October 1-3, 2009
My favorite muscle in sixth grade was the gastrocnemius. A cohort of boys had become interested in sex, and I purchased a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which had a complete catalog of images of human musculature, including the ischiocavernosus and bulbocavernosus (look ’em up in Wikipedia; you’re intimately familiar with them, I assure you). The gastrocnemius, if you don’t recognize its anatomical name, is the calf muscle, and it has a romantic history. Or rather, its tendon does, as readers of Homer’s Iliad will recall. It was by a leather thong threaded through its eponymous tendon that Achilles dragged Hector’s dead body through the Greek camp. Later, Achilles himself was killed by the cowardly adulterer Paris with a poisoned arrow in his vulnerable heel, where the tendon terminates.
I’ve always had artistic aspirations; my preference for the gastrocnemius has always been aesthetic. So it remains a professional thrill to watch classical dancers perform balletic movements, given that the definition of their gastrocnemius muscles is, to say the least, pronounced. And impressive. And this has everything to do with the Eidolon Ballet’s recent performance of Decology at the Joyce SoHo in October.
Eidolon Ballet, founded in 1999 to bring dancers and other artists together “to create new and often unorthodox works,” has done just that with Decology, a series of pieces that marks Eidolon’s tenth anniversary season. The program, which has wide-ranging themes, techniques, and emotional impacts, treats the audience to ever-changing, ever-surprising, but mostly ever-delightful movements and moments. Decology was choreographed by Melanie Cortier, Eidolon’s co-founder and director; costumes were created by Melanie and Claudine Cortier, Yuki Kittaka, and the dancers.
The first piece, “Apposition,” set the tone for the evening, beginning with a clattering soundtrack as five dancers, clad in red, green, yellow, blue, and orange tutus, clattered across the stage in classical mimesis. The tension between “it’s ballet” and “it’s not-ballet” recurred as a surreal defining element of the evening. The dancers morphed, becoming music box ballerinas, flowing flowers, flouncy, fluid. It worked, even though it shouldn’t have, forcing the inescapable conclusion that, yes, I’ll take the five of them home for when I need the esthetic charms of dance. (I’ll even feed them.) And then they took off, taking the audience where? To Tahiti? Paris? Tigerlandia? Ardi’s ancient Ethiopic Africa? Clockwork-Doll-Utopia? They took us to the primitive, private place we know subconsciously we want to be. Telling us that there is only dance, there is only being alive, there is only now, here, yes, muscle, blood, sweat, women dancing in the chiaroscuro of firelight on calves, en pointe, the flames blazing, sparks flying. They took us there.
“Piano Pieces” followed to tinkling Clementi, Arne, and Chopin. Again, the juxtaposition of rehearsal studio classical music with modern movement gelled. First, the erotic trifle “Pas de Deux.” Danced by Kathryn Albarelli and Justin Allen, “Pas de Deux” was a puppy love fantasy of agile yout’, evoking familiar pleasures for anyone in love: teasing flirtation, a stunning redhead—all leg below a crushed velvet burgundy torso bodysuit—the pianoforte perfect, the movements mercurially whipsawing from frisky to maudlin, the pseudo-melodrama hilarious. Unfortunately, Decology’s costume designers chose to dress its males cap-à-pie throughout, obscuring their movements.
“Trio” followed. A triad of nymphs, dusky Hesperides, music sylphs in the Elysian gardens of Attic reverie, cavorting, en tableaux, visually mellifluous, their garlands trailing as they shed their ephemeral petals, their innocence violently seducing. Then I recognized the immortal parody, and I’d been had again—it was only make-believe. Then a poignant change-up, “Duet,” a meditative allegory of friendship and sisterhood, ending with a head on a shoulder. Then “Pas de Trois,” a love triangle convincingly danced by Maureen Duke, Jerry “Chip” Scuderi, and Michael Warrell.
“Piano Pieces” closed with a final “Duet” danced by Temple Kemezis (she of the evening’s relentlessly captivating smile) and Claire McKeveny. The alabaster dancers’ bodies in contrast with their calla lily iridescent blue-black open-bottom-front dance dresses with the arresting orange linings (ça plane pour moi). “Duet” was a hugely humorous competition between Kemezis and McKeveny, one in front of the other, en face, waving her four arms, then the allegros—quick steps—to gain the audience’s attentive advantage. A two-headed dénouement, in which Kemezis and McKeveny finally regarded each other—askance. Bravo.
