In Mark Twain's classic "Tom Sawyer," there is a charmingly vivid vignette in which the young rascal begins to amass a stockpile of treasures in exchange for the "privilege" of whitewashing a fence. However, Tom's trove is made up of the simplest of items - a key, marbles, a brass doorknob, a piece of chalk. That he finds value in such ordinary artifacts of everyday life is the underlying philosophy that informs Caitlin Corbett's new "Tom's Wealth: A Dance for the Masses," given its premiere at the Tsai Performance Center over the weekend.
Corbett's aesthetic enthusiastically embraces the familiar gestures of daily routine, and she frequently incorporates non-trained members of the community into her pieces. "Tom's Wealth" integrates five talented dancers - Leah Bergmann, Erin Koh, Rebecca Lay, Kaela Lee, and Marjorie Morgan - into a group of 30 men, women, and children of all shapes and sizes. They look like any random group of common folk, but they display impressive physical commitment, and their loose-fitting clothes in pale shades of yellow, cream, and white make them seem both communally connected and personally vulnerable.
There is no narrative or story line. Tom's treasures are alluded to through Ann Steuernagel's video compilation of photographs by Akos Szilvasi. The images intersperse photos of each treasure with pictures taken during the work's rehearsal, reinforcing the sense that these are real people making a concerted effort. The camera beautifully captures close-ups of facial expressions - from confused to delighted - as well as hands, feet, a lift midair.
During the performance, group movement arises from gestures - a wave, a reach, a shoulder shrug, hands to the head or heart, fingers pointing toward the sky. The performers walk, run, skip, fall. At several points, they drop sideways to the floor, legs and arms clenched slightly inward, like dead animals in rigor. At other times, the group cascades ever so gently downward, the soft break of a wave. Corbett gives the five professional dancers imaginative, sophisticated phrasing in smaller configurations, as they imbue fundamental material with a fluid, more elaborate sense of breath and expanse. A reach leads into a turn. A kick develops into a lunge or a leap.
Chris Eastburn's colorful taped score provides the work's impetus as well as its grounding and connective tissue. He skews and fractures traditional tunes like "Clementine" and "You Are My Sunshine" with rhythmic variations, unusual modalities, and stylistic shifts, from super-slow to rock-edged. Like the movement, it is familiar yet new at the same time.
Ultimately, "Tom's Wealth" isn't particularly stirring or revelatory or even entertaining in the mode of the flashy, fast-paced virtuosity we so often expect. Rather, it is unfussy and organic, a lovely, mostly lighthearted way to spend 50 minutes that sets us up to look at and listen to, afresh, what we may encounter every day.
And in the end, it somehow makes you feel a little more connected to the things that truly matter.