Mathern's 'Elements' is electric, exhilarating
Saturday, May 15, 2004

The jarring orchestral thunderclap that opens "Earth," the first of Tere Mathern's four-part modern dance suite "Elements," is only the first clue that Mathern isn't interested in transforming the intimate Conduit studio into a universe of order and harmony -- although her trademark architectural precision is everywhere in this evening-length dance.

But a brooding unrest reigns here, too, brought to stunning realization by a live sound score on instruments almost too numerous to list: glockenspiel, marimba, timpani, thunder sheets and gongs, played against electronica that conjures a dense symphonic soup of blood pulsing through veins, wind sucked into an acceleration tunnel, subterranean churns and inchoate grumbles.

Composer Joe Waters and percussionist Joel Bluestone put the chaos to the edge of Mathern's crisp kinetic control, and some of the most electrifying moments are when the pair's instrumental manipulations collide with Mathern's abstract, angular whirlwind of movement.

In "Earth," it's the moment when a crash of shotgun and shattered glass strikes the air at the exact moment dancers Robyn Conroy and Jae Diego slice the space with a pair of rapier roundhouse kicks. "Earth" is not a gentle settling but a furious beast, built in rigid, almost martial spins, legs grazing other bodies, the dancers twisting into a collapse as one. Necks open, heads launched back, they're caught in a clockworks spinning into retrograde, halted in half-arcs and thrust back to the melee.

Mathern's refusal to be literal is a boon to this work. The final, circling movements of "Earth," for instance, only allude to the inexorable pull of gravity; the audience is left to make its own connections. "Elements" is much more about creating a mood through pure movement and sound, and Mathern has found a kindred spirit in her musician-collaborators.

With no set to speak of and only scant use of lighting and costumes, the spotlight is on the movement. "Elements" is a work more than two years in the making, and the payoff is an ensemble -- along with Conroy, Diego and Mathern, the dancers include Jennifer Hong-Berdine, Jim McGinn and Minh Tran -- that has mastered Mathern's vigorous pacing and complex directional shifts and made it look silken.

In "Air," that translates to perfectly synchronized leaps caught mid-air, to the boom of a kettle drum that seems to signal danger on the ground. Diego's serenity in the midst of a central trio, arms held wide, has the feel of a hover; she's inside the movement, not just marking it.
Conroy's sharp extensions are notable throughout, most memorably in "Fire," where they're set against the harsh cold-steel sound of a sword unsheathed, and where fast flashes of arms and legs flicker and recede in the section's brief solos. Mathern's surprise in this section is movement we haven't anticipated: a bump that sends another dancer moving, lunges that stomp the floor and suddenly switch back.

Catherine Thomas: c/o The Oregonian A&E, 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201.

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