What does it mean to care about someone, and still let them go?
Dearly Departures, an hour-long meditation on leaving and loss choreographed by Blake Beckham, explored what people often experience at moments of separation.
It was fitting that Beckham’s work — shown last weekend and appearing again this weekend at Georgia Tech’s DramaTech Theater — felt like a long, complicated, lingering exploration of the moment when friends say good-bye.
The contemporary dance piece reflects real-life departures for two of the city’s most visible and finely attuned contemporary dancers, both former members of CORE Performance Company. Alex Abarca will soon leave to pursue an MFA in dance at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; Alisa Mittin will pursue professional opportunities in Houston, Texas. Along with dancer Claire Molla, they helped realize Beckham’s previous work, Threshold.
Partings like Mittin’s and Abarca’s are not unusual for Atlanta’s dance community. As a regional dance hub, it is a given fact that people will come and go.
Some seek other vistas — usually with better pay, professional mobility or a larger community of like-minded artists. Others, such as Beckham and Malina Rodriguez, cofounders of the Lucky Penny, stay and put down roots. Their presenting organization focuses on an often-overlooked set of artists: emerging independent experimental choreographers in Atlanta and similar cities. They also present more seasoned artists, such as last year’s The Library at Night by Nicole Livieratos and Philip DePoy. This mission fits nicely with the goals of Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s SEED grant program, a major backer for this production.
Beckham’s previous major works, the site-specific PLOT and Threshold, set in a magnificent cardboard-house stage setting, helped the fledgling organization gain attention and credibility. Now, with the Rauschenberg Foundation behind them, they are leaning toward networking and touring. To do this, Beckham conceived Dearly with simpler, more portable set pieces. They seem equipped for the road. The question is whether or not the brand-new work is ready for audiences in other cities.
Though its set is scaled down, Dearly is a step forward for Beckham. The display board, built by a team led by Myron Lo, offers endless possibilities for Beckham to explore relationships between movement and text. And now, less dependent on elaborate scenery, her vocabulary is smartly developed — softer, understated and seemingly more authentic. But the work’s even-keeled, episodic structure left this viewer wishing for some kind of high point — some envelope to be pushed, some physical or emotional peak not yet discovered. When Beckham finds it, chances are that Dearly will be ready to depart.
The set was simple — all black inside a black-box theater. The split flap display hung overhead. In two long rows were 64 backlit rectangles — each rectangular box contained a Rolodex-style rack of cards that opened to reveal letters, numbers and other symbols.
A bench, fashioned like a luggage carousel, thrust diagonally along the stage’s edge on the audience right; on the opposite side of the stage stood a 1980s-era glass and stainless steel phone booth. Costumes were neutral — mostly shades of dark blue, with men in what looked like sleeveless pajama tops and women in camisole bodices and pants.
Mittin began the piece alone beneath the sign, a striking profile with dark brown bobbed hair. Her suppleness, subtle body control and focused intensity make her dancing fascinating to watch. She thrust one arm forward, then sliced the other across the empty space in front of her. Her hands glided up the sides of her face.
Curving and turning, she arrived at a bent-legged stance, her torso folded to one side. Letters and numbers flashed overhead, clicking and whirring like inner mechanism of her mind.
Dancers stood in a vertical line, arms extended horizontally forward. Their palms rotated like flapping cards. Letters whirled, arriving at some unintelligible code. Paul Kayhart’s electronic score sounded with white-noise tones that gradually rose and fell like planes taking off or trains whooshing by.
Dancers moved in and out of pairs, trios or one against four. Their bodies curled into curvilinear pathways, coiling, diving into pitch turns. Their arms swept through arcs that seemed to wrap around invisible volumes in the space and often arrived around another’s body in a soft embrace.
There seemed a need to connect, as words above read, “HELLO . . . ARE YOU THERE?” Then rang the sound of a coin passing through metal mechanisms of a pay phone. An old, familiar phone recording, “This call cannot be completed as dialed,” suggested an inability to connect.
Groups interchanged, exchanging support within a choreographed web of swirls and eddies.
At one moment, Mittin came face to face with Molla, who wrapped her arms around Mittin’s waist. As in her solo, Mittin thrust an arm forward, as if reaching past Molla.
As the sign read, “LET ME LET YOU GO,” Mitten sliced her other arm across the space in front of her as if to push Molla away. Later, Mittin finally responded to Molla with a heartfelt embrace; but at that point, Molla turned away, unable to reciprocate. Words read, “WE GO ON AND ON AND ON.”
In a closing duet, Abarca spun around, arriving in a bent-legged position, his torso folded to one side, with a hand over his heart. Thurmond turned and arrived behind him. Thurmond gently removed Abarca’s hand, then replaced his own over Abarca’s heart. The pair repeated this with different gestures — hands gliding up the sides of the face; a hand on the upper back. It seemed the two would always remain connected through a sense of caring, even when out of touch.
Dearly Departures is a personal work for these artists and many members of the community. Anyone who has enjoyed Mittin’s and Abarca’s performances in Atlanta should see them before they go. Let’s hope these two beloved adventurers will ultimately connect Atlanta artists with more people in more places, and drive the local dance scene’s growth ever forward.