Last evening the down-pouring rain in Houston ceased for a few hours. Day had turned to night throughout a drenching storm but, as I drove to Wortham Center to see Ros Warby’s solo dance work, Monumental, the low-lying sun returned to bid farewell. Regarding the performance, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew Warby to be an Australian contemporary dance artist. I knew the work utilized bird imagery and included references to Swan Lake. On all three points, I was informed correctly. Yet, though I went in with little expectation, Warby’s work continually greeted me with the unexpected.
The birdlike gestures and postures, I had anticipated. The movement was detailed and fleeting and mesmerizing. I wondered if at any moment Warby would take flight as if startled by a passerby. I was aware that I would see projected footage of birds – stock images from Canadian educational films according to video artist and collaborator, Margie Medlin. What I had not presumed was that the dancer, herself, would be captured on film like a wildlife video specimen, complete with long-held close-ups of the eyes and neck as she moved or glared, seemingly incognizant yet instinctively aware of her witnesses.
Also unforeseen was the depth of integration between dancer, imagery, and sound. In fact “solo,” in this case, is barely applicable. Warby is rarely alone in the space though there are almost uncomfortable moments where musical accompaniment and moving pictures withdraw, leaving her vulnerable in the silence. She appears beside her own duplicate, sometimes materializing as the antithesis to her White Swan in black tutu and bodice. Innocence on one hand, dark regality on the other. Throughout the work the projected images move and shift like set pieces. At one point Warby is framed by her own legs, towering on either side like two monuments. No, there is nothing solitary about this work.
And, before I paint a picture of only serene, cascading images, I want to mention the surprising humor and fascinating oddities Warby presents in Monumental. I was caught completely unaware as the dancer brought forth her own voice. It took me a moment to recognize, even despite the movement of Warby’s lips, that the seamless flow of sound layered upon Helen Mountfort’s single cello was being produced live. She warbled and sighed as a distressed swan in syllables that were so near to language yet nonsensical. She vocalized again later as the soldier, another archetype pilfered from classical ballet disassembled and reformed for the work. Only later did I discover that much of this mix of guttural rhythm and movement was improvised, explaining why it seemed so fresh and spontaneous, why it seemed a surprise even to Warby herself when she called for “Attention!,” the only recognizable word spoken that evening.
I’m still pondering what the dance meant. Not its intention, for I rarely look for this in contemporary dance, but what it meant to me. I felt every bit the observer of a different species of movement and of dance. As a result, my personal connection to the work still seems uncertain. As commanded, however, Ros Warby has my attention.