Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet: Vertical Migration
Vertical Migration, like other works by choreographer and dancer Sher-Machherndl, is a dance about human life where momentum shifts, plans change, the simplest moments spawn great things, the biggest ideas collapse into nothing and there are ups and downs, fluid joy and crippling pain. All of this compressed into a mere hour on stage set to music equally diverse compiled by musician and composer Zoe Keating, a contemporary cellist.
Vertical Migration opens with dancer Robert Sher-Machherndl dragging ballerina Rebekah Shoaf across the stage, her feet dug so deeply into the floor that one almost believes she is leaving a mark as he tugs her by her hands, arms fully extended, legs straight and pressing, body folded low to the ground. This is followed by more tension and flexion as she stands, forms a tunnel, and he slides beneath her legs, gets up and does it again and again as she straddles the obstacle of his body and crosses the stage. The movements are stark, yet beautiful. The dancers seem almost passive, yet intensely present. At one point early on in the production, Shoaf leaps and Sher-Machherndl grabs her by the waist stopping her in mid air, her body curving around his hands, arms and legs still outstretched in the direction she was going. Vertical Migration, like other works by choreographer and dancer Sher-Machherndl, is a dance about human life where momentum shifts, plans change, the simplest moments spawn great things, the biggest ideas collapse into nothing and there are ups and downs, fluid joy and crippling pain. All of this compressed into a mere hour on stage set to music equally diverse compiled by musician and composer Zoe Keating, a contemporary cellist. Its a classical pas de deux reinvented by a native of Vienna now living in Boulder Colorado whose contemporary ballet company is named after a dessert from a restaurant menu–Lemon Sponge Cake.
Framed with the traditional entreÃ©, adagio, two variations for each dancer, and a coda, Sher-Machherndls pas de deux is rooted in classical ballet, but inspired by everything from the daily news, African dance, and all types of music, to what is seen on the street, or from the window of an auto. The influence of Pina Bausch is also present. The revolutionary Bausch, who died suddenly in June 2009, a mere five days after being diagnosed with cancer, became famous in her later years for asking her dancers to mine their own memories and experiences as their source of inspiration. Sher-Machherndl has adopted Bauschs technique when choreographing and although he doesnt admit it, he seems equally inspired by the male-female interaction that was often found in Bauschs choreography.
“It always starts with movement,” Sher-Machherndl said when asked how he choreographs a dance. “In the beginning I dont have a story in my head, then while I do it, a theme comes up, but I never discuss the details with my collaborator. The main thing is moving together and how it feels. In my head things come up, some things are very tragic, or very strong and powerful, but not a whole story. I leave it open to the person Im working with to do the same. Anything they want to bring from their private life they can. It comes out strong in a natural way then and the viewer makes up their own story.”
Sher-Machherndl is a lithe presence on stage in black tank, black pants, clean shaven head. Hes a mystery. His dance movements are natural, almost effortless in contrast to his partner Shoaf who is muscular, tall, technically superb and filled with emotion, her face and eyes expressive. Her simple black silk sheath features a twig pattern in gold. And while the audience may interpret the life expressed and explored through dance to have significant ups and downs, there are few highs and lows in this production, its not bipolar, but more even-tempered. Yet theres an odd tension as if at any moment something could snap and the appearance of control would be shattered. Its a dichotomy.
I spoke with Sher-Manchherdl via telephone a week after seeing the performance. I asked him what inspired him? What his mission and purpose was as a choreographer and dancer? “I want to be the best. I want to achieve the best, give the best, give it all,” he said, then added that the day to day routine of working in the studio and developing a new idea was a struggle. “Its very depressing when youre in it and you dont know what youre doing, but then you look at it from the outside… . I want to be different than everybody else. Try to achieve something different. I wanted to make something with two people for an evening, but no matter where I perform or what venue I am very eager to give my best.”
Trained in classical ballet, Sher-Machherndl was a principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet and Bavarian State Ballet, he was also a member of the Nederlands Dance Theater, Salzburg Ballet and Scapino Ballet. He expressed a desire to explore classical ballet technique and “play around with it.”
“I try not to make any restrictions. It took me a long time to break loose. Its so engrained in me … classical ballet … you can do what you want, but its always in my head,” Sher-Manchherdl said.
That tension between perfection and chaos, between the engrained traditions and freedom to express with the body in ways that arent classifiable, to have a dancers toes be the focus of movement as they creep across a floor, or to hold a pose for what seems like a long time, to hop, to slide, to pull, and push, and walk, and run combined with arabesque, glissade, relevÃ© and pliÃ© is evident in Vertical Migration. The desire to be the best and the moments of insecurity when one feels less than good and the facade that one utilizes to hold it all together, keep it all contained seem to be thematic. One of my favorite parts of the pas de deux is when the pair appear to be vibrated across the stage. In the performance I saw at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the University of Denver, the theatre was a smaller black box space, where the audience was elevated above the stage and the dancers were so close you could almost reach out and touch them. The lighting during this particular section of the dance, formed grids across the floor. It was as if the music and lights were palpitating through the dancers bodies, which shook with tremors and pulsing arm gestures while a bluesy voice sang “Take my hand Lord all along this tears journey wont you take my hand.”
Not long after this, the dance ended as it began, with Sher-Manchherdl dragging Shoaf across the floor, her standing, attempting to climb over the obstacle of his body as he slips along the floor beneath her legs. This is repeated three times and then he drags her once more. He slips along the floor beneath her legs again, only this time he remained curled in a fetal position as she continued climbing, migrating to the back corner of the stage into the darkness. I left the theater feeling at once moved and perplexed. What had I just witnessed? What did it mean? Everything? Nothing? It pushed buttons. I felt uncomfortable, as if Sher-Macherndl had played puppet master pulling my strings, just as he lowered the outstretched arm of Shoaf during the dance, she would reach up he would walk in circles around her and lower her arm, this too was repeated over and over and at one point he even appears to pull her foot out from under her causing her to collapse. I had been manipulated, but I had been a willing party to that manipulation. It was sublime.
To catch a performance of Vertical Migration book a flight to Europe where Sher-Machherndl and Shoaf will perform in Helsinki and Vienna in 2011, or watch for possible dance festival appearances of Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet. It promises to be sweet, yet tangy.