multiple-response dance

Preview: Tahni Holt's "SUN$HINE"

Portland choreographer Tahni Holt's new modern-dance piece steps outside the box to awaken audience imaginations.

By Jonathan Frochtzwajg November 6, 2012

SUN$HINE, the new, evening-length modern-dance piece from local choreographer Tahni Holt, is a story about a relationship between two people, enacted by principal dancers Lucy Yim and Robert Tyree

Or, perhaps, it's a conceptual work about intention, interpretation, and the happy medium where an artist and her audience collaborate on making meaning.

Maybe SUN$HINE is a purely aesthetic piece, “about” nothing except textural interplay—between, for instance, the matte brown surfaces of the set's dozens of cardboard boxes and the dazzling, colorful costumes of the dancers.

To Holt, whose work has been featured in the Time-Based Art Festival, the 2010 Portland Biennial, and Seattle's Bumbershoot, the correct answer is any of the above. With SUN$HINE, which she will present at BodyVox Dance Center this weekend, Holt says her only intent is to awaken imagination in her audience.

“Most dance performances,” Holt says, “are pretty pointed,” purporting to have no agenda, but in point of fact pushing one interpretation over others. In the two years she has spent working on and workshopping SUN$HINE, Holt has sought above all to avoid such agenda-pushing—to create a piece open enough that audience members can prioritize what they're experiencing according to their personal mode of perception. So, narrative people will find in SUN$HINE a narrative. Conceptual thinkers will find concepts. Textural types will find textures (of the visual as well as the aural kind).

Constructing a work that can be seen from multiple perspectives was no easy task, requiring Holt and her dancers to approach the piece with several motivations in mind at once. Key to the choreographer's process was what she calls “anchors:” elements which audience members can grab onto to ground whatever their interpretation is. At one point late in the piece, for example, Yim and Tyree, who have been dancing independently of each other, at last come together and embrace (if their prolonged, contorted, hyper-intimate interwining can be contained within that word). For viewers who've been responding to the dancers' relationship, this is an “anchor,” supporting their interpretation and helping give SUN$HINE meaning.

For other types of viewers, there's no shortage of other kinds of signifiers, from a spatial soundscape by Thomas Thorson, to Kate Fenker's dress-up-box costumes, to an expressive violin performance from Kyleen Kin. (In many ways, SUN$HINE is an interdisciplinary work). Perhaps no symbol better represents what Holt is trying to do, though, than the cardboard boxes that make up the set.

Holt says boxes were her “vehicle into the concept of imagination,” and that's not surprising, considering that for kids, the cardboard box has long been a space for imaginative play. Boxes structure the first half of SUN$HINE, whether stacked in a wall that forms the performance's backdrop or lined up in rows which the dancers must move among. But in the second half of the piece, the tables are turned and the dancers organize the boxes—disorganize them, actually, destroying the wall and dancing amid the rubble.

Building the wall takes a lot of work, sure. But for Holt, SUN$HINE succeeds when the boxes lie in ruins—ready to be remade into something of the audience's own creation.

SUN$HINE will be performed at BodyVox Dance Center November 9–11. For more information, visit Tahni Holt's website. Below, watch a trailer for the show. 

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