John Malashock with his new multi-dimensional concert piece, THE FLOATING WORLD, shows just what an ambitious, small, contemporary company with lots of imagination is capable of when it comes to creating new works for dance. The hour-long choreography tells the story of a dance company on tour. Much of the story telling is quite literal. The thirteen scenes have tiles such as On The Street (the company goofs on being loose in a big city before a concert) or In Transit (the dancers are cooped up on a long plane trip) or Rehearsal ( the idiosyncrasies of dancers stretching while hooked up to their ipods). Malashock knows that perhaps this quasi story in dance alone is not going to be enough to carry the evening so here is where he has enlisted the aid of his collaborators who give us vibrant music, thrilling video projections, clever staging in the round and an abundance of technical effects that reverberate to make a production that gains power by being much more than the obvious sums of its parts.

The concept riffs effectively on the world of Edo Era Japanese wood block prints. The pretext, if you care to see for yourself, is on display in a museum exhibition titled Dreams and Diversions which covers the floating world of print making. The prints themselves were meant to depict everyday moments and pleasures of middle class life, as well as celebrate landscapes and actors from the world of classical Japanese theater. In that sense the connection to dancers in Malashock's scenario is a good one. The prints were meant to be looked at and handled close up; they existed in folios stored in chests where they would be periodically appreciated, and then put away. This becomes good way of looking at the brief vignettes that comprise THE FLOATING WORLD. We see briefly each moment before it dissolves and is replaced by a new scene. In this sense there is no actual story with characters but rather a wash of segments that give you a vivid impression of events. One of the famed series of prints by Hokusai depicts thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji. Titled in this fashion, THE FLOATING WORLD could well have become Thirteen Views of Malashock Dance On Tour.

John Malashock [...] shows just what an ambitious, small, contemporary company with lots of imagination is capable of when it comes to creating new works for dance.

Malashock has taken the seating area of the auditorium and turned it into a striking theater in the round, bounded on four sides with video scenes that stretch the width and breath of the stage. The limited seating is comprised of two rows of seating per side. You feel contained in a well-crafted three dimensional environment but one where the dancers are always close at hand. The changing projections play on the four screens simultaneously. You can pick up different images as you follow the dancers in their movements through the space. The images are actually cribbed sections of actual prints fashioned into moving collages. In one section there is a very clever moving cartoon-like depiction of the cabin windows of an airplane viewed from inside. If you look hard at the prints you can identify the ones that have been used: a particular landscape, a railing surrounding a porch, a storm, the beam from a street lamp. The video artist Tara Knight has done a brilliant job isolating striking visual images and recycling them to comment on the action on the dance floor.

Also excellent is the sound score which features music by the avant-garde cellist Zoë Keating. Her compositions for cello and layered electronic sampling provide the basis for most of THE FLOATING WORLD score.  Other music by Duncan Malashock, Anna Calvi and Fauré have been fitted to the sections titled On the Street and In the Clubs , The Hook Up, and After The Show. In an ideal world the music could have been all Keating and provided a unity of source. She has been successful with music for dance companies both here and in Europe. I liked scale of Keating’s music and the way it fits the small scenes and the intimate ensemble.

Malashock has highlighted his choreography with humor. The section on the plane (In Transit) where the company is involved in a certain amount of acrobatic high jinks as they travel, Warm Up, and The Reception all come packaged with clever laughs. But there is also Alone in a Room, danced by Michael Mizerany as the company director which touches poignantly on the plight of the aging dancer contemplating lost prowess and the isolation of being in charge. THE FLOATING WORLD begins and ends with something that looks like a performance before sliding into behind the scenes commentary. In the opening section We Insist, the dancers are introduced in pairs with dance phrases that repeat, canon fashion. The same movement comes back in the final Reprise but this time as a unison statement of the same material. The six dancers balance equal amounts of acting and dance, some of it lyrical and some of it laced with brutality and athleticism. Blythe Barton and Christine Marshall were standouts for their technical abilities as was James Healey.

Malashock Dance performers
Photo: Manuel Rotenberg

The costuming by Zandra Rhodes brought the print world to life on patterned tights and tops that evoked the ease of the kimono. They were cleverly fashioned and were recycled in slightly different versions. The other standard attire, jeans and tee shirts prevailed convincingly in the off stage sequences. The jeans were even stenciled with floating world in imitation of the vertical cartouche panels that appear on the prints themselves. The very complex show ran on Saturday with no hitches and felt already, on the second day of performances, like a well crafted spectacle in miniature.

The programs continue this coming weekend and next at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. The prints for Dreams and Diversions are on view through June 5th.

(Saturday April 9, 2011 at The James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art)

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