Dance in the Modern Firmament

March, pivoted on its Ides, bowing out this hemisphere’s winter, held both a momentous storm’s blank promise in the weather and continued bickering over Martha Graham’s dances in our cultural heritage. The sampling that follows is of a few less tumultuous events in the local dance world. What is local dance to us goes over big elsewhere; get out and meet more of what’s on offer as spring progresses.

 

Having sold the air rights above their Chelsea HQ, Dance Theater Workshop will spend the coming year presenting events at other theaters as new digs get raised on W 19th Street. The Flea Theater on White Street in Lower Manhattan hosted Fresh Tracks, DTW’s twice-yearly sampler of emerging choreographers. The Flea’s 75 seats sold out over the festival’s four nights in early March, providing the six artists (culled from sixty-plus applicants) multiple staging’s for their work.

 

Gerald Casel led off the program, dancing in one of two pairs comprising his piece, Triangle. This first pair, dressed dark, is the jaded coupling, moving distinct to one another, their movement language astute, just shy of aloof. The other pair, in skirts and colored T’s, shifts through synchronized poses, less the foils of the dark pair than their bathetic twins.

 

Triangle, with a jazzed score by Edward Ratliff, describes a tri-part arc mirrored in the music. The initial distinction between the couples, accompanied by lurking musical mystery, leads to a central section of horn solos built over a groove-heavy bass line that has the second couple (2nd fiddles?) catching up to the evocative pair, the dance swirling about the center of the stage. The dancers lower as the piece lulls, darkens, and ends, drawn down and internalized to Ratliff’s accordion voicings.

 

Inscribing a gradual precision; Casel creates dance language that implants itself straight into memory, no mean feat for the art of the physically ephemeral. I had seen Triangle performed at Joyce SoHo last year, and its offhanded, curt authority persisted for me from that time: the dance itself is not merely of the moment, Casel and his dancers’ cool detachment, at once sensual and hexed, leads to a remarkable mental adhesion.

 

Heather Harrington followed, dressed in black, as was her partner, Kelly Grigsby. The one danced their protracted duet full of swirl and urge, the other with a contemplative concentration, both drawn back towards the soundtrack’s schoolyard hubbub. Ruth and Judith evoked Graham’s unrelenting soulfulness, and suggested the drama of Genet’s maids, biding their time for an employer to flay.

 

Closing the program’s first half, Erico Villanueva and his three dancers had the audience laughing through the canny course of Ikuko’s Alter Ego. A sprite in a bob sashays to the front of the stage, lays a line of red tape. This strip simulates a balance beam that she and her cohorts would treat to a variety of comic and athletic effects.

 

Introducing herself, she embarks on a quick-witted, self-revelatory monologue. It will become a soundtrack voiceover reducing dance to tumbling, then skipping on the mantra “growing up wasn’t easy” at which point Villanueva will be hurling himself through gymnastic extremes, flipping himself aggressively along the red tape line, crashing off both walls.

 

Before that display, the narrator has had to face the embodiment of her personal yearnings (“I wish I was tall, I wish I had big tits”) and has fled, leaving her Alter Ego to challenge the audience with hard stares shot from her poses on the balance tape. More challenges come when A.E. has a hair-yanking catfight with the dancer who just shared a unison adagio with Villanueva, an adagio dazzled with patient, powerful forward sweeps, danced with riveting precision to Ligeti’s searing strings.

 

If those components sound baffling, mix in a grating demonstration of the need for skin lotion and a happy ending’s camp arousal, and you get some idea of Villanueva’s reckless artifice. Yet the form he achieves, matching antics to balletics, earns its own substance, and when the man who’s never contented nails another frontflip, another cyclonic whirl with sudden and consummate extensions, another fist-in-glove piece of entertainment, he’s a grudging hero in ironic times.

 

Personal commitments kept me from Fresh Tracks’ second half, then more of the same got me, on the following evening, to the World Financial Center’s voluminous inner atrium for the Stephen Petronio Company’s evening-length Strange Attractors. And what’s more (or less), personal ties to SPC relegate me blissfully non-authoritative to review their performance.

 

But what a show! Having toured Strange Attractors in the U.K. and the U.S. since its autumn premiere at their Joyce Theater season, the company came out to do themselves proud back home in NYC, lean and seasoned, performing as fine a work of choreography as one is likely to encounter in our hemisphere’s dance capital.

 

Deriving both a title for his piece and a metaphor for his movement from submolecular science and chaos theory, Petronio evokes webs of relations as intimate demonstrations, elusively displayed by his eight dancers. Choreographed to celebrate the 15th anniversary of his company, each of “S.A.”’s three parts is precisely choreographed, so the whole in its interrelations is ostensibly mappable. But beauty does not splay, it gestures, and tells us that bookkeeping is not the point and, furthermore, that any such worrisomeness distracts one from the pleasure of being amid the dance’s myriad attractions.

