Adding Words to Phrases:
by Jen George
the conversation continues between Whelan and Brooks
Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks
The Joyce Theater | February 28 – March 5, 2017
February 28 marked the New York premiere of Some of a Thousand Words at the Joyce Theater, and another point in Wendy Whelan’s trajectory from New York City Ballet principal to contemporary dance collaborator. The audience appears to be in good spirits, and looking forward to the latest results of her metamorphosis. This particular show is a display of Whelan’s partnership over the last few years with accomplished choreographer Brian Brooks, with the added Diaghilevian intrigue of a notable musical collaboration with string quartet Brooklyn Rider. New work comprises the first four sections of the performance (First Movement, Second Movement, Third Movement, Fourth Movement), and then we are treated to a revision of their previous work, First Fall.
The many voices involved in the creation of Some of a Thousand Words have harmonized to present us with work that seems to be an intimate and concise statement, almost restrained in its staging. (The title is apt.) The quartet resides upstage right; Whelan and Brooks caper easily around the musicians without any notable acknowledgment of the square footage they occupy. The backdrop curtains off only the top half of the wall with a sort of greyscale damask pattern. Whelan and Brooks themselves are also swathed in periodically rotating neutrals throughout the piece; tops and slacks that are loose enough to move unimpeded, but not so loose as to completely obscure the lines of the body, or to generate any distracting swish. Throughout, the music is pleasant and compatible (selections by Jacob Cooper, Tyondai Braxton, Colin Jacobson, John Luther Adams, and Philip Glass), but does not compete with, or exceed, the dancers in any way.
Brooks’s movement vocabulary and choreographic style are strong and consistent throughout the show, particularly in his new work. He favors prominent movements of the shoulders and arms to turn the body in space, and appears less concerned with hips or head movements. Often, the body seems to fold and unfold around the sternum. Legs brush out in relaxed lines, feeding into soft quick steps or turns. Little regard is given to the idea of “front”: the dancers’ orientations change constantly, and one gets the sense that the performance would be equally compelling from any viewpoint. Despite Whelan and Brooks’s varied backgrounds (his more contemporary/modern, hers more ballet), their movement styles are equally suited to present the choreography.
First Movement begins with the two dancers standing close beside each other, matching in costume and appearing not very dissimilar in stature. They embark on a slow, almost meditative walk downstage. A pendulum-like arm sequence begins; the swings gradually gain complexity and height until the dancers seem to dangle from the arm suspended overhead. They continue to move in unison and close proximity to one another, but barely acknowledge each other, in such a way that could be interpreted as either companionable or cold. Whelan and Brooks disrupt their unison with different facings and timings, though it reads a little as if one is following the other, or perhaps they are trying to move out of each other’s way.
Later in the new work, Whelan and Brooks perform an exploration with two chairs: moving them around the stage, creating and shifting spatial relationships and power dynamics. Whelan repeatedly falls sideways from standing atop her chair, holding shape in a straight and graceful plane, while Brooks catches and props her up into a sitting position. They repeat fixed poses with rigid lines, stretching horizontally across their chairs, and balancing in a lateral tilt. A seated interlude, filled with arm movements wrapping over and around each other, is a counterpoint to the static, straight lines we’ve seen. Whelan’s past life as a ballerina is evident throughout the Movements in her arch of foot and line of leg, as well as an ever-present sense of lifted-ness; she does not so much raise her leg as offer it in extension.
Brooks shines in a solo that closes out the Movements. He moves more sharply on his own, not needing to temper his rhythm to match a dance partner. His torso twitches and ripples comfortably in the way that occurs when one has the luxury of performing his own choreography on his own timing.
Whelan and Brooks look strong and sure-footed in their older work, First Fall. Whelan is in a pale costume, Brooks is in a darker hue, and the full quartet plays on behind them. The dancers reach to entangle arms with shoulders and necks; there is a sense of centrifugal force in effect. The phrasing punctuates larger lifts that create a ta-da moment. (One imagines that Whelan might experience some nostalgic joy with these ballet shapes.) Gravity reappears for a slow, supported walk across downstage, each step by Whelan a miniature back attitude as she rests her torso on Brooks’s bent-over form. This sets off a series of Whelan falling regally backward onto Brooks, as he is pressed to the floor and then struggles back to upright. The lights fade on a pile of collapsed limbs.
Some of a Thousand Words illustrates the strength of collaboration in a creative setting and its role in response to shifting realities and the passage of time. Transformation is not an opportunity to discard one’s past, but to repackage it in pursuit of articulating something strong and authentic within the company of others. We should look forward to Whelan and Brooks’s continued conversations, and the increasing body of work they are sure to generate.
JEN GEORGE writes out of New York City.