Ruth Baguskas at WAX / Eiko + Koma and Anna Halprin at the Joyce
Ruth Baguskas presented her first full evening of dance, “Foreign & Domestic,” over one weekend in mid-January. Her venue was Williamsburg Art Nexus (WAX), the performance/rehearsal space that’s established a professional presence on Williamsburg’s N 8th St. The four pieces of her program drew the audience in through the personal and on to the ritual core of dance.
Baguskas, who has shown her work for several years since studying at the Paul Taylor School, arranged a bright and lean showcase. A Lynchian pool of light came up on Rebekah Morin, supine among scattered oranges, her head thrown back to the audience. In wine-colored nightclothes, to Chrome’s tick-tock guitars, she danced the solo "Croque Madame" up from the Mylar floor, then hobbled backstage on one foot. She never got that other foot off her knee, and exited with the audience wanting more. An alert opener, curt and auspicious.
Baguskas’s duet with Leah Squires began with the two dancers prostrate in murky lighting like castaways in ribboned bodysuits. One bounded low across the stage, the other turning compass points on her belly. They could have been anywhere or nowhere, though once upright and doing more joyous solos, their costumes looked merely ribboned rather than seaweeded, and their evocations lacked focus.
Two premiers followed, both group pieces that Baguskas developed into contained, spirited plaints. In the first, she appeared from an oversized pink suitcase, donned a citrus yellow shirt, and cavorted with two dancers in polyester chic who brought on a kitchen table and juiced lemons. Baguskas sipped that juice from atop the table, and uttered one “ciao” while a voiceover recounted a student’s misadventures getting out from under NATO’s airwar on Serbia. The piece, with wry charm and a theatrical edge, remained neatly meshed and enigmatic.
The finale opened with Morin in a shoulder stand among crouched companions as Tom Dooley was exhorted to “hang your head and cry.” The spare country music continued and the dancers grew "Ode to Emma Bell Miles" into a systematic hoedown. Casual, controlled, inter-smiling, they nudged the ritual familiarity with modern movement vocabulary: a hand squiggled down the body’s center, a dip at the hip and the lift of a leg, two dancers falling abruptly out of a quartet into something simultaneous, lithe, abrupt.
Though the choreography had spates in which it rested on its enthusiastic performers, when three of them went back down to the stage and the fourth continued into a startling and vivid solo as lights faded, they earned a sustained gush of applause. An audience member commented afterwards that he found Baguskas’s program to be a compelling take on frustration. I’d say that she appeared to work with a knowing sense that gravity, in our world, subtly underpins greater forces rather than swelling into profundity and other cosmological cataclysms.
It was more this triumph of otherworldly gravity that seemed in the offing at the Joyce Theater in early February, when the post-butoh team Eiko + Koma danced with Anna Halprin, who at 81 is the doyen of West Coast healing dance.
Eiko + Koma, along with groups like Sankai Juku, lived through Japan’s resurgence and have melded butoh’s infamous dirges into luxuriant performance pieces (one of butoh’s originators, Akira Kasai, performs "Pollen Revolution" in late April at the Japan Society). If they don’t do their 1995 piece, "River", in natural bodies of water, they do it in one they have built on stage.
Halprin, once Eiko + Koma’s teacher (and that of Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Rainer, Paxton, Childs), bases her work on functional tasks and movements and considers herself a realist. A snippet from her remarkable career: in the late ‘50s, she has Terry Riley and La Monte Young as her company’s musical directors, with Young producing a highly amplified score of metal dragged on two paned of glass. Can’t get much realer than that.
In “Be With,” their first collaboration, the dancers had cellist Joan Jeanrenaud play an extended solo onstage. The backdrop for the piece was a great drape of chewed and pressed pulp, hung close to foreshorten the stage, bloodening from hues of autumn leaves.
Halprin appeared opposite Jeanrenaud as the cellist struck hard lines like a teeming Bach (or Scelsi) Suite. It only seemed that Halprin was just standing there: Eiko + Koma choreograph from butoh’s inexorable progressions, and she and Koma eventually made it across to where Jeanrenaud played. An erotic struggle against the fragile backdrop ensued, but then he sank to the stage. Eiko postured and supplicated, Halprin loomed protectively over her then drove Koma to stage left. Resisting then stemming her regression, he led the other two into a rondelay worthy of Matisse.
“Be With,” moving with the sure progress of continents, drew itself back to stage right. Halprin advanced with solemn poise into a slant of offstage radiance. Jeanrenaud, playing faint and lofty, slid in a chilling leap to high frequencies. The backdrop shuddered, slooped to the stage. The motionless dancers reappeared, high overhead, ensconced in amber light.
After intermission, Halprin danced a life piece, “From 5 to 110.” Flinging her hat out into the audience, she declared, “I’ve come to tell you a story and I’d better get started because my time’s running out.”
Spry as a child, planning at 110 to “dance the way things really are,” she jumped and bumped with jiggles and snags through motherhood, farewells, disease. Beseeching life with a hang overhead then down to the cerulean stage, she declared, “Oh god of longevity, grant me the time, there’re so many dances left to do.” Touching and stirring, the mortal poignancy in her sideways motion and that seeking hand was as urgent as anything youth’s technical arsenal might mount.
Then Eiko + Koma presented their duet “Snow,” skirting spots of lamplight with the stage in a night flurry. “Snow” is a great indicator for their dance and presence: accumulation and accretion, ever at risk of melting away. They meld and melt among yellowed light shafts, her in white, him in black.
But the music showed up an Achilles heel in their heightened approach to beauty. The song, for voice and piano by Rentaro Taki, plays then repeats. An aching morsel, it’s as if the motional trigger of a lied by Schubert or Wolf were filched from its original structure then tossed and turned for show. Eiko + Koma’s work points at the delicate line of the time’s forceful conclusions. It is a fraught and baring act, in which the mere beauty of Taki’s song sounded doubly meaningless.