Dancenow at the Joyceby Vanessa Manko
Each September, New York City’s fall dance season commences with the eclectic and ambitious Dancenow/NYC festival. Featuring a plethora of dance works, the festival is a testament to the vitality and breadth of New York’s dance community. Now in its eighth year, the event is unique in that it not only includes such well-known names as Jane Comfort or David Dorfman, but also showcases a flock of young, emerging choreographers. Such a mix of experience level and range of talent invariably brings an extra bit of enthusiasm and excitement to the floor.
No one facet of Dancenow epitomizes its essence better than the Basecamp Series at the Joyce Soho. The series launched on the second Monday of September with a mixed bill of works ranging from the contemplative and melancholic to the outlandish and wacky.
The show opened with Mark Jarecke’s jarring “SubDermal.” A solo piece performed by Steffany George, “SubDermal” is a multimedia work and incorporates a stage-wide screen projecting an up-close, surgical operation. The effect is confrontational. Yet, as one gets accustomed to the rather grotesque film, a sort of desensitization sets in, shifting the attention more and more to the lithesome and pliable George. Bare-chested, she stands powerfully center stage as the film projects over her body. Jarecke’s choreography requires George to move from the waist, and she continually folds herself in half like a jack-knife, only to slide a leg out from under herself and fold into another formation. The dancing is clean and crisp. All the while the graphic images of the internal body continue, and suddenly take on what can only be called a sort of sublime ugliness. The work has a nice balance between chaotic, almost frantic movement and perfectly tranquil moments. It proved to be an excellent contrast.
The Umoja Dance Company came next on the evening’s bill with Karen L. Love’s highly charged “In the Belly.” Dancers co-mingle on the floor in a moving collage of bodies until one breaks out from the rest, jumping powerfully, but with ease and grace. The pace increases as the bongo drums beat out more and more complicated phrases. Dancers gyrate and pulse, drop to the floor, and spring back up in one swift movement. The piece aims to have the same sort of spontaneity inherent to a Haitian voodoo ritual. However, it is clear that some dancers are struggling with the tempo. The choreography is technically difficult and at such a speed, only some dancers are able to keep up, while others lag behind.
Turning the tempo down just a bit was Laila Sales’s “Sincerely/L”—a more reflective and somber piece, presumably about loss. The choice of a Billy Joel ballad caused this emotionally charged piece to border on the sentimental and staged. While Ms. Sales is a dramatic performer and powerful dancer—her stretched-out arms, or other equally simple gestures, instantly register meaning—her tendency toward over-expression diminishes this piece. For instance, wiping away a tear, or waving goodbye as the lights fade, were moments this work could do without.
Contrary to Sales’s transparency, the dancers in MoCo may have been too oblique with their performance of Kate Gyllenhaal’s “The Night the Meteor Fell Through My Roof.” Perhaps both the poor sound quality and fact that the work was an excerpt of a longer piece caused the performance to fall flat. I sat grasping for meaning and/or something in the choreography that could explain what was going on. This piece is set to a medley of songs, and interspersed throughout the music are voice-overs of people talking, it seems, about loved ones. It is difficult to make out what the voices are saying, however. Add to this music fading in and out and the result is a garbled slew of words and song. As for the dancing, Gyllenhaal seems to be creating a sort of social farce with women clad in fancy evening gowns and men in tuxedos. All the performers have ironic, mocking expressions. While the piece begins with a tango, soon women are lifted into the air and carried here and there across the stage in no visible pattern. Whatever the intent, the one aspect that the piece does not lack is the dancers’ sense of fun. It’s as if they were in on some game that I was wholly unaware of. It made me curious.
In contrast, Faith Pilger’s “At My Job” is both refreshingly clear and incredibly irreverent. In this smart, witty, and well-conceived piece, Pilger, wearing the unlikely dance costume of a workman’s construction-orange jumpsuit, makes up her face like a clown. Such a strange assemblage proves quite intriguing. With the help of loud and angry music by the Dead Kennedys, Pilger creates a dance rant about the injustices of work. She transforms herself into a mechanical robot, representing the monotony and drudgery of repetitive tasks. Her arms crank like a finely wrought machine. In one sequence, mimicking the aggravation of “multi-tasking,” she answers the phone, rigidly bringing an arm up to her ear, swiftly places it back down, shuffles papers, swivels around, and kick-boxes her leg into the air—or into the gut of an imaginary boss, perhaps. To add to the effect, Pilger has scrawled, in black permanent ink, such ubiquitous job description phrases as “clever,” “self-starter,” and “skills” onto her jumpsuit. She manically continues to work, and as the pace increases, she eventually becomes overloaded. Her arms spin wildly and then, as if a cog were stuck in a machine, she sputters and breaks down.
Another notable work of the evening was “CityStory”—a premiere choreographed by Melissa Briggs and performed by Toni Melaas and Mindy Nelson. In it, a long white diagonal line is placed on the stage and represents—cleverly so—a subway train platform. Melaas and Nelson look longingly down into the tunnel, searching for the light of an approaching train. Soon, their act of waiting transforms into a tumultuous love affair. They skitter around each other and across the line. They grab hands, hug, grasp for each other, and throw each other off with equal parts anger and passion. There are tender moments as well. Dressed all in black except for two material hearts sewn into their shirts, they tear each other’s hearts out and proceed to trade them. While such a moment could come off as just plain silly, here it works in a strange way. This is mostly due to the dancers’ skill at emoting through dance.
A change of tone came again with the oh-so-cute “Dress,” performed and choreographed by Nicole Wolcott. Against a soothing blue backdrop, Wolcott stands in bra and underwear in front of a folded-up wedding gown. Cecilia Bartoli, singing Scarlatti, resounds over the scene. The impassioned tone of the singer’s voice, contrasted by Wolcott’s almost comical face, is hysterical. Wolcott walks round and round the coveted object, eventually stepping into it, and zipping up the dress. What ensues is a physical comedy routine, mocking the wedding day. Since she’s such an energetic performer, it would have been nice to see more movement; such an addition might take this work to the next level. Another promising work that could use a bit of polishing is “Waitless,” choreographed by Hannah Ramsey. A trio set for Gabriela Cardenas, Stephanie Chun, and Adrienne Linder, the movement here is breathy and filled with long-limbed jumps and turns. The dancers also stand around as if waiting for something; their arms are folded and their weight is shifted to one side in the aggravated stance of someone who has been stood-up. Yet the substance to this piece seemed absent. The dancers were unfocused and even, at times, remote.
The evening concluded with a rather interesting if bizarre work by Chris Yon. “Elephant-Assisted Suicide or Zig Zags of Treachery” is a humorous glimpse into a strange little world. Dancers stomp around in criss-cross patterns to the ultra-modern music of Mlle. Birdy Ravel—an endless and sometimes grating series of technological bleeps and blips. Adding to the ridiculousness of the work are the extra-large, brightly colored pants, pulled up high and tied with string, that each dancer wears. Facial expressions range from deadpan stares to wide-open mouths and eyes, making it seem as if the individual dancers are causing particular beeps or sirens. When the beeping grows louder, all the dancers, scattered across the stage, close their eyes. Only one remains center stage, her eyes crossed and mouth formed into a perfect “o” as one long beep sounds loudly to the ending.
Thus ended a well-rounded and certainly enjoyable opening to Dancenow’s Basecamp Joyce Soho series. Though uneven, with some needing more touching up than others, the works together presented a whimsical sampling of the kinds of new dances being created by some of the city’s most exciting first-time choreographers.
VANESSA MANKO was the former Dance Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.