By what alchemy does an artist take excerpts from 40 years of work and dovetail them into a compelling whole, with an emotional drive and visual rhythm of its own? This was the mystery and pleasure of the world premiere of “Times Bones” by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center this past weekend.
What does an artist, whose life hinges on creation, make of her past? Jenkins was one of Twyla Tharp’s original collaborators in the 1960s and went on to work with Merce Cunningham and other leaders of the New York dance arena before launching her own troupe in San Francisco, which has become a West Coast institution. Her works are distinctive for their Californian freedom and lushness, with the texture of wind sweeping through fields.
Facing her company’s 40th anniversary, Jenkins was in a reflective mood. But rather than revive one or two of her more than 75 productions, Jenkins took inspiration from Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead whose body, according to legend, was torn into pieces. Osiris couldn’t rest in the afterlife until his scattered bones had been found and returned to his sarcophagus. What would it be like, Jenkins wondered, if she gathered the bones of her past — brief, significant passages of choreography — and put them back onstage? Would she feel whole then?
“The jury’s still out on that,” she told the audience in a post-performance discussion Friday.
Suffice it to say that the awesome task of deboning and rebuilding was beautifully realized. “Times Bones” points to a circular, enduring notion of time — time that is defied by the body. Sifting lightly through the dancing were images of clockworks in the way a dancer extended his arms like the hands on a dial, and every now and then we’d hear a tick-tock in the rich sonic field of Paul Dresher’s music. And yet what better illustration of stopping time, or surmounting its ravages, than this project, in which a new generation of company members breathes life into the long-ago steps of its predecessors?
Jenkins’s dancers have always been a special lot, endowed not only with an appealing mix of strength and softness but also with a keen 360-degree sense of where they are, that heightened ability to move, breathe and react together without exchanging a look. This cast is no different. My eye was especially drawn to Margaret Cromwell, a dancer of unusual grace. A moment when she sank into a deep pli with legs wide apart, with an arm lifted high, fingers lightly stirring, embodied the theme of growth and regeneration from a firm foundation.
Having followed Jenkins’s work for the past decade and a half or so, I found a few welcome surprises in this journey. She wasn’t always interested in gentler subtleties. One section had a hard-hitting, dance-club vibe; another featured the fearless Kelly Del Rosario diving to the floor like a giant killer kitten, paws splayed in all directions.
The finely crafted design elements were essential to the transformative experience: David F. Draper’s loose trousers and tunics in brown and greige lent a suitably comfy-sophisticated touch. Alexander V. Nichols’s striking visual design — a grid of lights across the back, with a shot of red, and movable wooden pillars that continued the grid motif — energized the space. Even the small wooden platforms in front of the stage, which the dancers occasionally jumped onto before bounding back to the group, were handsomely carpentered. And there lies the beauty of Osiris’s quest and Jenkins’s: Assemble the pieces right — in your sarcophagus, on your stage, in your mind — and the past is healed.