The Human Hand Inspires Innovative Dance Work

by Jean Schiffman

Garrett + Moulton present a collaborative work that explores the infinite power and eloquence of the human hand; performed free at the Jewish Community Center this month.

On a late August afternoon in a studio at ODC, six dancers and a string quartet--all performers in Garrett + Moulton Productions' new piece, "A Show of Hands"--are rehearsing together for the first time. As the musicians play, the dancers lift them into the air one by one, remove their instruments (two violins, a viola and a cello) and lower them gently to the floor, where they lie, supine.

Janice Garrett, an award-winning, internationally active choreographer and dance educator, stands in the playing area, directing the action. Her partner, Charles Moulton--a Guggenheim Award winner who began his career dancing with Merce Cunningham's company and went on to dance and choreograph for many companies worldwide--sits on the sidelines, watching intently. So does composer Dan Becker, who teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and runs his own nonprofit, the Common Sense Composers' Collective. "Musicians, yield for the dancers," Garrett says. "It's like you're going to sleep. The dancers will support you. You don't have to do anything."

As the violist is lifted, she lies on the back of one hunched-over dancer and continues to play, while another dancer holds her legs; they walk in a slow and stately manner, as if in a funeral procession. Moulton steps forward, rests his hand lightly on Garrett's waist, considers the violist's slightly askew position. "We need her center of gravity to be higher," he tells the dancers. "We need to stabilize her." The lifting and laying out ritual, musician by musician, looks strange yet respectful; dreamlike. The exercise over, Garrett says, "Good. Food for thought," and they move on to a sequence in which the dancers swirl, twirl and weave amongst the musicians, who stand apart from one another, playing a piece that's high-energy, almost frenzied.

After rehearsal, Garrett and Moulton sit down to discuss this latest collaboration, which opens at the Jewish Community Center this month in free daytime performances in the building's central, high-ceilinged atrium.

For Moulton, the seeds for this project--an exploration of the infinite power and eloquence of the human hand--were planted 13 years ago when he finished his career as a dancer while continuing as a choreographer. At that time, he decided to teach himself to draw. Two years ago he began drawing the human hand, one of the most difficult parts of the human body to draw; he thought if he could draw that, he could draw anything. "They're incredibly expressive," he says. "There's a combination of cartilage, bone, ligament, muscle, and the hand has 360-degree capability. You can do anything with a hand and a hand can do anything." The hand, he avers, connects us to our essential humanness in many ways.

When he told Garrett that he intended to make 150 hand drawings, she said, "Then I'm going to make a dance about hands."

Working with dancer/choreographer Christian Burns as his model, Moulton photographed a variety of carefully composed hand positions and made soft pastel drawings of the photos; blow-ups of a group of these drawings provide a backdrop/installation for the dance performance.

Says Moulton, "This idea for a show came together around the dynamic and emotional and spiritual quality of the human hand. It seems like an endless subject in many ways.…The very, very subtle inclination of a hand will completely change the meaning of a gesture. It's all unconscious. As choreographers, we are speaking in a preliterate vocabulary, an animal vocabulary. The way bodies speak to bodies is something Janice and I are very interested in."

For her part, Garrett notes that their company frequently creates work about people making connections with one another--or not. And we often connect physically through our hands, at least initially, she points out.

Not that "A Show of Hands" involves only, or even mainly, hands. Rather, hands are the springboard; ultimately the whole body is involved--"a whole range of energies and modalities." Within the 40-minute piece are different "chapters," some highly gestural, others with minimal gesture, which carry the choreography in different directions--"an expansion from the hands into a broader physicality," says Garrett. And certainly the concept of healing, of the therapeutic touch, is part of the choreography. "It's not a story per se, more a series of studies about the different facets of touch and hands working in the world," she adds, "studies of different states and qualities

of expression."

To provide an original, live score--a de rigueur element of every Garrett + Moulton piece--the choreographers, with a grant from New Music USA, hired Becker. Becker brought in the Friction Quartet, composed of some of his former Conservatory students, who have an aesthetic in the vein of the Kronos Quartet and an adventurous, up-for-anything spirit. ("They're classical musicians and we're picking them up and throwing them around!" exults Moulton. "They're pushing the dancers, and the dancers are pushing them.")

For Becker, the time was right for the subject: His father had died in 2012, and, he says, "The whole idea of touch and healing and dying and letting go or not letting go appealed to me right away."

He and the choreographers have been exchanging ideas, discussing touch as healing as well as concepts such as uplift and buoyancy and allowing for release. Becker, who describes himself as a post-minimalist composer, sent them snippets that might match the mood they were going for, whether bittersweet or nostalgic, up-tempo or slow. "Janice wanted more moments of beauty and the ethereal," Becker says. "So it's a mix of frantic, pulse-oriented pieces--busy, fun, driving music--but a few more that are floaty, that represent a little more of touch as letting go, and they balance each other nicely."

He adds, "It's been really great. I will come out learning more than any other project I've worked on in years."

As for the venue: Garrett and Moulton chose the JCC as the ideal spot: a community center that's open, airy, with various vantage points, including a mezzanine, for the audience. "Both of us felt it was very important to do free performances and reach as many people as we can," says Moulton. "We feel dance is a very dynamic and expressive art form, and we feel the same about live music, and now the visual arts, and we wanted a place where anybody who wants to come can come, rather than a self-selected group that's interested in dance.…The JCC is open to everyone at every level. And that's the place where performance lives--where our art can regain its vivacity and life."

Oct. 17-26, JCC, 3200 California St.