By Meg Weeks
Last Wednesday, I went to the Chocolate Factory Theater to see The Superseded Third, the work that choreographer Anna Sperber developed while in residence at Gibney as a Dance in Process artist this past winter. The piece, a tightly crafted duet performed by Sperber and the lithe Molly Lieber, was staged atop a sleek, gray wooden platform bookended by two walls of the same material. The long, narrow set, coupled with bright, focused lighting, evoked a runway at a fashion show, as Sperber chose to seat her audience on both sides looking inward at the performers. If the set was a runway, then the two dancers were most certainly models: stylishly attired in black fringe and leather and superhuman in their lack of eye contact with spectators seated only several feet away.
The piece consisted of long, mesmerizing phrases of unison movement in which grounded, traveling turns – the work’s strongest motif – were punctuated by slicing arm gestures and darting leaps that drove the dancers back and forth across the platform. The two women, very different dancers in both physicality and presence, did not seem to strive for absolute uniformity, but rather were able to subtly display their individualism against a backdrop of the simplest of all choreographic devices. The evenly paced choreography was rigorous yet understated and repetitive, and the work’s overall aesthetic sophistication simultaneously texturized and softened its compositional formalism. The dancers’ efforts were certainly legible throughout the 50-minute work, but they maintained tight control of both the physical and performative space, and put me at ease as a viewer. The two women were regal, powerful, and feminine, but not caricatured or affected. And despite the squarely abstract quality of the piece, nor were they dehumanized or stripped of agency.
The dancing was set to a sparse sound score, composed and performed by Nate Wooley and two live vocalists, all of whom were seated in the audience. While Wooley breathed through his trumpet and blew the occasional muted note, the singers whispered, whistled, and sang simple tones in harmony. For me, the most effective portions of the score were when the musicians didn’t make noise: the extended periods of silence in which all that could be heard was the labored breathing of the dancers and the satisfying sound of their feet pivoting on the wooden floor. Of the many collaborations between composers and choreographers, this one struck me as especially successful, in that its stylized restraint evidenced both good taste and good listening.
In reflecting on the performance, one question remained for me. What was the meaning of the piece’s title? In a recent interview, Sperber said that ‘the third’ of the title can refer to a number of different elements in the work. “There are a lot of thirds: the third space between Molly and I, the different energy we each generate and the collective energy between us, and the space that’s created between us and the viewer, which is clearly felt in the structure of the space,” she said to Lydia Mokdessi of Culturebot.org. In my experience, it’s true that meaningful relationships between two people often result in the emergence of a third entity that is distinct from both parties involved. Perhaps this is true in performance as well, although it’s difficult to detect such a nuanced, delicate concept after spending so little time in the presence of the performers. Yet I find her attempt to manifest this idea onstage interesting, and appreciate her light touch in leaving her viewers to interpret it in their own way.
My reading of the piece was well contextualized by the interview I conducted with Sperber in March for this blog. As a dance-maker myself, I greatly appreciate her commitment to source choreography from movement-based research, much of which starts with improvisation. The many hours logged preparing for The Superseded Third were evident to me while watching it, which I found greatly enhanced my experience as a viewer. I respect old-fashioned hard work, and I was proud that the space and staff at Gibney had a role in facilitating the hard work of this talented artist.