To the novice eye, modern dance can often come across as abstract mishmash—thickly veiled movement so detached from linear meaning that it appears to purposely discourage understanding. It’s an art form that’s easy to “not get,” as movements don’t always narrate like words.
But what’s often overlooked in the exchange between dancer and viewer is the basic appreciation of movement—sometimes it’s just fun to watch rather than decipher greater meaning. Take, for instance, this weekend’s performance of An Arm and A Leg and its opening piece, “Water Lilies.” The duet was choreographed by Sara Pfeifle with the motivation that it could be the last time she dances with her longtime friend Laura Davis, and its title comes from Pfeifle’s notion that the dance looked like lilies floating in water—but the piece is not necessarily about separation, and it doesn’t purport to mimic lilies. In the end, the duet is as simple as two talented artists moving in harmony.
“There’s an honesty to it that came naturally as we started working on it,” says Pfeifle, who is moving from Missoula in the fall.
“Water Lilies” revolves around mirrored movements fracturing up and down from the floor, and to and from the dancer’s bodies. Pfeifle’s choreography captures a sense of momentum between her and Davis, where slight touches ricochet into long, arching phrases. At one point, the dancers fall into a canon—where Davis follows Pfeifle’s dance a moment behind her, like an echo—allowing each a chance at individuality within a tightly woven duet. Interestingly, amongst all the effortless action between the two—set to Vivaldi’s “Adante,” performed by Yo Yo Ma and Bobbie McFerrin—it’s the dancers’ brief pause, huddled in the center of the stage, that provides the piece’s climactic tension, and a chance for viewer and dancer to catch their breath.
“We’ve known each other since we were five,” says Davis, a current dance major at the University of Montana. “With Sara leaving soon, neither one of us is ready to accept that this may be our last performance, and I think that comes through in the piece. There’s an appreciation of the moment.”
An Arm and A Leg, which includes seven original pieces choreographed and performed by eight local dancers, is a self-produced concert unaffiliated with UM or any dance company. To help fill the doldrums of summer, Pfeifle, a former professional dancer with MoTrans Dance Company (now called Headwaters), had the idea that before she and some other recent UM graduates moved on to pursue dance careers in other cities, they should perform together one last time. The group rented the Union Hall, a marlay floor and a lighting system, purchased production materials, and created their own promotional posters. Their personal investment—a riskier endeavor for a dance concert as opposed to, say, a more familiar rock show—carries over to the introspective and charged movement.
A quartet choreographed by Kasi Grzebielski and featuring herself, Davis, Charissa Oman and Leah Samson focuses on themes of being unwanted and taps into Grzebielski’s own adoption. Titled “Hills Like White Elephants,” it’s loosely based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name and has the group producing a series of solos, duets and trios within the dance. A swirling quintet by Avril Stevenson called “Translations” includes Davis, Grzebielski, Samson, Stevenson and Kate Swan in motion to an original laptop composition by local DJ Alistair McKenzie. The first act will end with an improvisation from all eight dancers, including eunyungkim and Amy Kelley.
“There was a willingness between us to really experiment together,” says Stevenson, who is heading to San Francisco in the fall. “All of us are pursuing our degrees and trying to make a career of this, so to work in this sort of comfortable and creative environment is really inspiring.”
In promoting the show on their own, the dancers encountered firsthand some of the bias the general public holds against modern dance. Without any established institution or sponsor backing the concert, they were met with skepticism by some local businesses unwilling to hang their posters and others not interested in taking their flyers.
“I think a lot of it is not knowing about dance,” says Pfeifle. “There’s a cautiousness and intimidation about going to see something that they may not be familiar with. It’s a lot easier to just watch a movie than to see something like this.”
Adds Kelley: “It doesn’t help that there isn’t anything dance-related happening in the summer. In general, Missoula is lacking when it comes to dance—there are a few opportunities during the year, but nothing [sustained] like the visual arts and First Fridays or the nightly music scene. It’s a struggle.”
Considering the inherent hurdles of producing a modern dance concert, the dancers are measuring the show’s success in a variety of ways. Stevenson hopes to cover expenses. Kelley is aiming to attract a crowd that might not normally attend modern dance. Pfeifle is just focusing on making sure it all happens.
As for Davis, she says, “It’s already a success for me. I’m getting the opportunity to dance with my friends. It doesn’t have to be much more than that.”
An Arm and A Leg will be performed at the Union Hall Friday, July 22, at 8 PM, and Saturday, July 23, at 2 and 8 PM Tickets are $7.