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Imagine dance without music. Given the expansive and experimental scope of today’s contemporary dance scene, this is not a tricky task. Now, imagine music without sound. At a loss?

Silent music is just what choreographer DD Dorvillier had in mind when she created her newest work Danza Permanente, which premiered in the U.S. on September 26th as part of the 2012 Crossing the Line festival, hosted by the French Institute Alliance Francaise. Using the score of Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” (String Quartet #15 in A Minor, Opus 132),  Dorvillier constructed a work that casts her dancers as the musicians and the instruments, filling the stage with both movement and figurative sound.

From left to right: Naiara Mendioroz, Nuno Bizarro, Fabian Barba, and Walter Dunderville in Danza Permanente. Photo courtesy of Thomas Dunn.

Dorvillier’s choreography mixes simple folk dance-like footwork and gestures with precise geometric movement patterns to illustrate what she called “the structural procedures of music, how music produces thought and feeling,” in a recent interview for BOMBlog. On a basic level, Danza Permanente succeeds in creating a visual impression of the dynamics and precise rhythmic framework of Western classical music. However, even ardent Beethoven fans might have difficulty identifying the piece as a representation of the specific string quartet Dorvillier selected, and they would likely attest – as I do – that a great deal of the “thought and feeling” she hoped to elicit is rendered inaccessible in the absence of sound.

Yet Danza Permanente inspires a cerebral enjoyment that, to some degree, atones for this inevitable loss of pathos. The fact that Beethoven had been deaf for many years by the time he composed “Heiliger Dankgesang” lends a certain depth to the experience of Dorvillier’s dancers, who rarely used music in the studio once they had learned the choreography. On stage, they become nearly as deaf as the composer, with only the sounds of their movements, a few rather distracting audio clips – one element of the low-frill dance that seems entirely unnecessary – and their vision to guide them. Yet on the night I saw them perform, they maintained impeccable coordination with each other and the rhythm of the unheard music throughout the work – no small feat, considering that the quartet clocks in at nearly an hour, with only brief pauses between its five sections. 

In spite of the physical and mental marathon the dancers must run with every performance, they seem as comfortable in their respective roles as they are in their delightfully simple jewel-toned costumes. Walter Dundervill plays a pitch-perfect cello, infusing his motions with a rich, weighty quality that projects a marked authority over the group and the course of the dance itself. The long-limed constancy and unique texture of Nuno Bizarro’s mannerisms make him an ideal interpreter for the idiosyncratic tones of the viola. As violins, airily graceful Naiara Mendioroz and playful Fabian Barba infuse the piece with a much-needed brightness and energy, their movements floating pleasantly atop the choreography of the lower-clef instruments.

An intelligently-conceived and well-executed idea, Danza Permanente serves up a healthy dose of intellectually artistic entertainment for the open-minded concert-goer. Keep your eyes – and ears – alert for further performances of the piece, and for Dorvillier’s next cutting-edge creation.

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Written by Leah Gerstenlauer

Leah began her dance training at the age of four in her hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, with her wonderful older brother (who is, incontestably, the best in the business of brothering) by her side. She continued her studies in Michigan and California — earning her B.A. in English at Chapman University along the way — before landing in New York City, where she currently freelances as a dancer and writer. She reads voraciously, drops into art museums regularly, and enjoys the fact that after nearly a decade stuck behind a steering wheel, her daily commute now requires only a good pair of sneakers and a MetroCard.