When performer Layard Thompson hit me in the head with a bunched-up newspaper page, I knew I was in for an evening of humor, delight and oddities. Never mind the throngs of people sitting, kneeling and standing on various levels throughout the basement of the Whitney Museum on this Friday night in January, or the line of hopeful audience members that snaked out the front door, around the corner and down the block. The presence of so many people actually gave the evening the heightened energy needed to enjoy Thompson, Edie Thurrell and Brandin Steffensen’s interpretations of Deborah Hay’s sparse and esoteric choreographic solo work News.
Chez Bushwick and Whitney Live presented …NOT THE SAME SOLO, three adaptations of News as part of Hay’s rigorous Solo Performance Commissioning Project, where each artist has practiced the solo daily for no less then three months and adapted it to their personality.
Thompson performed the first rendering of News. Dressed in a white karate uniform, he crept in through the crowd, opened a Village Voice newspaper and outlined a mini stage on the cement floor with its pages. At first he moved awkwardly, like a child taking their first steps, and the beauty of those moments grew. Distorted and blocked arms opened into more formed positions. Controlled leaps showing off his sinewy limbs emerged from short bounces.
Thompson added metronomes to the space, casually walking around the stage and performing movements in spurts, which made it difficult to grasp the underlying thread. What could be seen, however, was a larger creation of his performance space using structured strolls and choreography. His approach to the work was softer and more contained than the others’
Thurrell’s work took us outdoors to an enclosed cement courtyard with a pile of crumpled chicken wire acting as a sculpture in the middle. Thurrell wore an outstanding fluffy jacket of various orange, gold and pink tones that evoked the Muppets. The quirky nature of this introduction remained throughout the piece. Her interpretation of News was loud, literally, as she enthusiastically clapped her hands, urging the audience to do so as well. She also cited rhymes about plants left on the ground and neighbors picking them up, all adding to the charm of the piece and embracing a key element in Hay’s work: sound and experimentation.
Thurrell walked the expansive area after removing the coat, raised her arm, bent her elbow and opened her palm forward. She walked with regality—on releve, in plie and casually—all the while keeping her arm elevated and fingers moving like feelers through the air.
Her movement phrases were sporadic and small considering the space she inhabited, but like Thompson’s, they were controlled and energetic. She kicked her leg up with ease and moved around herself with stability. Thurrell ended up lying prone on the pile of chicken wire, with her lower legs crossed as if in playful thought—one of the resonating physical similarities across all three interpretations.
Steffensen’s descent to this position, however, was reached after a vivacious elegant interpretation of News. We moved inside to encounter him dressed in black tie. Like a magician presenting his trick, he placed goggles, a bathing cap and sunglasses around the stage. He eyed the audience with the enthusiasm of a showman and performed exaggerated movements like a mime.
Steffensen morphed Hay’s sparse movement into a constant flowing sequence. He controlled and emphasized the energy of the jagged choreography through his graceful body, and he connected the space in doing so. A mere lift of the arms turned into a body roll and anchored leg lift. Steffensen also called out rhymes, clapped and leapt, but was light on his feet and nimble, moving tightly around himself to plie through the space rather than walk.
The goal of the project, to introduce each dancer’s personality to the work was certainly reached, and the order of the presentations, from Thompson to Steffensen, was well thought-out. From testing movement and sound in Thompson’s piece, to the in between of Thurrell’s to the outward energy of Steffensen’s, the metamorphic nature of Hay’s work was evident, and from beginning to end, it was easier to get more involved in the piece and with the dancers.