As a single floor light glared across a broad square of black mat, dancer Bobbi Jene Smith unceremoniously undressed, leaving her dress atop a neat stack of sandbags—the only feature at the corner of an empty set—and indifferently crossed the square, naked. The scene inaugurated the first “Run AMOC!” Festival presented by the American Repertory Theater with the newly-founded American Modern Opera Company on Friday at Harvard Dance Center.
To the whine of violinist Keir GoGwilt’s creeping drone—James Tenney’s 1971 Koan—Smith turned from the audience and melted down into limbless torso, angled improbably to the ground like a giant muscle on edge. She crisscrossed the mat in a constellation of distinct forms, each developing with the same unhurried precision of the first, equally heroic and mundane. At a cultural moment where women’s bodies are so politicized—fiercely projecting both power and vulnerability amid a reckoning of sexual harassment and assault—it was startling unassuming.
“A Study on Effort” sustained an exploration of form that often eschewed politics and identity, with depictions of masturbation, fertility, and ‘hands-up’ surrender. The work, conceived by Smith in collaboration with GoGwilt, split into seven vignettes or “efforts,” ranging from frenetic to serene with simple lighting and music spanning three centuries.
The infinite melody of Koan (named for a paradoxical anecdote used in Zen Buddhism) and GoGwilt’s snail-like perambulation of the mat in “Missing” began what felt like an endlessly patient study of each form, each repeated gesture. Although the entire program ran less than an hour, there seemed abundant time to understand the mechanics and meaning of each, as if the audience were a group of art students practicing from the same still life. In “Missing,” one contemplated muscles shaking in the struggle to push a heavy (in this case, imaginary) object. In “Pleasure,” repetitively lifting such an object (canvas bags of sand). In “Surrender,” holding arms above the head. In “Lifting,” the flailing of arms. Only in the first and last of the vignettes did Smith appear nude.
A series of several hundred questions in the program about both the physical—“when my right arm prepares to lift what happens to the rest of the body?”—and the philosophical— “does our pleasure survive us?”—gave a roadmap to think about each of the efforts. (That said, it was too dark to read during the performance.)
As the show progressed, the gestures grew more complex. In the fourth vignette, “Drawing a Line,” GoGwilt played Bach while shakily treading a line down the center of the mat, heal-to-toe. Directly behind, Smith poured a line of sand in his wake, the dust pluming out around their blackened silhouettes in the harsh light. There, GoGwilt’s playing felt more studied than performed with the questioning voice of one still seeking the hidden logic of the first partita. It often seemed as if the body had been the form and the music, the interpreter, the student, the critic.
But in “Pleasure,” the next scene, GoGwilt stood at the very front of the stage in a kind of upstaged recital as he played Johann Paul von Westhoff’s Suite in D Minor (1696). Behind him, Smith trudged from one side of the mat to the other with heavy footsteps as she flung sand bags into a loose pile, again scenting the air with sand as the dust rose. Roles reversed, the violinist remained unaffected by the tumult behind him, playing the Westoff with far greater clarity and emphasis on musical form than with the Bach. Smith, now embodying the role of interpreter, mounted the last of the canvas sacks, and, gradually, feigned orgasm.
Even so, “A Study on Effort” carefully avoided the humanness of its two performers. The feeling was so clinical, so academic that even as GoGwilt violently stabbed and parried with his bow in “Surrender,” occasionally striking the violin in a way that made instrumentalists gasp, the effect was not one of violence. What stood out instead was the contrast of motion (the bow) and non-motion (Smith’s hands up in a gesture of surrender that has featured in protests against police brutality).
Smith, a disciple of Ohad Naharin’s Gaga style of dance, created forms that often seemed abstracted from the human body. In the supercharged tempo of movement in “Not Knowing,” the penultimate piece, Smith’s body traced shapes in the air with beautiful, impersonal precision. The path of the motion superseded the body itself.
But just as we reveled in a world of abstract forms, the human body confronted us again as human in the final piece, “Taking Care.” The performers sat side-by-side in the dim light. Their soft harmony singing wove through the gentle chords of Malcom Goldstein’s “Gentle Rain Preceding Mushrooms,” Smith slowly laying back, eyes closing as if to sleep. And as the light slowly dimmed on her bare body, a small tree held to her chest, humanity flooded achingly back.
Question 321 in the program: “did we only just learn to use our voices?”
Lucas Phillips is a bassist, journalist, and composer whose work can be found in the Boston Globe and with his trio, the LP Ternary.