Easton Mines Taylor for Meaning
By Philip W. Sandstrom
Throughout Hilary Easton's "The Short Cut," seen May 22 at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, I couldn't help but feel that we were in on something. With the help of text convincingly delivered by Steven Rattazzi, this work of dance-theater effectively offers the audience more than a window into Frederick Winslow Taylor's exploration and study of efficiency. Through the use of movement and phrasing, we see the theory he developed in the early 20th century -- since sometimes referred to as "Taylorism" -- at work. We see the mechanism of time study research revealed.
First Easton introduces and establishes her characters through the use of carefully fashioned solos, and then slowly the interactions between performers establish the working community. Soon analysis begins, as a performer is timed (literally with a stopwatch) while dancing a phrase, by an unnamed character in the program whom I'll call the "Efficiency Manager" (EM). The same phrase is performed again in a shorter version and timed again. This is repeated in shorter and shorter versions until the phrase has been edited down to the essentials and the ultimate efficiency of movement is achieved. What we are seeing here is dance phrases -- not mimed work-like actions -- serving as tasks, which can be and are trimmed to their essence in these timed trials.
After this demonstration, the EM cogently explains how efficiency is to be achieved, in text written by Helen Schulman, in a style that suggests the language of Taylor and his period. We learn that "the system must come first." We are then treated to some partnering of cooperation in which a male and female dancer work together in efficient bliss, accompanied by pleasantly motivating xylophone music by the evening's composer, Thomas Cabaniss. The efficiency in movement slowly gives way to sloth and the section ends with the entire company gazing lazily up to the balcony; break time perhaps?
After the EM intervenes with an audible "ah-hem," the work reconvenes for the entire company, now driven by a relentless and pounding piano score, and timed by the stopwatch-wheedling EM as he carefully observes the events and tasks surrounding him. Soon we're back to time trials and task movement trimming; in this round, pairs of dancer/workers compete as teams, egged on and assisted by fellow dancer/workers. But what we discover, that we wouldn't necessarily expect, is the inter-dancer coaching and motivational cheering become more of a hindrance than help. Herewith the beauty of Easton's movement organization and development is revealed. We are presented with a genuinely successful attempt to clearly equate difficult phrases with destructive testing. Distinguishing what looks difficult from what is difficult becomes hard; we are being intentionally confused. Phrases are layered upon each other until failure occurs, through duress, exhaustion, or ultimate confusion. Only upon the collapse of the structure do we finally understand how Easton has been engaging us in the action.
We are left with the EM explaining the necessity of "the close-up study of movement efficiency," followed by his careful guidance of a double duet designed to evoke efficiency learned through study, analysis, and repetition. The performers share this new acquired and refined knowledge as they help each other perfect their movements under the watchful eye of the EM. Here again we see an example of Easton's ability to slowly bring us in on the process, enabling us to watch as the students become teachers and the next generation of students eagerly learn from the newly minted instructors.
The EM, alone again (at the end of the day?) delivers his final monologue, which begins as a treatise on managers, who they are and what they do, gliding into the historical under-appreciation of middle managers like himself, and ends with a declaration of worth: "They (the workers) are better because of me."
The finale begins as an ode to efficient operation, in which the movement has been tailored to the skills of the dancer. Each character appears to be operating at prime efficiency. We slowly become aware that Easton has taken us inside the workings of a fine timepiece: Everything and everyone is precise and orderly, nothing is wasted. Once our revelation is complete the dancers freeze, the EM clicks his stopwatch, and the stage fades to black.
What distinguishes this work is the sense of its permanence; classical values come to mind. It's not that the movement is dated, it's that the movement is timeless. Easton communicates with her movement. She has devised and chosen phrases that reach us, yet surprise us. The work projects a new view of a familiar scene, as if guiding you down the streets of your neighborhood at an unfamiliar hour, producing a revelation.
The measured thoughtfulness of this choreography, where nothing seems overdone or unnecessary, is a rare phenomenon in the dance world. The dance has meaning. An idea is conveyed, presented, and completed to our satisfaction in one hour -- what a treat!