Molly Heller Broadens the Definition of Dance in "very vary"

30 November 2017 Published in News and Announcements
Molly Heller Broadens the Definition of Dance in "very vary" Photo credit: Duhaime Movement Project

Sometimes the word “dancing” seems insufficient. There are so many types of dance, and ways of dancing these types, that I wish there were more options for describing what we do when we move our bodies.

I was thinking about how expansive and capacious dancing can be when I watched a run-through of Molly Heller’s new work, very vary, at the School of Dance. This is not the kind of dancing that lends itself to competitions or scores. It’s not the kind of dancing that tries to impress people with superhuman leaps or turns. Rather, very vary is like a journey through memories and dreams presented by six performers who are accompanied by Michael Wall’s luscious score. The dancers are Florian Alberge, Nick Blaylock, and Marissa Mooney, and, courtesy of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Yebel Gallegos, Mary Lyn Graves, and Melissa Younker. Visual artist Gretchen Reynolds collaborated with Heller, and Kate Thomas designed the program for the performance. Heller has described the project as a “pop-up book of performers' remembered and imagined lives,” and each scene feels like an animated page of a fairy-tale.

This weekend Heller will be in the Bay Area to present this performance at the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center on December 2 and 3. California seems like a fitting place for a piece that foregrounds interconnectedness and multi-modal forms of communication.

Watching very vary felt like swimming in a glistening lake where I was buoyed by the ebb and flow of emotions, sometimes angry, sometimes vulnerable. I was momentarily transported into feelings and interactions that were both relatable and fantastical. The dancers’ states of being seemed to transmit themselves into my body during the hour-long performance.

Fundamentally, very vary challenges a definition of dancing as performing shapes or phrases with our bodies. It seems far more concerned with how our internal lives can be made visible through honest and rigorous exploration. In this way Heller’s work reminds me of theorist Erin Manning who write in Politics of Touch, “The challenge when working with the senses is to not presuppose that we already know what it means to sense.” Like the world Heller creates in very vary, Manning’s concept of our bodies in time and space is a relational one. Manning writes, “space and time are qualitatively transformed by the movements of the body. The body does not move into space and time, it creates space and time: there is no space and time before movement.”

Movement vocabularies created by the cast of very vary are distinct, highlighting the singularity of individual artists rather than sublimating their differences. One of dancers in the project, Melissa Younker describes the feelings that emerge as she performs the piece, “It’s a demanding physical state that has surprising outcomes: does the body take over, does something release, does something bind, does the mind wander, does the task change without you knowing, how does the exhaustion change you, what is left? …In very vary we tap into our child, current, and imagined selves in a layered and nonlinear way. For me, many of the things I fear about myself are also the things that I find power in. My fears and hopes are tangled… Molly allows for the dancers to be true to where we are in the work. Never recreating. This makes every moment an opportunity to know where you are or find it in the process. Also, to allow yourself (forgive yourself) to be a fluctuating person.”

The performance not only offers these moments of transformation to its cast, but also allows audiences to notice how our perspectives are shaped by our experiences and values: our bodies are both containers and filters through which we hold and access these ways of seeing/feeling. Heller’s exquisite attention to the expressivity of movement, meaning her ability to draw out and shape these feelings in combination with the cast’s wholehearted investment, makes very vary an unforgettable experience that broadens our definitions of “dance.”

By School of Dance Assistant Professor Kate Mattingly