noelle Kayser and Melissa Word claim the space. Under the blinding stage light and self-consciously desiccate stage, suspense builds as the company weaves a set with their bodies.

Suddenly an oasis appears. The dancers are no longer blanched heat-stroke victims lying in the desert of an abandoned theater, but nymphs frolicking in a verdant refuge. The narrative unrolls through the company’s viscous arrangements. Anna Bracewell — as Echo — and Claire Molla — Hera — engage in a high-energy duet, twisting around the stage like two scarves caught in the wind.

…rhizomatic roots spreading in all directions

The company coalesces behind Thurmond and reproduces his pose, lining once again behind him in a neat row. They pause. Another wave of sound from Coleman and the group stirs together, following Thurmond’s lead. The music gains in intensity as the movement gains in complexity, the dancers now reclining synchronized swimmers keeping time, now rhizomatic roots spreading in all directions.

Thurmond rises, Narcissus in his prime. His admirers fall over him in comic melodrama, pining and worshipful, desperately groping for the tiniest drop of his attention, yet granted none.

Bracewell singles herself out, her entreaties to Thurmond growing in potency and ardor. Ignored, she goes too far, violently flinging herself at him.

Thurmond recoils, but rises again before literally drawing a line in the sand. He defiantly faces Bracewell, and the rest of the dancers position themselves one-by-one on his side of the sand. From this new vantage point, Narcissus brings his attention to the nymphs, who now take turns portraying his watery reflection. He approaches one of the dancers, borrowing the role of the mimic. The second he mirrors her position — their two hands almost touching — she flees in one swift movement. He moves to the next, with the same result. The next, the next, the next: each partner, on the cusp of perfect symmetry, muddles the water and flees. Narcissus is left alone, undone by his own reflection. He crumbles. Regaining composure, Thurmond rises and dovetails with Bracewell in a duet.

Narcissus…blossoms into the flower of the myth in his final positions

The pair are symbiotic, the long-awaited joint eye contact combining with the matched movements of their bodies. All sensual energy and liquid heat, the moment proves too good to be true, and fades back to fantasy as the illusion breaks. Narcissus once again becomes unreachable, and Echo in anguish, as they repeat the same duet, now with Thurmond refusing to meet Bracewell’s gaze.

Echo wilts away. The desire she performs, she embodies. Fittingly, Narcissus grounds himself, and blossoms into the flower of the myth in his final positions.

Ben Coleman’s soundtrack rolls, stretches, blends and skips, at times counter and at others continuous with Thurmond’s choreography. The production brings impulses of impression, reflexivity, and connection into tension and overlap in a style at once frisky and disciplined, fragmented and flowing.

I leave the theater electric, and thoughtful.

Dance Writing in the Digital Age

At least in my experience, it was impossible to watch Thurmond’s work without becoming aware of my own body. Aside from waves of moments lost in the choreography and self-perpetuating fantasy of the piece, Ripple sent me back to myself: my foot keeping time with Coleman’s mosaic of sound, my fingers stretching out to trace the line of a dancer’s back under my chair, my lips pursing in restrained excitement.

The performance lingered in my mind, and was at the forefront when I attended “Dance Writing in the Digital Age,” a panel featuring dance critic Elizabeth Zimmer, presented in partnership with ArtsATL, the Rialto Center for the Arts and Kennesaw State University of Dance, on April 16th.

Zimmer stressed not only that “dance is a time-based art form,” but also that it is “profoundly local.” This combo often perpetuates the unfortunate trend in which, “by the time the phenomenon of word of mouth kicks in, the dancing is gone from the stage.”

ArtsATL dance editor Cynthia Bond Perry encouragingly noted that there is “a lot of site-specific work in Atlanta,” and suggested that, as glo and the Goat Farm have focused on fusing and directing a dance piece with the strengths, history and potential of a space, similarly publications must “match a writer to the event.”

What may be needed in dance writing: “a critic as a cheerleader,” KSU dance professor Daniel Gwirtzman offered.

Zimmer backed him, saying “the writing has to carry the day…it’s about delight in English prose.”

When dealing with a discipline where often, as Zimmer argued, “nobody knows what’s happening,” how can the virality of our age, Gwirtzman asked, be used to cultivate new audiences?

“…how do you compete against a generation that believes criticism has become democratized?”

The biggest competition of live arts events: video games. The biggest obstacle to dance attendance and engagement: our fear, as audience members, of our own assumed ignorance of dance, a form whose visceral intimacy potentially stupefies and alienates some viewers as frequently as it inspires and engages others.

And yet the key to ignorance is ignoring, and as Narcissus drains Echo’s energy with his lack of reciprocity, so too, perhaps, does the inattentive critic condemn the picture postcards of past dance performances to the trash heap.

“Everything’s not instant,” Gwirtzman commented, but dance writing in Atlanta is “a glass that’s continually becoming more full.” People talk about what they see, post about it and “are clamoring to see more innovative work.” Dance writing and discussion make artists more searchable, and ultimately “the cream will rise to the top.”

“More writing is happening than ever before,” Zimmer teased, and yet the future of dance criticism, she surmised “half in jest,” may be Facebook.

But within a digital culture, the panel asked, where “everyone is a critic,” how do you compete against a generation that believes criticism has become democratized?

“Make more connections.”

“Support each other.”

“Let’s try to connect to the pleasure of effort.”

The moderator ended the discussion, saying he had hoped for more answers, but was grateful nonetheless to leave with more questions.

In the by-donation movement class Thurmond taught at Dashboard Co-op to raise money for Ripple, this his largest production to date, a phrase he repeated (that I’ve since begun repeating to myself) stood out: “Let’s try to connect to the pleasure of effort.”