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A Slipping Glimpse at YBCA

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

It's 7pm in the East Gardens of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The fog is ineluctably rolling in, and the cluster of people all around are wrapping their coats more tightly around their bodies, impatiently awaiting the spectacle promised by a mélange of synthesizers deftly mimicking nature's aural arrangements. Finally, a procession of 15 dancers robed in shades of sand and silver stroll slowly to center stage, taking their positions around individual plots of grass and cement. Vivid tableaux of leisurely movement follow -- ones that vaguely resemble tai chi, yoga, and other ancient salutations to the elements. For about ten minutes, the audience is transfixed, their eyes darting from one set of dancers to the next, so as not to miss anything. Appropriately enough, the performance is called A Slipping Glimpse.

The world premiere of a new piece from the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company takes the idiom of modern dance and squeezes it through a complex gestural language that is constantly in flux -- limning the physical and emotional spaces that aren't quite public or private, east or west. Jenkins, a movement virtuoso with an illustrious four-decades-long reputation as a foremost innovator in modern dance, is known for her rigorous arrangements of pieces that are artistically and globally expansive.

Jenkins is the first to tell you that her pieces are a response to both her own ideas and a conglomeration of other artistic presences. In this case, her 11 dancers, collaborators from India's Tanusree Shankar Dance Company, poet Michael Palmer (who provided the text for A Slipping Glimpse), composer Paul Dresher (the prolific electro-acoustic avant garde composer who provides the show's ethereal soundtrack), and set designer Alex Nichols. In fact, there were no less than 28 people involved in A Slipping Glimpse, from inception to fruition, which makes an already glorious effort seem monumental.

The performance ensues from Jenkins' collaboration with the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company in Calcutta, India, and most recently, a four-week residency in which five of Jenkins' dancers worked with the Mudra Center for Dance in Cochin, India. Four dancers from the Tanusree Shankar Dance Company also perform in A Slipping Glimpse.

The title of the performance comes from a quote by artist Willem de Kooning: "Reality is a slipping glimpse." Jenkins says that she "felt it was an interesting premise. I thought of the idea of many sides of a looking glass from which we investigate our reality, and what we glimpse of what we consider to be reality…such as the relationship of private versus public, and how we view ourselves in relationship to a larger group, whether this be society or the state."

The notion of public and private spaces is appropriately evinced in the work; after the dancers address the audience with their meditative movements, they seamlessly walk through the crowd, leading us into the YBCA Forum, where they will soon dance atop red plinths that straddle four sections of the audience, as well as on the floor in the center of the audience. As the lights dim and the dancers all cluster on one plinth, poet Michael Palmer reads a piece that rolls up the minutiae of everyday life into a sense of mystical urgency, invoking "dark eyes peering through the dust of history, dust of stars."

At this point, the dancers all hand each other down from plinth to stage, using their bodies as makeshift staircases. The first few moments are undeniably beautiful, and there is something very human and immediate about the interaction and gentle communicative function of these bodies in motion.

The athleticism and vigor of Jenkins' troupe is complemented by the intricate gestural language of the Indian dancers, whose subtle, graceful movements communicate symbols and ideas that seem to transcend culture and time. The combination of music with movement is equally mesmerizing: Dresher's arrangements run the gamut from an arrhythmia of atonal sound (to which the dancers shake in a paroxysm of expression) to the throaty warmth of the cello (which has the troupe swaying together in an empathic, sensual demonstration of slowness).

As washes of gold and blue light bathe the dancers, the audience gets the distinct expression of seeing movement that is either suspended in time or extremely sped up. Dancers flutter delicately like butterflies, or they pause abruptly before the moment we know they'll hit the ground. Obviously, the dancers are conscious of the direction each movement will take but, magically, the performance assumes a sense of spontaneity that might be implausible in a different context. The intimate gestures that each dancer presents are the eponymous "slipping glimpses" the show wants to convey to us -- moments that are without narrative but that are instantaneous and recognizable, quiet yet powerful motions that it doesn't take someone with a trained eye or visual vocabulary to respond to.

Amid the surreal and evocative language, allegories of hope, despair, and sustenance resound throughout the gorgeous finale. While each set of dancers -- atop the plinths or onstage-- regale the audience with movement that is individually their own, the performance becomes more unified when a disembodied voice describes the performers one by one and speaks of how each, despite barriers in language and communication, recall sharing an identical dream about dancing.

Jenkins believes that "there is no more profound way to get to know another culture than to be in collaboration with its artists." If the theme of cultural cross-pollination exists, it's subdued somewhat in the performance, whose tropes of gestural communication are not specific to any one culture. The idiom of dance is perhaps the most visceral and immediate of art forms, but there are no easy interpretations for A Slipping Glimpse, which juxtaposes a fragmented menagerie of individual dancers with an abstract yet ultimately unified narrative about the silent spaces between music and movement, a language Michael Palmer has described as "at once our own and foreign, a kind of third term, not exactly self and not exactly other, not exactly us and not exactly them, but an unbounded space in between, discovered in fluid, alternative company."

Runs through May 27, $18-25.