COMPANY: No. 19/Modulations
Wednesday, July 19–Monday, July 24
21c Museum Hotel, Durham

“Modulation” can refer to controlled changes in a wide variety of signals, from musical pitch and vocal inflection to radio and television broadcast frequencies. In these examples, the changes either technically enable the coherent transmission of content or alter the meaning being conveyed.

We can therefore attest to the truth in labeling of No. 19/Modulations, the latest evening-length work by the dance group COMPANY. Choreographer Justin Tornow and a design team including visual artist Heather Gordon, videographer Alex Maness, lighting designer Steve Tell, and four musicians significantly modulated all four public iterations of the work.

Audiences experienced the first two performances as a larger-than-life two-dimensional video projected against the outer wall of 21c Museum Hotel. The performance was transmitted from the ADF Studios on Broad Street. These broadcast performances were accompanied by differing live audio tracks. In contrast, the last two iterations, set to two other unique soundtracks, were performed in the round, surrounded by a live audience in the ballroom of the hotel. Spectators were encouraged to walk about the room’s perimeter to view the work from different vantage points.

Some of these choices will be familiar to students of Merce Cunningham, who famously declared the “front” of his dance works to be any or all of the directions his dancers were facing. But in aggressively modulating the fundamental parameters of our experience of her work, Tornow is referencing Marshall McLuhan, drawing our attention to the degree to which production elements and values usually considered subordinate to choreography—lighting, music, fixed point of view, and the physical proximity between audience and dancers—can alter, erase, or mutate the attempted communication.

More significantly, and possibly more alarming, Tornow doesn’t limit her inquiry to the technical accoutrements of performance. She also investigates the modulations she encounters when attempting to place apparently identical gestures in the differing physical forms, ranges, and abilities of her septet of performers. The geometries invoked along the long lines of the bodies of Jasmine Powell and Glen Rumsey have a different impact when executed by other dancers. The emotional valence of Katy Kyle’s work is only echoed in other bodies. The sudden sharpness and velocity of Tornow’s own performance and the physical origami of Hunter Darnell’s solo are muted when reiterated elsewhere.

The compromises of adaptation can’t be avoided when a choreographer bases sections of a dance on the separate work of a visual artist, as Tornow does here with collaborator Heather Gordon. But so many other aspects of No. 19/Modulations seem intent on making us realize that our experience of the content in dance is constantly being mediated by physical, material, spatial, and technical elements usually beyond the artists’ control—and that there’s no getting around all those middle men between us and the heart of the work.