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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Dance : Jenkins Co. Breaches ‘The Gates’

TIMES DANCE WRITER

Although created in 1993, Margaret Jenkins’ imposing, plotless dance-spectacle “The Gates” embodies all the features of deluxe Reagan/Bush-era collaborations--including the mission of court art to be primarily a display of magnificence.

Introduced locally on Saturday in Thorne Hall, Occidental College, this monument to Jenkins’ 20th anniversary season in the Bay Area offered secure, dedicated dancing by the seven members of her company, an inspired score by Paul Dresher, a striking panoramic set by Alexander V. Nichols, plus atmospheric texts by poets Michael Palmer and Rinde Eckert.

With “choreographic direction” credited to Jenkins and dancer Ellie Klopp, “The Gates” spent nearly 90 minutes investigating what one might call the outsider sensibility. Most of the texts involved responses to exotic locales, but even when a place proved familiar to the writers, their descriptions highlighted alienating sights or experiences.

This estrangement from events and other people prompted Palmer and Eckert to focus on self-inspection--a process physicalized in the central choreographic image of the work. Spotlighted in the opening ensemble and later reiterated, it showed a woman ignoring the tumult around her to intently touch her own groin, waist, chest, neck and head. Over and over.

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Fortunately, the spectacle of people obsessively analyzing their own reactions proved only one component of “The Gates.” Elsewhere, one could admire the surging group movement that almost always terminated in heroic sculptural friezes. In these ensembles, Jenkins emphasized shared energies and rhythms but left the patterning free and open. This approach again physicalized a key concept: showing the qualities of community that might create an ideal city.

Punctuated with pyramid pylons, Nichols’ airy, three-sided set represented a never-never land free from congestion, pollution or mean streets. Scarcely “the state of things.” Ancient Ankor Thom or contemporary Udiapur might come close to this seductive illusion. Even there, however, Jenkins and her poets might not find enough ivory towers--since room for artists to publicly display their sensitivity seemed to count as much as physical splendor in their priorities.

Health care for citizens of the ideal city? Gun control? Racial harmony? Somehow, Jenkins bypassed those gates, only distantly touching on the reasons cities become uninhabitable, en route to more comfortable perspectives.

Splendidly crafted and executed, “The Gates” boasted genuine urgency only when it abandoned navel-gazing and fantasy sociology to embrace the imperatives in Dresher’s passionate music: a survey of contemporary styles realized with spectacular flair.

In a recorded performance by his ensemble, Dresher took the listener through the gates of rock ‘n’ roll, of minimalism, of chamber music virtuosity, of tonal washes, of manipulated sound effects and more until he made this whole, strangely remote project sound like a celebration of artistic diversity in the here and now. Who needs Angkor Thom with such vistas as these?


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