'Conversation' Speaks Truth To Philosophy

Rahel Vonmoos and Wally Cardona play off Kierkegaard philosophy in the quietly stirring
Rahel Vonmoos and Wally Cardona play off Kierkegaard philosophy in the quietly stirring "A Light Conversation." (By Christian Glaus)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

NEW YORK -- It was called "A Light Conversation," and so of course most of it involved a long-winded discourse on Kierkegaard. A little postmodern jab in the ribs, that. (We get it!) But if this collaboration between the two dancer-choreographers Wally Cardona and Rahel Vonmoos last week at Joyce SoHo's intimate black-box theater started out as a dense exercise in confusion, it unfolded into a revealing exploration of solitude and partnership, and a satisfying synthesis of both.

Kierkegaard, the gloomy Danish philosopher and father of existentialism, would probably have pronounced this brave 45-minute duet utterly futile. But he was eventually danced out of the room, metaphorically speaking. The fleshly, sweaty reality of Cardona and Vonmoos made the gaseous debate about the human condition that we heard on tape as we watched them seem irrelevant.

Positioning focused, highly physical dancers in a standoff against armchair philosophizing is funny enough for a while, but that alone would be a flimsy pretext for performance. The interesting point here was that "A Light Conversation," which will come to Brookland's Dance Place in January, wasn't just about irony. This strange, quietly engrossing piece centered on the ambiguity of the dancers' relationship -- not quite lovers, but more than strangers, sometimes shadowing one another, sometimes oblivious. With the audience seated on three sides of the small space, and bright lighting, we onlookers were not just watching the dancers but snatching glimpses of one another, and it felt at times like the conversation of the title referred to a silent but palpable connection among the public.

But mostly, the dancers and the sour philosopher we were being lectured about in the voice-over shared a pronounced self-absorption, as the choreographers acknowledged in a chat with the audience after a recent performance. "A Light Conversation" grew from the fact that Cardona and Vonmoos could think of nothing to create together besides a work about how hard it was to create together. Sounds awfully pretentious -- as most works about the wonders of the artistic process are -- but in this case, the two choreographers developed something down-to-earth about small relationships and big ideas.

Cardona and Vonmoos are both veterans of the experimental wing of the modern dance world. Cardona, based in Brooklyn, heads his own small troupe, and the Swiss-born Vonmoos, who lives in London, dances with a couple of groups there. Interest in each other's work brought them together for this piece, though they're not much alike -- Cardona, a former gymnast, is athletic and light-footed; Vonmoos is more distant and meditative, her movements plush and deliberative. But the two displayed an easy compatibility in this work. They appeared to feel movement in the same way, relishing a gesture from start to finish, which gave their dancing a pleasing, softened look.

And where does Kierkegaard fit in?

During rehearsals in London one day, Cardona explained after the show, he was listening to a radio program on the philosopher's work when Vonmoos walked into the studio -- and these two decidedly quirky artists came to agree that the issues raised on the airwaves sounded like an ideal framework for a dance. The singsong cadence of the British speakers, the themes of love, faith and truth, the overall dullness of the commentary, especially in contrast with the dancing -- it's a provocative backdrop.

In the performance, sometimes the radio tape is used as mere sound, edited and spliced with repeats, becoming rhythmic and lulling. At other moments, the dancers are a living counterpoint to so much wind. We see Vonmoos in a pose of quiet, even noble, contemplation, as one of the radio panelists pronounces the Kierkegaardian view that "the ideal moral life is not attainable." A long dissection of the subjectivity of truth sounds absurd as Cardona and Vonmoos take turns supporting each other's sweat-slicked bodies. Truth? It's right here, the dancers seem to be saying -- it's the evidence before you, how these two exhausted people are managing to stay upright.

Still, the fundamentals of this piece work against it: the impenetrable talk about a deep thinker who deliberately avoided clarity; the difficulty in following both words and action; the invasive lighting. This work isn't for everybody, but at its best, "A Light Conversation" rests on what's unspoken.

At one point Cardona stood next to Vonmoos, who had been ignoring him, and placed a hand on her stomach. He inclined his head toward her neck, stopping just shy of a kiss. Romance wasn't in the picture, but after a few moments what had been a wary dance of pursuit and avoidance warmed into an alliance of two independents, pushing and nudging each other, and finally breaking into an exuberant dash around the stage. Intellectuals may debate the existence of freedom; here was the proof of it.

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