Next up: “Billy’s Red Socks,” a wind-up doll dance. In its clever opening device, a child in her red dancer’s dress and leotard walked onstage to wind up the dormant automata—Albarelli, Allen, Duke, Kemezis, McKeveny, Amy Schulster, Jill Schulster, and Warrell—and then retired to the front row floor to watch the performance with the rest of us. And then they began moving, mechanically awakening, synchronizing with the appropriately eerie, pennywhistle music. The dancers dressed in beige and red, red-calf-height-socked and red-sock-armed, the socks deftly exchanged arm-to-arm. The music went loony, mysterious, the pennywhistles blew, the waltz beat amplifying the unreality. The dancers goose-stepped grotesquely, mechanically, in motor rhythm, going through their clockwork paces to electric jazz guitar, malleted xylophones. In signature Eidolon movements, the dancers became frantic, frenetic; the cartoon kazoo kicked in (Betty Boop Lives!), everything ran amok, and we were hooked—again. As in everything Eidolon does, the dancers make “Billy’s Red Socks” look like physical pleasure. In the end, we were right there with the little girl, applauding.
The second half of Decology opened with “Mana,” the supernatural power personified in dance, accompanied by Hawaiian slack key guitar (including Ozzie Kotani’s “Ku’u Kika Kahiko”). Three movements: Ao (dawn), Alaula (sunset), and Po (night). Ao’s striking Sargent Madame X tableau was stylistically inconsonant with the following movements. And the supernal, steel-stringed music begged for some svelte, synchronic sway as the celestial dawn unfolded. At least Alaula made metaphoric sense, with the two-tone orange fish dancer diving into the horizon, shimmering. Po featured five dancers—Albarelli, Valerie Cortier, Caitlin Maxwell, Christina Neil, and Amy Schulster—in black, conjuring Gaugin’s flowers, stone temples, the gift of food, the awakening of darkness, the Myriad Mysteries, the Ritual of Life, the Ineffable Feminine, the Concept of Beauty—all the things that dancing does, but words utterly fail to adequately express. Night fell; “Mana” ended well.
“Alone” was a kind of gimmick piece, with the musician Natalia Paruz performing on the saw with a holograph-wrapped bow. Paruz on saw produces a seamless, eerie sound most equivalent to a dancer’s glissade, a theremin’s simulated human vocalization. Paruz herself describes the sound as mesmerizing. It’s also really dominant when placed center stage. As to the piece itself: Three dancers—Valerie Cortier, Kemezis and Neil—two in black, one in white, their forgettable, vague movements lost deep in the overpowering shadow of the saw.
And finally, “Dashpot” (a kind of viscous damper). “Dashpot,” danced by Allen, Valerie Cortier, Duke, Meredith Fages, Kemezis, Maxwell, McKeveny, Neil, Jill Schulster, and Scuderi, was the signature piece of the evening, and the most somnambulant. “Dashpot” opened with two dancers in ice-white floor-length gowns with a connected roll of sash. Intertwining, invisible presences protruded into the wall they made: faces, hands, and bodies against the sash, fishes in a trawling net, ideas trying to break through the mind’s amniotic wall to escape the ghostly prison of possibility. And then, without warning, they were gone, like dreams, like Internet romances, like loved ones’ lives, leaving the dancers in their iceberg ocean, their flowing sashes flying the white flag of pure emptiness. If this wasn’t enough, the Slate Blue Icons entered, sustaining the mythic, atmospheric mood: Max Ernst’s modern minotaurs, Picasso’s bicycle handlebar Head of a Bull, symmetrical one-wing butterflies, headless, faceless, slightly menacing, entirely amoral, prehistoric, instinctual, crudely and aggressively sexual—effects achieved by turning the dancers’ dresses up over their heads and holding arms up with elbows bent 90 degrees. They flapped their manta wings, they formed human caltrops, microscopic fauna with human legs, suggesting the eternal unknown. The final mass of dancers made a sunflower sunburst of heliotropic humans, arms reaching for the celestial ceiling. The audience, elated, was breathless.
In presenting the audience with ever-changing subjects, moods, and music, Decology might seem to have overreached. Viewed critically, the discontinuity between Greek maidens, clockwork dolls, and Hawaiian fish could have left the audience disoriented, or even dissatisfied. But it didn’t, instead eliciting a kind of awed euphoria. So how did Eidolon pull all of this eclecticism off? Here’s how: by being relaxed about it. A key to appreciating Eidolon’s appeal is to understand its intentionally informal approach. Eidolon doesn’t strive to be overserious, overperfect. And that magical ingredient makes all the difference: watching Eidolon’s dancers actually having fun, taking pleasure from their muscular movements, connecting with the audience facially, physically, and emotionally, giving themselves freely to our soulful thirst, only made us want more. Let’s hope we’ll see more of Eidolon—soon. My mind is thirsty, and they deliver.