Any proper dance instructor will tell you that falling is an art. So too is falling in love. Something magical happens when you combine the thrill of falling with the art of dance. That chemical romance bubbles and fizzles in Hubbard Street Dance’s “The Art of Falling”and Ira Glass’s “3 Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.”
Weaving comedy, dance and romance together, you couldn’t have asked for a more thematically coupled double feature. Both appeared back-to-back in downtown Los Angeles this month—“The Art of Falling” at the Ahmanson and “3 Acts” at the Ace Hotel. Where the former left the connection between comedy, dance and love open-ended, the latter filled in some of those blanks, and vice versa.
“The Art of Falling” kicked off a night of dancing dalliances and daydreams. The collaboration between Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance and comedy theater troupe Second City was a primarily pleasing affair that followed three couples as they searched for love through a blend of comedy sketches and dance numbers.
The evening was predominantly lighthearted and fun, as dancers turned into desks, chairs, stairs, typewriter keys and mailboxes, creating a whimsical backdrop for the comedians’ droll encounters.
At one point a secretary’s office turned into a swooning swivel chair ballet, with dancers spinning, gliding and penguin-diving across the stage to create a romantic, almost musical-theater backdrop for the bright-eyed temp to finally claim her desk clerk prince charming. While enchanting and chuckle-inducing enough, how does dance fare beneath this entertaining sheen?
With Hubbard Street’s world-class dancers operating as little more than moving décor most of the time, one had to wonder whether this was an equal partnership between comedy and dance. Early on in “The Art of Falling,” a Second City comedian blows into the foot of a Hubbard Street dancer, as if inflating a life-size sex doll for some adult playtime. Was dance simply being serviceable to comedy’s needs—a pop of choreography to prop up a punch line?
Scenes veered into more thoughtful territory at the end of the first act. Comedian Joey Bland, playing a confused young guy, wonders whether he can even honestly say, “I love you,” to his boyfriend, played by Travis Turner. Bland doesn’t know how love is supposed to feel, so how can he say those three little words aloud to anyone, even his boyfriend?
He can, however, contemplate the dilemma around the very same Thanksgiving dinner table where his date has just poured out his heart out to him. Even after Turner has declared his love, Bland can’t reciprocate, only ruminate.
The moment is devastatingly comedic and ironic, but also opens the door to a more serious contemplation of dance in this absurdist world created by the Windy City duo. What does it mean to say, “I love you?” And how does one express it?
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker once said, “Dance is a language, and as in love, the most beautiful things are said through the body.”
Where Bland may be lost for words, Hubbard Street steps in with a new non-verbal vocabulary.
In one scene, Turner, who just happens to be a professional dancer with a Hubbard Street-style contemporary dance company, shows Bland some moves from his company’s repertoire, giving his love interest a peek into his dance world.
Each move has a funny name to go with it. It’s a way for the dancers to remember each motion, almost all of which fall outside the bounds of traditional ballet positions. S-shaped spines and crooked elbows, replace first, fourth and fifth, simplifying the language of contemporary dance into bite-size, ABC chunks. But even though Turner breaks down every move for his beau, (and for us), the caring sentiment is not so much lost in translation, but perhaps lost on Bland, who it so happens is a self-proclaimed dance hater.
Hubbard Street reciprocates some of the emotions lost on Bland by peopling their moving canvases with forms that oscillate between being purely figurative and completely abstract. In one instance, Hubbard Street’s ensemble transforms from a manifest of airline passengers, orderly arranged by seat and row, into a rolling sea of clouds, drifting through the skies. Svelte and sinuous, they are both people on a plane and the air that percolates around it, character and canvas, mist and muse.
Perhaps this is what love is supposed to feel like? Earthbound yet ethereal, out-of-body yet bodily, euphoric yet fearful. It is the very essence of walking on air. On the buoyant breeze of love, you can float anywhere, but for how long? What will catch you if you fall? Hopefully a dashing Hubbard Street dancer. For love seems to be in the arms of one dancer or another. Prince temp finds her desk clerk prince charming.
But how does it feel to completely let go?
If “The Art of Falling” actively questions how love is supposed to feel, or perhaps more precisely move, then “3 Acts” is Ira Glass’s ambling answer to that query. His trademark casual, talk-as-you-are vocal stylings narrate contemplations on the purpose of dance in our lives and the performing arts.
Each act is driven by a burning question—why do dancers dance? How do they deal with going through the motions again and again? And how do we express ourselves when we’re afraid or just can’t bring ourselves to move, like at an eighth grade dance?
While these questions are deep, the movement accompanying them is not always. Unified duets by choreographer Monica Bill Barnes and her dance partner Anna Bass are synced to a tee, as they turned from Charlie Chaplin-esque showmen into Irish River Dancers on synchronization steroids. Though impressive, the effect is robotic, rather than moving, more out of sync with the emotional highs and lows of love than in tandem with it.
Glass gets warmer when he’s allowed to ruminate, though some may still be uncharmed by his tendency to wade through stories with the armchair philosopher’s swagger that’s become his signature style. Even so you can’t help but cock your head at an aphorism that he borrows from the Ed Norton film “Keeping the Faith.” Paraphrased it’s something like, love is falling in and out of love with same person over a period of time.
That cyclical arc brings to mind the words of philosopher-psychologist Erich Fromm who in writing that loving is like an art was comparing it to a daily practice.
“The first step is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art,” he writes.
“If we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. ”
Like art, love must be practiced again and again and never allowed to be left untended.
If that is the case, then Glass captures the very natures of love and dance in one fell swoop—both require a willingness to fall, not just once, not just twice, but many times. Love, like falling is an art, to be practiced again and again, without fear of the inevitable fumbles.
“The Art of Falling” may soar with reckless abandon through love’s mysteries and “3 Acts” may stumble mostly through the possible answers , but both daringly attempt to take the leap of faith.