The program at Dance Place this past weekend, billed as "An Evening of Choreography by Pola Nirenska" -- a tribute to the distinguished dance artist on the occasion of her 80th birthday -- was said to be Nirenska's farewell concert.
Yet there was nothing final in feeling about the event. Rather, it had the aspect of yet another milestone on a journey that has taken the choreographer along a difficult but ever-enriching pathway.
Affecting testimonials by two of last night's guest artists -- dancers Rima Faber and Sharon Wyrrick -- made plain that Nirenska's legacy has few parallels in the annals of Washington arts.
As for the program itself, it was -- if words can communicate it at all -- a soul-searing experience. Most of the evening was taken up with the tetralogy of works Nirenska created over the past decade -- the last part receiving its premiere just now -- dealing with the Nazi Holocaust, from which she herself was a refugee. More than threescore and 10 of her immediate and extended family perished in Hitler's death camps.
The evening began with one work -- a new solo for Faber -- that fell outside this framework, though it wasn't entirely untouched by related concerns. Called "Stillpoint," it was a summary in miniature of life's unending quest for meaning, expressed as a grave, adagio continuum of searching movement. Scarcely covering more than a few feet of floor space, Faber rose from the floor, spiraled this way and that, sank down again and repeated the cycle in an opposing direction, all the while her arms and glances turning, veering upward, to the sides, backward and ahead. The apt music was Charles Ives's "The Unanswered Question"; Faber's luminous performance underscored the trenchant economy of the dance.
The four harrowing Holocaust pieces followed without intermission. They constitute a daring attempt, within the humanistic tradition of modern dance, to bear the unbearable and speak the unspeakable. There are no props or projections, and no attempt at a graphic suggestion of the physical horrors of the extermination camps. Nirenska's aim was rather to convey the psychic and emotional torment of both victims and survivors.
The tetralogy is prefaced in the program by a quotation from Seneca: "In Memory of Those I Loved ... Who Are No More." The third dance in the series, "Shout," is a solo to music by Lou Harrison, wrenchingly danced by Wyrrick as a ferocious outburst of terror, agony, disbelief, fury and protest. The other three all present a family grouping -- a Mother (Faber), and other women of varying age.
As a group of works, they constitute variations on a theme. In "Whatever Begins Also Ends," the emphasis is on the promise of life and the strength of familial bonds, darkened only at the end by images of parting and loss. "Dirge" starts with a mordant-sounding drumbeat and a silhouette of the women in sad procession; the rest of the piece, set, like its predecessor, to music by Ernest Bloch, is a profoundly poignant tapestry of doleful cringings, embraces, gropings, leave-takings and a concluding funereal exit march.
Bleakest and most heart-rending of all was the recently completed "The Train," set to apocalyptic music by Carl Ruggles, in which, one by one, the women are wrested from their fearful huddle into tortured writhing and collapse, and at last the Mother, after beating the air and earth with balled fists and dragging the fallen into a pathetic heap, herself drops atop the mound. Amid all this, Nirenska has remarkably fused the expressionist distortions of gesture and body shape traceable to Wigman with a lyric expansiveness that has its roots in the Humphrey-Weidman school.
Applause felt almost unseemly after such a program, but appreciation demanded an outlet, in recognition of both Nirenska's artistry and her transforming power over dancers she works with -- in this case, most touchingly, Faber as the Mother and Heather Doerbecker as the child figure, but also Paula Camilli, Jan Taylor, Meryl W. Shapiro and Carrie Wilcox. Wyrrick ended her earlier, introductory remarks with thanks to Nirenska for "all she has taught us about performing, about dancing and about life." It would be hard to think of a more fitting valedictory.