New Choreography: Dragons in the Light
Liz Gerring, Low Light, at Engine 27
Gerald Casel, Make Way for Dragons and Sprawl, at Joyce SoHo
Choreographer Liz Gerring presented Low Light in early June, her second piece in a year, upping the ante for her growing audience and setting a heightened standard for her own vision. Developing and expanding on themes from her Sliding Out of Reverse (reviewed in January – February 2002 Rail), Gerring demonstrated both the vivid nature of the terrain she’s mapping, and the concentration with which she’s exploring it.
When Philip Gardner paces firmly backward, approaching a vigorous, meticulous, and protracted duet with Jimena Paz, he covers the depth of the stage, as he did in last year’s Sliding. And when Christina Sanchez arrives midway into Low Life, her added presence recalls Sliding’s fluctuating trio.
Returning to this 1 man/2 women configuration, Gerring mines rich sensual material in her resolutely abstract work. Structured with biomorphic poses as hinges, presented with minimal transition in a Cunningham mode, the resolve in her work is more athletic than heroic, her movement language less a suggestion than an implement towards a dramatic sense of presence. A unison between Gardner and Paz, of 3-point stance-hops with trailing leg raised, has them looking at first like oversized comic birds, yet their remarkable precision in dancing this sequence opens the moment’s post-pleasure gleam.
The dance’s intensity and the quality of Low Light’s production values have taken strong strides beyond last year’s Sliding. While clearly the work of the same artist, it also indicates a certain taste for accomplishment. Rather than seeking out new effects, Gerring appears poised at a fulcrum of endeavor and refinement. Her partnering of Gardner and Paz is in itself a brilliant stroke, and she focuses them on the accuracy in her movement, and indulges herself in the acute ability of these two fine dancers.
The work of Low Light’s other participants is similarly impressive. The aleatory electronic music of Michael Shumacher, and Ursula Scherrer’s double screen of elemental videos, display the alert quality of their contributions to Sliding, then take full advantage of Gerring’s evolving project. In the prelude/interlude/postlude segments which seem to provide the title of the piece, the setting is dim and still, the air splintered with delicate musical ephemera while videos spool an intangible visual smorgasbord.
Sami Martin’s fire-engine red pants and abbreviated tops fit boldly on the three dancers, delineating their movements against brick walls hung with foam sound baffles. Carolyn Wang’s fine lighting, low up from the floor, gave the piece the impact of an event staged for visitors transported to an external realm, located somewhere deep within.
Consecutive performances of Low Light were given at Engine 27, a sound installation venue in Tribeca. The narrow space, designed for the audience to move freely among an array of loudspeakers, posed some problems in seating and sound. The middle rows needed some elevation, and the front rows had the best imaging of Schumacher’s sound components.
Gerring speaks of preferring that the audience be close to the movement, and developed Low Light from the idea of a dance installation (several years ago, she danced her piece Release as a four-hour solo to Schumacher’s involuting soundscape). The prelude she’d danced with Gardner in Sliding was her starting point for the new piece, then she added Sanchez when Gardner and Paz were rehearsing Martha Clarke’s work (see review in this issue).
Gerring found that their outside work helped inform Low Light’s superb partnering, and Sanchez (who danced with Alvin Ailey) became a relative principle in the piece. Where the trio’s allegiances shifted in last year’s Sliding, Low Light presents another sort of gender bond, with Sanchez’s role suggesting the disruptive appearance of romance. But if Gardner and Paz fit a sibling-like symbiosis, it too is fraught: when he’s supine and she climbs on top of him for the interlude’s pause, they remain eerily fixed as lights fade and Scherrer’s video performs.
Sanchez leaps to Gardner’s hip in one of Low Light’s danciest moves, and Gardner performs an aggressive solo before a late level of beautifully contained exuberance. With the three dancers blending and separating, Low Light rewards both its own rigor and its audience’s attention, though this final apex makes the video postlude problematic, as one needed to wait to applaud the dancers.
Gerring speaks of doing her next piece for two men (a piece for two women followed her ’97 solo Release). Though there’s no telling what the future may bring, Gerring’s refined something pivotal with Low Light. Her dance maintains a veneer that’s hard yet allowing, the arc of a whirling top or axis.