 

Pt.2 opens with two dancers in black briefs poised on the stage, swathed in twilight blue lighting that will range into paler azure, oranges, and reds. (Through the Prelude and Pt.1, the sun had set over the Hudson through the WFC Winter Garden’s great wall of glass behind the stage; night now lowered through the atrium dome high overhead.) The two dancers raise their faces, turn away, exit to welcome the audience back from intermission. James Lavelle’s guitars swell from silence towards a drum ’n bass turmoil that will be sustained through “S.A.”’s conclusion. The company returns from the wings, nonchalantly reprising the intertwined line they’d formed in “S.A.”’s lust-charged Prelude.

 

Only this time their movements are sleek and assured, not groping as in the Prelude. And this time, cheeks are silvered, the company costumed in Ghost’s spare lines, not the tawdry chic of Imitation of Christ. And instead of Placebo anxiously wailing the Prelude’s “Without you, I’m nothin’” on the PA, the air is rife with UNKLE’s swelling musical churn, to which the dancers figure a shifting superheroic pugilism, their clipped outreach activating and invigorating the stage’s breadth.

 

Petronio’s “bite and the snap of the movement,” his signature figure-eight through their pelvises, propels the dancers as fierce spherical presences. Pt.2, as replete in departures and re-entrances as its preceding section, is also denser overall than Pt.1’s comparative austerity.

 

Challenging and generous, the choreography’s sumptuous undertow flows through the dancers, in Pt.1’s silver pajamas and black slips, as a burnished erotism, pursuing the outer edge of what the body can do. Michael Badger appears for an ardent opening solo within dawning light and a violin’s melody, his deft leaps and lunges of daunting physicality, his arms swept high and wide as he traverses the stage.

 

Badger and Kristina Isabelle pair sporadically in both Pts. 1 and 2, their contact/conflict lending a glint or shard of narrative or romance in what is organically abstract work. The experiential heart of the piece, though, is Todd Williams’ solo midway through Pt.1. His breathtaking lift and exquisite technique describe both the exactitude in Petronio’s dance and the sparkling capabilities of the viewers’ perception.

 

This may be the fundamental exhilaration of Petronio’s work: his confidence in his audience. Pt.1, danced in a gleaming containment of light with a Michael Nyman score for chamber strings and piano, displays his dancers and his language in what, for purposes of concision, I’ll call all possible combinations. In willfully affording way too much to see, there is an impassioned directness about sensory absorption. Feeling’s primacy is revered, as is a noble individual accession. In short, the onus becomes the audience and they can really live the dance.

 

To illustrate: after Badger’s opening solo, a duet is dance in acute and expansive unison. This duet concludes as two lines of three dancers enter to sync and revert as if possessed by fluctuant polarities. The groups (or group) spin and blend, compare, pare, then the dancer with long, dark hair has separated herself stage right and is soloing alongside the active group, jump-turning the compass points, low on her hips with an arm before her. Jimena Paz advances towards the audience with demoniacal grace and the lush pyrotechnics of Petronian desire are underway.

 

Expectations multiply, as well they should, potentialities propagate and things won’t slow in the least until the starkly shadowed adagio well into Pt.2. Tucked into the adagio’s languor is a moment when two dancers scrunch hands in the smalls of their backs, then back them over sagging foreheads as subtly placed mocks at the rampant work that’s gone before. 

 

Nyman’s music drops away several times in Pt.1, giving a delicious shock, catching the audience unaware in the admiration of the dancers’ drive. At a recent Q&A, the choreographer spoke on the simplicity he strove for in Strange Attractors’s Pt.1, and all he wanted to take away, commenting that at places this dictated that he “take away the music, too, and who the body in motion. Let you in. That is dance at its rawest.”

 

There must have been a rare and, who knows? raw few entering the Brooklyn Academy of Music during the Mark Morris Dance Group’s three week season there, who were uninfluenced by a sense of dominion. Across Lafayette Ave. from BAM, MMDG’s 30,000 sq. ft. home-in-the-making sported a huge and illuminated chandelier. With city funds included on the building, one hopes that opulence won’t come to explain budget restrictions elsewhere in local dance.

 

And that it won’t excuse creative malaise as incorporated success. Partway through World Power (1995), separate dancers had fluttered a hand atop and up-extended arm, and had done slanky lures or brush-offs, another hand at the end of a this-time out-extended arm, and the dozen-plus members of the company had achieved variations on the theme of interlocked elbows and diagonal downstage advancement with simultaneous intertwinement of each’s step with each’s neighbor’s trailing leg.

