Séan Curran’s choreography speaks to your eyes with a language that is composed of moving hieroglyphs rather than letters and individual words.  He collaborates with his dancers in creating pieces using this esoteric language, so the three-plus works presented by the Sean Curran Company at the Ferst Center March 23 are instantly recognizable as emerging from the same choreographic mind.

“Three plus?” you ask.  Well, yes, because there was a pre-concert showing in one of the art galleries of work Curran did with two Georgia Tech students during his ARTech residency this year.  Inspired by architectural terms Curran heard used by a Georgia Tech Professor of Architecture in a tour of a new campus building, the work in the showing presented a wonderful opportunity to study Curran’s language before it became expanded on the big stage with more dancers. While he describes himself as a “proscenium guy,” and commented that this was his first site-specific work, Curran proved he is also comfortable in a more casual environment; and the work captivated the small group of early-arrivals who crowded the gallery to watch the piece.

Sean Curran Company performing "Social Discourse." Photograph courtesy of Sean Curran Company and Ferst Center.

Sean Curran Company performing “Social Discourse.” Photograph courtesy of Sean Curran Company and Ferst Center.

Curran speaks of being “from the school of shape and movement,” and his works all seem to have a certain architectural structure that ties together the experimental side of his choreography.  He creates sequential releases from still tableaux and shifting balances that miraculously never show their origins or adjustments.  He is unconcerned with the gender of pairings; you are as likely to see two women or two men dancing together as you are a man and a woman.  Interactions between the dancers may be fully developed, or they may be momentary.  His pieces speak to the strengths of each individual dancer or group of dancers.  Upper bodies are eloquent; the dancers employ larger-than-life gestures and fully extended limbs.  Requisite for the choreography, these performing artists are gymnast-muscular and possess marathoner endurance.

Sean Curran Company in "Social Discourse. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy of Sean Curran Company and Ferst Center for the Arts.

Sean Curran Company in “Social Discourse. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy of Sean Curran Company and Ferst Center for the Arts.

“Social Discourse” opened the official program on the Ferst Center stage.  The music was spare, but the movement was not. The stage was occupied by six dancers in brightly colored turtle-necked shirts and black shorts.  The choreography required fluidity, balance,  and control.  It was also mandatory that the dancers have many terabytes of memory at their disposal.  Movement was rarely repeated, and, when it was, the two instances were separated by so much time the audience was hard-pressed to remember seeing one before.  Curran crafts every body part, and every body part is significant.  He has described this work as “urban folk dance,” and it is a good metaphor.  The movement is easily understood, but it demands intense concentration in order to avoid missing critical elements.

The second piece, “Hard Bargain,” was danced by four men.  It used vocal music by Handel and was underpinned by a bit of a story line. The men were dressed in sixteenth-century leather-look jerkins decorated with small amounts of fringe, allowing the audience to imagine them anywhere on a continuum between a Renaissance European farm and  a Post-World-War-II biker gang.  In this work, arms were more angular; there was more aerial movement; and the full stage was incorporated into the design, including the edges of the wings. Curran describes the work as “agreeing to disagree.”  Without abandoning his signature movement style, Curran incorporated tongue-in-cheek fight choreography that kept the audience laughing but did nothing to minimize the physicality of the movement.

The performance closed with “Left Exit: Faith, Doubt, and Reason.” This longer work was originally commissioned by Notre Dame University, and explores the topic at length, inspired by Astrid Taylor’s documentary “Examined Life.” It began with the dancers entering the stage space dressed in garments appropriate for practitioners of different World Faiths, who then dance a T’ai Chi sequence.  Portions of the piece were danced to contemporary music, but other sections were accompanied by spoken word.  I found the spoken word segments the most compelling, as the choreography seemed to interpret the meanings of the words, but move to the rhythms of the language.  Contrasts between stillness and rapid movement, freezing of shapes for long moments, and many exits and entrances held the attention of the audience. This piece offered a glimpse of Séan Curran at his day job.  Currently the Associate Chair of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Dance Department, the conception of “Left Exit” needed a scholar as well as an expert dancer.  Curran is both, as we saw when he danced a seven-minute slice set to the words of Cornel West.

Bring your thinking cap when you see Séan Curran’s work, as this choreographer does not allow you to carelessly absorb the images he designs. His work demands that you become a full participant in the conversation.  If you missed this opportunity for discourse, you will definitely want to sign up for the next one.