WHIRLWIND WORKOUT IN A TIGHT SPACE: BACKHAUSDANCE AT JOYCE SOHOby David St.-Lascaux
Energy, we are told, equals mass times the speed of light squared. Watching Backhausdance at Joyce SoHo in March, the audience encountered a convincing demonstration of this formula, with emphasis on energy and speed. It was no wonder that the dancers were all dripping sweat and smiles as they took their well-deserved bows at the end.
Now, disciplined and channeled atomic-level energy in dance is not a bad thing. But it is a lot to take in, and in a sense means that the audience, unless possessing extra eyes and endowed with ultra-high-speed cerebral motion-picture processing equipment, must miss a lot of the action. Zen meditation this was not.
The four pieces on the program addressed the concepts of the poetic pervasiveness of love, “the discovery and expression of the human experience,” collaboration and support as human qualities, and the chair as dance partner. Though the dancers were paragons of taut and striate talent, Jennifer Backhaus’s choreography—which had a lower standing pulse rate than anyone but a Pilates instructor or Olympic triathlete—overwhelmed the possibilities of emotive range and dynamic texture. The music, which included that of Explosions in the Sky, a Texas instrumental band, was played at a volume fitting for the name, if not for the dancers’ complex movements.
Arrive, the first piece, was based on a quotation by the poet Maya Angelou about how “love recognizes no barriers.” Featuring Liane Aung, Jenn Bassage Bonfil, Andrea Brache, Kara Carter, Tawny Chapman, William Lu, Omar Olivas, and Amanda White, arranged, to begin, in a line at left and later filling Joyce SoHo’s intimate space. Combining and recombining, the dancers gestured the release of birds, struck semaphoric poses, created an alphabet of interpretive movements, beguiled in scenic garden party stills. Arrive was also a fluid, unforced fusion of classical and contemporary dance: the former, for example, in synchronic, sur la pointe arrangements; the latter including agile, acrobatic interlocking somersaults for two, evoking netsuke amphibians. And finally, the frozen frame in which the graceful Andrea Brache soared in pronate fish dive variation on Omar Olivas’s no-hands kneeling thigh.
The world premiere of Incandescent, the first movement of a longer work in progress, followed. This is areally promising piece, its lambent ambience suffused by lighting designer Tom Durante’s soft-lit spots on flesh and fleshtone costume. A mercifully slow start as the dancers raised themselves primordially, lifted hands in supplication, the Mystery evoked by the backwards-crawling Napoleon Gladney. Then the movement ramped up, the dancers collided in molecular excitement, circled in accelerating jetés, their shadows—spooky surrogates—dancing on the floorlit walls stage left and right. An accordion broke in; a merry-go-round trio, then a pod of six, and then a flooding flock, then Amanda White emerged, another bird, a bouncing bodybuilder. The dancers reconvened to celebrate the sway, admiring each other, becoming human seagrass, tidepool anemones rippling in aquatic undulation, in awe of their own briny bods’ ensemble ebb and flow. One looks forward to the finished work, slated for a Spring 2010 release.
Shift was a four-movement allegory of physical support and contiguous animal magnetism. In the first movement, set to Bela Fleck’s too-loud guitar chop chordophone and kettledrum, the dancers shifted, followed each other with their eyes, a visual feast in beige and rose and powder blue and taupe habiliments. Movements II and III, relentlessly kinetic, overwhelmed; Shift’s final movement featured welcome isotonic calmness, tai chi without the fist, with Jenn Bassage Bonfil, Kimberly Isbell, and Erin Weller captivating in slow motion.
Backhausdance closed with its acclaimed Sitting on January, the company’s clever signature work. Having a chair as a dance partner, of course, has great potential for humor, ironic interaction, and demonstrations of physical prowess. And so this “Dance of the Chairs” had many charming moments, as well as whimsical associations with schoolrooms and children’s games. The upbeat William Lu opened solo against a blue-sky backdrop, perched upon a single chair; the women dancers’ skirts, frill flouncy hemmed, accentuated their movements. The Fritz Kreisleresque violin, perhaps a polonaise—this music making sense. Sitting contained some novelties: the communal loveseat for eight (chairs alternating in a row), for example, an unconsidered arrangement.
There was a point, in all this whirligig Fantasia, when one half expected the chairs themselves to dance: they disappointed with aplomb. Ultimately, the human dancing was much of a muchness: altogether too exuberant, entirely too panoramic in its hyperactivity. The inevitable conclusion being that Joyce SoHo is too intimate a space for Backhausdance, and that more distance was needed to accommodate its scale and energy.
The order of the pieces was logical, and closing with the crowd-pleasing Sitting on January brought the performance to an upbeat conclusion. Still, a few simple adjustments would have greatly benefited Backhausdance. First, lighter, softer music, to accentuate the elastic physicality of the company’s tony dancers. Second, pacing based on the Procreative Model (just what you think it is), which many effective works of prose, theater, music, and classical dance employ: warm-up, intromission, variations, crescendo, and climax (Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” for instance). Or—I don’t know—maybe athletes enjoy a more energetic model: that would be Backhausdance—for those with full-speed, full-bore stamina, in Tour de Force. This, refined, could be a moving formula.