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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: “Unstill Life” Rinde Eckert, Risa Jaroslow, Margaret Jenkins, Jon Kinzel, and Vicky Shick, March 21-24, 2024 Dresher Ensemble Studio, Berkeley, CA

The West Coast premiere of Unstill Life, a dance co-created by five celebrated artists, Rinde Eckert, Risa Jaroslow, Margaret Jenkins, Jon Kinzel, and Vicky Shick, will be many things for many people.  The Dresher Ensemble Studio is an intimate space. Every seat and a row of floor cushions is full. The audience is no doubt familiar with the work of at least one of the artists, as all are accomplished and seasoned performers.  For my part I have been watching Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (MJDC) for 35 years, and more recently relishing the quirky poignant duets she has been performing alongside Rinde Eckert. I saw Risa Jaroslow’s Talking Circle (2022 & 2023) four times.

Unstill Life opened on the East Coast several weeks ago, and no doubt audiences there were more familiar with Jon Kinzel and Vicky Shick.  Whatever your point of entry, our viewing is informed by who these people are to us. 

Vicky Shick, Margaret Jenkins & Risa Jaroslow (L to R) in "Unstill Life" photo: Kegan Marling

An artist is forever an artist.  Through their unique filters, they breathe in the world around them and with senses enlivened, translate their experiences, wishes, and observations, through an artistic medium, to be appreciated by others.  In Unstill Life a collective of illustrious creators has crafted an engaging thirty-minute performance honoring each person’s individual style and concerns.  Unfolding gently, the experience of watching is one of slow simmering joyful meditation.

Unstill Life amplifies the artistry that exists in the simplest of gestures. Jenkins’s energy flows through her gently swaying body and along arms which carve parallel spiraling paths.  Jaroslow is formal in her movement, brushing hands brusquely down sides. Her focus is often high, with face beatifically tipped toward the light. Shick is sly, resting on a canted hip, her shoulder rising insouciantly.   The foot of her quickly extended leg darts out and then inward to tap her shin. Enticing angles emerge, a jutting elbow or a flexed knee.

Kinzel, the youngest and most supple of the company, relishes in slouchy plies. His antics, rolling on the floor with a tipped over stool, evoke a drunken bear vibe, while a repetitive head dunking motion calls to mind a heavy metal guitarist’s rhythmic lurching.  When Kinzel settles on bended knee, others take temporary accommodation, resting a hand or head there. 

In Unstill Life, movement shapes both our visual and the auditory experience.  Eckert creates the soundscape with resonant vocalizing and the syncopated patter of musical hands upon his seated thighs.   Most memorable is his shuffling dance with jingle bell anklet, in which it seems the bells themselves are compelling his foot to tap, anxious to be heard once more.  Unable to resist this musical force, Eckert looks a bit overwhelmed until Shick comes to the rescue. Nesting behind him, palms on his biceps, she settles his compulsive patter with her firm, but caring, grip.

The cast of "Unstill Life" performing at the Dresher Ensemble Studio photo: Kegan Marling

Accordion music opens Unstill Life, offering a nostalgic frame through which humor and curiosity weave. A collapsed paper lantern, full of possibility is pinned between Jenkins’s knees. It flexes and twangs in response to her investigatory and guiding swipes.  Standing, she draws it open, expanding and contracting it to match the bellowing notes of Eckert’s accordion, as we giggle.  

Laughter is also evoked as the glow of two cell phones cuts through the darkness, their shaking rectangular forms creating the vibrating aural tones we hear.  Soon Eckert and Kinzel’s lips and noses appear, frosted in electric blue light, as they mouth the devices as a toddler might, trying to eat the sound.

There is an ebb and flow of focus with several artists moving simultaneously onstage, sometimes responsive to each other, but most often in their own ethos.  A notable exception is a winsome side-by-side duet by Jenkins and Ekert.  Hands creep up their bodies, fingers like spiders’ legs poke and prod toward hairlines from which they fly ecstatically into the air before falling once more to their sides. Their hands resume the climb crossing torsos and confoundingly tangling in each other’s digits.  Though I relish each new addition to Jenkins’s and Ekert’s delightful partnership, this front facing section is performative in a way that diverges from Unstill’s introspective musing spirit.

Rinde Eckert & Margaret Jenkins (L to R) in "Unstill Life" photo: Kegan Marling

Near the end of the piece, perhaps to relieve any concern we might develop that there is some deeper significance behind the paper lantern, ankle bells, or groupings of dancers, we are offered a recorded text. Read commandingly by actress Kathleen Chalfant, it reviews the guiding tenets of the project. Phrases rise including “Nothing concrete. Nothing abstract.  Nothing familiar. No Novelty. No concepts. Nothing rhythmic or arhythmic.  Definitely no cultures.”  We smile knowingly at the inevitability of meaning even if none is prescribed.

Unstill Life is perhaps equally gratifying to both viewer and participant.  There is heartfelt appreciation for the artistry of these amazing older artists. While reveling in the present we also feel the presence of mentors and collaborators lost, artists who live on in the hearts, minds, and gestures of others. 

Review by Jen Norris, published March 24, 2024


Production Credits

Performers and Creators: Rinde Eckert, Risa Jaroslow, Margaret Jenkins, Jon Kinzel, and Vicky Shick

Lighting: Jack Beuttler

Sound: Rinde Eckert and Jon Kinzel

Text: Rinde Eckert and Speaker: Kathleen Chalfant

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