Like poetry, modern dance proceeds from an embattled position. Performers feel like they must win over a hostile, or at least indifferent, audience. By way of a program for Effervescent Collective's Butter Knife, on the second stage at Single Carrot Theatre through March 22, Lily Kind, the troupe's director provided "some questions designed to provide a warm welcome for those of you that find dance a little scary, distractingly sexy, wildly confusing, or just not for you. . . . My hope is that by empowering you to watch dance more confidently, I bring you a little closer to making you want to dance, and to understanding how important dance is to our species."
"If there was a fear of intimidating the audience, Single Carrot Theatre did well to pair Effervescent Collective's Butter Knife with Pitchin' the Tent, a punk-rock dance spectacle by the Washington D.C. troupe Tia Nina (the March 21 and 22 performances will feature Philadelphia's Chelsea and Magda instead of Tia Nina).*
Pitchin' the Tent uses a vocabulary intimately familiar to anyone in the three or four generations raised on rock 'n' roll: head-banging, high kicks, pogo dancing, high-five and backslap, coke-nose wiping, windmill arm, raised-hand clapalong, skanking, Axl Rose shimmies, simulated sex acts, simulated sex acts with goats, guitar theatrics on a woman's bare thigh, doo-wop snaps, and stage dives. Imagine early Baltimore Rock Opera Society as a dance troupe and you get the picture. It was fun and funny, engaging and interesting; each of the three dancers was charismatic, clever, and flawless. But ultimately it was a one-note performance. There was little to ponder afterward. It was a parody, funny and easily digested.
By contrast, Effervescent Collective's Butter Knife was far more puzzling and, as a result, more moving. It was "a little scary, distractingly sexy, wildly confusing," but all in the ways we want art to be scary, sexy, and confusing.
Butter Knife-developed by the Effervescent Collective at the Coward Shoe building in the summer of 2012-is defiantly abstract, taking movement and placing it in the context of no context. There was no story to follow, no grand scheme or theme one could subsume each individual movement under. The steps, leaps, and gestures were vibrant, elastic, static, silly, and violent, with each of the four dancers developing her own approach to the small space of Single Carrot's second stage.
Butter Knife begins with all four dancers sitting, slumped over in groups of two. They sit up straight as the clicking and cranking of the soundtrack intensifies. They look at each other with a sort of exploratory flirtation and slump back. Their movements are both casual and intensely choreographed as the dance moves into a tenderly violent riff on the pratfall: The dancers fling themselves, briefly flying, to crash down onto the sprung floor.
Just as words come through the music, which has taken a carnivalesque turn, two dancers, Rachel Boss and Brittany Grant, engage in what looks like a one-footed approximation of both the knife fight in the video for "Beat It" and a bird's mating dance, if the birds' torsos were made of magnets. The relation between the dancers wavers between the tender, erotic, and violent as their bodies edge closer to one another. A moment later, Grant is standing with her hands above her head, like some sort of Joan of Arc figure.
All of Grant's movements were possessed of a particular mastery that you could see most easily in her face; at each moment there was what modeling television programs call a "smize"-her eyes grinned with delight at her own mastery of her body, which rippled and flowed like water.
Lily Kind, on the other hand, took a more angular and staggered approach as she danced to several metronomes, creating complex, almost cubist angles with her body. At one point she held herself sideways in a pose that seems impossible to maintain, as if blown back by a supernatural gust.
Erin Reid's was the most desperately impassioned of the performances; one almost felt bad for her as she ran from one end of the stage to the other, throwing herself to the ground at each turn in a way that seemed both desperate to escape and masochistically lost in her own collapse. It was surprisingly moving and troubling to see it played out several times and then to notice the bruises on Reid's legs. Boss, meanwhile, continued to demonstrate a raw power mixed with grace as she writhed on the floor and draped herself in gauzy curtains at the backdrop of the stage.
The Single Carrot's side theater certainly proved its versatility-it was completely different for the two shows-but it was a bit too small and too tight to see all four dancers when they were moving together, creating a disjointed experience for the viewers who had to crane the neck this way and that to get a glimpse of the dancers over here, all the while aware that they're missing something over there. When the second space was arranged like a stage for a rock show for Tia Nina, it was far easier to step back and engage with the entire performance.
Tia Nina's performance was generally easier. But the goofy and satirical yet obvious Pitchin' the Tent couldn't approach the virtuosic abstraction of Butter Knife, which uses such a vast range of inflections, styles, and physical accents, that it comes across as the dream of a kinetic polyglot. Kind's helpful questions were a generous gesture (last year, in a letter to the editor, she rightly chided CP for its lack of dance coverage), but it takes little more than a bit of attention to be moved by the movements of Effervescent Collective here.
*An earlier version of this article attributed responsibility for the pairing to Lily Kind. City Paper regrets the error.
Effervescent Collective performs Butter Knife at the Single Carrot Theatre through March 22