 

I list the composition date because I reckon that World Power qualifies as fairly recent work. These signatory tropes would continue after intermission in Four Saints in Three Acts (2000) in its NY premiere. Bolstering the flutterings and massings would be expanding circles of dancers, then a ring each of males and females. These rings would be circumferenced by St. Theresa, danced by Michelle Yard, who skittered around the rings, each in its turn, before loping offstage.

 

Or would it be her significant other, St. Ignatius, who’d do that particular expressive feat? Did it stick? Does it matter? Is this work being done for ease of digestion, in a time of overarching national contentment? Ignatius, for all his presences on the stage, would be so lacking in stage presence as to be vapid. Yard, as St. Theresa, would at least indicate some inwardness. Or is awareness the word I’m searching for?

 

If so, it’s hardly the right one. If the underlying drama of MMDG’s presentation was that we all and any can do it, then I for one have come to the wrong tent. Give me dancers, especially at the well-endowed top end of the world, who kick at the guts of the possible, who leave the audience gasping at the extent of their personal limitations and grateful for the effort of having just been exposed to them.

 

Over the course of Morris’s 4 Saints, growth in my interest would be towards attending a staging of the Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein opera that would be less distracting (not a simple prospect, re: this effort by MMDG and Robert Wilson’s colorfully limp adaptation from the first Lincoln Center Summer Festival). Such outgrowth of interest may or may not be the purpose of Morris’s much-touted musicality, and there’s everything to be said for being able to pay an orchestra and a chorus to treat your audience to the sonic real McCoy.

 

But when the coup de grace arrives, when the libretto-scripted inner curtain parts and reveals a tall wooden construction at center stage, I am sure, because I heard this same response from another person who attended a different evening of 4 Saints, that I was not the only person who was bolted back into a momentary and ill-appropriate reality check by shared cultural memories like Southern lynchings in our parents’ days, and the Reign of Terror’s heedless purifications.

 

But—no? That’s not a gallows onstage? Not a guillotine?

 

It’s a swing set?

 

Is Morris’s tongue in his cheek with all this? Or cheek to jowl with cush arbiters of complacency, and busily advocating a playground idealism?

 

Or perhaps I’m completely off base and should check sources to see is there not a swing set in the opera’s stage directions. I hope he didn’t make up that piece de resistance.

 

The chorus, in “World Power,” singing a text in which Twain excoriates the U.S. for invading the Philippines, has affecting intent, is potent historicism. But MMDG’s two males of color stalking the stage while everybody else does corpse plops from the wings and is dragged back off? Smacks of self-satisfied revisionism. And Lou Harrison’s gamelan music, with the dancers’ shadows cavorting on the back wall? Is this a reverence for, or a spoof of, another culture’s rituals?

 

Morris derives his language from ballet’s descriptive mimicry, reverting to the demonstrative gestures which were once relied upon to forward a dance’s narrative drama, where 20th century ballet (ref. Balanchine) left that stuff out to explore movement in the core of dance.

 

Graham, doyenne of the modern, wrenched her moves out of the tormented, individuated psyche. Cunningham, expanding his place in the firmament at his tender age, generates his patterns according to chance’s latest techonologability (from the I-Ching to computated motion capture).

 

Morris appears to derive his from the realms of the obvious. Forgive me in hindsight for not deepening my knowledge of his achievement during this 20th anniversary season; his acclaimed modern ballet L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato was presented, and of course he started White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov (White Oak’s at BAM in June).

 

But there’s a fine line between keeping au courant and cutting one’s losses, and with dance as with music there are but two kinds. A group of dancers, as they exit stage right, tromp to a rhythm in Thomson’s rollicking pastiche of musical Americanisms. They then exit. They then step back onstage from the wings, tromp again to that rhythm’s repetition, wearing the while faces full of gushy smiles. Then they exit again.

 

This all missed my funny-bone somehow, and did not ignite my passion to explore more of the choreographer’s creative drive. Joan Acocella assures us, in one of her recent Morris articles in The New Yorker, that he is this country’s “most exciting dance choreographer,” and that he’s just done a ballet of significance for the San Francisco Ballet, entitled A Garden, danced to Strauss’s adaptation from Couperin, who did harpsichord music for Louis XIV. One hopes Acocella’s in the know, and not merely signifying her forthcoming Morris bio for FSG.

 

To resort to silver linings: when all is danced and done, as with a deeply affecting performance, so with a patently ingratiating one, and, once out the auditorium doors, never did a cold March rain feel so good.

