Herman Melville knew from water, literal, metaphorical and otherwise.
So it's not a surprise to find the author of the ocean-drenched Moby Dick lionized in a dance concert called The Poetry of Water at ZUZI. One work in the show this weekend, "In What Rapt Ether," takes its title from watery lines by Melville at his most metaphorical:
Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?
In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary?
ZUZI dancer and choreographer Carie Schneider just happens to be a Ph.D. student in literature, and a fan of Melville. She not only shaped her dance around his poignant words from Moby Dick, she also created movements that mimic the rolling of the sea, its "forward and return, its echoing pathways, its moving and sailing," says artistic director Nanette Robinson.
Four dancers, including Schneider, sail across the air on trapezes.
"There's a sense of a calm sea," Robinson says. "It's cool! There's a wonderful structure."
Each year, the local modern dance company stages a winter solstice concert, paying homage to the darkest and shortest day of the year. It also provides an alternative to the cornucopia of Christmas Nutcrackers. (See accompanying story for the Nutcrackers onstage this weekend.) Normally, the solstice show is organized around the theme of light—a natural for the winter holidays—but this year, in its 16th edition, Robinson hankered instead for a show about H2O.
She had choreographed a dance about whales last spring, and "that took me to the element of water," she says. "With climate change I've been thinking a lot about glaciers melting, how water is life, how it's so important in the desert to be mindful of that."
Eight company members, including Schneider and Robinson, created 11 works "specifically related to water, but each one used a different focus."
Those more mythologically inclined turned to water goddesses. Jamey Garner composed "La Mar," a dance for six about Iemanjá, the Afro-Brazilian goddess of the ocean. Elizabeth Breck, a student of Tibetan dance, honored a water goddess in "Mamaki (Dakini)," a solo she dances herself.
Mechelle Tunstall took a scientific turn in "Cella," a duet about the movement of water in a cell. It's danced by company member Sara Maria Villa and talented high school dancer Molly Stack, an alumna of the ZUZI! apprentice troupe who's now a guest artist.
"Ebb," a solo by Felice Espinosa, is a meditation on the ebb and flow of life inspired by the death of a friend. Sara Anderson Stewart's quartet "Overflow" uses the "reverberations of water as a metaphor for the way one gesture of kindness can cause another kindness," Robinson says.
Two dances use billowing swathes of cloth to represent water. Tunstall's "Until Completely Covered," about physical and psychological drowning, has "long silken material billowing across the stage." And a second piece by Robinson, "Night Currents," which includes spoken recital of poems by the Sufi poet Rumi, has the dancers "creating what looks like a river, with dark blue translucent cloth."
In "Carry Water," choreographed by Maria Sara Villa, the entire cast of 25—youths, apprentices, company members and guest artists—create what appears to be a "community of different cultures," Robinson says. "They chop wood, they carry water." And as so many women do 'round the world, they balance the water of life on their heads.
Robinson also plunged into Moby Dick's waters, diving deeper into a whale theme in a new aerial work.
'"Rising' is about whaling in the 17th and 18th centuries," she explains. "It has a dark quality. It's about the destruction of the whale."
Evoking the thrashing of the captured whales, three of the piece's nine dancers perform in the air in fish netting, rather than on trapezes. The work is set to music excerpted from the soundtrack of the movie The Painted Veil.
Melville scholar Schneider choreographed a second Moby Dick piece for six young teens in the Many Limbs Youth Company. The work, still untitled at press time, has a slo-mo video projection that shows droplets of water moving. Dressed in watery blues and pinks, the young dancers move like liquid to Andrew Bayer's musical composition "From the Earth."
The dance was inspired by a Melville passage that sounds a little like 19th-century choreographic instructions:
There is no steady unretracing progress in this life;
we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause...
but once gone through we trace the round again.
Throughout the concert, all the music accompanying the dances is recorded, but singer-songwriter Pablo Peregrina will perform two songs on the guitar before the show gets under way. Visual artist Ingrid Williams will display her water paintings in the hallway and lobby. There will be a silent auction, with the items awarded on the final night of the show, on the solstice itself, Saturday, Dec. 21.