The good news about the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company?s latest show is that it contains some of the best dancing I have ever seen in San Francisco: Heidi Schweiker with her unfailing clarity of shape and intense doll face; Levi Toni with his broad-shouldered dignity; Deborah Miller with her long lines and gentle glamour. The whole company is firing on all pistons for the full 75 minutes of Jenkins? new ?A Slipping Glimpse,? ricocheting through the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum like electrons, phrasing every roll to the floor, every urgent leap into each others? arms. This is testament to Jenkins? kaleidoscopic inventiveness as much as the dancers? commitment. ?A Slipping Glimpse,? as longtime Jenkins fans will not be surprised to hear, is formally brilliant. It is also conceptually muddy. And for all the fine dancing on display, it begins to feel relentless.
The work?s title comes from Willem de Kooning, but the work?s key element, four guest dancers, come from Kolkata, India, where last year Jenkins traveled to work with the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company. These dancers use a contemporary amalgam of classical Indian styles, and Jenkins draws subtly and keenly on their vocabulary, the American dancers taking on flexed feet and delicately arrayed fingers while the Indian dancers sculpt their bodies into modern dance shapes. Jenkins is too sophisticated to offer this as an ?It?s a Small World? celebration. But just what ?A Slipping Glimpse? is saying, either politically or emotionally, is never clear.
Voluminous program notes talk of the work?s ?vertiginous moment in history, when it?s often difficult to tell on which side of the looking glass we?re standing?or dancing. Public, private, inside, outside?all such terms seem open to questioning and exploration.? Alexander V. Nichols? visual design plays on that outside/inside?and on the stunning work he did for Jenkins? 2004 ?Danger Orange.? This time the fractured stage is a huge red diamond, with seating on all four sides, and platforms at the corners and behind the audience.
Sometimes the Indian dancers are on the outside of the square; sometimes the American dancers are; usually it?s far more subtle. Too subtle, or layered with meanings accessible only to Jenkins and her collaborators. Poet Michael Palmer?s narrative interludes were stirring in their own right, but aided my interpretation of the dancing not one whit; evidently text from Eliot Weinberger?s essay ?What I Heard about Iraq? was used as choral fragments, but my ear failed to latch onto that. Paul Dresher?s live score gave the dancers swathes of sound, sometimes jazzy and sometimes rock-tinged, enhanced considerably by cellist Joan Jeanrenaud.
What Jenkins is trying to do is evoke timely political and emotional questions in a formalist framework, and it?s fascinating to consider why ?Danger Orange? succeeded so well at that and ?A Slipping Glimpse? does not. In ?Danger Orange? the conceptual hook (the country?s ?terror alert? system) was simple; the movement imagery (militaristic crawls, violently clutched throats), clear. With those concrete elements set, our minds felt free to wander and make associations. In ?A Slipping Glimpse,? we?re never given the ground rules. Everything remains abstract.
?A Slipping Glimpse? starts with an outdoor prelude in the Yerba Buena Gardens. The night I attended, last Friday, the grass was too wet for the dancers? safety and the prelude was omitted. Perhaps it is the key to everything. I sort of doubt it. Whether it unlocks the work for you or not, the current company should not be missed. Jenkins? dancers are more fierce, while the Indian dancers?Debjit Burman, Jaydip Guha, Rahmi Karmakar, and Sulagna Sarkar?are more fleet. They mingle well. ?A Slipping Glimpse? continues tonight (Wednesday) through Saturday; for info, click here.