Hearts on fire 

Headwaters' cutting-edge dancers put love to the test

It wasn't until watching dancers Brian Gerke and Steinunn Ketilsdóttir perform recently that I realized how under-utilized some parts of the body often are in modern dance. The mouth, for example. I can't think of another dance performance I've seen that uses the mouth not just as a vehicle for emotional expressiona smile, a frownbut as an integral, malleable body part to be stretched, prodded, and put on display. At one point the duo locked mouths, jaws wide, breathing frantically back and forth. The audience was forced to wonder about oxygen deprivation, and how long two people can fill one another's lungs with carbon monoxide before collapsing on the floor.

The dancers seem to thrive on this brand of creativity; stretching the expected limits of dance, and placing the audience in a position that's maybe a little uncomfortable, but provocative nonetheless. Ketilsdóttir wads up a piece of clothing, stuffs it up her shirt, and asks a series of questions about her baby ("What if nobody likes my baby? What if my baby is too long? What if it's too short?") the audience chuckles and nods. When, seconds later, Gerke chases her, kicks her in the stomach and she lets her "belly" drop to the floor, the audience gasps in real shock. Ketilsdóttir's subsequent screaming and accusations roar around the space, and the viewers writhe in their seats.

click to enlarge Headwaters Dance Co.’s concert Meditations on Love, features Steinunn Ketilsdóttir, top, and Amy Ragsdale. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Headwaters Dance Co.’s concert Meditations on Love, features Steinunn Ketilsdóttir, top, and Amy Ragsdale.

This weekend, the innovative duo performs with several other dancers in Meditations on Love, a concert for Headwaters Dance Co.'s annual gala. Or, usually annual. Headwaters performed its place-based concert Montana Suites in 2010, and then artistic director Amy Ragsdale took a year-long hiatus, which makes the professional company's return all the more sweet. This year's concert is a series of duets based on the theme of "love,"be it romantic, parental, or love of an activity, such as dance. Ragsdale collaborated with dancers to choreograph four pieces, including one called "...and then they're 18" and another, "She's solong!" UM dance professor Nicole Bradley Browning is the choreographer of a piece involving white hoop skirts, called "Listen." Finally, Gerke and Ketilsdóttir, whose Icelandic dance company is called "Steinunn and Brian," will perform the first of a trilogy, Crazy in Love with Mr. Perfect, which has only been performed once before in the United States. Exploring the idea of a "right" partner, it wonders if this person exists, and if so, why is he/she so hard to find? The duo's cutting-edge style and rave reviews makes the Missoula performance a highly anticipated event.

Gerke is a Missoula native, graduate of UM's dance program, and a company member of Headwaters. Ketilsdóttir was born and raised in Iceland, and came to the U.S. to study dance at CUNY Hunter College in New York. It was at Hunter that they first met in 2004, when Brian spent a semester there. Serendipitously their paths crossed several times in the dance world after this, and, recognizing their creative synchronicity, Gerke joined her in Iceland in 2007 where they formed their company. Since then they've created a trio of works exploring the treacherous terrain of love, relationships and sex. These are common themes on which to build dances, but Ketilsdóttir and Gerke stress that what really sets their work apart is its autobiographical nature and its attendant intimacy.

True though this may be, I think this is only one attribute of several that distinguish their work in the field. Above all, this is smart dance that is not only aesthetically fascinating but conceptually intriguing as well. The pair makes successful and perceptive social commentary not just through the vehicle of dance, but about dance too. At times sarcastic, humorous, and poignant, the two of them integrate conversation, sound and the theatrical well.

At one point during their hour-long show Steinunn and Brian DO Art: How to Be Original (which was shown last weekend, but will not be shown this coming weekend), they perform a "brainstorming" session of sorts. Gerke dances center-stage, experimenting with new movement sequences, while Ketilsdóttir stands on the sidelines, nixing each attempt. "No," she says, over and over. When his movement resembles that of another choreographer, she calls him on it. "Trisha Brown? No. No Trisha," and then later, "Gaga? No Gaga." Finally frustration takes over, and he stands, fingers pressed to the bridge of his nose, a portrait of defeat. She latches onto the gesture, tells him it's the most brilliant thing she has seen.

If the sequence ended here, it would be clevera bit slapstick, but clever. But the sequence doesn't end, and the two of them tumble into a wild physical and verbal dialogue about authenticity, beauty, truth, expression and a series of "don't" and "just" statements: "Don't apologize." "Don't stop." "Just be pretty." "Just make art." In writing, this sounds borderline-sentimental, overly earnest. Translated to the body, however, it's hard-driving, frantic, raw and gets to the heart of the chaotic balance of the creative process with all its self-doubt, self-indulgence, collaboration and critics' demands.

With simple costumes and only sporadic music, the performance insists that the audience be present, to focus entirely on the dancers and each aspect of the dancenot simply the movement, but the words, the subtle shifts in mood, the questions raised, the contact between dancers and the relationship between dancer and audience. At moments tender, at others violent, their work is irresistible in its fearlessness.

Headwaters Dance Co. presents Meditations on Love at the MCT Center for Performing Arts Thu., Feb. 23, through Sat., Feb. 25, at 7:30 PM nightly, with a 2 PM matinee Sat. $15 general/$10 students and seniors. $40 patron tickets include the Friday night show plus a post-performance party in the lobby with food and drink. For online tickets go to griztix.com.

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