Rebecca Stenn and Ben Munisteri presents Chopped and Screwed in association with Joyce SoHo, June 12, 2009
In an interview, choreographers Rebecca Stenn and Ben Munisteri compare their “remixing” of each other’s choreography to digital audio remixing. But, instead of merely changing the depth of a recognizable groove, or fashioning the Frankenstein monster the title of the work implies, this practice of studied recomposition not only plumbs the pleasures of physical experiment, but also pushes the choreographers to intensify the impact of their pieces.
The show consists of two original, ten-minute works: Mirah, choreographed by Stenn, and Arabica, choreographed by Munisteri. Each has remixed the other’s piece, and then remixed his or her own according to strict parameters. The sequence of movements can be changed, as can the speed and the intensity, but no new movements can be added, nor can a movement be transferred from one body part to another. Nor can the movements be spliced; the legs from one movement can not be added to the arms from another.
Reading this list of dos and don’ts may make you wary—and it does sound as though this highly conceptual study would generate precisely that: a dry box of postmodern flakes appealing only to the movement’s most intellectual acolytes. But, Stenn and Munisteri are deeply physical choreographers, and they use these rules to mine emotional and narrative possibilities, rather than rigidly compartmentalize gestures.
The format of the evening enables the audience to explore the choreographers’ process. First, we watch Mirah, a piece for five dancers, including Stenn herself, set to the folky vocals of Mirah and Spectratone International. The dancers wear simple clothing, a rehearsal-like hodgepodge of black stretch cottons, and use their bodies to explore rudimentary Newtonian physics pushing, pulling, stretching, and falling. The pitch is ovoid; circular shapes pulse and undulate. A woman sitting cross-legged cradles an overgrown child in her lap, and with hands on the ground, he arduously drags both bodies around their center, recalling a rusted merry-go-round; a man makes a tripod of his arms on the ground and a foot on another’s thigh, and generates a ronde de jambe, turning his body around its flattened vertical axis.
We recognize these moments in Munisteri’s recomposition, Mirah #2, even though the dance has somehow become angular, the focus shifted to the arabesque attitudés and the toppling ladders of arms and legs. Munisteri clothes the dancers (the same five resilient bodies) in matching gray shirts and sets the piece to a chilly sound design by Jay Weissman. He places them in straight rows on either side of the stage, where Stenn had sprinkled them with artless abandon.
For Mirah #3, Stenn recreates that artlessness, but with more care, dressing one girl in a long voluminous gown, a man in a deconstructed ruffled blouse, and donning ruffles herself. She reinstates music from Mirah and Spectratone International, but squeezes more juice from the bodies, pushing the groupings for a more orgiastic intensity, more weighted and physical interactions.
After an intermission, four new dancers enter the stage for Munisteri’s Arabica, set to the flamenco strum of classical guitar. The choreographer embraces the music’s rhythmic intensity, giving his dancers pulsing pirouettes and stylized contractions. His choice of bodies—more uniform, more lean—confirms an obsession with order and edge already intimated by his remix of Mirah. But, unlike Stenn and her company, who wore the gray expressions New Yorkers don for their rush-hour commute, Munisteri’s pert dancers offer open, even saucy, countenance.
Stenn keys into this, recasting the piece as a romantic duet set to the live bowing of Lori Goldston’s amplified cello; a man and women accompany the barefoot musician onstage. The cellist, unendingly embracing her instrument, mirrors and foils the dancers, who come together and push away, run and chase and beckon. A handstand that passed almost unnoticed in Arabica becomes an exquisite taffy-pulling extension of skin and time, locking the man and woman in an inverted embrace. Arabica 2.0 is deliciously intense, and even in the audience we are breathless and bothered.
Munisteri pushes this envelope further in Arabica 3.0, choosing a dramatic violin concerto by Samuel Barber and lighting the scrim with jagged shadows. He preserves the duet motif, introducing the remaining female dancers interstitially to witness and interrupt the interactions of the couple, whose contractions now feel terse, pinched, cold. The handstand is now executed with apprehension, unlike what we witnessed moments ago, by the man rather than the woman. Arabica 3.0 thus becomes a more complex web of emotional investments than the naked romp of Arabica, Munisteri’s eyes opened to the dance’s latent potential by Stenn’s prying and fashioning.
This kind of remixing, then, proves to be a fruitful practice—a way to illuminate possibilities and catalyze deeper reactions. It’s an exercise more choreographers should do when workshopping their dances so that audiences can have richer, deeper experiences.