Dancing About Architecture, Literally, in Kristin Damrow's IMPACT

Kristin Damrow & Company's 'IMPACT' pop-up at Vaillancourt Fountain in San Francisco's Embarcadero.  (Kristin Damrow)

Raw concrete was, in the mid-20th century, the material of the future. Structures built in the Brutalist style—stark, cyclopean, rough-hewn and rain-streaked, in shades of gunmetal—owed something to Nazi fortifications. In a remarkable post-war adaptation, this grim military architecture was recast to serve utopian visions of social housing and public spaces.

Tastes are fickle, however, and those buildings would later be decried as "concrete monstrosities." Yet Brutalism has acquired many 21st century fans, fueled by sharing platforms like Instagram and Tumblr, and a hazy nostalgia for vanishing socialist ideals.

Concrete’s image at the moment is in urgent need of repair, thanks to the U.S. president’s obsession with a border wall. His dream may be shot down, but concrete will recover; artists like Kristin Damrow are seeing to that. The spunky 32-year-old choreographer has drawn inspiration for her third evening-length work, titled IMPACT, from Bay Area icons of Brutalist architecture such as the Glen Park BART Station, the Oakland Museum of California, and the original Berkeley Art Museum. Together with collaborator and composer Aaron M. Gold, she has prowled their interiors, listening for sounds that pierce and echo in the soaring, airy spaces. These sounds resurface in the electronic compositions which Gold has created to guide her dancers through the work.

Allegra Bautista for Kristin Damrow's 'IMPACT.' Photo: RJ Muna

On a recent afternoon, I planted myself in a corner of a rehearsal studio at the ODC Commons, where mysterious and enchanting sounds emanated from Gold’s laptop as Damrow ran her dancers through the piece. She is tiny; a live wire yet serene, with big expressive eyes, who occasionally sings out instructions in a deep-throated mezzo.

The ensemble of 10 coalesced into various structures—here an embankment, there an assembly line. At other times, they projected the vibe of a loyal army, or a menacing mob. As in Brutalist design, strict geometric patterns unexpectedly gave way to the improbable.

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Five lead dancers entered into fraught territorial negotiations. And in one moving quartet, three women went to great lengths to rescue a man buffeted by unseen terrors. In this work, when dancers are called on to physically support each other, they are as likely to provide that support with their feet as they are with their hands, which made for some intriguing interactions. The score felt warm and organic, shot through with industrial and environmental sounds, like the whooshing of jets taking off into the ether, wind whipping through a canyon, the earth crackling under seismic pressure, the clanging of prison doors.

Even in the studio, without the added drama of stage lighting and sets, it seemed clear that events were unfolding on an epic scale. At the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, as if to create a new Brutalist skyline, scenic designer Alice Malia will hang a series of Brutalist-inspired forms from the tension grid.

In post-rehearsal conversation, Damrow described her growing interest in architecture and design and “how that can be translated either through the body or through a narrative story line on stage.” Researching her last project, about mid-century designers Ray and Charles Eames, she came across Brutalism, as their time frames overlapped. The stark differences between Modernism and Brutalism lit a spark.

Even before that, she recalls the time when Kristin Damrow & Company was just getting off the ground and she was scouting a location for an outdoor, site-specific work. She wanted a place that got plenty of foot traffic, and wandered by the old Berkeley Art Museum (which, like a number of older Brutalist buildings, is deemed seismically unsound and has been shuttered.)

“That backdrop was really stunning,” she noted. “So, one of our very first performances as a company was in front of a Brutalist building, though we didn’t know at the start what it was. I also traveled through Glen Park BART station a lot and the magnitude of that station always got me… Brutalist buildings have been in my dance life for quite a while.”

Hien Huynh for Kristin Damrow's 'IMPACT.' Photo: RJ Muna

She describes the setting of IMPACT as dystopian, reminding us that “lots of Brutalist buildings have been seen in movies like Bladerunner and A Clockwork Orange, where the overall monolithic feel of these hulking structures gives this timeless visual sensation.” While the piece is largely abstract, there are tangible characters embodied by her lead dancers, whom she explains are “struggling through something that feels dystopian.”

But they also “represent different elements in this world more than just characters. In their movement style, how they interact with each other, I played a lot with different ways that we could perceive the buildings through movement—their expressionism, monolithic feel, their formlessness… Many times, what the architect was going for was this image where you can’t tell which end is up, smooth lines fold into a different place altogether, creating a visual play when you look at the building. We pulled that kind of inspiration from Brutalism and asked how can a character interpret different elements of Brutalism through our bodies.”

Choreographers have often been inspired by landscapes and architecture to make site-specific work, to tell very human stories centered historically on the sites. But it’s less common for a dance-maker to try and project onto her dancers the qualities of buildings and building materials themselves. With Brutalism in particular, the danger is that the dancing will be overwhelmed by the massive scale of the structures.

Damrow meets this challenge head-on. A striking film trailer for the live work she's created feels like an integral and expansive element of the project rather than just a teaser.

“I do have hopes to continue this project,” she says, “filming around the U.S. and worldwide at Brutalist buildings. I feel like this project has life beyond this.”

'IMPACT' runs from Jan. 31–Feb. 2 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Details here.

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