In his 2006 season at DTW, Jeremy Nelson stripped dance to the bare essentials: flesh and bone moving through space. The first piece, Accent Elimination, a reprise from 2004, was performed by Meredith McCanse, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Gretchen Pallo, Rebecca Serrell and Francis A. Stansky. The choreography ran the gamut from smooth, grand, satisfying movement to erratic, quirky, micro-gesticulations. Because the work lacked a narrative thread and common intention, the interpretation of the piece varied depending on which performer you watched. Pallo was playful, Serrell was nonchalant, while McCanse was hard at work. Perhaps the dancers’ only common ground was their propensity to stiffen and topple over.
The costumes—skirts, pants, and buttoned-down shirts of various patterns and textures—along with Pavel Zustiak’s original music—concoction of factory noises interspersed with the sounds of a crowded restaurant kitchen that had a part-time violinist—were audio and visual representations of the movements themselves. While layered, mismatched, and unpredictable, they were surprisingly harmonious. Combined, the tweed and cotton, enveloped in the sounds of metal on metal and running water, reminded me of a physics project. The set, a white backdrop with a large red feather and symbols written along the bottom, seemed to be a by-product of Nelson’s choreography—a notable afterthought revealed only through Nelson’s intelligent use of extensive partnering and level changes.
While movement-focused, abstract dance often functions as a medium to boast the dexterity of the dancers, Nelson’s study of biomechanics upended the equation: the movement played the dancers instead of the other way around. Accent Elimination ended without drama and without warning.
The evening’s premiere, Mean Piece, began for me during intermission as the crew set the props: wood and metal columns, three on each side of the stage, with a backdrop of metallic vertical bands illuminated by large low-lying lights. After the scene was set, the actual dance took the biomechanical study of Accent Elimination to the next level by adding an emotional element: meanness. This characteristic defined the choreography. Lawrence Casella joined the other dancers who entered the stage stamping their feet in exaggerated anger. Nelson incorporated layers of tension by having his dancers literally and figuratively butt heads. At one point McCanse attempted to exit stage left as Casella, through brute force, shoved her off stage right. The partnering in Mean Piece depicted challenge and competition, rather than play, as if the dancers were thinking: “What would you do if I did this? Or this?” One of my favorite sections involved a series of cartoonish stare-downs between four dancers heatedly hovering over each other until one was intimidated into submission and fell supine to the floor.
Although Mean Piece had a personality of its own, it shared Accent Illumination’s industrial feel and focus on the mechanics of movement. Given that the piece was devoid of an obvious narrative, I was confounded by the wholeness of the work. Any attempt to break it down into its representational elements—what the dancers, the set, the costumes, the music are intended to depict—would be inadequate and entirely dependant on the audience member. To me, Mean Piece was like a factory composed of metal, glass, water and grease, with parts that spun, vibrated, wiggled, shimmied, billowed, clanked and propelled.
Krista Miranda dances for the post-modern company Selley Poovey/bigGRITS.