Tere Mathern Dance

May 12, 2004

Tere Mathern Dance
Conduit Studio Theater

Portland, Oregon

May 12–15, 20–22, 2004

Reviewed by Martha Ullman West

Tere Mathern is a choreographer of ideas; her work is always abstract, often impersonal. Nevertheless, in her new evening-length piece, she takes on nothing less than humankind’s relationship with the elements that create, sustain, and destroy life: earth, air, fire, water.

Elements, made in collaboration with electronic composer Joseph Waters, is intensely visual but also precisely musical. The successful melding of sound (including live percussion played by Joel Bluestone) and dance is perhaps a little too relentless in its volume and pace but nonetheless provides fodder for the mind and a feast for the eye.

“The dance lives in the dancers,” Mathern notes in the program, specifically in the bodies of Robyn Conroy, Jae Diego, Jennifer Hong-Berdine, Jim McGinn, Minh Tran, and the choreographer herself, whom she arranges in space and whose limbs she employs the way a geometrically oriented painter—Piet Mondrian, Jasper Johns—uses straight lines. Then she fractures them, like abstract expressionist Willem deKooning.

The bombastic music of “Earth” sends the dancers exploding in the squared-off studio space like boulders dislodged by dynamite. In the lighter, elegant “Air,” two trios in parallel diagonals, extending their arms and legs at limpid angles, become a metaphor for birds in flight. Swinging motions, turns, delicate gestures of the wrist, buoyant leaps, and the sound of marimba music differentiate the section from the others.

“Fire” is distinctive for glistening costume fabric, sound suggestive of the whoosh of flaring fire, fluid arms, fast-traveling movement juxtaposed with Asian-looking ritualistic gesture, and a final, stunning image of dancers silhouetted against a seeming wall of flame. All this reminds you that fire in some form—the lighting of candles, the burning on the hearth—sometimes provides security, sometimes danger.

The choreography for “Water” shows both ease and effort. Lunging, struggling movement seems to push against strong currents, accompanied by the amplified pulse of a beating heart. Open-chested breaststrokes and unison floor rolls to the sound of moving water suggest its soothing properties, and a slow, spent walk ends an evening of Mathern’s best work.