Getting to Know Eric Hampton, and DC Dance

Eric Hampton is an enduring DC choreography legend, so it’s fitting that the memorial concert held in his honor was the first formal dance event I attended since moving to the area nearly two months ago.  Hampton died of ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2001.  Ten years after his passing, the community decided to put on a grand event to honor Hampton’s work, and the opening of a new foundation to keep what work he was able to produce in his lifetime alive.

Over the course of the evening I saw a portrait of a man genuinely interested in balletic movement mechanics, the eccentricity of daily life, and musicality.  I knew going in that he had studied at Julliard under greats Jose Limon, Anna Sokolow, and Antony Tudor.  Knowing this, I expected that I would find his work heavily influenced by ballet and set to classical music (particularly the famous ones that everybody knows).  Both of these hunches turned out to be correct.  What saved Hampton’s work from becoming derivative is, in my opinion, his complete dedication to building relationships onstage.  No matter the topic of the dance, he paid close attention to how the performers interacted with each other and with the music.

Hampton’s work is, at its simplest, cavalier and tongue-in-cheek.  He had a knack for hearing musical phrases and illuminating the depth of melody and tone in the movement he chose to set.  What the pieces in the show lacked, with one exception, is a sense of urgency, of meaning, of importance.  Hampton’s dances are cute, well-executed pieces that provide enjoyable moments but leave no lasting impression save that of a laugh.  I did not find myself brought to a new epiphany, to what the Japanese would call a moment of satori, where the world lines up in a new magical way and your frame of reference is forever changed, by any piece save but one.

By the Light… is a deeply felt tragic work revolving around one woman and her struggle with herself.  Set to Beethoven’s famous first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, the dance utilized dramatic movement, lighting, and spatial patterns to convey themes of death, struggle with oneself, and the ultimate experience of giving in to one’s biggest fears.

The soloist begins in a dramatic downstage right spot.  Her white dress shimmers.  She holds her neck by her hand, elbow reaching for the sky, back bent in an improbable arch.  She is struggling with herself, constantly pulling herself back from falling, or from strangling herself.  The movement grows, travels back on the diagonal, the pathway illuminated by a gently diffused light.  It is a dance of lines, sharp angles, anger, and betrayal.  As our soloist returns to her original downstage location, another body appears in an upstage right top-down spot.  He is all in black, and taller than she.  It is a shocking, foreboding moment, disappearing as quickly as it appears.  He reappears once more, this time upstage center, and when his light dims so does hers, for a lengthy pause.  When the light returns, both are standing in the downstage area, heads turned sideways, him slightly behind her like a shadow.  Lights out again.  Lights on: no shadow, just the soloist, reprising her first moment: hanging by the throat in an improbable arch.  She moves again on the diagonal, reaching arms wide, falling into a side extension, and is caught by the shadow.  As she recreates her passage, she is supported, or possibly hindered, by the shadow.  At one moment she gives up, arms dangling lifelessly, his hands near her throat.  After this she seems to accept her fate, and the two turn their backs and walk, arms wrapped around each other, into darkness as the lights fade again.  When the light returns it is just the soloist, walking with her arms hugging herself.  She begins to shake, throws herself into an arched back attitude that is unexpectedly supported by the shadow.  He promenades the dancer, gently slides her off his back, clasps a hand around her throat, lowers her into the improbable arch.  The lights fade, and reappear for the last time to show only the soloist, her hand around her throat, succumbing at last to her body’s desire to kill her.

Before I saw this dance I thought the odds were strong that it would be a travesty.  Why?  I saw the title of the music.  Ask any dancer and they should tell you not to choreograph to Moonlight Sonata.  It’s well-known, it inspires a certain feeling, it’s easy to fall into a specific pattern.  In short, it’s dancer suicide.  So why does Hampton’s dance work so well?  As my husband put it, “When you’re dying from ALS, you can choreograph to whatever you fucking well want to.”

That’s part of it, or maybe even most of it.  By the Light… comes from a place of truth so raw, deep, and pure that there was no way the dance wouldn’t be amazing.  It was choreographed in 1998, one year after his ALS diagnosis.  Where his earlier work comes across as comic, whimsical, on-the-nose, and observational, this dance simply is.  It is an honest expression of Hampton’s fear and the betrayal he felt as his body turned on him over the course of the disease.  This powerful thematic material combined with Hampton’s technical prowess in movement, space, and time forged one of the most incredible artistic works I have ever seen.  It is also the single greatest example montage in dance I have seen to date.  The rest of the concert really isn’t worth talking about.  I could relate how the first dance was a cute trio that used incredible ballet proficiency but Mickey-moused the music; how the young high-school ballet duet reinterpreted Romeo and Juliet as a comedy, complete with flexed feet in pointe shoes; how a trio depicting an artist as an old man, a young man, and his muse featured a brilliant Japanese dancer but fell apart thematically and had a horrible mirror-movement ending; how the final piece just would not end, and kept catapulting into absurdity.  But it all pales in comparison when I think of By the Light… and the circumstances that brought about its creation.  This is the piece Hampton was born to make, and I’m beyond grateful I witnessed it.

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