Named for the U-shaped bend in a river, Ivy Baldwin’s BAM commission, Oxbow, is an evocative five-person dance steeped in the language of Movement Research, where the New York-based choreographer and Guggenheim Fellow is an artist-in-residence (as she also is at the BAM Fisher). With the audience sitting on three sides of the stage, the sixty-minute piece opens with Ryan Tracy, dressed in black, playing an elegiac solo on a piano in one of the near corners of the stage. After finishing his composition, he walks to the back and lies down on his stomach as Eleanor Smith appears, shaking and stretching in a black top and white pants. She is soon joined by Luke Miller (replacing an ill Lawrence Cassella) in all white, Katie Workum in a red dress, the exquisite Anna Carapetyan in red and black (the costumes are by fashion designer Alice Ritter), and Tracy as they move about the stage in front of Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen’s massive horizontal installation of twisted paper, often in silence. The audience can often hear their heavy breathing and every squeak of their feet against the floor; Justin Jones’s live-mixed sound design also includes barely audible background music and unidentifiable crunching sounds, and at one point Smith bangs on the keyboards as well.
I don’t know if Baldwin has ever seen William A. Wellman’s classic 1943 Western, The Ox-Bow Incident, or read Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s original novel, but I couldn’t help but see a lot of narrative elements and referents from that famous story about a posse determined to hang three men who might or might not be cattle rustlers who murdered a rancher. Kavanaugh and Nguyen’s sculpture looks like a scorched fallen tree with ropes that could have been nooses, the black-and-white costumes could symbolize good and evil, and the two women in red could represent the potential death of innocent people (as do a series of sudden wailing screams). Regardless, Oxbow is a riveting dance performed by an extremely talented company highlighted by Smith and Carapetyan, who have danced together before in such works as Juliana F. May’s Gutter Gate at New York Live Arts in 2012, in addition to the elegant Workum, the agile Miller, and the surprisingly nimble Tracy. Throughout Oxbow, the performers keep a close watch on one another as they interact in a lovely piece by an imaginative choreographer who is always worth watching as well.