“Are we starting?” asks one of the dancers moments after they traipse upon the darkened stage. And the company, in blackness, proceeds to debate this question with all the gravity and decisiveness of a customer in an ice cream shop — “I’ll have vanilla, please; no, wait, make it chocolate” — until, finally, the performers agree that starting the production seems like a pretty swell idea. After all, the show must go on.
Or must it?
The delightfully named Leave A Tone After The Message!!!, performed by Nancy Havlik’s Dance Performance Group, seems conflicted — or perhaps simply apathetic — on the matter. Early on, one dancer freely announces that some people say modern dance constitutes nothing more than a bunch of ciphers aimlessly trotting about the stage. Leave A Tone suggests that such castigation is largely beside the point. As the title implies, the tone transcends the message, and the beginning of the show may as well be its end.
The opening dance deftly reflects this sensibility. At times the performers read from index cards strewn about the stage and ring a cowbell to announce transitions and themes. At times they spin and fall down. At one point a dancer begins a movement by shouting, “Clear the decks!” The opening dance ends when the lights darken once again and someone asks, “Is that it?” Apparently so, the show answers, as though we’ve just noticed — without much concern — that we’re out of dessert.
Havlik’s choreography takes pleasure in oscillating between classical, formalized dances and disjointed, crowded movements deliberately aimed at flouting the solemn proprieties of traditional dance. In this respect, the performance displays an overt self-consciousness that, with a wink and a nod, wryly announces its contrarian intentions. The animated performances of the dancers just barely avoid crossing the line between the show’s folksy, self-referential spirit and groan-inducing cutesiness. But only barely.
Still, Leave A Tone succeeds as a slyly inventive and effervescent exercise in modern dance that entertains as much as it surprises. One bizarre highlight lies in the solo dance performed by Chris Dohse, which features an extended sequence in which he silently removes his pajama-like clothing — only to reveal that he is wearing at least four layers of the same type of outfit beneath them. He then proceeds to recite a few lines from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass that appear after the Knight’s melancholy song:
“Of course I’ll wait,” said Alice: “and thank you very much for coming so far — and for the song — I liked it very much.”
“I hope so,” the Knight said doubtfully: “but you didn’t cry so much as I thought you would.”
The scene is a touching, if rather unsubtle, metaphor for confronting life’s slings and arrows, which often defy objective categorization and lead to the subjective experiences embodied by (modern) dance. Of course, the Knight occupies an objective function and performs concrete tasks, but Alice need not limit herself and therefore need not cry. She, like the dancers, may travel to the wood and back. Or she may not. Either way works.
Choreography by Nancy Havlik in collaboration with the performers
Produced by Nancy Havlik’s Dance Performance Group
Reviewed by Tzvi Kahn