A dancer can seem very small in Pittsburgh’s Byham Theatre with its high proscenium arch, its sixty foot ceilings painted with giant muses floating in the clouds, its beautifully restored tile and plaster work, its marble stairs and brass ornaments. And the subtle movements of the human body expressing shades of feeling can seem inconsequential in the context of the great hoopla of fund-raising, advance publicity, and artistic ambition. So, it’s particularly fitting that Bodiography’s new show 108 minutes presents the body as both instrument of art and object of study.
The first act consists of six vignettes inspired by new research in the field of regenerative medicine (the show was underwritten in part by UPMC Rehabilitation Institute). Maria Caruso, the founder, director, choreographer, and lead dancer of Bodiography (is there anything she can’t do?) prepared for the show by, among other things, attending the “theatre” of open heart surgery. After the intermission, the second act opens with a scene of new recruits joining the army, stripping off civilian clothes, dressing in fatigues, engaging in battle, suffering wounds, and finally regenerating their bodies and spirits one dance step at a time.
Caruso’s choreography, which merges elements of jazz, modern, and ballet to create a vigorous and expressive art, requires strength and agility from the eight women and one man who form the nucleus of the dance troupe. These young people are not ballerinas by any means, but rather muscular dancers who use their athleticism to express a wide range of experiences and emotions. Caruso has consciously built a company of excellent dancers who would be judged too large and powerful-looking for most ballet companies. This recruitment strategy is part of the mission of Bodiography – to offer opportunities for professional dancers with athletic bodies to grow as artists, promoting healthy lifestyles and positive body image within the company as well as in the society as a whole.
Cello Fury, three classically-trained cellists and a rock drummer, features energetic original music complementing the dancers. The driving rhythms and intricate harmonies of the four musicians perched on a scaffold at the back of the stage create, literally, a wall of sound behind the dancers. The collaboration between Bodiography and Cello Fury is perfect in its strangeness: both choreography and music break down barriers of genre, creating an art that is wholly new.
Caruso often includes non-dancers in her choreography. In the past, she’s used painters and poets, but in 108 Minutes she uses doctors – dancing doctors, piano-playing doctors – who give a wonderful authenticity to the performance. The virtuosity of the professional dancers is highlighted by the presence of “real” people.
To a certain degree, a dance performance is always about the human body. How interesting that Caruso and company take this metaphor a step further to create a performance that presents the dialectics between science and art, injury and healing, body and soul. Through brilliant choreography and original music, the dialogue between dance and medicine seems surprisingly natural and unforced as if the parallel between these widely different disciplines were, like a new continent, simply waiting to be discovered.