Through the ’90s Oslund choreographed a series of tough-minded dances that applied the hard knocks of contact improv to describing the world in general (and relationships in particular) as a sort of battlefield, only sometimes blessed by the “Occasional Angel” (as she named one dance). Pain as a theme became central: the physical cost of long, demanding dances, and the existential price of loneliness and emptiness. The sense of struggle (which coincided with her own back problems during this time), she seemed to suggest, could drive us into a protective shell and turn us into robots or “Reflex Dolls” (as she named another work).
In the 2000s, Oslund’s development accelerated. Her pieces focused on movement phrases, minute gestures that have no particular content by themselves until the dancer gives them a pulse. In Oslund’s hands, they became alive and dense with meaning, not cognitive, but deeply emotional, seemingly emanating from beyond the muscle of movement to the bones. To “get” an Oslund dance takes some effort at first, but then it becomes mesmerizing.
"Dance has always been a safe and remote place for me, and I seek it especially now. It is ingrained in my life."—Mary Oslund
Back in the studio, Oslund sends the dancers to their places for a run-through of several sections of the dance. The resulting performance will take its place among the often younger, more experimental groups White Bird brings to Uncaged. The series is also the presenter’s platform for local choreographers, and “Childhood Star” is Oslund’s second White Bird commission. To clarify her intentions with the troupe on this day, she has cut the tempo in half, which actually fits quite well with long sections of composer Darrin Verhagen’s electronic score. Verhagen’s work borders on the ambient at times, though he also has a soft spot for hard-edged percussion, and the slowdown turns the dance pensive, somber, inex-orable, though also elegiac. A closing quartet proceeds at a measured pace, the dancers recapitulating earlier phrases and then finding new ways to trade energy, to inflect their bodies with strange accents—a peculiar bow of the head, a turn that curls inward instead of stretching out. This is the part Oslund maintains “doesn’t feel like Mary,” although to me it still does.
“It’s me trying to break old, familiar dance habits and to challenge me and the viewer,” Oslund says. But that’s how I understand all of Oslund’s dances.
Maybe, at 62, she’s more demanding; clearer about what she needs to do.
With two more months of rehearsals ahead, “Childhood Star” will evolve from its state on this afternoon, if only because the nine dancers, most of them Oslund veterans, will gradually unlock the choreography’s secrets for themselves. Maybe it will return to its original quicksilver pace, maybe Oslund will invent new sections and trim old ones. And maybe a small gesture or a random collision will lead her and “Childhood Star” in a completely new direction.