Choreographer at the cutting edge: Beth Soll's world of wit and wonder
Boston — ''When I was younger,'' says Beth Soll, her hands waltzing through the air as she talks, ''I would just go around skipping and dancing (down the street), and people would come up to me and say, 'Isn't that wonderful?' And I would turn to them and say, 'You can do it, too.' ''
The Boston-based choreographer has been catching people by surprise ever since.
Her dances, while complex, are considered by local observers to be some of the most provocative, entertaining, and deeply thoughtful being created today. She is part of the ''Next Wave,'' a movement of choreographers, musicians, and other artists whose work is marked by splashy multimedia collaborations (mixing dance, music, theater, video) infused with neoclassical attitudes (viewing art as a search for truth). Increasingly making itself felt in music videos, on Broadway, and at theaters around the country, ''Next Wave'' stands at the cutting edge of contemporary art.
Mrs. Soll is right there with it. As for neoclassical attitudes, she calls her approach to dance ''a spiritual discipline.'' And as for multimedia collaborations, she can choreograph dancers waltzing with cloth dolls while a live guitarist and a recorded tape loop play the same haunting theme. She has also created a parody on ballet that includes a full on-stage orchestra playing avant-garde music, dancers and orchestra members singing an old summer camp song , and a junglelike painted backdrop.
If that sounds confusing to you, that's because it is. Soll, who has been creating dances here for the past 11 years, evokes reactions from awe to anger.
''There are very few people who are lukewarm about Beth - they either like something in her work and get hooked on it, or they hate it,'' says Iris Fanger, director of the Harvard Summer Dance Program and a close follower of her career.
But Beth Soll is not concerned. ''I never expect anyone to see what I see. That's no fun. I might as well be dancing alone in a room.''
Happily, she's not. Her work, a fascinating blend of the new and old, the avant-garde and the classical, has won her five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has performed in Boston, New York, Paris, and Budapest. And she has won considerable critical acclaim.
''Her use of space is quite exquisite and painterly,'' says Liz Thompson, director of Jacob's Pillow, the famous Massachusetts dance center. ''She is very intelligent ... a considerable talent.''
Christine Temin, dance critic of the Boston Globe, calls her ''the finest and most original choreographer I've seen in New England - very challenging, always growing.''
''She has a very classical view of art,'' Mrs. Temin continues, ''that it's not just entertainment - but is here to enlighten, to seek for higher truths.
''This makes a lot of artists blush nowadays, but with Beth it is very genuine, and you feel it.''
Seated before her in an office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is director of the dance program, one senses the deep commitment Soll has to her work and the integrity that springs from it.
''Something I just love about dancers is that no matter where they are or what they do, they go to the studio and work every day. Sports people ask me, 'Isn't all the warm-up and practice boring?'
''No! Of course not. That's the whole thing!''
A small, handsome woman with short dark blond hair and a round, expressive face, Soll herself is a person of great contrasts. At times she will be quiet and thoughtul, listening carefully to the questioner. Then suddenly an idea will catch her with a rush of words and a flurry of hand motions. She explains how to watch her dances:
''You have to be open to things, taking it all in,'' she says, her arms spread wide and back like a dove, with eyes looking up, flickering around. ''But ,'' she adds, turning quickly forward, the eyes narrowing, ''you have to observe intensely.''
At one point in the interview, a sound created by construction workers outside the window - a ''bong, bong'' caused by objects dropping on metal - catches her ear. She leaps up in midsentence almost as if to start dancing to it and says, ''Oh, isn't that a wonderful sound.''
Soll, in fact, uses everyday events as one of the main resources for her work. ''She loves to observe life - and that comes out in her dances,'' says Ruth Birnberg, a fellow choreographer who collaborated with her on a recent work , ''Duet for Four Figures.''
Along with the everyday motions, Soll employs movement covering the entire gamut of styles - from classical ballet to jazz to modern. The resulting dances are densely layered, complex beyond common conception, and, best of all, full of experiment.
This often translates into humor as, for example, in her work ''Masque: Attempts to Fly.'' To strains of Vivaldi, she enters, looks hesitatingly about, then mimics a man trying vainly to fly. The audience roars with laughter. At other times she produces works of wonder and intrigue. In ''Dances of Paradise and Everyday Life,'' the Soll dancers alternately float like angels and sit around having typically human conversations. Said critic Temin about this dance: ''Someone could - and probably should - write a doctoral dissertation on all that happens....''
As for her own history, Soll says, with a girlish smile, ''I was just born wanting to dance.'' Her actual training began at age nine in Ithaca, N.Y., where she grew up. As a teen-ager she studied at the Kurt Jooss School in West Germany , followed by studies at the University of Wisconsin back home. Both Mr. Jooss and Mary Wigman, German modern dance pioneers, are strong influences on her work. Soll moved to Boston in 1974, from where she has been building her career ever since, and this year she sports an eight-member company.
But she is not driven by a need for great popular success. ''The more - quote - 'success' I have,'' she says pointedly, ''the more I'm convinced how distracting it is. It interferes with that mission,'' she says - what she calls ''the dancer's search for truth.''
''Dance has always functioned as a religious ritual,'' she explains, ''(as) in primitive societies, and I think it still is.'' But today, she says, choreographers typically avoid words such as ''love, beauty - the more spiritual qualities.'' ''But they're dealing with them anyway,'' she adds.
''What's going on in parts of the New York dance world - the amorality, the rejection of the search for what's good and evil - is boring. The works are therefore so ambivalent, so unclear.
''But people can't deceive themselves on this subject. We feel these things every day - what's good and bad.''
Yet Soll works are hardly moralistic. They are highly emotional, dealing with both the uplifting (like her recent work ''Summerdance,'' about summer weddings and outdoor picnics) and the challenging (like ''Duet for Four Figures,'' which deals with strain and confusion in relationships). But, she insists, ''I know my works shouldn't serve evil and death.''
What they do serve is a yearning to experiment, to create and explore ideas through movement, and it this exploring that most defines Beth Soll. ''Life's always changing, moving - that's one of the wonderful things about dance: It's like life.''
In the end, she says, her arms thrown up with a shrug of the shoulders, ''Pure dance is just skipping under the sky....''