Gesture and Line: A Review of Nancy Karp + Dancers 35th Anniversary Season

ODC Studio B Theater, San Francisco
February 20-22, 2015

Gesture, line. Pattern, variation. Depth, duration.

I had the pleasure of meeting Nancy Karp while on residency at Djerassi in the fall of 2011; it was my first residency there in writing, and her second or third in choreography. I also had the opportunity to sublet her beautiful live/work studio during the summer of 2012 while she was away in Sicily creating the gesture, but not the target, and witnessed a performance of her work Continua in Light: Three Acts in San Francisco in 2013.

It is with fondness that I recall our afternoon walks on the Djerassi land, and our meandering conversations about dance, writing, landscape and art. While subletting her studio I listened to some selections in her music collection, including a Kronos Quartet album, which became the soundtrack for a sequence in the book I was writing. I also browsed her collection of books and devoured Yvonne Rainer’s Feelings Are Facts: A Life. Continua in Light: Three Acts was my first experience seeing her choreography live, and I was moved by her collaborative relationship to video projection and choral song, which gave the work added texture and dimensionality.

So when I asked Nancy if I could review her 35th Anniversary Season show—a world premiere of time and the weather and a-motion-upo-motio-n, and a re-staging of il Mercato, originally created in 2001—these experiences prepared me for what I was about to see: the space of the theater shifting and continually transforming with the work; movement influenced by visual art, literature and musical composition; and her attention to gesture, line, pattern, variation, depth and duration, all of which has informed her work over the past three decades.

Gesture, line.

During Friday’s post-show Q&A, dance writer Ann Murphy asked Nancy to speak more about the themes of gesture and pattern in her work. Nancy’s study of the Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam, particularly the architecture that is built around gesture in that form, has been a huge influence on her use of gesture, her specificity within the abstract, and her “cleanliness of line.” Murphy also noted the influence of pre-war German modernism and Bauhaus on her work, and Nancy noted the ways in which paring down to the essentials of shape and line offers universality.

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time and the weather illustrates her life-long attention and research into these concepts. The piece opens with two dancers in silhouette facing the back wall, which glows red. Blinds cover the windows along the wall, revealing a black cross bar and two black lines bisecting the vibrant red. This backdrop highlights the shapes and lines the two dancers’ arms and shoulders make, cutting through the light. As they progress through the sequence, their gestures slowly expand. The lights shift and they move further into the space.

Shifts in music, lighting and movement seem to correspond and converse with each other. The five dancers meet and depart. The strings in the sound score, composed by Jay Cloidt, fluctuate back and forth, like a tremor. A duet with dancers Amy Lewis and Nadia Oka features gentle, guiding touch. The piece concludes with three pools of light on a diagonal, the dancers moving through a series of slow arm gestures, broken by abrupt breaks. In one tender moment, dancer Diane McKallip holds Katie Kruger’s arm, examining it with reverent care.

During the Q&A, Nancy noted her choreographic tendency to balance the stage with asymmetry, choreograph a lot of entrances and exits, and avoid the center. In time and the weather she wanted to challenge herself in the manner of a painting by Thekla Hammond, to deal with the center of the stage and have the dancers remain rather than go. In this piece we see how her work, to borrow Henry James, has “weathered over time.”

Pattern, variation.

Another influence on Nancy’s work is the time she has spent living in Sicily over the past ten years. Her movement also draws inspiration from ancient Greek ruins and figures on vases, the gestures of which are extracted and then pulled apart, rising into relief from the background.


a-motion-upo-motion-n, the title of which is taken from an e. e. cummings poem, is a duet with dancers Diane McKallip and Randee Paufve. The title is a visual play on the phrase “motion upon motion,” and the music is a piece entitled Stronghold composed by Julia Wolfe for eight double basses, which is in fact performed by Robert Black on one double bass that is over-dubbed. This kind of audio as well as visual overlap creates and sustains a beautiful resonance throughout the piece.

Paufve and McKallip repeat movement phrases in variations and varied tempos that overlap, the strings of the double bass overlap and merge, and the strong lines—from the intersecting rectangles on Paufve’s crinkled dress, to the interlocking lines of both dancers’ arms—build a compelling geometry.

The blinds over the windows are raised to expose the grids of the large window panes and the San Francisco night beyond. Jack Carpenter’s lighting design seems to respond organically to the dancers’ movements, illuminating them in overlapping ovals and somehow from outside the windows themselves. The dancers’ gestures and lines become an architecture, their contact a kind of guidance, the energy through their arms a language. Where they come together—joists.

Depth, duration.

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il Mercato begins abruptly, unexpectedly, surprisingly. A sharp hand clap, then a burst of bright light. Inspired by the “chaos and frenzy” of a fish market in Sicily, we’re instantly pulled into a jagged, cacophonous scene, six dancers already in motion, brightened by color and tone. Curtains enclose the space on all three sides, transforming it completely for a third time, and I’m struck by the depth of this piece as I would a painting—everything from far upstage to far downstage vibrating with activity.

Charles Amirkhanian’s Pianola provides the musical patterning. The dancers move along pathways across the stage, from both sides, sifting through each other. They move singly or in pairs, at times seemingly at chase or play. Over time their movements morph, coming in or out of sync, as the music warps. Words that come to my mind: throw, net, wavelength, oscillation, orbital, canon, cascade.

In a final pass all dancers move from one side of the stage to the other, slowly, staggered spatially and sequentially. The lights are now as they might be on a moonlit, lamplit night, the market now quiet and empty, a few passersby making their way through the square. Only minutes ago it was bright with barter and early morning, and as dancer Nadia Oka walks slowly backward, her arm gesturing in the way Nancy observed a merchant slowly stirring the water in a vat of fresh clams, I’m left thinking about everything that’s come to pass this day, and what awaits tomorrow.

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