Dance is never just about the feet. But in the 3rd annual edition of BEACON, the performance series that returned to the Palladium for its too-brief one-night stand Jan. 12, I was especially struck by the expressiveness of the dancers’ hands and arms. Using them to halt, to implore, to threaten, to protect — from big, sweeping windmill movements to tiny, quick flicks of the wrist — the dancers and choreographers found multiple ways to speak eloquently with their upper as well as lower limbs.
In a way, outstretched arms are emblematic of the BEACON project, which was founded by Helen Hansen French and Lauren Ree Slone as a way of reaching out — to dancers, helping them foster community, and to audiences, those hungry for dance and those who aren’t aware there even is a dance community here.
The evening began with the quietly powerful solo “Beyond Words.” Paula Kramer, the doyenne of local choreographers, took inspiration from the images in Joseph Szjana’s Art of the Holocaust, a book of prisoners’ drawings found on the walls of trains and prison cells, and from Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, written to commemorate Holocaust victims and recorded with soprano Dawn Upshaw. The statuesque soloist Charlotte Johnson moved as if infused with the emotion crying out from the drawings, at first raising her hands toward them, then unfurling her long form onto a single bench and the stage floor and into a succession of shapes at once angular and anguished — scooping, pounding, beckoning, but always with great dignity, never lapsing into bathos. Finally, responding to a drawing of hands clawing at a face, she reached out as if to clasp hands with those on the screen — a profound expression of empathy with suffering that seemed to coalesce into one unspoken question: Why?
Two of the pieces in the BEACON18 program — “Excerpt” by Kellie Harmon and “Drift” by Helen Hansen French and Alex Jones — could be said to deal with the difficulty of maintaining connections.
In “Excerpt,” Harmon and her dancers — Crystal DelGiudice, Carleigh Gee, and Jessica Ruddock, dancing to a fascinating score that included the moody atmospherics of Icelandic cellist Hildur Guonadottir and electronic composers Lane 8 and James Sheppard — move at first as if warming up, running laps to the sound of counting, as one woman braids her hair. Dressed in simple athleisure wear in greys and florals, the dancers come together in intense faceoffs, then break apart, their attempts at partnership brief. At other moments they braid one another’s hair — intimacies that are interrupted by the demands of group ritual. Throughout, the dancing is precise and varied, sinuously shifting between loose-limbed and sharp-elbowed, liquid and mechanical — perhaps an evocation of the ever-changing demands of daily life.
The push me/pull you in French and Jones’s “Drift” is very much about the rhythms of a relationship, and it’s stunning. Each dancer contains contradictions: French appears sylph-like, fragile, but her knife-like extensions and fierce concentration project power. Jones is tall, all muscles and bulk, but there’s an innate gentleness that comes through at the same time. The dichotomy is present even when they’re still. During one interlude where both are sitting down, willfully uncommunicative, French’s facial expression contains the subtle menace of a Harold Pinter heroine, while Jones’s demeanor projects pain, an inability to decipher this possibly fatale femme. But when they move together — ecstatic lifts, sudden breaks, a roundelay of pursuit and escape, touch and recoil — they soar. And at the end, in front of a single window hung upstage (beautifully lit by Christopher Spatafora), there’s an image that stayed in my mind long afterwards, and also recalled the final tableau in “Beyond Words.” French, alone, her back to the audience, reaches up her right hand to a windowpane. Jones joins her from behind, then reaches up as well, and she falls into his hand. They’re finally together.
Collaboration is key in the creation of any dance (well, maybe not in the Balanchine/Martins choreographer-is-god universe, but certainly in most contemporary circles). But the final pieces in the BEACON18 program took collaboration to new levels. Harper Addison of the social media platform TIP (The Iteration Project) invited artists from all over the country to share work on Instagram, sharing creative “prompts” to get them started, then brought the work together in a film, From Her Beacon Hand. In addition to name-checking the dance series, the title is also a quote from the famous Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty — you know, the one about teeming masses being welcomed to our shores, the invitation that's being roundly condemned these days by the anti-immigration gang. Addison’s project clearly stands in opposition to wall-building, and her film did indeed reflect an exuberant variety of artistic responses to the prompts. That said, it was striking (or maybe it was editing) that suggested many common themes — including (I was attuned to this motif, I guess) the eloquent use of hands and arms. I particularly remember a moving segment in which a young woman grasped her face in her hands, and an outdoor sequence in which Helen Hansen French, poised and still as an egret, was perfectly married with the words (by local writer Jan Neuberger), “Quiver with the quicksilver music of your delicate ivory bones.”
The final piece of the evening, Lauren Ree Slone’s “mother phrase,” was created by Slone on eight local dancers during a 12-day residency in December. While the work consisted of previously unfinished Slone dances that she was returning to, there were echoes within it of movement styles and phrases we’d seen earlier in the evening. Because many in Slone’s ensemble danced and/or choreographed other pieces in the BEACON18 program, you might think the echoes were conscious, but I don’t think so: This was just an example, I think, of how seamlessly interconnected these dancers are, and how intelligently Slone incorporated their talents.
Inspirations for “mother phrase,” according to an interview earlier this year in the Times, included Slone’s mentor Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of the Urban Bush Women, who used the term to describe the germination of a movement idea, and Slone’s mother, who’s been diagnosed with cancer, and who “‘finishes anything she starts.’” Beginning with the magisterial Slone and Johnson, their hands clasped above their heads as if creating steeples, the phrases that follow are variously frenetic, elegant and startling, an amalgam of star turns that concludes with a show of solidarity among the dancers, and the touching recorded voice of Slone’s mom saying “Bye-bye, baby girl.”
It’s a shame that every time we say bye-bye to a BEACON performance, it means we will have to wait a whole nother year for the next one. But the good news is this: Attendance and audience response were so strong for BEACON18, sources tell me, that the Palladium and series co-founders French and Slone are committed to keeping it going.
BEACON19, we will wait for you.