A dancer strides into the space barefoot, wearing a green tunic with large harlequins cut out of the fabric (with neutral undergarments, of course, for modesty and decorum). A cellist, Liz Lee, begins Ethan Greene’s Aerial Ballet and dancer Beth Terwilleger moves in front of a large, nonlinear hemorrhage of paint. Her movements are tight and sudden, matching the music and becoming a visual embodiment of it. As the work progresses, the cello slides out of a high, strained disorder into a solid note of clarity that opens the dancer’s body up in response. When the piece is over we clap and follow the choreographer, Michelle Thompson, to the next performance space.
We're here for SoundSpace, a collaboration between Ballet Austin and Steven Parker, a doctoral candidate at the Butler School of Music. As the last of our ranks assemble, before the first piece begins, numerous sponsors and supporters are thanked. Then Parker comes out, barefoot, looking a little like a freaky peacenik, but with a curriculum vitae like a horse pill and an affable humility.
I move through the audience like a shark, trying to get a good spot to take pictures from. I want to spend the entire show behind the camera because bodies in motion are inherently interesting, but I don’t want to miss the performance.
In the next space we are separated from Magdalena Jarkowiec, who designed the costumes for the show, and the violinist by a circular stone island. Behind them is an office whose back wall looks like an abbreviated test pattern: yellow, blue, green, with a woman sitting at her desk watching the performance. The violinist, Molly Emerman, begins Sonata No. 1 in G Minor by Bach. At the end of each movement Jarkowiec is on the floor, motionless, until the music begins again. At one point she runs around the stone island, passing closer to us than she had been for the entire performance, and it changes the entire dynamic of the space. The applause for this section is sustained and heavy — it is a triumph.
Next, we move into a room that contains one piece of art: a square light fixture that resembles row upon row of calla lilys hanging upside down, with black, diaphanous fabric handing off each side, surrounding a pit filled with shiny pennies and a pole in the center. Inside the mesh are two flautists, playing W.F. Bach’s Duet No. 1 in E Minor. As the movements wear on, Lisa del Rosario breaches the mesh and kneels down, the chatter of coins letting us know she's interacting with the art. I'm scandalized. Everyone knows you can’t touch art. Nevertheless, I spend most of this performance thinking about Ducktails, and Scrooge McDuck’s giant piles of money he enjoys swimming through because HE IS THE 1%, before realizing that pit is probably shallow as hell and pennies probably aren’t fun to jump into anyway.
The last piece is dual effort between Terwilleger and Emily McLaughlin, accompanied by Parker, utilizing the two arches of the Huntington gallery. After the first movement Parker puts a mute on his trombone that allows him, at turns, to blow sad elegiac notes straight out of the jazz age and low rumbling ones reminiscent of a didgeridoo. In the last moments of the piece the dancers convene in a archway to move around and against one another in fluid motion. When it ends, everyone steps forward in turn to take their bows and we filter out into the lobby.
Even though it was a pain to leave the house before noon on a Sunday, attending SoundSpace was a rare opportunity to witness something unique — each piece was a reminder of the joy of perfomative art, of witnessing something that will never occur again in exactly the same way. I find things like this to be a way to recalibrate my attention span and my sense of what is “worthy” to spend time absorbing, a sublime mental penance for all the television I watch, and the Internet trash journalism I read and the extent to which I think the stars are Just Like Us. I will most certainly be at Parker’s next show in the spring, to immerse myself again in something that is one of a kind.