 

Good connections got great seats as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company opened their City Center season. Big support out in full force (Baryshnikov, Senator Clinton, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg) as per the master’s due, yet it was the ongoing vigor and intrigue of his art that had them standing in a clamor, calling him out to join his company on stage after the premiere of his latest work.

 

That new work, Way Station, proved the most intriguing piece on a program that ranged over Cunningham’s long career. His reliance on aleatory operations has grown handily into the computer age (1999’s Biped, included in this season, has as décor a computer’s tracing of dancers into their movement.) With Way Station as an indication, his choice of non-choice justifies not only its own methodology but also the approaching advents of artificial intelligence and—who knows? Replicant progeny?

 

The cool, unconsidered arrivals and departures of the big company, their random groupings and units, needled and drew attention as Way Station progressed. A trio of couples seemed more a pleasing diversion than a crux of the piece. One female mounts her male, her knees atop his chest, and he exits backwards, the others following suit, each in a peculiar manifestation on man-carries-woman-off-stage, to reform this configuration later in the dance.

 

If avid sensitivity is a result of chance techniques, Derry Swan’s extended solo is the reward of MCDC’s newest dance. With intense facility in her high legs and a quality of movement in her upper body that is at once methodical and rambunctious, she developed her solo out of a trio dance in the center of Way Station.

 

As the other two dancers retreat to an embrace at the back of the stage, Swan relevés into utmost holds, then does sequential move-pose-turns with a wild reserve that overspills the MCDC’s imposing technique. Swan in motion is Way Station’s pivot, dashed and tinged with undisguised joy.

 

And she’s about as vivid as Cunningham’s grueling poses. Balanced in a wide 2nd position relevé, her torso suspended towards an arm lowered almost to the stage, she gradually upraises her other palm, bolted back above her head. It’s a show of silent heart, done to an auditorium full of caught breath. Swan is joined by a man who stands and kneels before her to catch her from upright turns and plunges. When they flourish and depart it was to spontaneous applause that was more for her art than their fleeting comic turn.

 

A third of Way Station’s stage was occupied by five huge, DayGlo papier-mâché morphs, the lavender one like a telescopic version of the jet seed pouches on finds on the beach, its corner tendrils tilted down to from stilted legs. Panels of Pacific Northwest Indian iconography adorned Cunningham’s ever-present bodysuits. Takehisa Kosugi’s score drained and swirled, poor radio reception and wriggled electric guitar jacks interjected with a squelched Farfisa, a processed mouth harp, badly-taped squeeze boxes jerking as the dancers went about their wide then pointed footwork on locked legs, then righted knees.

 

Swan appeared again in RainForest, a Cunningham mainstay from the late 60s with sets by Andy Warhol and a soundscape by David Tudor. Her role is peripheral; the verve she deploys is revelatory and spurs wonder as to the level at which Cunningham’s work might one day be danced, and encourages a view into the archives to discover again the exceptional dancers who have graced his company in the past.

 

Warhol’s silver Mylar pillows, kicked about by RainForest’s three principals as they enact a mildly embittered ménage, loft then settle, slightly heavier than air. Other dancers, including Swan, pass through. Tudor’s tropical overlays seem prosaic—coupling is a jungle game?—and the story gleanings seem to bump the dry, rigorous dance in which they must live. Strange to watch Cunningham’s biomorphic bodyliness not to mention Warhol’s effete camp, portray this trio’s grimacing discomfort.

 

Summerspace opened the evening, revived forty years on from MCDC’s early years. Rauschenberg’s brightly-dotted costumes, in conjunction with his brightly-dotted backdrop (think Lichtenstein meets Seurat deep in the sex of one of Mitchell’s sunflowers), lend the powerful movements a transparency, the blending of motion’s nudity and the sensory nature of void.

 

The six dancers bound with bowed, backheld, downhung arms like ready wings. Enormous one-legged hops repeat with fearsome persistence; a woman lowers her hips onto one heel in studied assertion then rises, progressing then lowering again. Morton Feldman’s piano score, played on tape by John Cage and Tudor, bares note clusters to their impact in atmosphere as the dancers achieve their equally spare work.

 

The curtain descended with Summerspace seemingly in progress on-stage, as it would with each of the MCDC’s subsequent dances, and it descended too on this viewer’s continued interest in what was happening up there, and all around out from there, in the gathered responsiveness.

 

As Ernest Lehman said at the Oscars, getting his statuette for a lifetime of scriptwriting, and getting in both his dig and his plea: the movie’s in the script. So, too, is the most enduring and the most repeatable of dance.

Contributor

Alan Lockwood

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