From the earnest lofting by his eager company to the dancers’ silly, silent gabbing, the elements in Gerald Casel’s work have the sly placement one finds in certain rampant gardens. The plot may look like it’s being paid minimal attention, yet in fact the gardener (or choreographer, as it were) actually has the smarts to let his considerable resources work for themselves. Isn’t that, in a nutshell, the artist’s task?
Casel’s affected effortlessness shows through to a steely rigor, a kind of springboard for his exuberant dancers’ smiles and pouts. If this sounds brash and fun, it is: At his Joyce SoHo weekend in mid-June, the audience applauded each of the numerous dark-outs partitioning the opening piece, Make Way for Dragons—and not because they thought it was over.
An ensemble piece telling a coming-of-age story (the dancers wear school uniforms), Dragons sparkles with details. With one dancer down at center stage, another goes up to a handstand alongside her, then drops the top of a foot lightly on her colleague’s back. She concludes the segment in a counterclockwise circuit, throwing a sudden, chin-first spin at backstage. In a quiet passage, two men roll in to poses and interactions, their three companions panting along the wall, audible during a momentary lull in John Mackery’s raucous jazz score. Mackey’s music, for piano trio, brims with melodic profusions and is underpinned by a forceful, close-miked rhythm section. This musical structure reflects the choreography’s bountiful variety, and its limber spine.
During the floor sequence mentioned above, the two men walk their fingers towards one another’s head, revealing in simultaneous and minute activity the wealth of diversity in a single gesture. At a later point, these two will stand at the back of the stage and shake their heads similarly, quite separately. Hands to heads, the heel of a hand advancing another part of the body, Casel’s dancers all but act the individual movements, and meanwhile the flow of ideas stays so fiercely at-pace.
The pert central character (Emily Tepper) is caught as the lights die, rolling in a lovely mise-en-scène to conclude the adagio. In another conclusion, a human drawbridge on the playground catches her up; she’s still running as lights go out. She’s something of a stand-in for Casel, with Dragons the first of his pieces in which he does not perform.
Casel’s still very evident behind it all, wielding his pointed vigor with charming and somehow risky nonchalance, like someone looking the wrong way crossing a street or nearing the edge of a cliff. He’s trying not just to put companions (or audience) on edge, but to take a very basic challenge in living, testing the agenda prescribed in events and situations. Casel’s got attitude by its short hairs, awareness and lassitude feeding off of each other, requiring each other, love molting through the postures of indifference. It teases and tugs at the edges of the work, it pleases and haunts and draws one back for more.
Casel’s program continued with new work, Sprawl, which he opened as a duet with Marci (Tracy Dickson). After watching her extended solo, he performs one of his own, his energy firmly grounded, turning a remarkable radius of concentration between his gaze and his body extensions.
More duets follow, and one trio segues into another trio, then another, Casel keeping the changes smooth and evolving as the N.E.R.D. soundtrack rocks its urban hip-hop. Sprawl’s startling passages are group essays (Tarek Halaby, Toni Melaas, Carolin Micklitz, and Joseph Puolson are the rest of Casel’s spirited dancers). With action spread and varied across the stage, the piece takes on a vivid and intimate presence during what is ostensibly its fullest activity.
A song plays an homage to the homeless, the stage bathed in sunset pink and rose, the dancers verging on cosmic solemnity. When the lyrics of a later tune rant that “the song is over,” the jambs are getting kicked out by Casel & Co., with serious punch held in reserve to the end and a big tasty mutual hump tossed in as a delicious aside.
The fey, lifting hand (a V-for-victory?), and Casel’s play on King Tut’s fashionable savvy, both make fleeting appearances, reminders of pieces past. And Tracy Dickson gets credit for Sprawl’s black costumes, a different red ribbon strung on each skirt, a dark bauble catching light on one shoulder of each of the men.
Recipient of a Bessie award, Casel has danced for Lar Lubovitch and Stanley Love and was a member of Stephen Petronio Company through most of the ’90s. He’s back as guest artist with the SPC and can be seen in new and recent work during Petronio’s Joyce Theater season in mid-October.